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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Barcelona to Istanbul... Gracias to Merhaba!

Do you have one of those "Trips of a Lifetime" in the back of your mind at all times? I did, I do, and I always will. The world is a rich enticement for traveling...

Delectably rich and varied foods, culturally significant ruins, mystical houses of worship, the grand search for clean restrooms, and a multitude of friendly people populated our most recent trip of a lifetime. I dare to share...




United Airlines took great care of us across the ocean and back in their economy plus seats. That little bit of extra leg-room really makes a difference when you're stuck in your seat for 8+ hours.  Loved the movie choices though and caught up on a few new releases and old favorites. Sleep, who needs sleep? It's sorta like a hospital; you know you need to rest and relax, but you can't fall asleep because you're too damn excited, the lights are on, and everyone is talking. Business/first class is out of the question until we win the lottery.

Barcelona... Hola!... Gracias... Habla usted Ingles??
Reading up on Barcelona, Spain had given me the shivers. Pickpockets, bad drivers, crowds, and counterfeiters. We saw absolutely none of it. Well, maybe some bad drivers here and there, but Barcelona had a very cool vibe. BTW - Graffiti is everywhere you go in every city we visited. Be prepared!



 
Old churches and the Catalan flag



The city's architecture is definitely under the influence of Antonin Gaudi everywhere you wander. A glorious city park showcased a memorable fountain, and men of a certain age playing bocce and chess. The Gallery Hotel (www.galleryhotel.com/en) welcomed us with splendid accommodations and a yummy breakfast bar. Next door, we found a sampling of cronuts - irresistible to say the least. The shops in Barcelona are quite compelling with shoes and handbags at the top of the list. All of the major fashion houses are here, along with independent and locally owned shops.

One of Gaudi's masterpieces, La Sagrada Familia (continuous construction since 1882) was under wraps (so to speak) with a long cue. We skipped the interior, but share the exterior here with you.







Las Ramblas is a bustling marketplace of shops, bars, and foodie delights. The Spanish eat later than we Americans do and tapas are the mainstay of afternoon dining. Favorite sampling: local beer, blood sausage, shrimp scampi, grilled eggplant, crispy eel, and jamon iberico. Super yum.

Our ship beckoned to us from the downtown pier and we couldn't have been happier to greet her. Emerald Princess is fastidiously maintained with lovely staterooms and public areas. Our mini-suite was a great deal (booked 18 months in advance on a promotion for balcony upgrades, thank you!) The food was remarkably delicious, service was phenomenal, and we met some incredible people aboard. We truly had a blast sailing from port to port on this vessel - check her out at www.princess.com for more information and details on future sailings.


 
 

First port of call - Marseille... Bonjour! Parlez Anglais? and Merci!
The sea cliffs surrounding this port are the highest in all of Europe. The downtown district of Le Panier in Old Town Marseille is highly walkable. Fresh fish, lavender soap, and friendly (non-English speaking) people abound.
 
 



 
Can you believe this is a book-sharing sculpture?


 
Fresh grilled fish - caught that very morning.

 
More graffiti as promised.
 
My second-favorite bathroom story of the trip occurred in Marseille. We visited on a Sunday when most shops were closed. The ubiquitous McDonald's was my first (and only) choice for relief. My French is non-existent but everyone figured out what I needed. We purchased a coke, received the restroom code, sped upstairs, and I strode into the restroom behind another customer. Big mistake. One code punched, one patron enters. One code punched, two patrons enter - second patron is locked inside. Yup, that was me - locked in the restroom, pounding on the door, yelling for Jeff to let me out. The soundproof doors of a restroom are ridiculous, but he punched in the code, and I exited. Eternally grateful for future Starbucks' visits everywhere we go.
 
Marseille was full of little nooks and crannies of streets, but lo and behold at the edge of town was the stunning Cathedral de la Major.
 
 
Check out the neighborhood alleyways and local graffiti too.



 
This Roman Catholic Cathedral was the first of many beautiful churches we visited. It has been a Basilica Minor since 1896 and is the seat of the archdiocese of Marseille. Gorgeous inside and out, we felt lucky to happen upon it on our walk.
 
 




On to Florence, Italy ... Fiorenza to the locals. Buon Giorno... Ciao, and Parla Inglessi?
This extraordinary city of the Renaissance is filled with significant art and architecture, churches and bell towers, and food - glorious food. It's a good bus ride into town from the ship, but please don't be dissuaded by the challenge of cruising to ports outside the city. It's no big deal.
 
Fiorenza truly seduced us with all its majesty.
 
 
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower)

 
 

 
Sculptures in the Piazza

 
The Basilica of Santa Croce

 
Of course there are tombs (cemeteries)!!

 
 
The Uffizi Gallery was closed, but a copy of the David is positioned outside.
 
 
I am 100% certain that we will return to this area of the world for its stunning artworks, al dente pasta (truth) and the creamiest sorbetto I have ever tasted. Day trips to surrounding areas could encompass a week of temptations to be sure.
 
Viva la Roma - Per favoree, grazie!
Thank goodness for our guide and our 'Best of Rome' tour that took us from the port town of Civitavecchia into one of the most crowded of cities. As a cradle Catholic, it was inspiring to visit Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel. This independent city-state within the eternal city of Rome is the residence of Pope Francis, the leader of Catholic worshippers numbering over 1.2 billion around the world.
 
 



 
 
St. Peter's Square is an enormous piazza encircled by museums, cues, sculptures, shops, and the Swiss Guards.
 


Coincidentally, the Vatican economy is maintained by admission from tourists, purchases in the gift shop, and donations from around the world.

The Vatican Museum has a significant art collection and some of the world's sneakiest pick-pockets. I ran into one myself, but she didn't get my purse as I was well-prepared for her!!


 
I absolutely loved this angel in the Vatican Museum.


 
Pictures are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel - this is within St. Peter's Basilica.


 
Sculpted from a single block of marble in 1498 - the magnificent Pieta by Michelangelo.
 
 
I don't know who this guy was standing guard outside the Vatican Museum,
but I loved him on sight.
 
Off to the Colosseum - another ancient marvel. Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, this is the largest amphitheater ever built and is considered one of the greatest works of architecture of all time. Construction began in 72 AD under the reign of Emperor Vespasian, and completed in 80 AD under the reign of Emperor Titus. It was used for gladiator games and could hold up to 80,000 spectators. Can you even imagine??
 
 




 
Not exactly graffiti, but street art on a side car to be enjoyed.
 
Kotor, Montenegro - ever heard of it? It's fantastic - Dobro Yutro and Huala!!
Kotor is situated at the cul-de-sac end of a picturesque fjord that is just about as glorious as the fjords in Norway and Alaska. This city is part of an ancient trade route and retains the flavor of its walled-city heritage. We counted seven, yes seven churches within the walls and visited every single one. And the mussels and fresh fish were just about the best we ate anywhere.
 
 
 
Fjord entry into Kotor


 
Dobro Yutro to Kotor!

 
One of seven churches in Kotor, this one built in 809 AD


 
A Greek Orthodox church within the city


 
Cats - the symbol of Montenegro

 
Butterfly Flower Graffiti


 
The Franciscan Church of St. Clara

 
 
The Greek Isles - Athens, Santorini, Crete, and Rhodes - KaliSpera and Efharesstoe!
Every single one of the Greek ports we visited held a different beauty. The history of Athens is marked by the Acropolis and the Parthenon, along with fantastic relics held in the National Archeological Museum (http://www.namuseum.gr/wellcome-en.html) downtown.
 
 
Part of the amphitheater above the city of Athens

 
Olive trees make us sneeze!



 
Sculptures at the Parthenon and Acropolis


 
An ancient death mask


 
Art of all shapes and varieties


 
These tomb relics show that the person who is seated
was the person buried beneath the headstone.
So cool!




 
We had one of our very favorite meals here in Athens. Taverna Geros Tou Moria in the Plaka served up delectable pasta, garlicky bread, creamy tzatziki, and the best moussaka I have ever tried. I couldn't tell you how to find it in the future but it's there and it's incredible. There were many shops in the Plaka area of Athens. Little bitty shops with tchotchkes and huge glamorous shops with expensive leather goods. It's all here for you to experience. And everybody is drinking the coffee!! 
 
 
 
 
Our favorite Greek Isle by far was Santorini. When you look at pictures of the Greek Isles and spot the whitewashed buildings with blue roofs - this is the place. From the ship you must either hike the staircase, ride a donkey, or give in to the cable cars. I was determined to ride the donkeys until new friends from the ship begged me not to do it. They said I would smell bad afterwards and would need to burn my clothes. Now, I don't think that's true but I still opted out. Next time for sure.
 
 

 
Breakfast of 7-layered Baklava and Greek Frappe -
the strongest coffee on the planet!!


 
The proliferation of blue and white is amazing.

 


Santorini is filled with walkable alley-ways and charming restaurants overlooking the water. Restaurateurs save the best spots for dining customers. If you're in for a beverage, you'll get the table away from the water. That's fair enough. Shopping is better here than it was in Athens - less pressure I'd say. Great finds on jewelry and leather goods, plus gorgeous linen clothing. I could come back here in a hot second - it's gorgeous. By the way - they have a graffiti contest here every year.




Crete (or Heraklion) took us out to Knossos Palace (http://www.heraklion-crete.org/knossos.html), a recent archaeological find in Greece. It has been reconstructed somewhat and that did take a bit of the history away for us. Additionally, this was the hottest day of the trip so we were crabby. The foundation of Knossos is a pretty amazing find, as is the touched artwork throughout. We were told on the tour that this isn't the way things are always done when a significant find is made.


 
It is kinda cool, nonetheless.



 
The throne room of Knossos Palace.

The Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Rhodes was a huge surprise following Knossos Palace the day before. This medieval castle functioned not only as a palace, but also as a hospital, headquarters, and walled fortress. The earliest incarnation was built in the 14th century, then later captured by the Ottoman Empire and used as a headquarters.






 
This walled city was one of the most interesting site we visited.

 
This interesting window box had been used to house women who
were not allowed to be seen by the outside world. Their eyes could show through the top
windows of the box, but that was all.


 
Love these angels from within the palace.
 
 
Following our visit to the walled city, we headed up to Mt. Philerimos. The plateau rises about 1,000 feet above sea level with striking views of the resort side of the island. The Church of Our Lady was built atop an ancient Greek temple that had been dedicated to the Goddess Athena. Willing to try just about anything, we sampled the 7-herbs liquor made on the mountain. Herby, but like mouthwash - it is brewed to protect imbibers from evil and promote a long life. Done and done.
 
Local lore ... the man who runs the little gift shop on Mt. Philerimos and sells the 7-herb liquor thought a few peacocks would be a nice touch for visitors. Several years later those egg-laying, over-producers number well over a hundred squawking beauties.
 
 




We lucked out dramatically in the food department on this trip. Every port, every island, every city had something amazing to offer. Local favorite, fresh fish, dark chocolate, serious desserts, and extremely friendly owners, waiters, and servers. Jeff would eyeball and place and just know it was the one. Not in Rhodes, unfortunately. Our lunch was lackluster, the wait staff was surly, and the beer was just meh. That is not to say that there aren't wonderful places to try. What I'm trying to convey is in small towns and vacation spots you have to make your choices based on the appearance of things, the friendliness of the staff, the menu and prices, and the scent of the food. But as Donny once said... one bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch. Onward.

The most surprising port of the entire trip - Kusadasi for Ephesus... and I visited Asia!!
The ancient city of Ephesus is probably one of the most historically dynamic places I have ever seen. And the feral cats are the caretakers!


 
This amphitheater requires no microphone for exquisite sound.







 
Favorite toilet story of the trip -
Ancient toilets used at Ephesus by the inhabitants of the time.
Musicians were hired to entertain the 48 users as they dipped and swiped.
The water from the toilets ran downhill from number one to
number 48. Those dipping at the end were using the water from the
uphill 47. Interesting, right?

 
I have never seen so many cats in all my life; seriously.


 
The library of Ephesus



After we visited Ephesus, we climbed aboard our bus for a visit to the city of Selchuk, and the last known house of the Virgin Mary. This shrine built in the 4th century combines two rooms, a chapel, and graves. The water of Mary runs through the property and is said to have curative powers. Of course I washed my hands in it! According to biblical lore, St. John was bestowed with the job of caring for Mary after Jesus had died. This hide-away was a perfect place for Jesus' mother away from the throngs of people who may have wanted to harm her. Ephesus was at that time a bustling seaport and easily reached by seafarers. While we will never really know the truth, another story was told to us during our tour. Several years ago a fire raged up the mountainside for five days and nights. Firefighters from all over could not put it out. Believers were terrified that Mary's home would be destroyed. As the fires crept towards the sacred site, the fire stopped. Mary's house was never touched by flame. Believe what you will.


 
Pope Leo XIII blessed this space in 1896.

 
Notes on the Wishing Wall


 
The exterior of Mary's House - photographs not allowed indoors.
 
 
 
Mystical, magical Istanbul, Turkey - Merhaba!
I literally had no idea what Istanbul would be like, but it is absolutely enchanting. From the colorful silk headscarves worn by the women, to the mesmerizing call to prayer this place is magic. The people are friendly, the food is divine, and the shopping is eclectic. We started with a visit to a minor mosque, visited the Grand Bazaar, dined on a traditional vegetarian lunch, wandered through the Hagia Sophia, and finished off with the most amazing meal of the trip.
 
 
 
One of many mosques of Istanbul.

 
Hand-washing stations before prayer.


 
Entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
 
 
Tea Time - Can't do without it!

 
Ancient underground cisterns

 
The columns have been placed with heads upside down in the cisterns.

 
The Hagia Sophia has been a Christian house of worship and a
Muslim Mosque, but is now a museum filled with art that spans across
the divide of Christianity and Islam.


 

 
This wonderful magical trip came to an end with a stay at one of the most gracious hotels I have ever stayed in - the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. (www.hyatt.com) Service here was unbelievably considerate, and the food in Restaurant 34 was so tasty. The rooms were spacious, clean, and comfortable. The hotel was in walking distance to the Galata Bridge, downtown shopping, eateries, museums, and the Spice Bazaar. Ask me about my walk with Jeff some day when my feet don't hurt anymore!
 
All in all, this trip of a lifetime was truly that... spectacular in so many ways. We learned a lot about ourselves, and investigated cultures we knew nothing about. What's in store for the Smith's in the future? Only time will tell.
 
Gorushmek ozaira,
Or - I hope to see you very soon (Turkish)
 
 
Ready when you are!
:) Deb