Part 6: Salalah, Oman to Civitavecchia, Italy
Sea Miles Traveled this Leg: 3,216miles
Cumulative Miles Traveled: 35,180
Thursday, April 6, 2006
Dateline: Gulf of Aden
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +4, 13.51 degrees North, 49.0 degrees East, 21 miles south of Yemen. 354 miles from Salalah, Oman. 1,385 miles to Safaga, Egypt
Today is our first of 3 sea days to reach Safaga, Egypt. We are again heading south in order to clear the Arabian Peninsula and to position ourselves to enter the Red Sea. Today in our daily wisdom tidbit from the Captain, we learned the origin of the expression “bite the bullet”. In olden days before anesthesia (or in the absence of same), pain management for surgery on board ships consisted of having the patient bite on a lead bullet while an amputation or other surgery took place to keep him from screaming, thrashing and otherwise distracting the surgeon. Of course biting the bullet was only effective if the sailor had teeth, which wasn’t always the case back then.
We learned of some high seas high jinks that happened on board last night, but as far as we know, no smugglers were involved. We have two elderly British sisters, Margaret and Joyce, in our dining room with whom we chat from time to time. Typically Joyce is an early riser and Margaret likes to have “a bit of a lie in” as our Irish Captain puts it. So Joyce can slip out to early breakfast without making much noise, they have been in the habit of leaving their door unlocked. Today however, they were regaling us at lunch time with the story of a night visitor. They were both in bed sound asleep, glasses and hearing aids tucked away in their night stands, when they were awakened by a man darkening their doorway and switching on a flashlight (which of course they call a torch). They both looked at each other (they report that they each were each wondering if the other had invited the man over for some late-night fun) as he fumbled around on first one night stand and then the other. Margaret finally decided he was confused and asked him what room number he thought he was in. Startled to hear a voice he clearly did not expect, he dropped his flashlight and was crawling around on his hands and knees trying to retrieve it, but by this time it had rolled under one of the beds and he went under the bed after it. With only the sort of aplomb the British have mastered, Margaret demanded to know what he thought he was doing (probably with a “see here” or and “I say old chap”). They heard a mumbled reply, but without hearing aids, he could have been threatening murder and mayhem or asking for sexual favors for all they knew. Once he located his flashlight, he turned and opened the door into the lighted corridor and fled, but not before Margaret got a good look at him, (at least from the back) and determined he was wandering around in his shorty pajamas, with some sort of pattern as best she could tell.
She told us and several other of our dinner companions at various tables about the events and lo and behold as she glanced at a man at a table to her immediate right, she had that sinking feeling that she’s seen him before, but without the tuxedo on. With a bit of sleuthing she learned he is in the cabin next to theirs and as he turned away from her, she was certain she was looking at the “Night Stalker”. Furthermore he must have heard her recount the adventure not once, but several times in the loud voice of the hard of hearing. In trying to figure out how this came to pass, we can only assume he was sleep walking because he certainly didn’t go to any shipboard functions in shorty pj’s. A second theory is that maybe he had a midnight tryst set up and had a dyslexic moment with the room number. Of course we told Margaret that we’ve seen her flirting shamelessly with him to the point where he truly believed he was invited to her room.
There were several good on board lectures today, but we again chose to hear Kate Adie, whose lecture was about being a war correspondent for the BBC and what the off camera life was like. She has reported on the ground in Bosnia, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, Rwanda and just about every other hot spot in the last twenty years, with a particular focus on terrorists, whom she refers to as the “bearded loonies”. She has not retired from reporting, but stated that her type of journalism, on the ground where the action is, has been replaced by “rooftopping” with reporters on the air giving reports every 15 minutes, resulting in often bland and repetitive reports. With her type of reporting, she would report every two or three days because she might be pinned down by gunfire, held up by floods, diverted by marauders, etc. She said the “rooftopping” move is purely financial. It is much cheaper for networks to have someone there, than to have a field reporter and a camera man roaming the countryside in search of hard news and then having to figure out a way to get it out to the networks.
This afternoon, the ship sponsored a golf tournament of sorts (all putting as you can imagine) which Gary played in, with holes set up all over the ship. He reported a couple of quadruple bogies on a few holes and thus was out of the money. The back nine are to be played tomorrow, but he thinks he’ll drop out due to a crowded venue and fading chances to win all the marbles, or whatever the prize may be.
Friday, April 7, 2006
Dateline: Red Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +3, 15.19 degrees North, 41.41 degrees East
31 miles inside the Red Sea, approximately equidistant from Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, 898 miles from Salalah, Oman. 842 miles to Safaga, Egypt
Today is the second of three days at sea to reach the port of Safaga, (pronounced Sa Fah Gah with the accent on “Fah”) Egypt on the Red Sea. We passed through the Straits of Bah El Mandeb at approximately 2:30 a.m. this morning with Djibouti on one side on the African Continent and Yemen on the other side on the Arabian Peninsula. Once we cleared the straits, we were in the Red Sea. Skies today are overcast, but temperatures are warm in the high 80’s, making it a very nice day to be on deck.
At the noon announcements we heard from the Captain on the origin of the expression, “Son of a Gun”, just in case you were wondering. In olden days crews were hard to come by on sailing ships, so captains were reluctant to let their sailors go ashore, lest they “jump ship”. Therefore many captains would allow women to come aboard the ship for a visit (conjugal, or other wise). Since the crew quarters were most frequently on the gun deck, that is where many of these “visits” took place. Many of the visiting women were said to be somewhat free with their “favors” (free perhaps only in the sense that they had multiple men they bestowed said favors upon). A male child from resulting in pregnancy from these encounters was said to be a “son of a gun deck”, which later was shortened to son of a gun.
Sea time always gives us opportunities to read, relax and make notes of the weird ones around us and make a pact with each other (sealed with a solemn pinky swear) that we will never ever act this way, or else the has the right to offending partner shall be summarily shot.
Consider, if you will, the men and women of the QE2 whom we call the Whiners. In the world of Jimmy Buffet where there are tourists and there are travelers, the Whiners are definitely tourists. A Whiner may take a tour which is explained in detail ahead of time, but then complains about things they should have know ahead of time endlessly. We are often tempted to retort with something witty, but choose to forego the urge so as not to cause an international incident and potential discord on the bus. Here are some whiner gems:
“My window is fogged over and I can’t see anything (of course if she would stop all that hot air escaping from her lips, the window would probably clear up”). A whiner might say “Nobody told me we’d have to climb steps – the brochure just said extensive walking- why didn’t you tell us we had to climb steps?” or “Our tour should have been 4 hours, but it was only 3 hours and 45 minutes. Do we get a refund?” (Makes you wonder if she wants the bus to drive around in circles for 15 minutes so she’ll get her money’s worth). And my personal favorite is this one. With the bus parked no more than 40 yards away, there was a woman who said to our guide – “Tell the driver to bring the bus over here so I can get my umbrella”. The Whiners make you want to jab a sharp stick in your eye, just to take your mind off their whining. The good news is they are small in number and, with practice, or a strong drink, can be tuned out.
Lest I have created confusion, let me take a moment to distinguish the Whiners, from the Grumblers. The key difference is the pitch of the voice and the attitude. A Whiner is a poor victim while a Grumbler is a force to be reckoned with – at least in their own minds, one of which we designated Grumble Bea, (a.k.a. Queen Bee) who is indeed Queen of the Grumblers, but there are certainly others vying for the crown of Supreme Grumbler, who are never satisfied with anything and have a negative attitude in general. We have found the best defense against the whiners and grumblers is a brisk walk in the opposite direction immediately upon sighting. One should not under any circumstances utter any platitudes like “How was your day” – you already will know the answer and it will be “awful”.
Today, in addition to our reflections on grumblers and whiners, we listened to an Enrichment lecture by a former Intelligence Analyst for Sky News on what triggered the war in Iraq – whether it was a failure of intelligence or political expediency. The speaker never answered the question directly, but his presentation certainly presented lots of food for thought, and he gave the impression that it was leaning toward the latter. Now there’s a grumble-worthy topic indeed.
Saturday, April 8, 2006
Dateline: Red Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +3, 22.35 degrees North, 37.24 degrees East,
61 miles west of the coast of southern Egypt, 1,396miles from Salalah, Oman. 344 miles to Safaga, Egypt
Today is our third and last sea day before reaching Safaga, Egypt. Our captain again provided us with enlightenment with the origin of the phrase, “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. It actually has nothing to do with relieving itching. In the olden says of sailing ships in the British Navy, punishment for many infractions was administered with a whip, one type of which was the notorious Cat O’Nine Tails. Flogging was administered by crew members to the offending crew members (contrary those versions of Mutiny on the Bounty where the Captain Bligh always did it himself). The welts left by the floggings were referred to as “scratches” and men being punished would say to the person administering the lashes, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” meaning, “I’ll give you the same treatment you give me when you’re the one being punished and I hold the whip.” In other words, be sure you administer light strokes versus hard ones.
In the afternoon the QE2 crew held the annual “Country Fayre” whose purpose was to raise money for selected international charities. The “fayre” consisted of several games and raffles as well as a “Second Hand Rose” shop where clothing (including shoes and lingerie if you can imagine that) and other goods donated by passengers were sold. This turned out to be a huge undertaking since, we can only assume, many people have outgrown their clothes over the course of three and half months on the cruise. I must admit there were a few Palmer garments in the mix. It was an amazing sight to see the QE2 passengers, whom you would presume to be somewhat affluent, riffling through the merchandise like it was opening day at Filene’s Basement and they were spending the last $10.00 of the rent money. Even more shocking were reports of shoplifiting by some passengers who apparently got carried away with the bargains, and well, carried them away without paying.
I made a modest expenditure of $9.00 for 5 books, but Gary entered all the raffles and games of skill and daring. The most challenging proved to be “chop the carrot” contest which involved trying to chop a chunk off of a carrot as it was dropped through a tube from above and sent hurtling past you. He never did master this trick, despite a substantial investment in purchasing chances. We thought one of the most clever of the games was the one called the human fruit machine. Fruit machines are what the Brits call slot machines. They have 3 different people in make-shift booths, each with a bowl of mixed fruit in front of them. They cannot see each other, but the player can see all three. When a bell is rung (representing the spin of the one armed bandit), each person comprising the fruit machine grabs a piece of fruit from the bowl in front of them and holds it up. Just like in Vegas, three of a kind signifies a winner, and winners were rare, again just like in Vegas. The raffle Gary did win was the one he most coveted, the winning of which would allow the entrant to blow the ship’s whistle on an upcoming sea day. I think he bought 10 chances on this one. It works sort of like a football pool, but instead of a score, you sign up for squares which had hidden latitude and longitude coordinates unknown to the entrant, with the winning square having the coordinates where the ship was positioned at noon today. Fortunately, he signed up both of us in each square so we both can go to the bridge on the whistle blowing day. Of course, the “whistle” is really a horn, but the name goes back to the days of steam when it actually was a whistle, created by a blast of steam.
Sunday, April 9, 2006
Dateline: Safaga, Egypt
Latitude at Safaga, 26.44 degrees North, Longitude 33.56 degrees East
We arrived at Safaga, Egypt today around 6:00 a.m. and did not know until we arrived whether we would anchor or dock, depending on how many ships would be in port and how much room we would have to maneuver. Safaga is something of a backwater in terms of cruise ships and they don’t always have tugs readily available. As it turned out, we did have a berth at the Grain Terminal which, if not the most memorable of harbors, certainly made getting ashore a lot easier than using a tender. Getting into town is still a challenge since there aren’t that many taxis, but most of the passengers are taking an all day bus tour
to Luxor. Because we had spent several days there a few year ago, we decided we’d stay in Safaga and try to go scuba diving here in the Red Sea, particularly since it was a clear cloudless day, the sun was shining and the water was crystal clear and absolutely flat. Thus we found ourselves with Kaled, the cab driver. Kaled’s cab was a little rustic, no meter, no air conditioning, no brakes (okay maybe minimal brakes) and backseat doors that had to be opened from the outside, which made it handy for ensuring payment is rendered for services provided. (Like the insect traps called the Roach Motel – you can jump in – but you can’t jump out)
Safaga is working on becoming a full-blown Red Sea Resort, like Hurghada and Sharm-el-Sheik to the north, but it hasn’t quite arrived. Cunard ships call there since it is only a two hour drive to Luxor. They do have the beautiful beaches and are building resort hotels and accompanying shops and restaurants, but the town is still quite small.
I had made a list of Dive Shops in Safaga from the Internet and showed them to Kaled, who nodded vigorously. The first one seemed to be a little disorganized, yes they were going diving, but they weren’t sure what to charge for a one day dive and they would be gone all day. We finally told Kaled to take us to the Holiday Inn which is where Cunard had arranged for passengers to be shuttled and to use their pool. We were encouraged by finding Duck Divers there, and since we were renting everything but masks and snorkels, we were gratified that they had equipment we actually recognized, meaning it dates back no
further than twenty years, which we are always a little leery of. We were advised that we need wetsuits for this time of year, so the dive shop operator, eyeballed the two of us and threw a couple in the pile of rental equipment. After being outfitted, our equipment was hauled to the dock, but it was not by the usual hand cart or pickup truck, but by Bonsai, the Dive Donkey, While he does no diving himself, he pulls the cart full of tanks and equipment down to the boat and back several times a day. We were taken to our dive boat named Omar and turned over to Emad, the Dive Master. There were only two other divers on the
boat with us who were Austrian. Emad determined that they spoke English, so he conducted the dive briefing in English so we Americans could understand. We of course felt like dumkopfs (one of the few German words I know) for only being able to speak our own native language. German is widely spoken here since most of their tourists are from Germany. English is widely spoken here since, as in many other countries, this is the common denominator language of business and commerce.
We rode on Omar out to the dive site called Tobia Arba, which means Seven Towers in Arabic. The bottom there is clearly visible with a depth of only 30 to 40 feet, and there are 7 coral pillars that stick up to a depth of about 10 feet. We had some adjusting to do because we are used to our weights being in pounds, not kilograms, our air tanks to be in PSI (pounds per square inch) and not bars, and out depth gauges in feet not meters. We are also used to 3 millimeter wetsuits and here we had 5 which meant we needed more weight, but we were using steel tanks, not aluminum, which meant we would need less weight. After digesting all these differences, we suited up, and like the Three Bears – my wetsuit was too big, Gary’s wetsuit was too small (in the torso anyway – the arms and legs were too long and had to be rolled up) and we supposed the Dive Master’s suit was just right. Gary also was given a very strange weight belt that looked like the Mexican bandit’s bandoliers (you know, those crisscrossed ammo belts), which was also too small, and he had no clue how he could drop it in the event of an emergency.
We finally were ready took the plunge (literally) and I discovered my buoyancy compensator (BC), like the Safaga cab and the Roach motel, let air in, but wouldn’t let it out so I had trouble sinking, but finally got enough air out to go down. Then I had problems with the heavy tank, because my BC was too loose and the tank kept rolling me over on my back, legs waving (like a dying cockroach in the roach motel). Gary was also having descent problems with being underweighted, plus his regulator seemed to not be delivering much air, although in retrospect, he thinks the bandito bandolier was squeezing too tightly. He ended up aborting the dive and going up, but Emad and I, along with the two Austrians, soldiered on, and I have to say, despite the rough start, it was really a fabulous dive. I was really sorry Gary was missing it, because there were so many beautiful and unusual things to see.
I saw several Picasso trigger fish, too many Lion Fish to count, a huge Napoleon Wrasse, hundreds of yellow-gold anthias, and I also found several Nemos (orange and white clown fish) with their host anemones There were also lots of butterfly and angel fish, but with very different markings and coloration from those in Caribbean waters. Just before we went up I saw a school of squid, spread out from bottom to surface in a diagonal line, all swimming in unison. Gary did see quite a bit while snorkeling, but we both want to come back to dive the Red Sea (with our own dive gear next time) and spend several days.
We had a nice leisurely lunch at the Holiday Inn Resort, and a very upscale Holiday Inn it is. They also had a good Internet facility – fast and cheap. And speaking of cheap, I have to relate this first instance of Gary getting his dander up in over 80 days of cruising. There were 4 computers, all in use, but one woman was just leaving and told us we could use her computer, but we’d have to buy an access card. The price was $4.00 for 30 minutes or $8.00 for an hour. So Gary bought a card and the woman was going show us how to use it. However when I sat down at the computer, she saw she still had time because her last web page
was still up. So she said, I’ll just sit here and surf until my time is used up. I said (thinking –erroneously so, to shame her out of the idea) that we would buy her unused time, which had to be some really small piddling amount. And speaking of small (minded), she said she’d take $3.00 for it. This was bad enough, but after she left, the woman next to us told us someone using the computer before her had actually given her the card. I thought Gary was going to go after her and drag her butt off the bus to get his 3 bucks back, but then we started laughing and couldn’t stop. We figured it must really suck to be her and to be so cheap. Living
with herself is her own horrible punishment. We’ve seen some real cheap skates on board, like the guy who buys mini bottles of liquor and smuggles them into the lounges so he won’t have to buy drinks from the bar. And of course, there are the shoplifters at the charity event I mentioned that take clothes and don’t pay for them. However, this woman takes the cake (undoubtedly without paying for it and then and selling slices of it). I hope we don’t see her on the open deck because I’m afraid Gary will decide, as our fellow passenger from Montana said, “She’s one of those wimmin who need to go swimmin”.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Dateline: Red Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +2, 27.18 degrees North, 28.03 degrees East
51 miles south of the Straits of Gebel, 200 miles from the Suez Canal entrance, Egypt
We have not gone far since noon yesterday because of our schedule change, (i.e. canceling the call at Aqaba, Jordan) and thus we are more or less circling around the Red Sea until our appointed time to hook up with the northbound convoy which is to start proceeding through the Suez Canal at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. We will anchor around 2:00 a.m. to wait for the convoy to form up. Unlike the Panama Canal, the Suez has no locks since the whole thing is at sea level. It is narrow in several places, and thus departures for the northbound and southbound convoys have to be carefully timed to ensure they can pass each other in one of the lakes or in specially built diversion canals (like railroad sidings).
Today our captain provided insights on where military khaki originated. In India during colonial times, the British were looking for a fabric that would provide them with more camouflage than their bright red coats and their blindingly white trousers. They discovered that if they dyed white heavy cotton with a mixture of mud, coffee and curry they could approximate the color of the Indian landscape, and thus khaki was born. Unfortunately, any hostile forces could smell them long before they could see them, or so the military lore goes.
The talk on ship today concerns a crime wave that seems to have swept over us and the ship is buzzing at a level not seen since the troubles of the launderette and the ensuing violence. There have been items reported missing which were later spied at various functions being worn by the purported thief. Therefore a group of concerned passengers has organized the self-appointed Launderette Vigilantes (my name for them, not theirs). However, despite this increased vigilance, there has been a spate of crime, spreading throughout the ship that has everyone a-twitter. Cunard is ignoring it (bad publicity don’t you know?) but there is a groundswell of public indignation over a series of heinous crimes such as . . .
The Case of the Vanishing Laptop – A laptop computer was taken from the towel bin by the pool (of course, you have to wonder what type of goofball would put their laptop in a towel bin) A $500 reward is being offered for the return of the laptop, no questions asked.
The Case of the Disappearing Dell – Another laptop is reported missing, this time from a lounge area called the Board Room which only World Cruise passengers have access to. Could there be a serial laptop-napper amongst us? Could there be a ring of laptop-nappers? This victim is out for blood, offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who can reveal the identity of the thief. This victim apparently wants to exact his pound of flesh, but his posted notice wasn’t clear as to whether the return of the laptop itself will be rewarded.
The Case of the Pilfered Snorkel Bag – We learned of this atrocity while ashore in Safaga. The victim of this crime is a bona fide member of the Whiners Association, who complained most pitifully to us that the shuttle bus driver taking passengers to the Holiday Inn from the ship took her tote bag with her snorkel and “bathing costume” (her words, not mine, but we interpreted this to indicate it was her swim suit). She is sure the bus driver is the culprit, because none of the ship’s passengers would do such a thing. She may have a point here – the ship’s passengers seem to favor laptops. Our guess is she will find she left the bag in her room when she returns to the ship, but I can’t resist chuckling over the image of this tiny little Egyptian man snorkeling around in the Red Sea in the Whiner’s rather voluminous “bathing costume”.
The Case of the Missing Cardigan – This bit of skullduggery does indeed involve the ships crew. One of the passengers had slaved for hours knitting a wool cardigan to be offered for auction at the “County Fayre”. We heard her tell the story from one end of the ship to the other, as this member of the “Grumbler” species shared her theory that some unscrupulous crew member organizing the “fayre” kept it for herself. It just so happened that a cruise staff member strolled by, was stopped the Grumbler and queried in a most accusatory tone as to the fate of the cardigan. The crew member said it will be auctioned separately, so the Grumbler pronounced the answer bogus and changed her refrain from “theft” to “theft and cover-up” as she continued into the next lounge with her amended story.
The Case of the Purloined Camera – We actually interviewed the victim of this crime, who was our very own dinner companion, Margaret, who sits at a table across the aisle. She says it was taken while she was napping on deck. We wonder however, at the timing. Could she have been mistaken about having it with her and could it have been taken by the Night Stalker who showed up in her cabin in his pj’s in the wee hours? Margaret has been known to misplace things, such as her sister Joyce, so we were just wondering. Nevertheless, this case remains a mystery. Margaret’s posted notice kindly asked that whoever “borrowed” her camera to return it by sliding it under her cabin door, so we’re thinking her grasp of spatial dimensions may not be the best either.
The Case of the Looted Frock. This caper involved a woman missing a dress (a flowered muu-muu sort of thing) which we can only assume “went missing” in the notorious laundry room. Another woman showed up for lunch wearing an identical (or possibly the same) dress. The accuser in this case is a stout matronly woman who wears her hair in a sizable bun on the very crown of her head every day, sort of like a Chinese topknot. On formal nights, she wraps the bun in a sequined headband, but it’s essentially the same as her daytime bun. When confronted by the sputtering bun-wearing matron, the assumed offender was reported to have sniffed contemptuously and sneered “Prove it,” and stomping off without a backward glance. We think Scotland Yard may have to be called in on this one.
As you may well imagine, these incidents generated a series of perfect Agatha Christie scenarios which has everyone sleuthing about trying to solve the crimes. We were staying tuned for reports of any breaks on these cases.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Dateline: Suez Canal, Egypt
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +2, 30.42 degrees North, 32.20 degrees East
Kilometer Marker 62, 60 miles north of Port Suez, Egypt
We got up early this morning (6:00 a.m.) to watch our entry into the Suez Canal, the transit of which will take us 10 hours, although it is only 117 miles long. In traveling from Europe to India, transiting the Suez Canal cuts 5,000 miles off the trip. We are entering from the south at Port Suez and will exit at the northern end at Port Said (pronounced Sigh-eed with the accent on “eed”). The current Suez Canal is only the latest in several canals throughout history. Ramses II (12th Century BC) had a canal dug to link what is today Ismalia, a town midway through the current canal, with the Nile. Other pharaohs expanded or tried to expand on his plan, but Darius of Persia actually ended up finishing it and creating a path for ships from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, but his canal was also via the Nile. With shifts in the course of the river and drifting sand over the centuries, it was repeatedly dredged and re-opened, but it eventually vanished. The canal as it exists today was begun in 1859 and opened 10 years later. It was designed by a French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and privately funded. DeLesseps tried to use the same design in Panama, although he failed to take into account (a fairly big oversight for an engineer) the fact that he was dealing with mountains instead of sea level terrain and his plan there had to be scrapped. The canal was nationalized by the Egyptians (Nasser) in 1956, resulting a brief war with several European countries, but it was eventually turned over to Egypt. It was also closed from 1967 to 1975 during conflicts with Israel. Last year over 17,000 ships transited the canal, which is approximately 8% of the world’s shipping traffic.
We were advised by the captain that we are in a heightened state of alert during the transit since someone somewhere had picked up some information that the QE2 might be a terrorist target while in Egypt. This did not come as a big surprise to anyone since the QE2 is far from inconspicuous and would present quite a juicy target. Egypt responded with a huge show of force to protect us. We were given top priority with the number 1 slot in the northbound convoy of 18 ships. We had an armed tug behind us, and we had armored vehicles running along the roads on both sides of the canal beside us. We had soldiers with
automatic weapons stationed every 50 yards or so the entire length of the canal. They also had machine gun positions, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, all-terrain vehicles with armed soldiers, armored personnel carries, surface to air missiles and so forth. When we entered the lakes where the land vehicles were far away, we had armed patrol boats. And these are just the things we saw. We assume there was much more behind the scenes, although Egypt does like to be very obvious with their protection, just to ensure the word is out that Egypt is no place for terrorists to try anything.
So with our armed escort, we entered the canal and began the transit. As in Panama, the QE2 had to pay a fee based on tonnage for the transit, but this time it was a relatively paltry $312,480. We proceeded for several miles through an area only wide enough for one ship. We saw on both sides of the canal the detritus of the two wars with Israel – burnt out tanks, jeeps, remnants of cable, guns large and small, all partially buried in the sand. There are also fortifications here created by the Israelis in 1973 which were called the Bar Lev line. There is also a striking contrast between the green of the west bank of the canal which is
part of the Nile River Delta, and the brown of the east bank, which is part of the Sinai desert. There are also sections of pontoon bridges all along the canal in case Egypt needs to deploy troops into the Sinai (or retreat as was the case in the 6 Day War). We emerged from the narrow canal around 9:00 a.m. moving into what is called the Bitter Lakes, which are two natural salt-water lakes, where we encountered the south bound convoy of 23 ships, either anchored or starting to anchor to wait for the last ship in the northbound convoy to clear the narrow channel. We then passed the village of Ismalia, which looks as if it were
taken right out a scene from 1001 Arabian Nights (if, of course, you can overlook military troops and hardware) with sandstone buildings, date palms, dhows, donkey carts, and camels. We also saw a walled compound that was one of the homes of the then ruler of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. There are two bridges over the canal, one fixed bridge (very high of course), and one swinging bridge with two arms that come together to allow cross-canal transit for trains and cars. We entered the final lake, called El Mallaha, in the late afternoon and took the East Channel to bypass Port Said. We dropped our canal pilot off at the end of
this channel and emerged into the Mediterranean around 5:00 a.m.. Although we left our land based protection behind, we were passed off for safekeeping to an Egyptian navy ship, a fraction of the size of the QE2, but with a lot more firepower. Tomorrow we are to dock in Alexandria, Egypt and have a day trip to Cairo.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Dateline: Alexandria, Egypt
Latitude at Alexandria, 31.11 degrees North, Longitude 29.52 degrees East
Berths 20-24, Alexandria West Harbor, Egypt
We left the ship early for the 200 kilometer day trip to Cairo, just getting a brief glimpse of Alexandria before getting on the Desert Road and heading south. Our guide was, Bassam – a published Egyptologist who also has a cable TV show. We also had on board a body guard, Mohammed, who sported an AK-47 beneath his suit coat and Mr. Turki, our driver. Bassam told us that he has visited Las Vegas and reports that the Luxor Hotel is surprisingly accurate in its architectural details (assuming of course you ignore the casino and the ATM’s).
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, but he went off to battle shortly thereafter and was killed in 323 B.C. in Babylonia and never saw it completed. He had teamed up with the Egyptians when he was only 25 to get the Persians (who lived in modern day Iran) out of Egypt. In return they promised to make him a pharaoh. There was no “X” in the hieroglyphic alphabet in those days so when they did his cartouche (an oval nametag of sorts on all the tombs and temples), they substituted “KS” for X.) Unfortunately, running off the Persians didn’t help a lot since subsequently the Greeks invaded, followed by the Romans and the Arabs in 640 A.D. led by Saladin. Arab rule lasted until the Turks came, followed by the French under Napoleon and then the British. Then Germany took over at the beginning of WWII, until the British defeated them at El Alamein. Finally Egypt became a republic in 1952 with Gamal Abdul Nasser as its leader. I like Egypt a lot, but it’s hard to understand why everyone was killing each other over all this sand. They didn’t even know about oil being underneath the sand until the 20th Century.
Habitation of the Alexandria area dates back long before Cairo, and predates Alexander as well. A French scuba diver recently found a granite pier from the time of the pharaohs. The Alexandria Lighthouse called Pharos was one of the 7 ancient wonders and supposedly could be seen from 56 kilometers away. Atop its 400 foot tower were giant mirrors which reflected the sun during the day and bonfires at night. It was unfortunately destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 8th Century. Another ancient marvel lost to history was the Library at Alexandria which was world famous in its day. Alexandria also has Roman theater ruins and an old Moslem fort.
Nasser played a big role in modernizing Egypt and improving life in general. He ordered the building of the Aswan dam for flood control and power generation. Also under his regime the government provided a means for the desperately poor to improve their lot in life. The government provided loans to buy land, paid for irrigation, and bought their crops with the stipulation that the people had to live on the land. The government was trying to get people to move from cities and make the desert bloom (sort of the Israeli model). Today, the government is building large tracts of housing in the desert, still trying to get people out of the cities, since 94% of Egypt is unoccupied desert. Consequently, Egypt has 77 million people living on the 6% of the land along the Nile. Of these 77 million, 15 million are children under the age of 12, 18 million live in Cairo, and 9.5 million live in Alexandria. People are still poor here by world standards with the average income at $1k per year per person, but nobody starves. Like many developing nations, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, with not many layers in between.
To say hello in Arabic, the official language of Egypt you would say “Salam” (pronounced just like salami, but without the “i”). Or you could use the expanded greeting which is Salam Alykum which is “hello, peace be upon you” which is sort of a nice touch. The response to Salam Alykum is Alykum Salam (which is essentially, “back at you” or translated more literally, “peace be upon you too”.) People are extremely polite here, even when they are in your face trying to sell you something you really do not want like little plastic pyramids or clumsily carved dung beetles with Cairo painted across their backs . It is common for men to embrace each other and to hold hands (no gay interpretation attached), but you never see men and women doing this in public. Many here wear western style dress, but it is not uncommon to see men in the ankle length long sleeved garment called a “galabiya”. This is sometimes worn with an “ema” on the head (which can be worn with ends flowing a-la Muamar Khadaffi or with the ends tucked up in sort of an Egyptian do-rag.) Many women wear the traditional “abaya”, the head to toe covering that strict Muslims require, but many of them wear western clothes with knees and shoulders covered, and most often with a scarf on their heads.
Military service is mandatory for Egyptian men unless they are disabled or are the only son in the family, and the government calculates time of service using a 15 month year. Their draft rules tend to encourage education since men can serve 1 yr. with a college education, 2 years with a high school education or 3.5 years if illiterate or have not finished school. In the latter case, they will educate the man while he performs his military service. Egypt has only 74% literacy, but it was only 42% in 1800’s when Mohammed Ali (no not that one) was President so they take education very seriously. I would think it would greatly encourage boys to get an education to see our pictures of soldiers patrolling the desert along the Suez Canal and speaking of the Suez Canal, here’s a little known fact: The Statue of Liberty in New York was originally designed for the Suez Canal entrance at Port Said. In the original design, the statue had on a galabiya and had a light on her head. However the Ismail, the ruling sheik at that time was broke, having put all his money into the construction of the canal and couldn’t pay for it. So, the French changed the galabiya to a flowing robe and changed the light to a torch in her hand and gave her to the US as a good will gift.
The exchange rate was 5.75 Egyptian pounds to the dollar, although the dollar is pretty much accepted everywhere. Tourism is very important to the Egyptian economy ($5B per year – revenue from the Suez Canal is second at $4B)) One of the benefits to the tourists from the tourism boom is the recognition that Egypt needs to provide more and better bathroom facilities (I.E. ones that do not make Western tourists gag when they enter them.) The Egyptians euphemistically call these facilities “Temples of Relief”.
Egypt also supports tourism in another important way and that is the highly visible protection of tourists with both Military and Tourist Police. For our trip to Cairo, they organized us in a motorcade and traffic was stopped at intersections for us. Terrorists aren’t nearly as dangerous here as regular drivers who think traffic lights merely suggestions and stop signs don’t exist. Horns here are use for salutations (an Egyptian howdy). However, the tourist police are not the Big Dogs of Egyptian security. The really tough guys wear suits (think Men in Black) and are packing heat (AK-47 type heat) like our guy on board, Mohammed. They are called Security Guards, but are a far cry from the American version of a security guard. These guys are typically moonlighting off duty police officers and professional tough guys. The tourist police do have guns, but we’re not sure they have bullets. Later in the day one offered to take a picture of us at the Pyramids with our camera when he was supposed to be guarding us from terrorists (he apparently didn’t see any lurking in the view finder). He leaned his gun against a rock and was snapping away. We also had police escorts and were handed off from one jurisdiction to the next as we made our way toward Cairo.
The drive into Cairo took us through wetlands of the Nile Delta – we saw lots of bulrushes (no babies in reed baskets sighted, but you could just imagine the story of Moses taking place just off this stretch of road.) We also saw pigeon towers, resembling very small lighthouses with holes cut into the sides of them. Pigeons are a great delicacy here and they actually encourage them to move in by putting corn and other pigeon treats inside and then snatch them up for the main course at the dinner table. As in the US, there is a McDonalds every few miles along the route, but these often have goats in the parking lot (if not on the menu) or a flat bed donkey cart in the drive through. There are several toll booths that look like Greek Temples – I’m not sure of the story on this. Egyptians are fond of high walls and fences and it is not uncommon to see an elaborate wall enclosing absolutely nothing but sand and rock. It would seem they are extremely possessive, i.e. they don’t want their sand blowing away into someone else’s sand pile.
The dominant religion here is Islam and has been for centuries, but there are also 5 million Jews in Egypt and 10 million Christians, mostly Coptic and both religions predate Islam. Today we learned from Bassam the 5 Pillars of Islam which are:
1. Testimony – which involves a person acknowledging God as the only God
2. Prayers to be offered 5 times per day. The muezzin (a mosque official) issues the call to prayer (called the “azzan” from towers called minarets. The person praying can go to the mosque or put down his or her prayer rug where ever they may be. They must go through a purification ritual of washing prior to prayer
3. Observation of Ramadan each year by one month of fasting between sunrise and sunset each day
4. Making a hajj – or a pilgrimage to Mecca one time in a person’s life time. Once they have made this trip, they can add “hajj” to their names as we might add MD or PhD and so forth to ours
5. Giving alms to the poor. The recommended amount is 2.5% of your earnings
Bassam told us that many people (including many radical Muslims who do not understand what Islam is about) think that Jihad (religious war) is a pillar. Jihad was originally intended to reference an internal war that each person has with himself or herself in trying to achieve the 5 pillars. But then it was seized upon by extremists (a.k.a. bearded loonies) as an excuse to make war on those who are determined to be enemies of the faith which can be anyone they chose to declare an enemy. True followers of Islam (and the vast majority of Moslems) reject the latter interpretation.
And now for some “myth busting” on a lighter note:
Myth: Cleopatra the 7th (the one who smuggled herself into Rome rolled up in a carpet to see Julius Caesar) was a great beauty, i.e. the “hottie” of her day.
Reality: Bassam showed us a picture of an old coin with the likeness of Cleopatra the 7th. She had a big old honker of a nose with a hook in it, as well as a prominent chin that looked like it could touch her nose at some future point if she should lose her teeth. She was definitely a dog if the coin is accurate, but she was supposedly very smart.
Myth: The nose of the sphinx was blown off by either the French under Napoleon or the Nazi occupiers doing some target practice.
Reality: Neither the French under Napoleon, nor the Nazis, blew the nose off the sphinx. There were drawings made before either party ever got there and her nose was missing then. Some say the Turks under Saladin blew the nose off way back when they were there since Islam forbids graven images, but then again, it could have just fallen off due to weather and erosion.
Myth: King Tut’s tomb was discovered by the rider of a horse whose hooves disappeared into the sand revealing an open chamber below.
Reality: It was actually found by water boy who worked for Howard Carter’s team of archaeologists who was scraping away sand to make a flat spot for a pedestal on which he would place a jug of water. What he unearthed was a step – the first of several leading down to the tomb’s exterior door.
And Perhaps a one more Myth: (or maybe not) There was only one sphinx. (Arabic speaking Egyptians often have a hard time with the sfx sound of sphinx so they just call it the “spincus”).
Reality (according to Bassam’s theory): Duality is a constant theme in Egyptian architecture and art in the time of the pharaohs because they believed its essential for harmony. For example pharaohs wore 2 crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, pharaohs had two protectors, the cobra and the vulture. Every temple is dedicated to a god and there are two temples to the sphinx, but only one sphinx statue. Thus Bassam’s theory is that there were 2 sphinxes and if the Egyptian government would authorize a dig, he thinks they could find evidence of a second sphinx, if not the ruins of the statue itself. Also kings and queens had two names, their birth name and a name they chose (the latter usually with a decided lack of modesty). For example, Queen Nefertiti’s chosen name means “The Beauty Has Arrived” and Queen Nefertari’s name means “Most Beautiful of them All”. And speaking of these two beauties, there is a debate about whether they had funny shaped heads and the headdresses they wore were to disguise it, or if they had normal heads and were making a fashion statement. The answer remains a mystery.
Egyptians in modern times are not good brick masons (must be the Arab influence because the pharaohs certainly knew how to put a building together that would last.) On our drive today we saw crumbling brick structures everywhere. (maybe saltwater in the cement, or maybe just a bad recipe for mortar.) Also many houses are left unfinished because they don’t have to pay property tax on it until it is finished. Many have been under construction for 20 to 30 years. Since there is no time limit, some people just finish the façade or whatever parts face the street. (I hope this law doesn’t manage to get on the books in Georgia).
Even though we were here before, seeing the Pyramids rising up before us on the Giza Plateau was still a huge thrill. Since they are burial tombs, they lie on the west bank across the Nile River from Cairo. They always put the dead on the west bank in the olden days, since in their view, that’s where the sun died each day. It is still awe inspiring to gaze at the sphinx, even if the Sphinx’s gaze seems to be fixed on the Pizza Hut across the street. I must say, however, that Egypt has really cleaned up the area around the pyramids and has made a park where a bunch of run-down buildings used to be. There seems to be less chaos – or at least it’s better organized chaos. You can still get a short camel ride here or have your photo taken with one, but this requires some negotiation because the camel drivers sort of size you up and throw out a price. I guess our group was looking pretty prosperous that day because a couple of them started at $50.00 but settled for anywhere from $1.00-3.00. We did get a sad story from one camel owner who said he had to charge more because his camel was pregnant and he had to buy her more hay to eat.
There are a number of pyramids along the Nile, but the big 3 are here at Giza and they belong to pharaohs Kheops (the tallest one at 450 feet), Khephren (Kheops’ son) whose tomb is built on higher ground so it looks taller, but out of respect for his father, he kept it smaller, and Mycerinus. Temples and tombs surround these pyramids so friends, loved ones and servants could be buried nearby. Burial chambers for the pharaohs were deep inside the pyramid so each stone had to be laid to create the tunnels to them. All three of the Great Pyramids were built around 2600 B.C. The sphinx was sculpted for Khephren to guard his tomb. The Arabic name for it Abu el-Houl translates as Father of Fear, and it may have been fearsome in its day, but it’s hard to look scary when your nose is missing.
We had lunch at the famous Mena House Oberoi Hotel which was built as a palace for the French Princess Eugenie for her visit to open the Suez Canal. It was also the site of the historic peace talks between Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter (sadly both Begin and Sadat were later killed by extremists in their own countries who felt betrayed that their leaders would have the audacity to try to make peace with a sworn enemy). One of the beverages offered to us at lunch was Hibiscus Tea which is made from crushed blossoms and made into tea-like beverage and which can be served hot or cold. It was pretty much lacking in flavor and I don’t think it’s going to replace conventional tea in the Western World any time soon.
After lunch we went to the Egyptian Museum, with artifacts ranging from 2700 BC to 6th century AD. The museum’s highlight is the treasure of 19 year old King Tutankamen (a.k.a. King Tut). The most famous piece in the collection is the solid gold death mask with its lapis lazuli inlays. As a ruler, he was of no great significance, but his tomb, discovered in 1922 and excavated by Howard Carter’s team, remains the only intact tomb of a pharaoh ever found. Bassam thinks he was murdered, although other scholars disagree, saying it was blood poisoning from a small injury. King Tut is still in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. He was taken out for an hour to do an MRI to see if cause of death could be established, but theories only multiplied instead of being put to rest. Unfortunately his mummy is in 17 pieces because Howard Carter’s man on the scene was not very talented in unwrapping mummies. There are 11 intact mummies in the museum who were queens and kings of Egypt including Ramses II, who ruled for 60 years. All were short and thin by our standards.
After the museum we went to an island in the middle of the Nile called Gezira, which is between Cairo and Giza. We had dinner and cruise on a river boat called the Nile Maxim, just at the sun was setting on the city. There were several other cruise boats, all brightly lit, as well as small feluccas gliding past us. When the moon came up it was full, creating an almost magical effect on the water. I say almost magical because they had a band playing Ricky Martin, John Denver, Elvis and Louis Armstrong so it was kind of hard to get in any sort of mystical Egyptian mood. However, the band was followed by Egyptian music complete with a whirling dervish and belly dancers. We were served some Egyptian hors d’oeuvres (hummus and tahini spreads and grape leaves wrapped around something unidentified that even Gary wouldn’t eat), but we had Western food for entrees which, for picky eaters like me, was a good thing. We had a long ride back to Alexandria, but it was a great day and well worth the trip.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Dateline: Mediterranean Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +3, 34.26 degrees North, 28.05 degrees East
87 miles south of Rhodes, Greece. 210 miles from Alexandria, Egypt. 299 miles to Kusadasi, Turkey
Today is our only sea day between Alexandria, Egypt and Kusadasi, Turkey. We were so exhausted when we got back to the ship last night, that we made a rather serious error in re-setting our clock. We were supposed to set the clocks ahead one hour, but instead, we set them back one hour because we knew we were going west. Thus when we stumbled off for breakfast at what we thought was 9:00 a.m., it was actually 11:00 a.m. As we went by the Golden Lion Pub on or way to breakfast, we were wondering what all those people were doing drinking beer and throwing darts at such an early hour. Needless to say, breakfast had been over for some time and we had somehow lost the whole morning. We think what happened is that normally these two cities would be in the same time zone, but that Kusadasi (GMT +3) is now on Daylight Savings Time, but Alexandria (GMT + 2) is not. This error had nothing to do with consumption of wine the night before (that’s our story and we’re sticking to it).
We are fortunate, we didn’t set the clock back another hour or we would have missed our Golden Moment since today is the day we were invited to the bridge to blow the ship’s whistle, the opportunity that Gary won in a raffle. We met the captain’s secretary at 11:45 since the ship’s whistle is to be sounded at exactly noon, and she escorted us to the bridge. She had arranged for the ship’s photographer to chronicle the event. We had a quick orientation, of what’s what, checked out all the gauges and so forth. The ship’s whistle is actually a large button that you depress. The ship has 4 separate whistles that are blown each day and the whistle is selected by turning a dial. I did blasts number 1 and 3, Gary did numbers 2 and 4. It was so much fun, that the crew member in charge had to remind me to release the button. I apparently had sounded one of the longest blasts on record. The Captain, Nick Bates, came out to chat with us and we also visited with the Chief Officer. The Navigator showed us where we were and how he plotted our position. The captain then made his noon announcement and praised Mr. and Mrs. Palmer for “a fine bit of whistle blowing in his best Irish brogue. We also took advantage of a few photo ops, including shots of each of us steering the ship (okay it was pretend steering since the autopilot was on). One thing that was not what I expected was the ship’s wheel. It was this dinky little thing, smaller than a car’s steering wheel. I was expecting a monster wheel commensurate with a monster ship. Other than the dinky wheel, this adventure far exceeded expectations and is right up there with climbing the Sidney Harbor Bridge and riding the elephants. We stayed about 30 minutes trying to soak it all up, but all too soon, we were back in the passenger lounges with our books and cribbage game. Today was quite chilly out on deck so it was a good day for reading and catching up on journal entries.
In terms of Cruise Passengers Behaving Badly, the story continues. It seems we’re witnessing a complete breakdown of civilized society as we know it here on the QE2. First the thefts, petty and not so petty, happened on board and now we have barely avoided fisticuffs on one of the Cairo tour busses. Apparently one woman who has a bad leg (this could probably apply to 90% of the passengers if you expand the description to cover any body part) had gone out to the bus early and gotten a seat in front where she could stretch her leg out. After the first stop a couple, who also asserted that they too have aching parts and needed more leg room, took her seat and wouldn’t move. She complained to the tour guide who asked them to move and they refused. Finally, the guide told them if they didn’t move, she would have security (remember the men in suits with big guns?) physically remove them. I guess they figured the guy with the AK-47 could give them some real knee problems to deal with so they moved, but they insisted on going to another bus because they said, “people on this bus are just too rude to be endured”. There was reportedly a burst of applause as they left which was gratifying to all those witnessing the brouhaha, although some were really hoping for a burst of gunfire aimed at the departing couple’s backsides instead.
The captain’s wisdom for the day was this quote from Patrick O’Shaughnessy: “It is better to ask a question and look foolish for 5 minutes, rather than fail to ask a question and look foolish forever.” This is a slightly different philosophy from Mark Twain’s comment – “It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” We think the nasty couple from the bus would be better off taking Mark Twain’s advice in this regard.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Dateline: Kusadasi, Turkey
Latitude at Kusadasi 37.51 degrees North, Longitude 27.15 degrees East
Docked Pier 6-7 Kusadasi Harbor, Aegean Sea, Turkey
We docked at Kusadasi around 8:00 a.m. today, which happened to be Good Friday. Most of the tours offered by the ship were going to Ephesus, which is a wonderful place, but we had already been there a few years ago, so we decided to freelance. On the subject of Ephesus, some of the tour guides, including the one we had last time we were here will tell you that this is the spot where St. Paul delivered a sermon to the citizens of Ephesus. The truth is, according to current tour guides (who happen to be licensed tour guides versus our off-the-street guy from last time) the Romans did not allow St. Paul to deliver a sermon because he tended to get the locals stirred up, and that is why he wrote letters to the Ephesians and they appear as a book in the Bible with that same name.
We had read about a steam train museum, so we walked into town to grab a taxi. Seeing Kusadasi again was great, but it’s a good news/bad news story – Kusadasi has gone western. The good news is that there are cleaner streets, fewer street vendors, fewer beggars, and less traffic, but the bad news is that some the local color has vanished as well. It seems much less Middle Eastern now, but of course having a McDonalds and a Starbucks will do that to a place. Many of the narrow streets have been blocked off to create pedestrian areas, which are nicely done, but we kind of missed those alleyways where you might expect Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves to appear. The whole waterfront area seems to have gotten an overhaul and a new coat of paint. There is also a new passenger cruise terminal with a definite non-Middle East feel to it, but at least there are no Gap and Old Navy stores there yet.
Although it was cloudy and there was a light rain, we had a beautiful ride in a taxi we hired for the morning and we drove out to the countryside to the small town of Camlik, where we found the Steam Locomotive Museum. We wound our way up into the mountains along roads lined with wild flowers and olive groves. We really felt as if we had left the third world behind because there were no working animals to be seen. Every one used machinery which makes for pretty dull photography and offers little in the way of journal material. We didn’t bother to exchange money (Turkish Lira 1.3 to $1.) since we were assured that
businesses everywhere would take US dollars. We learned that this did not include Camlik since the museum took only Turkish Lira and did not take credit cards. Our cab driver offered to pay for the museum fees and add it to our fare, so we took him up on his offer and went in. The museum had 31 trains from all over the world, primarily from the 1920’s to 1940’s, including those once used by the Ottoman and Turkish Rail (OTR) System. They were beautifully restored and freshly painted in the OTR colors of black with red trim. They were displayed in a park-like setting and we were the only ones there, so we had plenty of time to look at our leisure.
Our driver waited for us and took us back to Kusadasi, where we decided to have lunch ashore, and where we also learned that restaurants and businesses can set their own exchange rate. Our lunch (for me a small pizza and Diet Coke, for Gary a piece of fish, some French fries and a local beer) came to $56 US dollars. Since everything on the menu appeared to be comparable to Burger King pricing, we called the waiter over and asked him to show us the math, which amounted to about 40 Turkish Lira. He explained to us that the manager of the restaurant set the exchange rate, and was not the least bit influenced by any published rates (like those written in 6 inch letters at the bank across the street) and we learned they don’t take credit cards. So okay – it isn’t as westernized as we thought, but fortunately it is western enough to have ATM’s on every corner so Gary went to get Turkish lira while I stayed at the restaurant. In calling to mind the movie Midnight Express, we wanted them to feel comfortable that we were indeed going to pay the bill so they would not call the police demanding our arrest. We did see the police, but they were busy shooing away beggars from tourists which is another sign of Westernization. We hope Turkey doesn’t surrender too much of its Eastern roots because it now is truly is a delightful blending East and West. We don’t want to see it get too sanitized and homogenized.
We explored the town a bit and had a glass or two of wine at a sidewalk café and watched the sights. While most of them involved QE2 passengers strolling and shopping, we did see a waiter the next sidewalk café over giving a seated massage to a gentleman off the ship. We wondered what the charge (and exchange rate) on that piece of customer service would work out to be. We did a little shopping, looked at a lot of rugs, but didn’t buy. Rug shops here offer tea and a comfortable chair whether you’re buying or not while various rugs are displayed in front of you with an elaborate flourish of unfurling. The rugs are really beautifully crafted and while priced well under market value, are still pretty pricey. We also did a walk-through of the
Caravansarai Hotel where we stayed last time we were here. The old building was built in 1618 by the Grand Vizier Okuz Mehmet Pacha when the silk trade between the Ottoman Empire and the Far East was flourishing. It was a walled fortress and was the last stop on the overland Silk Road from China. Caravans would bring all their camels and the goods that they carried into the fort at night to protect them from roving bandits. Just as we walked through the gates, we encountered the dingbat woman from the ship who had told her traveling companion in Cochin that pyrotechnics were fire-o-glyphics. Just at that moment, the
muezzin in the minaret next door began to chant in Arabic the mid-afternoon call to prayer over his loudspeaker. She looked rather alarmed, as if expecting a Bedouin attack any moment, so we explained to her that it was just a the call to prayer – sort of like church bells. You could almost see the light bulb come on (although a very dim bulb at that) as she nodded her head and said, “Oh that’s right. I forgot it’s Good Friday”. We could only smile, wish her a Happy Easter, and leave her to the tender mercies of the rug salesmen of Kusadasi.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Dateline: Piraeus, Greece
Latitude at Piraeus 37.56 degrees North, Longitude 23.37 degrees East
We docked in Piraeus, Greece today which is the port for Athens. From the deck of the ship, we could see the Parthenon in the distance which was built over a period of 50 years between 450 and 400 BC. Athens and Piraeus today have a combined population of 4.5 million people (up from 500 thousand at the end of WWII), which is almost half of the total population of Greece. 97% of the population is Greek Orthodox, despite having been occupied by the Muslim Ottoman Turks for over 400 years. Greece has 51,000 square miles, 9,600 miles of coastline, and 3,000 islands in the Aegean Sea to the west and the Ionian Sea to the east. I didn’t get the exact number of islands in the Ionian Sea, but it’s a bunch. The Greek mainland has very rugged and mountainous countryside, with only 25% of land suitable for cultivation. Their three biggest industries are shipping, tourism, and agriculture.
Greece has provinces, rather that states, with Athens being the capital of the Province of Attica, in addition to being the capital of Greece. Athens was built on seven hills, just like Rome and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The city was named after Athena, Greek Goddess of wisdom and the Parthenon, built on the hill called the Acropolis was built in her honor and has stood for almost 2500 years. It has suffered a lot of damage over the years from various wars and the British removed most of the sculptures and friezes over the years when they were in their Empire Mode – they said it was for the purpose of preserving it – but the Greeks said it was for the purpose of stealing it. Any way, it still is exhibited in the British Museum and they aren’t likely to give it back anytime soon. The Parthenon was used as an ammo storage dump in WWII by the Germans, and thus was heavily bombed, but fortunately it wasn’t totally obliterated. To build the Parthenon with the estimated total tonnage of 20,000 tons of marble, the Greeks used trunks of trees to roll the slabs of granite mined from the mountains north of Athens to reach paved roads where they could load it on wagons to get it to Athens. To get it up to the Acropolis, where the incline is approximately 30 degrees, they used a system of pulleys.
Because we spent several days in Athens last year, we decided we would take a tour billed as “A Day in Delphi”(Pronounced Dell-fee with the accent on Dell”). It was a beautiful, mild sunny day as we got on our bus and headed northwest into the mountains of mainland Greece with Mina our guide and Vassilis our driver. On our ride we passed the ancient city of Thessaloniki (pronounced Thessa- low-knee-ki with the accent on the knee) and we also passed the Lake of Marathon which was recently built, but the town of Marathon goes way back. Those of you familiar with Greek History will recall that in 490 BC, the Athenians won a great victory over the invading Persians. They were outnumbered 6 to 1, but under the leadership of General Miltiades, they were able to drive the Persians back where they came from – the sea. As a consequence of their victory, they were able to capture a lot of Persian booty that they had brought with them (gold and so forth). A messenger, Phidippides, was sent to Athens with the news and he ran the whole way (26.2 miles) and promptly dropped dead of exhaustion after delivering the news. When the first games of modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896, they held the first marathon race of 26.2 miles. Today this race is an annual event in Greece, as well as in the Olympic Games.
One of the first mountain peaks we came to was snow-capped Parnassus at 8,500 feet, part of a mountain range by the same name and home to much Greek mythology. “Par” is a prefix name given to mountains in pre-historic times and translates as “mountain that reflects the rays of the sun”. This is true year round because of snow on the pink granite peaks, which is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset. Pan was the Greek God of the woods, fields and flocks, who supposedly resided around Mount Parnassus and is credited with the Athenian Victory at Marathon. He reportedly made a deal with the Athenians that if they would worship and venerate him (he was a homely sort, half man, half goat, with tiny goat horns and little goat legs so he didn’t have all that many admirers), he would personally see to it that the Persians got a good old-fashioned ass kicking. According to legend, he did just that by scaring the daylights out of them and today we have the word “panic” from the Greek word “panikos” evolving out of this story. The Athenians dedicated a grotto (cave) to Pan and brought valuable relics to an altar there according to the historian Herodotus, who chronicled the battle.
Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece at 10,000 feet and was sort of a “frat house” for Zeus and most of the other major gods, and where they drank the ambrosia that made them immortal, Greece has several ski resorts there now, as well as on Mt. Parnassus. Greece was not always united as it is today, and for hundreds of years they were organized into city-states that often went to war with each other (most notably Sparta and Athens in the 4th and 5th Century B.C). Things really started going downhill for the Greeks once the Romans invaded in 200 BC and stuck around for the next 500 years.
The Greek language is very hard to learn – that’s why we say “it’s all Greek to me”. However, when the Greeks encounter something confusing, they say it’s all Chinese to me. The Greek alphabet now has 24 characters (there used to be 26) and was invented 3,000 years ago in Thebes. (not the same place as Egypt’s Thebes.). Regardless of the language’s difficulty, 52% of the medical terms in the English language have a Greek origin. (maybe that’s why we have trouble understanding doctors). English as a second language is required in Greece from the 4th grade on so it’s pretty universally spoken and in high school a 3rd language is required. Like most European countries, the Greeks are way ahead of us single language Americans in this regard. There is free education, including college for those who qualify scholastically and one year of military service is required for all males. Roadside shrines were common in Greece long before there were cars and originally were used to point the way to monasteries where travelers could stay overnight. Only in recent years have they come to mark the sites of fatal car accidents.
Our trip up into the mountains was an absolute delight, with the Sea of Corinth sparkling blue in the distance to the south. It was pleasantly warm with bright sunshine and carpets of wildflowers – poppies, delphiniums, sunflowers, chamomiles (daisies with white petals yellow centers.) on every slope and in every meadow. Lilacs were in bloom in the farm yards and the earth was freshly tilled in the fields we passed. The vineyards and orchards were just starting to green up. Cypress and Judas trees (better known as jacaranda, so called because they flower at Easter time) were everywhere. We passed hundreds of olive groves and learned that harvesters hand pick those that are for eating. The ones that are shaken from the tree or allowed to fall are made into olive oil. Also, you do no eat olives directly off the tree as you might an apple. Olives have to be processed by soaking them in water, and then in vinegar with olive oil, salt and oregano. Many of the groves here have ancient trees, some as old as 2,000 years, but which still produce. Greeks typically do not cook with butter or animal fat – only olive oil, and consequently, so it is believed, have highest life expectancy in Europe.
We kept climbing, seeing more snow capped mountains in the distance and we drove through two really charming villages called Livadia and Arahova, the latter of which has an alpine feel – built into the mountainside overlooking the valley below and with a view of Mr. Helicon (6,900 feet), the home of the legendary 9 Muses who inspire poets, artists, musicians, historians and so forth (one for each discipline). The word “museum” comes from the word “muse”. Pegasus (the winged horse) supposedly touched down here and his hoof prints created a spring from which the Muses to get their creative ideas. Here on Mt. Helicon is also the Pierian Spring, which was the Spring of Knowledge and is referred to in a poem by Alexander Pope who wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, Drink deep or taste not, the Pierian spring”.
Arahova also hosts the annual St, George Race in honor of the town’s patron saint. Runners in this race have to run from the valley to the highest point in the village in traditional Greek Costume (Big bloomers, blousy sleeved shirt, black vest and no Nikes. And speaking of costumes, Greek women beyond a certain age always wear black because tradition calls for a 3 year period of mourning when a family member dies. Because they have such large families, somebody always croaks within the 3 year period so the women just keep dressing in black to simplify things. The streets are lined with shops, and are so narrow you could almost do your shopping from the bus.
We wound our way at last to Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, which was considered Apollo’s sanctuary and home to the Oracle which provided prophecies to various people who traveled there to get enlightened about the future or to get guidance on a course of action. Apollo was the God of Light, Beauty, Music and Poetry and the son of Zeus and his mistress, which didn’t win him any points with Hera, Zeus’ wife. The Oracle was supposedly inspired by Apollo and given a human voice Pythia, the Priestess of Delphi, who spoke to supplicants. Interestingly enough, Pythia supposedly sat on a cauldron (a
shallow wok-like thing) which rested on a tripod. I don’t know what’s up with that, but anyway, people came from far and wide to hear prophecies and usually they usually acted on them as best they could from what they interpreted the Oracle said. Like the messages from shamans, horoscopes, fortune tellers and fortune cookies, the prophesies were usually ambiguous, equivocal and subject to interpretation. That way, no matter what happened – no one could prove the Oracle to be wrong. The routine for hearing the Oracle was to go through a purification ritual at the Castalian Springs, then write your questions on a
clay tablet which would be provided to the priestess. You would then trudge up to the temple to hear what the Oracle had to say, and wait until Pythia was ready to see you, (giving the priestess time to make up some good stuff). The priestess would go into a chamber below the floor of the temple, where scholars believe there was actually a vent from a now dormant volcano and climb onto the wok/cauldron and start to work on her trance. Smoke would rise through the vent, semi-intoxicating the priestess, making her say strange things which you would have to figure out the meaning of.
The treasuries surrounding the temple were small marble buildings where the spoils of war were stored, such as those captured at Marathon. There were also rows of shops called “stoa” here, but no one was allowed to live here. There are also ruins of a gymnasium where athletes would train for the Pythian Games, as well as theaters and a stadium for chariot races. Winners of the Games would be crowned with a ring of laurel leaves which was the highest honor. Gold silver and bronze medals came much later when laurel leaves weren’t so much the rage.
Today at Delphi there is a museum and the ruins of the temple and treasuries. Delphi was mostly destroyed and entirely covered by landslides from earthquakes in the early centuries A.D. There was also a medieval village built on top of it. Excavation began at the end of the 19th Century and is still ongoing today. The museum had most of the really precious pieces inside (that is those that had not been carried off by European archaeologists). We noticed that all the male figures appeared nude (called heroic nudes meaning that you weren’t supposed to have any impure thoughts, I suppose), and were missing some delicate
parts of their anatomy. These were presumable broken off in the earthquakes (some may try to pin this on the British since they took everything else, but so far, no stray members have been sighted at the British Museum.) However, Gary had another theory. He says he thinks Jesse Helms-like zealots, here in the name of decency, arrived before us and tried to clean up the exhibit to make the world safe for God-fearing Christians. One of the more interesting pieces on exhibit was the omphalos stone which is intended to represent the navel (i.e. belly button) of the world. The legend has it that two eagles were flying around the world and where they met a stone was dropped (this was the opmhalos) and where it landed (which happened to be Delphi) would be the center of the world. It sounds like pretty bizarre thinking, but I guess that’s what those volcano fumes will do to you.
On our way back to the ship we saw the village of Distomo, where in June of 1944, the Nazis who occupied Greece executed over 200 residents of the town (and it was a really small town), trying to extract information about the Greek resistance fighters who were wreaking havoc by sabotaging their communications and supply lines. Nobody talked and consequently the Greek Resistance was one of the most effective of WWII. The village still exists, despite the Nazis, and has a memorial to the townspeople there today.
We had wonderful weather for the QE2’s departure so we stayed up on deck sipping wine where we could clearly see the Acropolis and the Parthenon, where it has stood for almost 2,500 years, and the city of Athens spread out below it, with the mountains as its backdrop. The whole tableau gradually disappeared as the sun set and we headed south into the Saronic Gulf. We would travel through Greek waters for much of the night before turning west into the Mediterranean Sea.
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Dateline: Mediterranean Sea
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +3, 37.30 degrees North, 17.09 degrees East
98 miles east of Sicily, Italy
Today is our only sea day until our next port, Civitavecchia, Italy and it is also Easter Sunday. It just so happens that the Easter Bunny visited Room 3114 while we were at breakfast and left a chocolate bunny, chocolate eggs and jelly beans. It was very nice out on deck which is a good thing because we wanted to be outside to watch our mid-afternoon passage through the Straits of Messina, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy. The Captain’s thought for the day was “You are better off trying to do something and failing than trying to do nothing and succeeding.” Nevertheless, we mostly were successful at doing nothing today, but after a grueling day of touring yesterday, we enjoyed the rest.
Queues (a.k.a. lines) are a way of life on the QE2, but of course, many people think that standing in line is not required of them, given their exalted status, but a couple we met yesterday had the best solution I’ve heard so far, and thus I feel compelled to pass it on. They were on a shore excursion off a ship in Greece and their tour included a lunch buffet. There was a queue of about 20 people to get the dessert, which happened to be a very gooey baklava. A rather rude man totally circumvented the line and stepped in front of the person at the head of the line who was a Good Old Boy (probably from somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line) who I’ll call Bubba. Bubba, tapped him on the shoulder and politely said, “Sir, you may not be aware, but there’s a line here” and the man said “I am perfectly aware of this line and that’s why I came to the front.” Bubba proceeded to scoop up a big blob of baklava and slid it into the man’s back pocket and slapped it closed. He turned to our friends who were right behind him and said “That sumbitch is in such a hurry to get dessert, I gave him one to go.”
The baklava story may have been embellished with the various tellings, but I think it’s a classic case of justice rendered. And speaking of things “embellished”, the captain, who often shares nautical trivia, told us where the expression, “spinning a yarn” comes from. In the olden days, sailors had to make their own ropes which they would twist (spin) from yarn. This didn’t involve a lot of brain power and could get pretty tedious, so they would entertain each other by telling stories, often elaborately embellished, which came to be known as spinning a yarn.
We also learned that Mediterranean in Latin means “Middle of the Lands” and we are today about halfway across it, so we are in the middle of the middle. En route to the Straits of Messina, we saw schools and schools of feeding dolphins that must have stretched for two miles or more. They were leaping out of the water and doing all the acrobatic things you’d expect to see at Sea World performances. The sea gulls were going crazy over the bits and pieces of fish that the dolphins left and so it was quite the show. At approximately 3:30 we entered the Straits with the city of San Giovanni in the Calabria region (the toe of the boot of Italy) on the mainland side and Messina and the snow covered peak of Mt. Etna on the Sicily side. Mt. Etna is still active and potentially destructive and thus is closely monitored for signs of eruption. The Straits are only a mile and a half wide at the narrowest point and so the ferries had to stop while we went through. We actually took on a pilot for about 4 miles which was probably a good idea since the ferry captains probably spoke only Italian and needed to know we are coming through, we cannot stop quickly and turning is out of the question.
As a special treat, the captain made a detour after clearing the Straits to take us close to Stromboli, just north of Messina, which is supposedly the most active volcano in the world. All that sticks out of the water is the top portion of the volcano’s cone, rising to a height of about 924 feet. There are small mini-eruptions several times an hour, mostly spurts of smoke and ash, but there is occasionally a little burp of lava. The main action is on the western slope with 6 to 8 vents from which we could see smoke. There are also two little settlements, one of either side of the cone, of either brave or foolish people – I’m not sure which.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Dateline: Civitavecchia, Italy
Position at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +2, 42.05 degrees North, 11.46 degrees East
Today we docked at the port of Civitavecchia, which means Old City, and indeed it is. It was established in 106 A.D. to create an additional port for the Romans by Emperor Trajan, and was originally called Centum Cellae. Once the Roman Empire began its downhill spiral, the Goths and then the Byzantine Empire moved in for a while. In 828 A.D. the port was ransacked by the Arabs and the population fled to the hills and stayed away for several years. In the Middle Ages the city was ruled by a series of feudal lords, but in 1431, the Papal States took over and made it their principal port. The town was badly damaged in WWII and not much remains intact with the notable exception of the old wall built by the Emperor Tiberius that surrounded the original harbor and the “keep” (a tower) from the old castle which was commissioned by Pope Paul III in the 16th century, and built by none other than Michelangelo himself. When the barbarians attacked the Romans, the poor people fled to the closest Benedictine monasteries, but the nobles mostly fled to their own castles (actually walled fortresses called “castros”) in the hills, which originally gave the area its name, Casteli. So after all these barbarian invasions, the locals didn’t even blink at the barbarian tourist invasion from the QE2. As a side note – the Romans applied the word “Barbarian” to anyone who did not speak Latin. It had nothing to do with behavior in those days since the Latin speaking Romans could get as uncivilized and “barbaric” as the best of them.
Italy today has 20 “states” or regions, each with its own capital. We are in the Lazio region, whose capital is Rome, and Rome is the nation’s capital as well. Rome’s airport is right next door to Civitavecchia and was originally named Fiumicino (which means little river) after the place where it is located, but it is now called Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Today Italy has a president whose role is largely ceremonial. The governing of the country is done by the Prime Minister and the Senate. From a historical perspective, Italy is a new country in that it only has been united as it is today in the last few hundred years. Prior to that, it was a collection of small warring cities run by wealthy warring families.
Since we had been to Rome several times and today was Easter Monday and it would be packed with people, we decided to take a day trip to the Alban Hills. Italians traditionally celebrate Easter, (which they call Pascua) at home and then go out to celebrate Little Easter” (which they call Pascueta) on Easter Monday. It was cloudy and damp with rain threatening, but not arriving. The Alban Hills are remnants of ancient volcanoes to the southwest of Rome containing Castel Gandolfo (the summer home of the pope), the Castelli, where Italian nobles have had summer homes for centuries, and several wine villages in the region. Many of these summer homes were the same castle fortresses where the nobles used to hide out from the barbarians in earlier times. In later years, descendants of those nobles often summered here to avoid the heat of the city of Rome. Many of the castles retain the name of the noble family who owned it, but today they are often hotels or public buildings, such as the Castel Tuscolana, Castel Romana, and so on. This area was typically on the “must do” list for young gentlemen in the 19th Century taking The Grand Tour of Europe to round out their education and also attracted artists, particularly poets and painters.
Driving along the coastline toward the hills, it seemed as though almost every open field had ancient ruins of some sort, and in fact there are several archaeological digs going on at any given point. . As we climbed higher, the countryside was really lovely – chestnut and olive groves, pastureland filled with wild flowers and vineyards just greening up – all along the route. There were also thick stands of umbrella pines which provide a key ingredient for pesto sauce, pine nuts. Other ingredients for authentic pesto are olive oil, garlic and basil. Our route took us over several country roads which are built over the old consular roads, so called because the consuls of Rome had the roads built in order to get to their summer palaces (or in Italian, casteli). One of the roads we are traveling is called the Appia Claudio, built in 89 A.D. by Claudio who would later become the Emperor of Rome. These roads (appia) can still be found fairly intact in many places including the one that connects Brindisi (the port for Sicily and Greece) to Rome, which is sometimes referred to as the Appian Way. The glory days of Rome in terms of building the empire and building structures were in the 2nd and 3rd Century B.C. They built 14 aqueducts to bring water from the mountains to Rome, several of which were underground and are still used today. Those Romans may have been mean, but they sure knew how to build stuff.
Our first stop was the village of Frascati, famous for wines by the same name. Frascati is termed a new village, relatively speaking, since it’s only been around since about 1,000 A.D., and so it is indeed “new” by Italian standards. (e.g. Rome is believed to have built by the Etruscans in the 8th Century BC.) Like the rest of the Casteli area, Frascati has been a summer refuge for city dwellers since the time of the caesars. Today several 17th Century villas remain occupied, and a few are held by descendants of the original owners. The most prominent in town is the Villa Aldo Brandini, built (or should I say funded) by Pope Clement VII for
his favorite nephew. It has been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. It sits on a hill fronted by a huge lawn, and is the home the last descendant of the Brandini family. They are pretty sure the current Count will be the last of the Brandini bloodline since he is reportedly gay. Our stop in Frascati allowed us time to stroll around the town, take a few pictures and have a cup of cappuccino or whatever. We were cautioned by our guide that if we want to buy an ice cream cone (or more commonly gelato here) we need to be careful with our pronunciation. If you look at someone and say “cornetto” you will get an ice cream or gelato in a cone. If you should slightly mispronounce the word and say “cornuto”, you will be suggesting that the man’s wife is sleeping with another man. Furthermore, our guide explained, “This is such an insult, “you could have a smash on you head”. She also had a rather amusing way of explaining the bathroom stop, saying that we should go here so we do not arrive at our next destination with “an urgency”, because there are only a few facilities and also “we don’t want to get all our time stuck on toilets”.
Winemaking in the area far predates the establishment of the town of Frascati, and in fact the name is derived from the word, “frasca” which refers to small wine bottles which were originally made of clay. Unfortunately for the early drinkers of wine in this region, it was made from the whole vine – leaves, stems and all – and wasn’t too palatable. The Greeks actually introduced the idea of using only the grapes and using wooden casks to age it in, which made for much happier wine drinkers.
After leaving Frascati, we drove higher into the hills past two lakes, Lago di Nemi and Lago de Albano that were created centuries ago by volcanic activity, with lakes now formed in the craters. The smaller of the two is Nemi and there is a town by the same name built on the rim in medieval times, in approximately 1200 A.D. Like Frascati, the Nemi area is full of villas and vineyards.
Lake Nemi was a favorite retreat of Roman Emperors and Caligula kept boats here and held lavish parties aboard them, no doubt an early forerunner to the party barges of Lake Lanier. Caligula started out as an okay emperor, but got pretty goofy there at the end of his reign, especially when he promoted his horse to become a member of the Roman Senate. He was a descendant of Nero who reportedly had the same problem with goofiness. Nero’s big moment of notoriety came when he watched Rome burn while he played his violin. (On the QE2, they’d just call these guys eccentric). Anyway, after Caligula died, the next emperor ordered the obliteration of everything Caligula owned to more or less erase his memory from the minds of the citizens and Caligula’s boats were sunk in the lake. One of these boats was recovered from the lake bottom and reconstructed in the 1930’s. However this boat was destroyed in an off-course Allied bombing run in WWII.
Nemi’s other claim to fame is its strawberries which range from tiny to monstrous and were being sold along the cobble stoned lanes of the town. It was a totally charming little village, clinging to the mountainside overlooking the lake. There are 13 towns in the Casteli region and each has their own specialty with an accompanying annual festival in honor of either their patron saint or the Virgin Mary. Nemi has the Strawberry Festival, another town has the peach festival, and another town has what our guide called the “piggie” festival. I think she meant to say pig, but it’s hard for Italians to pronounce those guttural words with no
vowel on the end. While we were in Nemi, the enterprising proprietor of a “norcineria” (a shop that butchers, cures and sells all sorts of pork, with hams and sausages hanging everywhere) offered us samples of cut up chunks of “piggy” and cheese. Gary bought a rather “ripe” hunk of parmesan which to enjoy back on the ship. One of the 13 towns named Marino has as their special event a wine festival where for one hour the fountain in the city center spouts wine instead of water. That one would be high on our “Places to visit” list.
The woods around Nemi were considered sacred in Roman Mythology because this is where they believe the Goddess Diana, the Huntress did her hunting. This was also the hangout of Bacchus, the god of Wine and the spot where he promised to give humans an elixir to make them happy, and thus we have wine today. We also heard the old Italian legend that the human given the elixir by Bacchus allowed the devil to work on the recipe, and he added ingredients to cause humans to imitate one of 3 animals when under the influence. They may be the lion and be strong and aggressive toward others. They may be the sheep and be passive and easily influenced. Or they may be the pig and get sloppy and roll in the mud. In fact they may progress from one stage to another, but in all cases they can invoke the excuse that “the devil made me do it”.
Our next stop was to sample the local devil juice at a nearby vineyard. We left Nemi and wound our way down to the valley below, passing through several olive groves. We learned Extra Virgin Olive Oil means it came from the last harvest and crush of a crop (although our guide called it a “smash” – a multi-purpose word for her since she also uses it to describe hitting someone and a collision of vehicles). The oil is best after the last smash because the olives are the ripest. Olives can be harvested year round, but the best time is May-September. The oil is basically clear at this point and color is added to give it more eye appeal.
We arrived at a vineyard called Montegiove in the early afternoon, just as the skies were clearing. We walked up a hill to the main house, a rather modest villa, which has been in the same family for several centuries and were met by the current owner and occupant, Count Moncada, who apparently likes to show people around. He was a very interesting man in his early 80’s who told us about the history of the place and his own experiences.
The villa and vineyards are built on the site of the ancient Roman city of Corioli, as well as a 1300 A.D. monastery. (Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus is set here). Part of the present day wine cellars were natural limestone caves (they called them grottoes) where the monks lived while the monastery was being built. The first Moncada came to the area via Sicily from Spain and came to own the Montegiove property in the 1500’s. We had a short tour of the chapel and a few rooms of the villa which were filled with oil paintings and sculpture.
The Count’s family was at Montegiove during World War II. His father was politically on the wrong side of Mussolini and so the whole family had to go into hiding and basically lived in the wine cellar with 4 other families, passing themselves off as peasants. During the German occupation, their villa, which sits on one the highest hills in the valley, was used as a forward observation post and there was German artillery there and on the tops of the surrounding hills. He was 18 years old then and he said he remembers with perfect clarity, the morning of January 22, 1944 when he looked to the west toward a beach called Anzio on
Tyhrrenian Sea, clearly visible from the family vineyards, and saw thousands of American troops coming ashore. The Germans immediately begin shelling the beach and the Americans quickly figured out where the shells were coming from and trained their artillery on the German positions. The family villa and vineyards were literally a war zone for the next 5 months, but no one in the Moncada family cared. Count Moncada told us he’s just as glad to see Americans today as he was then and he will never forget, nor will he let his children or grandchildren forget the 10,000 American soldiers who died at Anzio to free his country. The villa survived the artillery, but did not fare so well when a tank battle took place there on May 29, 1944, just six days before Rome was liberated and had to be totally restored in 1947.
We had some wine sampling of their white on the terrace of the villa, from which you could see the sea in the distance, but it wasn’t quite clear enough to make out Anzio. We then went to the cellars and sampled the red, and from there we went to have lunch in the vineyard restaurant (which in WWII was the site of a German artillery battery). Lunch was fabulous with bruschetta, fresh Italian bread with olive oil, salad, pasta, grilled chicken and roasted potatoes, biscotti for desert and last, but by no means least, carafe after carafe of wine. Unfortunately they do not make enough wine to export so we can’t get their wine here. There also didn’t seem to be any go-cups so we thought we would empty the carafes and be done with it. However, they kept filling and re-filling the carafes and, regretfully, we had to leave it on the table. We were a very jolly busload for the ride to our next stop, but we eventually slipped into the sheep mode until we arrived at Castel Gandolfo where we were sure the Pope was undoubtedly on the edge of his seat waiting to see us.
Castel Gandolfo was once home to the Gandolfo family, before it became the summer home of the popes. It is also referred to as the Little Vatican and is part of the Papal State of the Vatican. The pope, although in residence today, was not receiving guests off the QE2, but we did see his Swiss Guards in the bright red and yellow bloomers with tunics, their gaiters. They used to wear pointy toed shoes (think court jester, not Hispanic pimps) and pointy metal helmets, but they have given those up in favor of regular boots and berets, though the still have lances. Somehow, despite the costumes, the guards and the tourists managed to
keep straight faces. We assumed the heavy lifters in terms of guarding the pope were the Secret Service looking guys in suits, wearing ear buds and speaking into their lapels. There are also wonderful gardens here, but since the pope is in residence, they were not open to the public. The Vatican Observatory is also located here and there is a beautiful church on the main square with a dome designed by Bernini where many of the earlier popes are buried. The pope has audiences every Wednesday and a blessing on Sundays when he is at the Little Vatican.
The town is also called Castel Gandolfo and is perched on the rim of the ancient volcano that now holds the waters of Lago di Albano. The Romans were also active here and built a series of tunnels to control the lake levels. Directly across the lake from the Little Vatican is the “Roca de Papa” or Pope’s Rock, a high point overlooking Castel Gandolfo which was occupied in olden days by papal troops to ensure no one could catapult any rocks, boiling oil or whatever across the lake to inflict damage on papal property or the pope’s person for that matter. In later years, Villa Cardinale was built there as a summer residence, which today is a hotel. Castel Gandolfo, like Nemi, is also a picturesque town, but it seems a little more sophisticated, but then I guess when you’re the pope’s hometown, that’s to be expected. I feel this narrative seems to ramble a bit, and the trip back to the ship was sort of a blur, but I can only blame it on the wine and the devil who made us drink it.