The beginning ....

The beginning ....
our engagement night!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Perils in Portugal

After four days in Lisbon, not only are we ready to leave, but we were debating coming home all together!

Allow me to explain the circumstance that led to our frustration…..

First of all, after leaving the fantastic country of Spain, almost anything was likely going to be a disappointment. Upon arriving in Lisbon, we were treated to a lovely room that ironically, didn’t have such a lovely smell. In fact our entire floor smelled like a backed up sewage system, which we later deduced was the odor emitted from their disinfectant sprays. Clean but smelly…..a bit of a paradox.

Not wanting to spend any more time than necessary in our room, we headed out to explore the city. Lisbon is definitely a different place. If I were forced to describe her, I would use a callous reference to Tara Reid; from a distance she’s attractive, but up close, she’s a little trashy. Almost immediately, we were starting to wish we hadn’t booked four days here….

After exploring for a few hours, we stopped for a bite to eat in one of the most popular spots in the entire town, just off of La Liberdale Street in the hip Baixa district. Some authentic Portuguese food and wine was certain to improve our moods. However, within five minutes of being seated at an outside patio, a passer-by propositioned me to buy drugs. When I told Megan that we were just offered some “smack” she gave me one of those, “sure you were baby” looks, which are supportive in the way a wife should be, but are ultimately skeptical. Obviously, she thought that the likelihood of a drug dealer randomly coming up to us at a café in the middle of the day was absurd, and I evidently must have imagined or misinterpreted it. Well, less than ten minutes later, a guy walked directly up to our table and blatantly, in a clear voice that could not be misunderstood, offered us, “pot, cocaine, hashish?”…..I tried not to gloat as I nonchalantly murmured, “Told you so.”

Throughout the hour long dinner (which, by the way, did nothing for our mood or taste buds) we were solicited one additional time. From that point on, our guards were on high alert every time we left our room. Any town that has such brazen dealers is a town that demands your full attention while wandering the streets.

We settled back into our urine smelling room and decided to check our email and possibly hit the gym. However, the Wi-Fi was on the fritz and kept kicking us off after a few minutes, which made it impossible to complete even one email. To add insult to injury, the “fitness center” that was advertised in the website turned out to be a farce. The hotel actually had listed in its directory, “fitness center.” But when you turned to page 19, it stated that there were two facilities within walking distance from the hotel. What a total jip…… Portugal was really starting to wear on us.

We hoped that our luck would change the next day as we set out to explore an area that was listed as, “one of the most popular and visited area’s in all of Lisbon.” On the map, it looked just a mile or two away, based on the dimensions of our walk the previous evening. We quickly found out that the scale of this map was drastically different than what we had witnessed before. A few hours and roughly seven miles later, we finally arrived at our destination. To our disappointment, there were only three or four cool monuments to visit. Aside from a nice lunch by the river (which suspiciously smelled just like our room) the rest of the day was a bust. On the walk back, we tried to meander through the, “most visited area,” thinking that it would be filled with lush apartments, swanky café’s and gorgeous parks. What we found instead were graffiti ridden buildings, dilapidated homes, and an unending supply of questionable looking individuals. At one point, as we were walking through a particular unkempt area, Megan jumped in surprise as something splashed on the sidewalk beside her, seemingly coming from nowhere. Luckily she moved with cat-like reflexes and missed the rest of the fluids coming from an apartment above. I quickly realized what had happened and proceeded to yell at the man above, who had dumped a liquid, that we are still not willing to speculate as to its content, onto the sidewalk below. I don’t think he spoke English, but I’m hoping that “jackass” is a universal word!

After a long and tiresome day of walking, we retired early with hopes of taking a train to a nearby beach the next morning. Surely, Lisbon would be better tomorrow. We awoke to a torrential downpour that pretty much lasted for the next 48 hours……so much for the beach, and for that matter, Lisbon all together.

We spent the next two days watching English TV, which was a surprising treat, and even got our hair cut at a salon next door. If you’ve never had your hair cut by someone that doesn’t speak your language, trust me, it’s a frightening experience……luckily they had pictures to point at, so it was close to what I wanted. Megan fared much better, as her girl was fluent in English. She finished off the spa with a conditioner treatment and a pedicure. Not a bad way to spend a rainy day after all.

Perhaps the beaches here are really fantastic and other cities are ripe with energy and charm…..but I doubt we’ll ever find out. From our travels, we’re starting to view places as we would people; we have first impressions that tend to shape our views. Maybe we are being hasty in our assessment, but when you have to travel halfway around the world just to get there, it’s not a place we’re willing to give another chance.

Goodbye Portugal……welcome back Italy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Barcelona and Madrid

Off all the cities that we have had the pleasure of visiting on this amazing journey, Barcelona just might take the cake. It’s one of those unique cities that are able to perfectly blend old world charm with a healthy dose of modern swagger and stylish appeal.

When we arrived and checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore. After a two block stroll, we turned down one of the most famous streets in all of Spain. As we walked down La Rambla, we were entertained by multiple street performers and statues, a plethora of upscale shops and café’s; all surrounded by baroque architecture and tree-lined streets. At night, the wrought iron street lamps gently lit up the salient Spanish avenue and gave it an almost magical glow. It’s easy to imaging the famous poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, describing it as, “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.

Well, it finally did end, and to our surprise and elation, there lied one of the most beautiful stretches of beach we’ve ever seen. Not in a pure aesthetic sense, mind you, but due to the fact that it too was surrounded by restaurants and café’s, shops and performers, and runners and bikers everywhere.

We decided the best way to explore the miles and miles of beach, was by bike. The city has over 100 miles of dedicated bike paths, 10 or so that run directly along the port and beach. We glided along, taking in all the scenes; a rock climbing competition, a sand carving display, and of course a healthy dose of people watching.

Since we had been riding for a few hours, we decided to lock up the bikes and stroll along the boardwalk. It was there that we found Ice Barcelona. This bar has the distinction of being the only “ice bar” located on a beach. For those of you who don’t know what an ice bar is, it’s pretty much what it sounds like…..everything is made out of ice! The glasses, the bar, the walls, the seats….everything! In order to keep it from melting, they hold the temperature at a steady -5 Celsius. Luckily they gave us special thermal clothing before we entered. Megan commented that we were getting a taste of what Minnesota would be like in the winter!

After the chilling experience in sub terrain conditions, we hit the warmth of the sun and continued to explore. After a few more miles of biking, we accidently stumbled onto Ciutadella Park and Zoo. This former military fortress has since been turned into a green respite in the middle of a bustling city. As we rode around the luscious park, we couldn’t help but notice the pleasant multicultural feel it possessed. Our favorite moment came unexpectedly by way of a hippie performer. We were entertained by his snake like dance as he elegantly moved a crystal ball around his yoga sculpted body, while his companion kept the beat via a makeshift steel drum. It was a true treat and evidentially a staple of Ciutadella Park.

After more than seven hours on bikes, we finally called it quits. We dropped them off and headed into the Gothic District, Barcelona’s oldest and most historic part of the city. The buildings looked as if they all, at one point in time, had contained a dungeon or two. The medieval feel permeated through the labyrinth of narrow corridors that sporadically opened to squares, markets, and designer shops. This just solidified our original supposition of Barcelona as a city with two beautiful yet very different faces. Before leaving, we agreed that we must gaze upon her face again, as her splendor and allure is irrefutable and utterly irresistible.

The next morning, we reluctantly left for Madrid. Here we encountered our first bit of inclement weather. Exploring the streets would require additional clothing and a beanie for Megan. Having only two days here and absolutely no idea of what to do, I turned to the one fail-safe….Google. After five minutes of research, I had uncovered a list of the “Top 10 Sites to See in Madrid.” So, armed with a map and walking shoes, we ventured into the frigid air in search of Plaza’s, Squares, Cathedrals, etc….. With no public transportation and no common language, we managed to hit nine out of ten!

We still need to do the research on the history behind all of them, but regardless, we genuinely loved three spots; the Parque Del Buen Retrio, Plaza Del Oriente and Plaza Mayor.

The Parque (park) was the biggest we’ve ever, save for Central Park in New York. It was adorned with a lovely rose garden, a lake with canoes, multiple restaurants, miles and miles of jogging paths, fountains spouting everywhere, and musicians spaced just far enough so as to not drown out the others while providing a constant melody to our ears. It was a place where you could just as easily lose yourself for hours in a novel or on a leisurely stroll.

At the Plaza Del Oriente, we simply sat down and took in the scenery of the Royal Palace, Opera house and Cathedral, while listening to a trumpet player elicit melodies that belonged on a CD. We watched a couple snuggle, an artist sketch, and on elderly mad read the paper. We were content to become part of the scenery as we sat on the steps and simply people watched.

We entered the Plaza Mayor, which is an enormous square, surrounded by historical three story buildings. There we had lunch while being serenaded by musicians and entertained by street performers. We sat for hours enjoying the experience as we researched Tuscany and Florence.
Tomorrow we leave to Portugal for a few days and then head back to Italy to explore the wine country.

We are so thankful that we got the opportunity to visit Spain, as it has been become one of our favorite countries on our journey. If the food was only more to our liking, we might never leave!

I’m optimistic that Lisbon can rival Barcelona……but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll let you know our thoughts in a few days!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Capri, Scooters and Friends

Well, it is our last night in Praiano and it has been quite the adventure since we last wrote. First the good news, our luggage arrived courtesy of our wonderful Italy travel guide Annie (see who was able to contact a local driver who drove to us, picked up all our information and went to the Naples airport to scour through lost and found until he acquired our suitcases. He then delivered them to a local hotel, Hotel Le Fioriere, where we had arranged to have them dropped so we wouldn’t waste a single day in paradise waiting at our villa. I need to point out that we weren’t staying at this hotel, yet the owner, Luigi, offered to help us out in any way he could. He placed numerous calls on our behalf and then emailed me when our luggage had arrived. He capped this all off with a car ride back up the mountain so I wouldn’t have to haul two suitcases up the Hill of Death in the rain. He did all this when we weren’t staying at his establishment…..guess where we will stay when we come back?!?!

I just had to mention these two wonderful people for all of you following our blog, who are ever planning to visit Italy, please use their services….. They have my highest recommendation!

OK, now for more misadventures from the Clark’s.

When I write these blogs, I always struggle with what to say; not the actual words, but which of the numerous stories to share. For Instance, I could tell you about the day we walked from Amalfi to Ravello, got lost, and ended up walking 10 miles up hill, literally the entire way…..or I could tell you about the day we rented a scooter and drove to Sorrento and got caught up in big city traffic…..or I could tell you about the continual mishaps with our villa, like the air conditioner kicking on in the middle of the night when it’s already freezing…..or meeting a wonderful British couple from Vancouver Island (Phil and Mary)who we kept bumping into everywhere we went, who were an absolute treat; not to mention an immense wealth of knowledge on how to navigate the buses and funicular……… but I think the best story of the past few days comes from the Island of Capri.

Everyone always says that when you go to Amalfi, you need to take a tour to Capri. I’ve read about its gorgeous grotto’s in Outdoorsman magazine and heard fabled stories about the celebrities and high end shopping on the island, but it’s the boat ride that was the real tale of the day.

We had tried to book a nice and well advertised excursion the previous day via email, but when we arrived, they were all full. Not wanting to give up that easily, we ventured around Positano, trying several other companies until we finally found one that had two spots left. All the other companies told us to check back soon because the sea was a little rough and they thought some people might cancel. After a quick glance out on the horizon, we didn’t see anything too frightening, so we decided to take the final slots, sold from a small tent-like structure on the beach that only accepted cash.

My skeptical nature led me to question the length of the boat, and I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that it was around 25 meters. Regardless of how rough the sea was, a 25 meter boat would be big enough to handle it without too many bumps.

Remember, we are in Europe where everyone uses the metric system, so that’s why my mind thought it heard meters instead of feet. Evidentially on land it’s all kilometers and meters, but on the sea it’s feet and nautical miles. So, what I thought would be an 80 ft. plus boat turned out to be a 20 some foot, eight passenger, floatation device with a motor.

Once we got out of the bay, the sea turned angry and started spewing forth ten foot high swells in rapid succession. If you’ve ever been to Busch Garden’s in Virginia, there is an infamous roller coaster known as the Big Bad Wolf which has laid claim to many tourists’ overpriced lunches. This boat ride made the Big Bad Wolff look like the Tiny Tame Puppy!

The ocean was a pit-bull and we were its chew toy for 30 minutes.

Now if it weren’t for the fact that my back pounded into the seat every five seconds as we crashed off the wave peaks, and that my beautiful wife had turned green, I would have relished the ride. Luckily, she held on until we got close enough to Capri where the waves (and her stomach) settled down. She still spent the rest of the ride laying down in the back corner in the fetal position, just in case.

She missed the grottos but kept her lunch.

Here’s the lesson for the day….there is a HUGE difference between feet and meters, and you would be prudent to confirm which one your ride is measured in!

After that mishap, we enjoyed a nice day on a beautiful, but expensive island. We didn’t see any celebrities, but we did have a great lunch overlooking the bay. We cut our day a little short in order to catch a much larger (and smoother riding) ship back.

We spent our final day puttering around on our rented scooter and mostly exploring the hills of Positano, pausing to take in the amazing views one more time before saying “arivederchi!” to the Amalfi coast and heading to Spain. We are really looking forward to exploring Barcelonia and Madrid…..and to have the spoils that are offered in a hotel that you just can’t get in a villa… clean towels and sheets! We will not do a villa again :)

This is definitely a place we will come back to one day; possible in the spring to enjoy the warmer weather, scuba diving, and the overall Italian beach experience.
We hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the pictures and stories from our amazing honeymoon voyage!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Villa la Tranquility, the Amalfi Coast……Donkey not included!

John Krakuer once said in reference to Mt. Everest, “But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit, I just couldn’t summon up the energy to care.” That’s kind of how we feel about our villa.

On one hand, we have one of the most preeminent locations imaginable. The home is decorated with antique furniture throughout and French doors that open up in every room that faces the ocean. There are two big patios just for us, and one even has a pool. We are situated in Praiano, in the middle of the Amalfi coast, between the posh town of Positano and the namesake city of the coast, Amalfi.

Praiano is known for its exceptional views, and trust us, they don’t disappoint. We have seen some amazing sunrises and sunsets in our few days here; ones that belong in picture frames on the walls of a beach home. The two you see were taken from our upper patio; both capturing the top of our chimney and the suns arrival and retreat on the same day. It is truly a scenic place.

However, the flip side of that coin is the price you pay to obtain those views. From the quaint town where we get our morning cappuccino and croissant (see the picture) and all our groceries, back up to our villa, is roughly a 30 minute walk. The first time we ventured into town, were so inundated with the views (and were walking down hill) that we didn’t notice how long it actually took to get to the bottom. Allow me to describe the journey for you…… When we leave town, we hit what has now become known as, “the Hill of Death.” This is an 8 minute walk straight up a hill with a 45 plus degree incline. From there we have another 15 minutes of switchbacks leading through alley like corridors on the side of the mountain. When we finally reach our cut-off, we ascend another flight of stairs, climb another hill and enter our villa….which has 50 steps itself! After our first trip back up the mountain, Megan commented that this villa should come equipped with its own donkey. Shortly after saying that, we came upon one with supplies loaded on. Although nothing was spoken, I know we were both wondering what kind of sentence donkey theft carried?!?

We have learned that it is best to climb our “Everest” only once a day if at all possible.

Each day is a new journey in and of itself. Let me tell you about a few interesting situations…..

We have an elderly Italian gentleman who lives in one of the villas on our alley way walk off the mountain who engages us each time we pass. He’s the typical old man, in that he loves to talk. We have trouble getting away from his conversations even though we have said multiple times, "Mi dispiace, non parliamo I’italiano.” I guess the fact that we can say, “I’m sorry, we don’t speak Italian,” in Italian, makes him think we can understand everything else he says!

We have a pair of dogs that always follow us from our morning coffee spot. We made the mistake of petting them once, and ever since, they have become our friends. They follow along, sniff everything, and come up for sporadic affection. They mostly stop half way up the “Hill of Death,” but yesterday, they came all the way up to our home. We were half expecting them to come in for dinner.

Speaking of dinner, that’s the third occurrence that I need to mention. One of the reasons for staying in a Villa as opposed to a hotel was for the kitchen and barbecue. We decided that we would save some money by cooking our own meals for the most part. This has been a little challenging due to the language barrier and different electronic equipment. They have a stove that looks just like ours back home, but for the life of us, we can’t figure out how to use the oven! The grill is old school charcoal, which I haven’t used since I was a child. I spent 30 minutes trying to dry out coals from the rain and light them without fluid, to no avail. So we had sautéed octopus instead of grilled. The next day, at the store, I searched valiantly for the liquid that would bring fire, and almost ended up purchasing silver polish instead. Luckily the friendly owner was able steer me clear with his broken English.

Actually, everyone here has been extremely helpful and obliging; especially given our luggage predicament……did I mention we still don’t have it from Greece?!?! Yes, it’s now day four of the same clothes, but we haven’t let that slow us down one bit. As I write this, we are wrapped in towels while we wash our only outfit; let’s just hope we have better luck with the washer than we did with the stove!

Although we have hit our first snag on the adventure, we are still very blessed to be here. This is by far one of the most beautiful places we have ever gazed upon. On one side, we have a thousand foot cliffs with million dollar homes built into them, and on the other, the ocean. The road winds along the coast, providing breathtaking views all along. From the pace of life to the beauty, the Amalfi Coast is our new favorite place….clothes or no clothes!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Paros and Naxos, Greek Islands

After visiting Santorini, it was going to be almost impossible for these other Greek islands to compare, but we were hopeful. As we pulled into the port of Paros, it was evident that our assumptions were indeed correct. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pretty little beach town, but it lacked the sheer cliffs and beautiful homes built into the mountainsides. However, we were optimistic that the “small town” beach feel would make up for the lack of awe, and we weren’t disappointed. Our room was a charming little place with a full balcony that overlooked the marble streets below. We were right across from a bakery, so the smells of bread, cappuccino and chocolate entertained our olfactory senses as we sat and planned our next stop after the Amalfi coast, later that evening.

We after unpacking and cleaned up, we set off to explore. The streets were almost empty and the beaches deserted. It felt like we had the whole island to ourselves as we worked our way down the coast and through villages. After a few miles, we came up over a hill and encountered a picturesque horseshoe shaped beach in the middle of nowhere with one lone bar and some cute tables. Parched from our journey, we decided to see if it was open. As we walked up, there were a few ladies and a kid sitting around just visiting. Evidentially, many restaurants, cafes and bars are family owned establishments. The owners and hang out at their work with friends in the slow season, just in case an occasional tourist stumbles upon them. They were very nice, and we attempted to communicate through her broken English. If it weren’t for other countries making an effort to learn our language, we would have been totally lost. Again, we were humbled and reflected at how fortunate we were.

By the time we left the next morning, we were viewing Paros through a new set of lenses…..and we were very excited to see what Naxos had to offer.

Upon arriving, Naxos wasn’t like Santorini either; no sheer cliffs, but no overflow of tourists also. We took a quick cab ride (both speed and distance) to our hotel, which turned out to be a complete jewel. I had booked in advance, and the rate was a bit steep, but it looked so cute and was right on the water with its own private beach…..I couldn’t resist. In addition to the location, we got upgraded to the best room they had. I feel like we’re in a 5 star resort. As I’m writing this, Megan is sitting beside me reading on our private patio / balcony. We are enjoying a magical view….see the fith picture; that’s what we watched as these words were typed.

As amazing as our room is, the island is even better. We were both surprised at how mountainous Naxos is. They are so high that the peaks literally get lost in the clouds. Perhaps that is why, according to Greek Mythology, that this is the island that Zeus was born on. I could see how they thought he stepped down from Heaven on this island, after witnessing the majesty firsthand.

We tried to walk a little way around the island on our first day, but we didn’t even put a dent in it, according to our trusty map. Therefore, we decided to rent an ATV and explore it properly. For 15 Euro’s we got a 4 wheeler for the entire day. We were told that a tank of gas would get us 85 kilometers. We topped it off once and returned it almost empty!
When we started out, we were cautioned against trying to go over the mountain pass to the other side, because the roads were treacherous and it was supposed to storm all day. So, naturally, we headed straight for the mountain. After over an hour of driving along the coast, slowly climbing, we started to leave civilization behind. The skies were gray and the wind was starting to pick up, yet our adventurous spirits urged us to forge ahead. Finally, as the accent steepened to a switchback format and the wind gusts about ripped Megan off the back, we gave in and headed back to explore the other side…..the ones with all the beaches.

As we came off the peak that spawned Zeus, the weather started to break a bit as the sun struggled to come out. After refueling and looking at the map, we headed off in search of the secluded beaches on the southern side. In no time, we were off the main road and traveling down winding country paths. Soon, those same roads became gravel, and then dirt. Finally, we were rewarded with the beach that we had sought and just in time as the rain started to fall. We parked under a tree and ran for the cover of a beach bar. Again, the owner was sitting around with friends, this time drinking a Heineken and playing Backgammon. She welcomed us in from the storm and gave us shelter and food (we had to pay for it though…the Greeks aren’t that hospitable.). As quickly as it started, the storm ended. It probably has something to do with the extreme winds on the island.
We settled up the tab and decided to see where the dirt road ended up. This was the treat of the entire day. The path carried us directly along the coast for miles. We were all alone, in the warm sun, with Megan’s arms wrapped gently around me. We were as free as we’ll ever be……
Finally, the path ended and we were forced to head back or cut off on another gravel road that we weren’t quite sure where it led. Guess what we did?.......So after seeing only goats and ancient stone huts for 20 minutes, we considered the fact that we might be lost, but we had plenty of gas and figured that we would eventually make it back to a paved road and some semblance of civilization!
By the time we returned the vehicle, almost 8 hours later, we had seen some of the most remote beaches on the island, castles from another century, the magnificent countryside and even some windsurfers. It was one of the best days we’ve ever had.

We wrapped up our final day on Naxos with an hour long walk to one of the beaches we had found the day before. We spent the entire morning there enjoying the setting and our books amid comfortable lounge chairs, a mere few feet from the water. We walked back around one and hung out at our little slice of paradise for the remainder of the day.

If you are ever thinking of taking a trip to Santorini, you would be missing a true treasure if you didn’t take a few days to explore Naxos as well. They are very different islands, but both have absolutely captured our hearts.

We leave tomorrow morning for the Amalfi Coast……could life be any better?!?!?!?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Santorini and Athens

As much as we loved Jerusalem for its historical and religious significance, we loved Santorini just as much for its unreserved beauty. I can’t even begin to describe the unlimited stunning views that were magically and surprisingly, ever where you looked. I have a suggestion for the U.N. if they really want to solve world peace; just have all the negotiations at a café in Santorini, overlooking the sheer cliffs, tranquil waters and gorgeous homes……it' impossible to have a negative sentiment under these conditions!

The pictures won’t even come close to doing it justice…’s just one of those places you have to experience for yourselves. From the quaint little town of Oai to the cable car ride down the cliff, the whole experience was enchanting. We would definitely go back and spend a week there simply for the views. If you throw on the shops, wineries and seafood, Megan might never come back!

Unfortunately it was our shortest port (and last on the cruise). We are now in Athens and actually like it, considering it’s a “bigger” city. With a population of 4 million plus, it feels large, but not overwhelming. No one section is too crowded, probably due to the fact that no building can be over 9 stories, so as to not block the views of the Acropolis…..which are even more impressive at night, all lit and overlooking the city below. It is definitely an impressive site at all hours. In fact, there are numerous ruins scattered all over Athens that seem to appear at the end of a bazaar or behind a rail line, as it they are beckoning the city to remember its proud history amid the current state of affairs.

We capped off our second day with a climb to the highest point in the entire city, one that towers even over the Acropolis, Lycabettus Hill. As we entered the woods that guard the path of ascension, we were greeted by a barking pack of wild dogs. Luckily, we had been quickly acquainted with the “dog” situation in Greece and weren’t afraid at all. Evidentially, they roam free everywhere across town. At the port, as we were waiting for our luggage, a stray came right up to me and buried its head in my lap until I started petting him. There’s even a pack that “guards” (and lives at) the Acropolis. It is a bizarre sight to see dogs run around like that, but it was also kind of cool… was the same way in Santorini too! Anyway, back to Lycabettus…. It was quite a trek to make it to the very top, but our efforts were rewarded with a marvelous view of all of Athens. We could see all the way to the Sea from this height. It is said, that on a clear day, you can see an island that is 20 km away. It was a great way to take in all the fabulous views and ancient splendor of this wonderful city.

We leave tomorrow for Paros and then Naxos for a few days……we can only hope they will be as beautiful as Santorini.

Again, we love you and miss you all. We really hope you are enjoying following along on our adventure of a lifetime!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Two Sides of Turkey

Have you ever known someone who you really loved but if you spend too much time with them, they really start to annoy you? Well, that’s how we feel about Turkey.
There are some truly marvelous things about each port we visited, but each also came with the constant haggle over prices and the ever present feeling that someone is trying to rip you off. It’s difficult to relax and enjoy all the beauty with those conditions.

The first day, we docked in Bodrum. This is the type of port that you would see in a postcard. It was absolutely breathtaking. A little castle, constructed from the remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, stands guard over the picturesque bay. The small beach area is lined with café’s that allow you to sit right at the water’s edge, due to the minimal tide of maybe 5 feet total. We enjoyed an afternoon drink and a dip in the Aegean Sea, the highlight of this charming town.
We were annoyed a bit on the walk back to the ship, having to politely decline numerous invitations to come shop in the local merchant’s stores. It was a slight inconvenience that was well worth the landscapes and charm of Bodrum.

However, port Kusadasi was another story. After a 15 minute walk through the local Bazaar (marketplace) we were ready to leave. It seemed like there were only three stores; carpets, jewelry, or leather goods, that just kept repeating themselves block after annoying block. It was a maze that kept you discombobulated and inundated with vendors trying to take your money any way they can....and at the highest price! Perhaps our word bizarre comes from their Bazaar… would make perfect sense!

The one highlight of Kusadasi was its proximity to Ephesus. The ancient city is probably the most complete and extraordinary archeological site in the world. The ruins, scattered over acres of land, begin to give you a glimpse at what life was like back then. It was impressive to walk down the same marble streets of this once great city that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, St. John, and many other remarkable people once did. It is truly a place that you have to experience for yourself. You will be in awe of the remains…..and the city still has 70% left to be excavated!

We leave tonight for Santorini, and then the next day for Athens to conclude the cruise. It has been an experience of a lifetime to learn about the cultures of 12 plus cities, and to see the beauty of the Mediterrian Sea, where we were able to experience the meeting place of three continents and the very birthplace of history itself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee

Day 1 – We docked in the Port of Ashdod, and were quickly acclimated to the heightened security that Israel is forced to live under. Unlike the other countries on our visit, soldiers were on our boat checking passports in person before issuing a temporary visitation card. We were then again checked before leaving the ship to confirm our identification and have our bags searched. Evidentially, I must look like a threat because at each port, I was “randomly” screened and thoroughly searched each time I entered or exited the ship. Megan, because she was with me, was subjected to the same treatment. It became a running joke after the third consecutive time. At first, I thought it was a bit overboard, but after learning more about the area and the history of this amazing country, I completely understood and was happy to oblige.

After clearing security, we boarded our bus and headed for Jerusalem. We didn’t have time to actually enter the Old City, as no cars are allowed, but we did get to view it from the Mt. of Olives. From there we could see the sight of the original Temple, which has long since been destroyed and replaced by a Muslim Mosque, the Dome of the Rock. Its garish golden crown is easily visible among the ancient limestone buildings and churches; a distressing reminder of how arbitrary our culture and very history can be altered. In fact, the Muslims even put a graveyard in front of the city doors, called the Golden Gates, in a preemptive move based on the scripture passage that states Christ will return through those very gates. As if he won’t be able to pass through a Muslim cemetery……they obviously don’t know who He is!

Megan and I both agreed that we would return one day and actually enter the city and follow on the same path that Christ carried the cross. Our guide pointed out the place he was convicted and beaten and the hill he was crucified on, Golgotha. It was a moving moment for both of us. From there, we went down to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was betrayed. Inside the church was the supposed stone that Christ was praying on that very night. In fact, on all the Holy sites, churches have been built in honor and reverence to the momentous acts that occurred there. Many were originally constructed by Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who first accepted Christianity as a religion in 333 A.D.. Helena traveled extensively, did research, gathered artifacts and commissioned numerous churches throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

Next we went to Bethlehem, which is a Palestinian occupied territory. Our guide had to act like part of the group, as they weren’t allowed in by the Israeli government. You see, all Liberal Jews, (65% of the Jewish population) have to serve in the military for three years after turning 18.Therefore, the government doesn’t want to worry about any x-military being kidnapped by the Palestinians, who would no doubt ask for 50 criminals to be released for his safe return. As a side note, this is one reason why you don’t want to mess with Israel……over half the population has been trained in combat!

As we passed through the checkpoint, guarded by a massive stone wall, decked with razor wire and heavily guarded, I began to understand the seriousness of the situation. On the other side, the wall was covered with graffiti…… an eerie similarity to the Berlin wall, albeit that this wall is for security as opposed to oppression.

Even though it was intimidating entering a Palestinian occupied territory, it was absolutely worth it to visit the Church of the Nativity and to see the very spot that Christ was born. We stopped at a shop in advance to buy relics that we could have blessed at the church. Normally the line into the small room of the birth, which even has the area where his manger stood, was around the block and would have been too long for our tour. However, fate smiled on us and we were able to get right in. I was able to place the items I purchased on the very spot of our Saviors birth and say a personal prayer over them and the recipients whom I plan to give them too. It was something I had never dreamed was possible, and I could barely get up off my knees to allow the next in line their own special moment.

I could go on and on about the history and culture of this marvelous and significant city. It is some place that everyone should visit, regardless of your religious affiliation.
Day 2 – It was impossible to beat day 1 in Israel, but we tried. We headed to Nazareth, the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Again, the religious history was fascinating and informative. The main highlight of our day was the town of Capernaum, the place where Jesus lived after his baptismal, and quite possibly the sight of the very first “Christian Church” ever. We got to the remains of Peter’s house and the hill where Christ delivered the Beatitudes. Jesus definitely had an amazing view of the sea as he preached. Just like in the garden, He truly seemed to appreciate his Father’s beautiful creations. Megan and I separated away from the tour, partially because our guide wasn’t entertaining at all, and partially because we wanted soak up the beauty of the land and sea.

We are sailing to Turkey today, sad to leave Israel. We definitely plan on coming back, even though we were issued an official certificate from the Mayor of Jerusalem stating, “By this attestation be it known that (name), by virtue of fulfilling the Biblical calling, has ascended to Jerusalem, the Holy City, Capital of Israel and is henceforth authorized to bear the title of Jerusalem Pilgrim.”

Monday, October 4, 2010


In Egypt, we visited the Roman Catacombs, Pompey’s Pillar, the Museum of Alexandria, The Pyramids at Giza, and even took a cruise on the Nile. All I can say it that it was an eye-opening experience from the very beginning to the end.

On day one, we started off with a bang (almost literally). No cameras were allowed at the Roman catacombs, which seemed unusual since there weren’t any paintings in which camera flashes could be destructive. Therefore, I decided to break the rules….a decision I greatly regretted as we were forced to pass through a metal detector with two armed guards, each carrying an Uzi. Luckily we were with a group of old people and almost everyone set off the alarm with their stints, metal hips, pacemakers and what-have-you’s. I simply kept walking as I too set it off, acting just like my elderly brethren. At the next stop, Pompey’s Pillar (where the ashes of the Roman General, Pompey, were placed upon), I was fortunate that camera’s were allowed…..but the guards still carried Uzi’s! They even checked under our buses for bombs with the special mirrors before we departed. Security was definitely tight. It was a bit unnerving, yet oddly reassuring at the same time.

As interesting as this all was, it was the poverty level that was the true surprise to us. We have never witnessed such unhygienic living conditions and extreme poverty before. The buildings appear as if they could collapse at any minute; as if the weight of just one more feeble shirt hung from the window to dry could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yet, as difficult as their living conditions must be, they all waived cheerfully at us as we passed by. The 17 million inhabitants of Cairo, from what we could gather, seemed forlorn and despondent. They seemed oddly content with their discontentment, preferring to smoke cigarettes and sip coffee amid the filthy streets that they call home. Maybe there aren’t any jobs available, but you still have to take pride in yourself and your surroundings. The act that really brought it all home for us was watching a young man dump an entire can full of trash directly into the canal that ran along a main street just in front of the Pyramids.

The only people that seemed eager to work were the ones at the tourist sites; probably eager to prey on us fat cat Americans. I had always dreamed of gazing at the last remaining original member of the 7 Wonders of the World. I had dreamed of standing before the incalculable structure, soaking in all its wonder and vastness, trying to imagine the blood and sweat that went into its creation. However, I couldn’t even get in 5 seconds alone without a street vendor (and possible pickpocket) trying to hustle a camel ride or get me to purchase one of their cheesy trinkets, as if that’s the sole reason for my voyage. Yes, I traveled eight thousand miles to buy a stuffed camel, head wrap or plastic replica…..all of which were no doubt made in China. It unquestionably detracted from the experience that I had so longed for and dreamed of.

Yet, as startling and somewhat deplorable, as we found Egypt to be, it was one specific event that was truly intimidating and frightening. Evidentially, Egypt (especially Cairo) has it’s own version of the famed “Running of the Bulls,” that occurs every July in Spain, but only without the animals. In Egypt, they simply call it driving. That is honestly the best analogy I could come up with. They have no lanes, lights, or signs telling you when to stop, go, yield or just pray! Our bus got separated from the convoy as we headed to Giza amid the chaos on the roads. We had to navigate a large bus down a street that appeared to be a one way, until cars started coming in our direction anyway, weaving off to the side and barely avoiding a head on collision. This went on for the entire ride. Our whole bus was fairly certain that we were going to meet our maker each time we stepped onto that metal deathtrap. Fortunately, everyone drives with this same disorganized bedlam, so they are well equipped to handle pandemonium.

Egypt has now been checked off our life list and we don’t have any plans, or desire to ever return.

Our next stop was Israel……we can’t wait to tell you all about it.