Istanbul, Turkey

The last five days of our trip were in Istanbul.  This was just enough time to see some of the highlights and get a little feel for the city.  The most annoying thing about the touristy places was the aggressive shop and street salesman, they were very persistent.  But step a block or two back off the main street and things quietened down a bit.

We had a day seeing the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Palace museum etc.  Another day we had two short walking tours with an Intrepid guide – ‘Hidden Istanbul’ and ‘Street Food Picnic’.  These gave us a bit more insight to the city.

We stayed at the Hotel Niles, it was very nice and reasonably priced, also a good location close to all the action.  But once we figured out the tram system we would have been quite happy staying out a bit further, away from the street hassle.

I’ll let the pictures tell the story:

Lesbos, Greece

Our final day in Greece was spent in Lesbos (or Lesvos).  We had nothing firm planned but had a couple of ideas.  The Museum of Theophilos and an archeological museum were close to each other but on the edge of town.  Once we got off the boat the usual scrum of taxi drivers vyed for business.  They were competing to take us to the museums but one lonely voice said they were closed.  Cher went back to the boat for more advice and was told they should be open.  So we negotiated two taxis at 15 Euros each to take the five of us up there.  And of course, once we got there, they were both closed – the one taxi driver more or less saying ‘I told you so’ or gesticulations to that effect.

So it was either another 15 E to return , or a bit more to carry on.  Our driver was earnest but had pretty bad English, however convinced us we should take a drive up to a mountain village.

Part way up we stopped at a tiny settlement, it turned out to be the home of Theophilos the painter.  Some of his art was faintly still visible on the wall of what is now a cafe.  Nearby was a massive hollow tree that he used to work in, we paid another lira or two to go inside and smell mustiness.

Further on, after driving through masses of old olive groves, we ended up in Agiassos.  It’s a nice little village with some interesting craft shops and general rusticness.

By the time we got back to town there wasn’t much time left as we were sailing earlier than usual, with a long night’s trip to get to Istanbul.  It had to be timed to meet tug boats to guide the ship through the Dardanelles, a narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. 

Significant to us was passing by Gallipoli peninsula just after sunset. The captain made an announcement and quite a few NZ & Australian passengers gathered on the top deck.  As we passed by the memorials were lit up, quite a moment for us.

Ephesus, Turkey

We reached Ephesus via the port at Kusadasi.  Leslie had booked a guide and van to run us around some things we wanted to see on the day.  There was an overload of rich history to absorb, not easy on the hottest day we have ever had.  At one point the thermometer inside the van said ’49’ – Celsius, not Fahrenheit – and I think it was accurate.  Shade and water were constantly sought all day.

Ephesus was a major Roman town in the 1st and 2nd century AD.   It had problems with the port silting up. Combined with the cult of Artemis/Diana diminishing and being attacked by Germanic Goths in AD 263, Ephesus as well as the Roman empire was on the downhill slide. Eventually it was abandoned and over time buried.  In the 1860’s it was rediscovered and excavations began.  Today it is the world’s largest excavated site, but estimates are that only 15% has been uncovered so far.  It was a well developed city and the uncovered remains are in amazing condition.  A large area is under a huge roof with walkways, so visitors can get a very good feel for the site without causing damage.  Watching archeologists at work was also unique.

Our next stop on the road was to a Turkish rug cooperative.  I think our guide was working on commission for possible sales as we got a very hard sales pitch – and were fed a complimentary lunch.  We mostly escaped with wallets intact.  Ignoring the sales pitch, it was interesting to see – and the frigid air con inside was welcome.

Further on we stopped by the supposed house of the Virgin Mary.  It’s a bit of a shrine for the devout, complete with souvenir shop in case your rosary requires replacement.

The town of Selcuk was our final stop.  From a hill top we could just make out ruins of the Temple of Artemis, and nearby was what remains of the Basilica of St. John.  The Apostle John is thought to be buried here. The construction of the basilica was interesting in that you could see recycling – much of the material had come from the abandoned city at Ephesus.  Columns were used as roof beams; random shaped blocks were cobbled together.

Santorini, Greece

Santorini is glossy Greece – quite different to what we’ve seen so far.  The crowds of tourists, upmarket boutique shops and high prices point to some good marketing campaigns.  It had a Queenstown vibe to it for me; exceedingly pretty but chocka with tourists.

However with just a few hours there wasn’t much to do apart from race around a few highlights.  We had a local guide booked, Efi.  She was very good, full of knowledge and keen to impart it. Our first stop was Akrotiri, a Minoan bronze age city which was buried in a volcanic eruption around 1627 BC.  There are well preserved streets, multi story buildings, piping systems and artifacts which are still being uncovered.  It has been compared to Pompei. But no human remains are there; it suggests they had warning and evacuated the city – but to where is a mystery. Some legends link the disappearance of this civilisation to the lost city of Atlantis.

Next stop was Oia.  A huge earthquake in 1956 caused many people to leave, so most buildings are ‘new’. The style of whitewashed buildings and blue domes along a cliff top makes for rather picturesque sights.  It’s a shame that the streets are clogged with tourists.  This also results in high priced shopping.

We carried on the Fira, which had an archeological museum with some of the items recovered from the buried city.  Most impressive were the large painted wall panels.  Everything indicated a very advanced city 3500 years ago, something I’d like to learn more about.


Rhodes, Greece

In Rhodes (or Rodos ) we had booked a car and driver for the day through Tours by Locals.  Nicholas met us in a very tidy Mercedes.  He turned out to be full of information, we learnt a lot during our time with him and covered a lot of ground.

Our first stop was by an Orthodox church, near where the Colossus of Rhodes was supposed to have stood in the harbour.  Apparently, because of the harbour width, it is unlikely the actual spot – another mystery.

We carried on around the coast and upwards, taking in the Acropolis of Rhodes, Temple of Apollo and Greek Stadium. Parts were original, parts had been rebuilt / restored by the Venetians.

On we went to the village of Lindos.  It could be a beautifully quiet and picturesque place but was a congestion nightmare with one narrow road down to it and three cruise ships full of tourists trying to fight their way in to it.  Nicholas dropped us off for an hour.  Interesting to watch was the procession of mules ferrying lazy tourists up the path to the fort.  

We then escaped the madhouse and Nicholas took us to a quiet fishing village nearby for lunch.  It was excellent; the Greek salads were as good as they get.  Appetisers of feta in filo with a honey coating were not bad too.

On the loop back to port we had a walk through the Valley of the Butterflies – home to thousands of monarchs – and a winery stop to sample some local product.

Marmaris, Turkey

Marmaris was our first taste of Turkey.  The guff from the boat didn’t seem too enlightening apart from talking about shopping.  I did a quick Google and found what appeared interesting; a place called Nimara cave on Heaven Island.  Apparently excavations show activity dating back 15,000 years and it was a place of worship 2500 years ago of a cult of the Mother Goddess Leto, believed to be the mother of God Apollo and Goddess Artemis. 

When we got off the ship the usual throng of taxi (‘Taksi’) drivers were waiting to take us to touristic places.  We asked about the cave, no one seemed to know about it but eventually we found a nice young driver named Feta who had heard of it.  We took off, he explained he was a student and knew no English until two months ago when he started driving Taxis.  The road got smaller as we went over a narrow spit connected Heaven island to the mainland, then it got decidedly rocky and steep.  Feta found the entrance in the bush to the cave – not signposted – then after a short walk there we were.  it was pretty impressive, and nice to be able to wander in peace and quiet without others.

Eventually Feta took us back to town.  We went to the museum in an old castle, it had some figurines and artefacts from the cave.  We had a brief wander through the bazaar area but the junk and aggressive salesman made that a short activity.

Kos, Greece

The main claim to fame for Kos we found was that it was the hometown of Hippocrates, father of modern medicine.  The first sight we found in town was a very old tree, thought to be the one Hippocrates pondered under. 

We thought most of the spots were in a reasonably tight area, and given to roads seemed pretty busy we decided against renting an ATV – after all, we have been walking some pretty big distances and enjoying it.  

First we found the ‘Western Evacuations’ site – it just seemed like an empty city lot, but was full of interesting ruins you could wander among freely. Across the road was a small amphitheatre, where Hippocrates is thought to have lectured students.

Next on the list was the Hippocrates museum – supposedly 3 – 4 km out of town.  Easy, we thought.   Before long we were on the outskirts of town on a small, dusty, hot road.  We walked and walked.  At one point we asked workmen if we were on the right track for the museum; they pointed and told us to keep going.  We eventually got there – and found it closed.  As we backtracked we saw the workmen again, they told us it is only open maybe 10 days a year.  Thanks very much!

We carried on to the Asklepieion, it’s a huge archeological site thought to be the first organised hospital.  By now my GPS said we had walked 8.5 km in the frying heat, but we are glad we got there.  

After a good look around we managed to share a taxi back to town with a lady named Wendy and her son. We finished the day off by looking around the old fortified area in the town.

Chania, Crete

Chania, Crete is today’s port.  The boat docked and we were first off the gangplank.  The other 700 or so apparently had better things to do on a Sunday morning.  Joe and Leslie soon joined us, and since it was a 4 km hike in to town we found a taxi, planning to head to town via the Venizelos graves (more about that soon). But once the taxi driver heard we were from NZ he wanted to take us by the Souda Bay cemetery. And I’m glad he did.  It was a cemetery from WW2.  NZ played a significant role here fighting with other Commonwealth soldiers and Greeks against the Germans.  The cemetery is built on one of the defensive positions and has 446 (?) New Zealanders buried there.  Sadly many headstones just say ‘unknown infantry officer’ or similar.  It was an extremely tidy and well kept place, and it was obvious from the taxi driver’s manner that NZ’s contribution is still much appreciated.

Next we got to the Venizelos graves.  Venizelos was a leader in the struggle for Crete’s independence from Turkey in the early 1900’s.  He went on to be Prime Minister of all Greece for 30 years.  His wish was to buried on his home island where one of the battles was fought; the area had an impressive view over the island.  Being Sunday morning, a church service was under way in a small Orthodox church on the site.

Finally we made it down to the old town.  We wandered around the port area – very Venetian – admired the old buildings, checked out shops, tried to avoid the usual throng of people selling junky souvenirs (they can smell a cruise ship miles away) and then found the archeological museum.  For a smallish centre it had an impressive collection, some of the labelling was a bit sparse, but definitely worth visiting.

Nafplion, Greece

Nafplion was the first stop on our cruise.  The boat had to anchor offshore so we were transferred in to the town by small boats (called ‘tenders’ for some unknown reason). We got a spot on the first one so were on shore soon after 8 am.

Our first mission was to climb the Palamidi Fortress.  It’s a huge fort that dominates the town from a 230 m high hill.  It was built in the early 1700’s and has an extensive layout.  To get up there we climbed 900 odd steps, some reasonably precarious but the views going up made the effort worthwhile.

Once we had a good look around we were thinking about making our way down again when we noticed some (lazy) people had taken a taxi up a 4km back road to the top and was waiting for an hour to run the people down again.  We gave him 5 Euros to take us back, it was getting pretty hot by then.

We found a cafe and had a long lunch and were just about to leave when we started chatting to a couple next door, Peggy and Cedric.  We found we had a lot in common so lunchtime doubled, addresses were exchanged and time flew by.

Nearby was the folklore museum – these are always interesting, giving a snapshot of how people lived with displays of clothes, tools, equipment etc.  We also found the archeological museum, the volume of artefacts dating back thousands of years is quite overwhelming. I think this sense of just how far back complex civilisation extends is what has been making the biggest impression on us.

We ended up back on the boat in time for a couple of quiet hours before dinner.

Leaving Athens by boat

On our last morning in Athens we found our way to the Acropolis Museum.  It is a fairly new building just a couple of hundred metres from the Acropolis – in fact we found it was having its 5th birthday, so entry was reduced from 5 euros to 3.  Bonus for us.  The museum has many of the details from the Acropolis  as well as reconstructions and models of the various incarnations of the site.  It added a huge amount of relevance to our acropolis visit a few days ago, filling in lots of background.  The museum was extremely well laid out and we are already wanting to make a return visit one day with more time to spare.

After lunch it was time to catch a taxi out to the port.  We went through the check in procedures and found our way aboard the Insignia.  We had been under the illusion this was a ‘small’ boat with ‘only’ 600 passengers, unlike the massive 3000 plus ships.  But it looked huge close up – but once on board lots of nice little nooks and crannies means that it doesn’t seem too bad.  Our cabin is compact but very comfortable.  We are just having to get used to all the staff appearing at every turn trying to offer us some sort of service.  It’s a complete and slightly unnerving contrast to the last two weeks on our Intrepid trip, but no doubt we’ll learn to live through the next 10 days.