Tag Archives: travel writing

End of the Odyssey


Brilliance of the Seas crept into Barcelona’s Harbour in the grey light of dawn; an hour later, her passengers were rather unceremoniously evicted as she was due to sail again by 4:30 the same afternoon.  Bleary eyed and barely fed, we stumbled onshore and into a waiting taxi headed back to the same hotel we’d stayed in before, the Gruphotel Gravina in the Gothic Quarter.  We were grateful to have a place to store our 500 suitcases  which were now full to bursting with new souvenirs and dirty laundry.

My husband was on a mission. A holy mission.  A devout non-church goer, I’ve never seen anyone more dedicated  to peeking inside every church and cathedral in whatever city he visits.  However, I could forgive him (almost) his zeal when it came to La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s bizarre masterpiece in Barcelona.

When Senor Gaudi died in 1926, his vision wasn’t even one-quarter complete.  Construction is on target for completion by 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death.  Too bad cathedrals take so long.  Those whose vision they represent never  live to see their dreams become reality.  Staring up at the bizarre facade, I couldn’t help but wonder what Gaudi would think.

The exterior resembles a sand castle caught in a heavy downpour; the whole facade looks as though it’s melting.  The other side of the church is completely different – almost spartan with delicate curved support columns.  Above the whole thing are intricate towers that are accessible by elevator and tight winding stairs.  In some places,  whimsical colourful carved  fruits are plopped on like cherries atop a sundae.  I think Gaudi must have been fond of rasberries…

Looking at the exterior of the church, one might suppose the interior would be as heavy and molten as the famous facade.  At the very least, one could suppose that this European cathedral might be heavy and dark, dripping in gold leaf like so many other European cathedrals.  One would be wrong on both counts.  The overall impression upon entering is that of light.  Soaring, brilliant, giddy light.  There are scores of windows, ethereal and slender – stained glass appeared sparingly.  The interior soars not only with light but with light coloured stone.  Instead of dark and serious, the whole place feels light and joyful.

I am severely allergic to audio tours (or tours of any kind) but if I were to return, I would spring for one.  I want to know more.   Alternatively, I could just lie on the floor and gaze up for hours.  Security might object but I think Gaudi would understand.

All too soon, we had to leave.  It’s a hard church to leave – every time  we headed for the door, we saw something else.  Outside the exit, thousands of carvings held our gazes until our necks hurt.  I think every Bible story was carved into the side of the church.

We took a taxi from there to Parc Guell (more Gaudi!).  High above Barcelona, the large public park contained Gaudi-esque statues, buildings, and gardens as well as a house owened by Gaudi.  It was a whimsical, fairytale place that we were almost too exhausted to appreciate; in fact, we saw only a portion of it.  Feet hurt and stomachs growled with hunger.  Gazing out across the city, my husband spied his next destination:  Montjuic.  Groans of despair ensued.

During the 15 minute taxi ride across the city, one little man fell asleep, a young girl stared stonily ahead and my husband engaged in the most bizarre tri-lingual conversation I’ve ever heard.  Some English, some Spanish, and oddly, a few words of French thrown in – that’s what my husband does – he throws in whatever language comes to mind.  Oddly, he and the taxi driver seemed to be communicating just fine.

Crowning the top of Monjuic is the Catelonian National Museum of Art, housed in a former palace  – just what tired feet and empty tummies did not want.  Fueled by KitKats and Coke, we sped through this magnificent museum in record time.  Frankly, I enjoyed the outside views more than the inside but there were a couple of interesting Picassos to show the kids.  Cascading down the hillside from the museum are gardens, fountains, and lovely treed walkways.  Montjuic is also the home of several Olympic venues from the 1992 Summer Games.

We returned to our neighbourhood and sought a “non-touristy” place to eat. We failed miserably and endured yet another awful meal.  The idea of tapas appealed but we never found the right place.  It was the only disappointing thing about Barcelona.

The next morning we woke, hit the local Starbucks (I know, I’m sorry but I was desperate) and headed to the airport.  Ironically, the two best meals we had in Barcelona were at a shopping centre and at the airport.  As our plane lifted off, I wept as I often do when heading back to reality.  My husband, ever-perplexed at the storm of emotions his wife can conjure, looked at me worriedly.  “What’s the matter?  The plane is not crashing…”  “I miss Europe!” I wailed as the landing gear ka-thunked into it’s bay and we turned towards home.

When we landed in Toronto, I was glad to be home but seriously, everything looked too…new.  Too…mass produced.  The roads and the cars were too big.  Later that night, I sat on my front porch with a glass of wine and tried to settle, pondering where I could take Italian lessons and how much real estate might cost in Rome…


Running With the Donkeys


Picture running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.  Masses of people voluntarily running as fast as possible, millimeters ahead of angry bulls through narrow streets.  Picture it with donkeys and people running pell-mell along a steep path with a sheer drop on one side.  Picture the panic.

Welcome to Santorini, Greece.

Santorini is a  beautiful island in the southern archipelago of other stunningly beautiful Greek islands.  Villages  sit atop cliffs overlooking the water-filled caldera of a slumbering volcano.  Buildings look as though they were sprinkled over the land by the gods, like sparkling white stones.  Although tourist destinations, getting up to these places is sometimes a challenge.

Our ship’s tender docked at a small pier where hundreds of tourists lined up for one of the three transport options to get up to the village of Thera:

  • Option 1:  cable car.  Long lines – sometimes over an hour at peak times and not for those afraid of wee contraptions hanging by a wire that go super high.
  • Option 2:  donkey.  Sure footed and strong, these beasts of burden do this for a living.
  • Option 3: feet.  Exercise is good! Burn some calories.

On the tender, I looked up at the island.  I didn’t fancy the cable car option.  I’m terrified of heights and get ornery waiting in lines.  So my daughter and I agreed on the donkey option; my husband and son opted to walk.

Skirting the huge line for the cable car, we bid the boys adieu and searched for donkeys.  The donkey line was long too and a tad chaotic.  I was cranky.  I was looking forward to a nice glass of ouzo or, at the very least, a heaping bowl of creamy Greek yoghurt drizzled with honey, sprinkled with chopped walnuts.  After 11 days of waiting in one line or another, I’d about had enough.

Telling my daughter to follow, I pushed forward.  Normally, I’m a docile sort who knows how to stand in a queue.  On this day, I got in touch with my inner bitch and pushed into every available free space as I went forward.  Rude?  Probably.  I was already having doubts about this donkey nonsense.  We could just walk.  My daughter’s an athlete and I’m in reasonably good shape – how hard could it be?

We emerged onto a courtyard of chaos: confused tourists, elderly Greek men waving their arms and yelling, and masses of donkeys.   All donkeys seemed to be relieving themselves spontaneously and turning in mindless circles.  I pulled my daughter aside a split second before a donkey backed over her (they don’t come with rear-view mirrors or sensors or those handy beeping alarms).

Terror struck.  The likelihood of me being smashed to bits on the cliff  after being flung from a donkey was probably fairly remote but still… I stood in Santorini having flashbacks to my last (nearly fatal) equestrian accident. Meanwhile my daughter pushed as hard as she could against a donkey’s ass to keep it from squashing her flat.

“Let’s walk!”

Ignoring the kind offers from the elderly Greek donkey wranglers to “take a donkey, ladies” we struck out on foot.  Barely five feet from the base of the hill, a rider lost control of her steed (can a donkey be called a steed?  My apologies to horses everywhere if they cannot).  From somewhere behind me, an elderly Greek donkey wrangler screeched as well as any banshee.  The lady’s donkey reconsidered its options and shot off like a…terrified donkey.  As he skittered over the stones, he spontaneously let loose a torrent of urine that could only be described as biblical.  As in, where was the Ark?  My daughter shot me the look that could shatter stone once more.

“Maybe running would be better,” I suggested.  She stalked off with me trotting behind.

The pathway was steep, paved with cobblestones; it rose in a series of hairpin turns all the way up to the village which was so far up we couldn’t see it.  On one side only a low stone wall separated us from a certain death off the cliff; on the other side, a high whitewashed wall with no doorways or crevices big enough to squeeze into offered little protection from anything.  Footing was treacherous; looking up was not an option.

Resigned to a long, hot, smelly hike, we suddenly heard bells.  Not the pleasant tolling of church bells on a beautiful sunny Greek morning but the high-pitched, tinny sound of cheap cowbells.  We stopped and looked up the path.  I heard my daughter’s scared voice.  “Mom!  Mommy?!”

Sure, stampedes happen.  But not on vacation.  Not on a sunny Greek isle.  But there we were, staring at a frenzied mass of legs, ears, and wild-eyes hurtling towards us.  There was nowhere to go.  I wondered how the headlines would read.  I didn’t have time to edit my obituary – all I could do was shove my daughter behind me and make small.

This manoeuvre was repeated countless times for approximately 1 million more steps.  I can now add “fear of Greek donkeys” to the ever-growing list of things I need therapy for.  The sound of bells now makes me jumpy.  I smacked a few donkeys.  By the time we reached the top, I was ready to smack anything or anyone that got between me and a very, very strong drink.  Oddly enough, the journey for those riding the donkeys was no picnic either; tears were shed.  Along with poop and urine, one could smell the stress.

We found the boys – unscathed – and began the shopping marathon that is Santorini.  What about that drink? I whimpered.  The shops were lovely but if we ever go back to Santorini (hello cable car!), I could skip shopping.  There are vineyards, beaches, and boat tours available but as always, we didn’t have time.  I wanted less donkeys, more time.

A delicious lunch of tiny brioche sandwiches with very tall glasses of ouzo restored me.  The creamy all-fat yoghurt was worth the hike…well, almost.  I looked out over the shimmering white terraces to the dark blue waters below – it was all impossibly beautiful.  Sitting on the breezy terrace, I let my mind wander.  I could live here, be a shop girl in Santorini.  I’d never leave my clifftop perch. I would start a rescue for over-worked donkeys.  Below us, the boat tenders lined up at the dock.  Already, it was time to go.

Another two days at sea and we’d be back in Barcelona.  The distance between me and reality was closing fast.  Sitting in the porthole again as we left Santorini,  I snapped endless pictures of the island’s cliffs, bays, and villages spread across the top of the island like royal icing gleaming against the rich blue sky.  A postcard, I thought.  Does anyone really live in a postcard?

The sun retired for the night, the cliffs darkened until they melted into the sky, lights twinkled atop them like strands of stars.  We headed for open water and Spain.

At Last, Athens


The day we docked in Piraeus, port city of Athens, I awoke, pulled open the curtains of our porthole and found that our ship had pulled into a multi-level parkade.  Neat trick for a 12 storey ship, mind you.  The dock workers standing right outside my window looked unimpressed.  Maybe it happens all the time.

Anyway.  Given all the strife in Greece earlier in the summer, we had no idea what to expect upon reaching its shores.  For all we knew, we’d have to sail right on by if there were still riots in the streets.  The riots had ceased but the city was in the throes of a taxi strike so we would have to buy an excursion fare if we wanted a safe, no-hassle ride into Athens.  Anxiety does sometimes overrule thrift…

We boarded the motor coach and were greeted by Irini, our “guide” for the trip into town.  Her main purpose was convey drop-off and pick-up details. “Do not be late!!” she stressed.   The bus  wound its way (miraculously) through the hilly, narrow streets of Piraeus, Greece’s largest port.  A half-hour later we were in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis.   We  marched forth (up) in the blazing Athenian sun.  With about 5,000 other tourists.

Greece does not seem to be hurting for tourists (although this was only one site on one day).  At the very top where the marble steps become jagged, uneven and very treacherous, there were so many tourists jostling for position, I was fairly sure some unlucky soul was going to leave the mountain face first.  I just hoped it wasn’t my 11 yr old son who was climbing monkey-like, over railings, tourists, and the occasional Acropolis employee.  He got yelled at in Greek quite a bit but since he doesn’t speak Greek, it didn’t impede his progress.  My daughter was having a tough time navigating in flip-flops.  Marble worn over thousands of years is smooth and slick – a tough surface to walk on even in good shoes.  The hike must be deadly in the rain…

As we waited for the “guardians” of the Acropolis to ease the crowding on the steps, I absent-mindedly reached out and touched one of the massive columns in front of me only to get yelled at (in English), “Don’t touch the marble!!”  Did she know we were all walking on it too?  No one explained why I couldn’t touch it but I’m guessing that a)the columns are standing only by the will of the gods and they could topple or b) dirty, sweaty tourist hands do something hinky to the marble which they’ve been trying to restore for hundreds of years.

Indeed, the Parthenon itself was caged by scaffolding and dozens of workmen scrambled all over it with noisy tools.  In places the ruins were ivory-pink, a bit mottled; in other places, the marble has been sanded(?) or polished to a brilliant white.  It was impossible to get a photo with no scaffolding but it was good to see that in spite of everything, the restoration continues.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Greece had to sell the Acropolis, who would ensure its preservation?

Wandering, I wondered how the magnificent temples were constructed all of those many years ago (without the benefit of hydraulic lifts and massive cranes).  The scale and symmetry of the buildings is one thing – unbelievable, and then there’s the intricacy and detail on them, wow!  The word “awesome” is used to much but it truly applied to this place.   Beautiful and mind-blowing at the same time.  The views over Athens were stunning as well.  My husband and I imagined what it must have been like for people coming into Athens from say, a poor remote village and seeing the Acropolis from miles away.  It would be enough to strike awe in the hearts of all who beheld it.  Even today, it’s not a stretch to believe the whole project was constructed by the gods.

The walk down affords a wide open path lined with olive trees.  We were grateful for the lemonade stand too and as we sipped our icy drinks, we idly noted how the city below us was quiet and peaceful.  The kids were blissfully unaware that where we were walking had been the scene of violent rioting just a few weeks before.  We only saw one bit of evidence of the previous month’s strife:  a angry scrawl on an otherwise elegant mansion (government building?) that said, “Eat the Rich.”  I wanted to take a picture but didn’t dare…

Just below the Acropolis is the New Acropolis Museum. Constructed in 2007, the museum integrates open excavation sites (covered by glass floors – very cool), 3-D models of the Acropolis monuments through history, and countless artifacts from the site itself.  It was fascinating. The museum was fabulous and well worth a visit.

After we’d cooled off in the museum for awhile, we walked into the Plaka or Old City.  Here the streets were narrow and twisty – full of scooters and motorcycles. Every now and then a car would squeeze through.  The streets were shaded by lemon trees.  Tourists have no lack of choice in terms of restaurants and shopping there. My husband’s eyes were crossed by about the 50th souvenir shop (but all of the gauzy clothing was so pretty and  gauzy!)  Sadly, we didn’t have time to do much else.

We sampled some Greek gelato and then headed back to the bus stop.  Across the busy street were more ruins.  My husband and son ran across, dodging buses and…wait, was that a taxi? to visit the ruined Temple of Zeus which sits in the shadow of the Acropolis.  Everything in Athens sits in the shadow of the Acropolis – it’s also an excellent landmark if you get lost.  The great thing about Athens is, if you’re into ruins, you’ll find them around every corner.  More worrying, if the Greek economy continues on its current course, the whole city could be a crumbling ruin.

Piraeus, always a key port for the Greek empire, looked in way worse shape than Athens (although, to be fair, we didn’t see much of Athens).  Numerous shops and buildings stood shuttered and crumbling – mere remnants of Greece’s glory days on the sea.  Irini the Guide made sure to point out the wealthy area overlooking a marina, lest we think all the news was bad.

As our ship threaded its way past large passenger ferries and larger container ships, I thought of the Ancient Greek vessels and how they once navigated these waters when Greek civilization was at its peak.  If the water and shoreline could only talk!  I thought of Homer and Odysseus, Jason and the Sirens.  I knew our Captain was sailing away from his homeland and I wondered if he got homesick.  As we entered open water, the Harbour Pilot boat roared by us at full speed, very close.  At the helm stood a slight man toasted the colour of an almond, grinning broadly and waving.  The Greeks have survived worse than a debt crisis – I have little doubt they’ll figure it all out and keep on surviving.

One last stop in Greece – Santorini – and then Brilliance of the Seas would sail for her home port of Barcelona.  Our family odyssey was nearly done.

Taking a Chance in Turkey


Ephesus, Turkey:  an ancient ruined city we knew nothing about in a country we knew nothing about. We stood inside the ship looking at each other, unsure.  My husband and I were very careful not to say anything that might dissuade or alarm the children but we were stepping into the great unknown and Royal Caribbean had our passports.  Call me crazy, but I had a pretty sizeable knot in my stomach.

A month earlier we had reserved a “taxi-tour” of Ephesus with an “English-speaking guide” based solely on internet reviews and blogs.  We didn’t want to pay through the nose for the Royal Caribbean tours – we’d successfully avoided them in other ports.  My husband had made arrangements via email – they seemed legit and the price was right but…were we about to pay a very high price for being cheap?

We disembarked and walked through the port authority’s  intimidating building (complete with men wearing intimidating firearms).  Most of our fellow passengers wandered towards the usual clot of tour buses while we stood in the blinding sunshine, looking for a stranger with a placard.  Soon a very tall young man appeared.  His English was good; his manners, impeccable.  He waved us forward, away from the port building and into the chaotic streets of the port city of Kusadasi.  My brief moment of relief was…well, brief.

As we crossed a street, another man approached us.  This man, older and who did not speak any English, now gestured toward a mini-bus.   My husband and children walked forward willingly while I now entered Phase 2 of Banshee Panic Attack (includes cold sweats and panic-stricken facial expressions).

Yet another man hopped out of the mini-bus, hand extended.  “Hello, good morning to you all!  I am Fahti, your guide for the day.”  He motioned us into the mini-bus.  A total stranger in a strange land motions innocent North American family of four into a mini-bus (it had curtains – was that bad?).  The door slid shut and the mini-bus pulled away from the curb.  I tried not to think of all the ways this could go horribly wrong.

I noticed Fahti wore a badge around his neck.  It had his picture on it and said, “Tour Guide.”  I relaxed…a bit.  Once Fahti started explaining how the day would work, I relaxed a bit more.  He asked us if we had water.  “Good, good.  It is very hot in the ruins. It will be around 40 degrees celsius today.”  My daughter gave me a look that would shatter stone.

As we left Kusadasi on a newly paved highway, Fahti launched into the history of Ephesus.  I relaxed in the knowledge that we were not being driven to our doom.  I began to listen.

About Ephesus:   It was once an important port.  As Fahti said this, I looked around – we drove through dry, sparse hills littered with huge boulders.  In the distance stood more hills with a distinctly Northern California look to them, a soft golden colour.  Not a drop of water in sight – not a creek, a brook, or even a pond.  Fahti explained, “Ephesus was a port back in Ancient times, and a very important port but there was a massive earthquake which changed everything – the large deep harbour receded all the way back to where you see the water today – and this was the ruin of Ephesus.  It declined, over years, in importance.”  Ephesus now lies 5 km inland, dry as a bone.

Drier, actually.  The first thing we noticed when we got there was the scorching dry heat.  As we exited the mini-bus, I felt every drop of moisture being sucked from my body.  Fahti promptly opened up an umbrella for himself.  Smart guy.  He purchased our tour tickets and off we went.  There are no trees in Ephesus.  There is a lot of glaring white marble .  And cats.  Loads and loads of eerie, orange-eyed cats.  Bring gallons of water, big hats or parasols, sunscreen, sunglasses and maybe some cat food if you go.

Soon, the enormity of what we were seeing became apparent. At one point, Ephesus was a city of over 200,000 inhabitants and second only to Rome in size (and importance, according to our guide).  Looking around, it was evident the people who lived here were sophisticated, well educated, and well heeled.  Ephesus had one of the most sophisticated aqueduct systems in the ancient world, a large theatre (capacity: 44,000), a large library, a hospital, and several baths.  The streets were literally paved with marble.  Terrace houses had central heating and running water.  Ephesus was something of a tourist attraction even then because just a short distance away stood The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  “We will take you there!” Fahti assured us.

Funny Ephesus anecdote:  The impressive Library of Celsus was right across the street from the brothel.  Some enterprising soul connected the two via an underground tunnel.  Equally enterprising husbands would leave their wives of an evening saying something like, “Off to the Library, honey!  Don’t wait up!”  I tend to think it was an angry wife who destroyed the library out of spite as opposed to marauding hordes.

The Temple of Artemis was a disappointing sight after the spectacular ruins of Ephesus proper (there is only one column standing).  We were harrassed by gypsies for the first time.  I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t Fahti’s in-laws.  As part of our “package” we were also driven to a carpet-making “exhibit” which was just an attempt to sell handmade Turkish carpets (which were stunning and stunningly expensive).  I don’t like being corralled or pressured but we were in the land of the hard sell.  However, the kids enjoyed seeing how silk is harvested from silkworms.  Note about Ephesus & kids:  unless they’re really into ancient Roman history, Ephesus will bore them.  The cats saved the day as did the guy selling slushies at the end of the ruins.

Back in Kusadasi, parched and sunburned we asked Fahti for a restaurant recommendation.  He gladly complied and led us to a taverna in the marketplace (the owner rewarded Fahti with a pat on the back and some money slipped into his pocket).  The food was delicious as was the ice cold beer.  With full tummies, we wandered.  I quickly grew tired of the strong-arm tactics of the shop owners.  Every trick in the book and a few too many lewd glances at my daughter put me on the verge of creating an international incident.  My husband wanted to see the mosque and do more exploring.  Later – much later – he confessed to me that he was offered “Turkish Delight” several times (I’m not talking about the sweets).  Thankfully, Turkish prison is not on his bucket list and he declined.

As we sailed away from Kusadasi that evening, I felt sad for Ephesus – another great city left in ruins by nature and economics.  I felt sad for the strange orange-eyed cats we saw although Fahti assured me tour guides feed them.   I worried that Fahti was gonna catch it from his mother-in-law for not pressuring us to buy her trinkets.  However, I’m glad we braved it – I learned about a whole new world up in those sparse, dry hills.

Note:  Ephesus, aside from its excellent Roman ruins, also has an interesting connection to early Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus lived there as did the apostle John.   Mary, mother of Jesus is believed to have lived there at the end of her life (in what is known as The Virgin Mary’s House – a short distance from the ruins of Ephesus).  

Tourism Dollars Wanted…or Are They?


I just saw two very interesting reports on the BBC’s Fast:Track program.  The first was entitled, “Is Barcelona Being Spoilt by Tourists?” and the second was “Can Tourism Save the Greek Economy?” Since I’d recently been to both places, I paid close attention…and, after viewing, I can’t say I’m left with the warm fuzzies.  Here’s why:

Barcelona claims to be overrun with tourists, nearly year-round.  I find it interesting in these days of economic uncertainty that tourists spending money could possibly be a problem.  Apparently there are just too many tourists and they’re not the right sort.  I got the feeling Barcelona would like”better” tourists.  Read: wealthier.  Several times during the video, I heard the term “better quality tourists.”  Hmmmm…

I am pretty sure they don’t mean me.  I admit I’m a pretty lousy tourist.  I don’t trash hotel rooms or run amok in the markets but I’m not a big spender while on holiday either and that is the problem.  Better quality tourists (e.g. wealthier tourists) spend more in the local economies.  It seems they don’t want more people like me who broke the bank just getting there and who must watch every penny spent thereafter.

The story was similar in the video on Greece.  While the report did talk about how the Greek tourism industry needs to break out of the “sun and sand destination” box, soon I heard the terms “luxury tourism” and “higher quality tourist” again.  The Greeks want tourists to leave some serious cash behind.  Video footage showed several new luxury resorts (one on Crete) that I could not even afford to drive by let alone stay in.

Here’s the thing:  I’m sorry some in Barcelona are displeased with the quality and quantity of tourists that pour into their lovely city.  Truly I wish I was wealthier (for a myriad of reasons).  If I were, my travel budget would explode; I would love to drop wads of cash in the Catelonian economy –  I loved Barcelona that much.   I would also do my part to help the Italians and the Greeks.  Sadly, this is not my reality.  Having said that, I’m sure the people of Barcelona would change their tune if the tourism dried up (sub-standard quality or not).  Greece might very well sink beneath the sparkling waters of the Aegean if people like me didn’t seriously increase their debt load to have a look at their marvelous ruins, experience their ancient culture, and drink copious amounts of ouzo.

While I’m sure it would be awesome if all of the tourists on Las Ramblas had balance sheets like Warren Buffett, can any tourism industry afford to shun run-of-the-mill tourists who don’t fit into the “luxury” category?  I suddenly feel unworthy and that is a shame – I might think twice before going back to these places.  I’m not one to linger where I’m not wanted.

I must point out that these reports on BBC caught me off guard because never in Barcelona or Greece did we feel like our euros weren’t good enough – we were greeted warmly everywhere we journeyed in the Mediterranean region.  Except in Monte Carlo.   I got the distinct impression I will never be good enough for Monte Carlo regardless of my balance sheet.  Don’t worry, Monte Carlo, I will not try again.  In the unlikely event that the Monegasque economy falters, I will not be anxious to come to their aid.

I’m sorry Barcelona and Greece, we’ll try to do better next time.

At Sea


Sea Days: the days the World’s Smallest Captain puts the pedal down and ploughs through the Mediterranean in order to make the next port of call (in this case, Turkey) on time.  For cruise ship passengers, sea days are relaxation days.  And, relax they did.  All 2,100 plus of them, usually on the same sundeck, packed like so many oily sardines in rows of deck loungers.

Although my husband was up at sunrise each of the two mornings at sea, his banshee and children barely managed to haul themselves out of bed before noon.  When I awoke, I lay in bed listening to the hypnotic sound of the waves rushing under the ship and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have to have breakfast at the crack of dawn with total strangers.  Relaxation, indeed!

What I quickly realized about any day at sea was that all of the total strangers were now wandering the decks, standing in line at the cafe, and rushing for deck chairs in the sun.  By the end of the first day at sea, I was at sea myself, ready to strangle nearly everyone on board (especially the lounge singer who couldn’t carry a tune but persisted stubbornly, in vain.  Could someone please tell her?)

Day two at sea, I found a cozy deck chair on the fifth starboard  deck, close to the waves, the breeze and far from the really bad ’80’s music on the pool deck.  The kids raced each other to the arcade and the restaurant with the make-your-own pizza and the soft ice cream machines.  A good book in hand, all was well at last.  This was how a vacation should be:  sleep, eat, sleep, read, repeat until the day is done.  I stared down into the rushing waves a lot too, mesmerized by the colours and frankly curious about the emptiness of the sea around us.  No shipping, boating, or any other kind of traffic.  I tried not to worry about Libyan pirates…

Our sea days were “formal” dining nights so by late afternoon, we were rousing ourselves from our respective stupors and getting ready to put on our finest.  The “dressing for dinner” ritual has become a rarity .  Maybe in the very highest echelons of the very highest society (and perhaps in a certain palace in London), folks might still dress for dinner but my blood isn’t that blue.  To be honest, it’s all I can do to get my children to use napkins and utensils.

Oddly enough, my little urchins were very excited to get dressed up for dinner.  My eleven year old was anxious to wear his new suit (no, I’m not kidding).  My daughter was gorgeous in her first LBD and towering high heels.  It was my sincere hope that neither of them decided to fling dinner rolls around the Minstrel Dining Room, possibly injuring the World’s Smallest Captain.  I had nothing to worry about as my children exhibited manners I didn’t know they had.  I silently vowed to institute a “dress for dinner” policy at home in Toronto.  Ok, never mind.  Maybe once in awhile…

A word about dining on Brilliance of the Seas:  it was unfailingly yummy.   The meats were always cooked to perfection which is a miracle considering the sheer amount of meat cooked every night.  The vegetables, perhaps more of a miracle, were always tender-crisp and fresh tasting.  Desserts were more of a gamble but by and large we were never disappointed with anything except the fact that our clothing didn’t fit us by the end of dinner.  Our waiters were extraordinary; always friendly, always ready for a bit of a chat with the kids about their day’s activities.  The kids were especially impressed that our waiters memorized their drink preferences.

The casual cafe dining wasn’t bad either although I’d read that (especially on sea days), tables could be hard to find at peak hours.  We never had to wait for food or tables.  Even the hugely popular outdoor deck – right over the stern of the ship – usually had a table or two vacant, even at lunchtime.  The kids adored the make your own pizza place – they could go anytime, order anything, away from my disapproving gaze.  What the hell, we were on vacation – what’s wrong with ice cream for lunch?

Nonetheless,  I was ready for our sea days to end although I did enjoy sleeping in.  Soon we would be in Turkey – a country I knew next to nothing about.  Before leaving home we had reserved a taxi tour (going on an internet review alone) in Kusadasi that would take us through the ruins of Ephesus with an English guide.  We hoped.

Have I told you I don’t “wing it” well?  Stay tuned…

The Unbearable Lightness of Almost Dying on an Italian Road (Salerno, Part II)


At the end of the movie, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”  I seem to remember Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis driving their battered pickup truck to market, finally content with their lives just before another truck takes them out in a head-on collision.  Or something like that.

Were they driving on the Amalfi Coast perhaps?

We wound our way back into Salerno trying to find the (elusive) Amalfi Coast road.  I told my husband to look for the narrowest road possible along the coastline.  Ah, yes.  Again, as part of my obsessive compulsive need to be prepared for any eventuality, I had read up on the drive, studied the accident statistics (bad idea), the frequency of insane traffic jams (high), and then weighed the liklihood that I would have some form of coronary event on the stunning Amalfi Coast (also high).  I used my beloved “Little Yellow Man” on Google Maps.  He assured me that the road was impossible for anything larger than a Vespa or a Fiat convertible.

“No, I’m not going.”

“Yes, you are.  You’re going to love it.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re going.  Kids, throw her in the backseat and lock the doors.”  It sucks having a son who’s a black belt and a daughter who’s stronger than I am.

Such began our journey down the Amalfi Coast, one of the most “spectacular” roads in the world.  No wider than a golf cart path, it makes the single track roads in the Highlands of Scotland look like I95.  When on it, you are sharing the pavement with numerous cars, Vespas, motorcycles, and enormous tour buses.  With the possible exception of the tour buses, all of the other vehicles are driven by happy-go-lucky Italians who live life as if every moment might be their last.  Less than a mile out of Salerno, the road began to twist upon itself in such a way that it must resemble a piece of fusilli pasta from the air.

My son played his DS, oblivious to the danger.  Occasionally he would stroke my hair and shush me as I whimpered.  My husband, grinning from ear to ear, pretended he was Italian and drove with an abandon that would see him arrested in Canada.  He passed on curves, on hills.  Every now and then he’d look back at me and shout, “This is awesome!”  My daughter, in the front seat (I’m so sorry,baby) proved herself the bravest of multi-taskers.  She navigated, scanned the roadside mirrors that warned of certain death around blind corners, took pictures, and tuned the radio.  She only screamed occasionally.  After a couple of miles, I had to lie down.

Our “plan” had been to make it to the town of Amalfi but we only got as far as Maiore.  Apparently, my sobbing was beginning to distract the driver.  We pulled into a parking lot overlooking one of many beaches.  I raised my sweaty head.  I kissed my children and threw a murderous look at my husband.  “That was the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel,” he said to my daughter who high-fived him.

Flushed with survival, we walked the beautiful seaside promenade in search of lunch and a very large glass of something strong for me.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch overlooking the waterfront boulevard.  The fish we ordered was no doubt caught that day. I gazed out at the blue Mediterranean and saw numerous fishing boats coming in and out of the harbour.    I silently wondered how much I would have to pay one of those guys to take me back to Salerno…or, I thought, I could just live here in Maiore.  I would never leave – it was beautiful – why not?

Fortified by gelato purchased at the end of the promenade (Voted “Best on the Amalfi Coast, 2010”), we wandered back to the car.  Yes, I needed persuasion and a bit of shoving to get back in – and, the front seat this time.  My husband handed me the camera.  “Distract yourself, take pictures.”  Oh, God.

It worked.  I noticed the coastline this time instead of the grilles of the vehicles hurtling towards us.  I noticed the impossibly steep hillsides crisscrossed by trellised grapevines.  I noticed the rocky outcrops and shadowy sea caves.  I noticed villas and castellos  that clung, defying gravity, over the blue water of the Mediterranean.  I marveled at the Italian ability to make use of every inch of available space, gravity and safety be damned!  It made for spectacular pictures.  My husband had to warn me once or twice not to hang so far outside the car in search of the perfect snapshot.  The cliff dropped away very fast and very close.

I knew the photos wouldn’t do the place justice.  The Amalfi Coast defies description.  We made it back to Hertz, planted a kiss on our Volvo, and headed back to the ship.  That evening as we left Salerno, I sat in the porthole and watched the golden sun sink behind the ancient villas along the coast.  In the falling light, a lone fisherman tended his nets far from the shore.  Lights along the coast began to twinkle.  I didn’t want to leave and I stayed in the window until Italy faded into the darkness. Ciao, Italia.

The ship turned slowly, heading east.  Two days at sea before we were to anchor in Kusadasi, Turkey.