I admit it, I am frugal. I am frugal in small ways, in daily life. I don’t like waste. I don’t need luxury. Or maybe I should say I have my own idea of luxury. We lead a comfortable life and have more than enough to delight in.
Now and then, I see something that tickles my imagination. When I do, I don’t hesitate. When I saw these shoes, I bought them to celebrate Chinese New Years, coming January 27 – 29.
I found these on Amazon! They were under $20, and they have dragons on them holding the ball of the earth. What an amazing world we live in, what luxury is available at affordable prices.
“This is a place I would love to retire,” I once told AdventureMan, as we wandered the streets. “It has all the things I love. Beautiful architecture and a rich history. It’s on a river. It gets cold in the winter. You can walk to local stores.”
Today, with great sadness, I read that Damascus is now rated the #1 Most Unlivable City in the World, beating out Douala, Cameroon; Harare, Zimbabwe; Karachi, Pakistan; Algiers, Algeria; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya. This is what the report summarized about Damascus:
Damascus has forgotten more than your city will likely ever know-and it has been a battleground for almost its entire existence. The City of Jasmine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, the least livable city in the world-for good reason. More than 13 million Syrians require humanitarian aid, 6.5 million have been displaced, and almost half a million have been killed on all sides of the conflict there-government soldiers, opposition soldiers, and civilians. It’s scores are predictably abysmal, with a 15 (out of 100) for stability at the bottom end and a mere 43.3 for culture and environment at the top end.
This is a city which has been at the crossroads of civilization about as long as civilization has been around. This is a city which was refined, and tolerant, a city which was once full of caravans carrying spices, silks and riches to the West.
We were last there in 2007, and we are so glad we went when we did. Damascus was revitalizing, building up a tourism business with grand hotels, and lovely, intimate boutique hotels.
We stayed at the Talisman. We grieve for the fine people we met there, and for all the losses they have suffered.
AdventureMan said “why don’t you do a photo-share, like you did with Doha?” At first, I didn’t want to, but then, I looked at the photos – and once again, I was smitten. I pray for a miracle for Syria, for new, enlightened, tolerant leadership and opportunities for the good Syrian people. For renewed vigor in churches and mosques and synagogues there. (The Talisman is in the old Jewish quarter, where the Greek Orthodox also have their headquarters.)
This is the majlis – sitting area – at the Talisman.
A restaurant nearby the Talisman:
Breakfast at the Talisman:
The historical nearby Bab, or gate:
A nearby Tabak and the friendly operator:
A courtyard restaurant, with lovely dishes. And note the Christmas tree; Christmas decorations and greenery everywhere!
A Christian Shop near Bab Thoma:
Interior at Umayyad Mosque, all are welcome and abayas provided. You leave your shoes at the door. This is the rear of the Tomb of John the Baptist:
Naranj, our favorite restaurant. I understand branches of Naranj have opened in Gulf Countries, Qatar, Kuwait, as wealthier Syrians take their money out of Syria and wait for more peaceful times. I am betting they will return to Syria as soon as they can.
A merchant in the Souk al Hamidiyya
A courtyard restaurant set up for Christmas dinners:
I’ve never met a Syrian who wasn’t educated and working hard to make a good life for his/her family. We wonder if we will ever be able to visit Syria again in our lifetime?
I’ve had such great feedback from all my friends for whom these photos bring back a lot of memories. So, a few more.
I bet you think we are going to write about a grand adventure partying in New Orleans, crowded with people eager to watch the Sugar Bowl, parades, grand times. I could – but our visit was a little different.
AdventureMan and I DID have a grand adventure – taking the 6 year old and 3 year old grandchildren to New Orleans for three days. We were a little aghast at the enormity of our undertaking, but AdventureMan did a little investigating, and found a wonderful solution – The Audubon Nature Institute has an annual family membership which gets you into the New Orleans zoo, the Aquarium, the Butterfly Garden and the Insectarium, and invited to special events, for a year.
Even better, the cost of the year-long family membership is so reasonable that our first trip to the zoo paid off the entire membership. The next day, the children voted that we visit the zoo again, and the third day we visited the aquarium. We can go back all year, walk in through the membership gate (that is a great feature, beats standing in line for tickets) and get a membership discount in the gift shop. This is a real deal. You can find it at Audubon Nature Institute, you can join online and print out your temporary membership card. What a great value for the money.
I’ve always wanted to see Santorini. We once lived near ancient Carthage, and a nearby village, Sidi Bou Said, all white and deep turquoise blue, with tiny winding streets.
Coming into Santorini is beautiful. We had watched an excellent presentation the night before on how the volcanic activity and tectonic plates shape Santorini, and we loved seeing it and understanding it a little better.
This is one of those places where the ship anchors out in the bay and you tender in. I had imagined little rubber rafts bobbing by the side of the big ship, so I was happily surprised when I saw what a “tender” looked like.
There was one woman on board I noticed, and steered far away from, a woman who had no respect for others. She moved a man’s bag out of a chair she wanted to sit in, and just grinned at him when he noticed. She was waiting to board our tender, and had pushed her way to the front, but when she showed her ticket, she was not in the group called to board, and the Viking representative diplomatically told her she would have to wait until her group was called. I love it that Viking trains their staff to handle bullies with quiet firmness.
As we board the bus, AdventureMan said “Are you happy?” and I tell him “Yes, but it’s complicated.” Last year, on our voyage The Passage of the Moors, through Spain and Morocco, I waited until the last night to pack my bag, and on the last night, we joined two other couples we had thoroughly enjoyed, for dinner. I had a little sore throat at dinner, but we had duck, which I love, and so I couldn’t have been too sick.
But by the time we were back in our cabin, late, after too much wine and good conversation, I still had my packing to do, and packing is something I am generally very good at, very efficient, this time it didn’t go well. I was feverish, and not thinking clearly. I made mistakes. I ended up being really sick with a respiratory infection that took me a couple weeks to shake.
“I know I need to pack when we get back,” I told AdventureMan. “I don’t want to leave it to the last night. It’s hanging over me.”
Actually, once I said it, the anxiety went away, and I enjoyed Santorini.
Santorini is a caldera, the remains of ancient volcano(s) and multiple eruptions. The soil is rich. We start off, I believe, driving to Oia, in the north. I say “I believe” because the signs are in Greek, and it is Greek to me. We arrive in a beautiful little town where you can see it is set up for tourists. As we walk toward the first photo op, walking into a church courtyard, we hear the sound of the Zorba theme, being played by a man sitting there. The guide gathers everyone into a circle and has them dancing.
I could imagine my Mother, who is a lot of fun, joining the group and loving it.
Below is one of my favorite photos from the trip:
Mostly what I remember about the ride back into Fira/Thira is that because of the climate, the grape vines do not climb high, they are kept low so that they may make best use of the humidity and moisture.
We are dropped off at a viewpoint with another shopping lane to the right, and at the end of the lane will be the cable car to take us to the tender to take us to the boat. We aren’t ready to go back yet. We come to the Church of the Candlemas, which is beautiful, and we sit inside, soaking in a little sanctity.
There is one more thing I want to find, and along this path, I find it, just the thing, perfect. My little granddaughter wants a “twirly” dress, a dress that will fan out around her as she twirls. I find the perfect twirly dress.
Never mind that after lunch, I find the same dress at a lower price.
Lunch. Yes, by this time we are hungry, and I am looking to the left, at restaurants overlooking the big caldera. We are looking at menus; we know what we want.
We climb multiple sets of stairs to get to the terrace, and it is worth it. There is a table waiting for us, in the shade, with a spectacular view, views on both sides of the island.
We order a mixed appetizer plate and a mixed grill platter for two. We know we have ordered too much food, but we have no idea how much too much. It is enough for six or eight! We sample each treat, and content ourselves with hoping the untouched portions will feed others, or at least the hungry cats.
We take our time. After lunch, we dawdle our way toward the cable car,
and head down the hill, taking only seconds to get to the dock where the tender picks us up.
I wish you could experience L’heure bleu in Santorini. The colors are exquisite, and I can’t capture the magic of this twilight.
We know from all our previous travels that this is a good day to have a down day. When you tour every day, details begin to blur, and enthusiasm wanes. We’ve lived amidst ancient ruins in Tunis, and Jordan, and while we love them, we don’t want to be trapped in groups of 40, unable to set our own pace.
We opt not to take a tour, and have a leisurely breakfast in Mamsen’s discussing what, if anything, to do.
For many hours, we are the only ship in port, and then the Aida Bella also berths. They have their sound system on continuously, October-Fest sort of lively German song fill the air. It is hilarious, and we are really glad not to be on that ship.
We think the design on her bow is hilarious.
There is a little town where we are docked, and we are eager for a walk.
There are a lot of shops, most of which we are immune to because we shopped in Corfu. Then we find the Katakolon Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. This museum is small, but packed with very cool things. It has just opened, we are the only visitors, and the young woman at the desk shows us how a lot of the beautifully hand-build models demonstrate the old discoveries and how they were applied. I took this one blurry photo before AdventureMan pointed out the sign that said “No photos.”
The creator of this museum in a man we would love to meet. We are nerds. We recognize and love talking with other nerds. This man happens to be an engineering nerd who wants the world to understand natural principles and how they have been discovered and applied to make our lives easier. He built the models, he created all the visual explanations.
The high point is a poster showing how each discovery and application is still used in the creation of modern cars.
That poster was outside, and it was allowed to photograph it.
We walked back toward the ship, found a coffee shop alongside the port and settled in over Greek coffees to watch passers-by.
Nearby was a woman with some earrings I loved, in the “long life” pattern. She gave me a good price. I told her they were for my daughter-in-law, and she drew back, astounded, and told me she didn’t speak English well, so she must have mis-understood me, they must be for my daughter. I explained “no, I really love my daughter-in-law as if she were my own daughter and she gave me another pair of earrings for my mother, and lowered the price. (!) She told me it is the end of the season, these are the last cruise ships, and people are selling off their wares. It was such an unexpected blessing to meet her and talk with her.
Late in the day, we leave Katakolon. The ship got under way so quietly, I didn’t even realize we were moving.
It’s late in the afternoon, and we are back on board. We don’t want to nap; we are trying to get on local time, which keeps changing, put the clocks ahead an hour here and back an hour here. We love the Explorer’s Lounge, so we head up there for “tea”. They have lovely not-too-sweet pastries at Mamsen’s that we adore.
More of the Explorer’s Lounge:
Back to the room for sunset on our way to Dubrovnik!
This night we checked the menus for all the restaurants and decided to try one called: The Restaurant. They seemed to have some really nice choices. No reservations. So we headed up around seven, and were seated. Other people sitting close; one party of seven having a good old time, and very loud. I can’t even remember what we ordered. Once again, no control over how much was coming, no control over timing. When we said we wanted to split a creme brûlée, the waitress brought us each one, and said “I know you really want to have your own.”
No. No, we didn’t. We don’t like waste, and we love good tastes, but we like them in moderation. Clatter and clanging of the dishes and flatware, too much noise, too little privacy and we don’t even get our say over dessert. One time in this restaurant was enough.
We walked off the creme brûlée – no, we didn’t eat the whole thing, but the evening is so lovely and we love the walks around the decks.
Here’s the thing about these Viking Ocean ships – they are so quiet and so stable that you barely feel a rumble. On other cruises I’ve been on, we must have been closer to the engine; on this ship, there are times I don’t even realize we are underway – or that we’ve berthed. That is pretty amazing.
We awake the next morning in Zadar, Croatia, and it is beautiful. It is also right next to the ship. We’ve already turned in our tour tickets for all the ports we figure we can see on our own; we hung onto the tours tickets that will help us go where we want to go. But Zadar – we can handle this!
The first place we go is to Mamsen’s, a tiny Scandinavian restaurant we discovered for lunch the day before, where they had soup! Soup and beautiful open face shrimp sandwiches, and other kinds of sandwiches, too, and beautiful heart shaped waffles, served with jams or berries. And herring, pickled herring! And very Scandinavian pastries, not too sweet. My husband is not of Scandinavian descent, and he does not “get” pickled herring. I adore pickled herring.
Mamsens is at the almost-top of the ship, in a two story space called the Explorer’s Lounge, and when we go there, it is sparsely occupied. It is an introvert’s kind of hang-out, people who like space and peace. (and pickled herring 🙂 )
The Explorer’s Lounge, with Zadar in the background:
Wonderful oatmeal with fresh raspberries and blueberries!
Pickled herring! Yes, for breakfast! Good protein!
Mamsen’s, the Scandinavian specialty restaurant, open late late late.
Just off the bow of the ship are two attractions unique to Zadar. One is the Salute to the Sun, which is more visible, the huge round solar panel that makes patterns as you walk on it. The other, less visible, is the Sea Organ along the coast walk, a series of pipes that, when the tides force water through them, make music. It is a little eerie, other world-ly, and interesting.
It is Sunday morning in Zader, and AdventureMan and I end up popping in and out of a lot of churches. We listen to the music from outside, and can almost follow the liturgy. We only go in if the service is over, or not yet started. There are some amazing churches in Zadar, so many, and even a convent.
Most of what we see is Roman and Venetian, but Zadar has a long and complicated history. Much of the town is being restored. There is a fabulous Museum of Archaeology, open even Sundays, and the admission is 4 Euro. They also have a very nice gift shop.
Outside the Museum, we meet two shipmates who exclaim with us what a find the museum is. As the tours go by, they don’t even mention it! We are shocked. It’s funny how you can connect in just a few minutes; of all the 900 passengers on board, this couple was one we encountered frequently. They liked the same places we liked, and while we didn’t tour or make plans together, we often found each other and enjoyed a great chat. They told us about the flexibility of the Pool Grill for lunch.
Please note this gorgeous weather. It can be a little chilly in the shade; I carry a coat which sometimes I wear, but in the sun, it isn’t necessary. We can hardly believe it is almost November, no rain, look at that sky!
This is one of the happiest days of my life. We are in Venice, and the weather is magnificent. Not only not raining, but a little chilly, perfect for walking and walking, which is what we love to do.
When we get up, the first thing I do is look out the window, and oh, what fun, our ship, the Viking Sea, is being towed to port! We watch her dignified passage with excitement.
We have a quick breakfast in the lounge, great coffee, and head out on the shuttle for Saint Marks, then we hike up to the Rialto bridge, crowded, even in late October, mostly with Japanese families. The canal is crowded, too, with people taking gondola rides.
No, we didn’t. We love Venice. We hit the vaporettos.
This is atop the old customs house, where trading ships coming into Venice had to stop, have their cargo examined, and pay import and luxury taxes on their goods. See, the god is holding a piece of coin in his hand?
Venetian baubles, and masks are everywhere; the windows are beautiful. No. We didn’t buy any baubles, no gondolas, no masks.
Yes, we did climb the Rialto bridge, along with all the tourists, and I quickly took a documentary, but highly not-artistic shot.
This is better. We are catching a vaporetto to head up the Grand Canal and I look back and see the Rialto – and parked gondolas. How Venice can you get? This photo was a lot of fun.
We are lucky, in the back of the vaporetto are two perfect seats, and we watch as the #1 goes to each stop along the Grand Canal. Every now and then, we change boats, and we never know where we will end up. It doesn’t matter, we can ride as long as we walt to.
The gates going into St. Marks.
We are starting to get hungry though, so we have to figure out how to get where we want to eat lunch.
AdventureMan and I have developed a philosophy – how we get there matters. Truly, it didn’t matter so much when we were a lot younger. The government sent us where it wanted us to be; Germany, Tunisia, Jordan, Germany . . . well, you get the idea. You didn’t even get to make your own reservations and choose your own seats, it was all done for you. It could have been awful, but most of the flights were not so full then, seats were wider, aisles were wider, and . . . we were younger. We never really minded, not even the long long flights with a 2 year old active child. On our way to Tunis we were on the same flight with friends who had twin 1 year old babies and a 5 year old. We all survived.
Now, we have a six hour limit to what we will fly in economy. I had thought we could be comfortable enough in economy going to Hawaii, and I was very very wrong. Never again. So now we cough up a little extra and go business class, and, when we can, we go Air France.
Air France is a partner with Delta and with KLM, but Air France is nicer. The planes feel cleaner, and the flight crews are, well, French. Charming and attentive. The food is pretty good. We get on in Atlanta, eat a nice meal and sleep our way to Paris. And that’s how this trip started. Easy. Happy.
When we got to Paris, and were about to board our flight, the gate attendant frowned. “This part of your trip has been cancelled,” she informed us. “Your bags have been taken off the flight.”
This is not a happy surprise.
But this is also not our first rodeo.
“Nothing has changed,” we explain calmly, “We are booked all the way to Venice.”
“I see that,” she responded, “and I don’t know what happened, but I can fix it for you. Just give me a few minutes.”
A few minutes turned into a lot of minutes, as the plane was boarded, all the passengers but us, and we stood calmly waiting for her to fix it. She handed us tickets, same seats we had originally been assigned.
“Are our bags on board?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she replied, “but they are tracking them down and will get them on the plane.”
A half an hour later, when they closed the door to the flight, I asked the attendant to check to make sure our bags had made it. She came back and affirmed “all bags are now on board.”
The really good news: when we got to Venice, people were waiting to greet us and take us to the hotel. The bad news: our bags were not on board, and it took AdventureMan about an hour of getting a number here, waiting there, going over to talk to this person, and then than person, just to fill out the paperwork.
More good news – because we have had this happen a time or two in all our travels, we have all our electronics, toiletries, medications and two days of clothing with us, including our walking shoes. We are not happy, but we can survive. The water taxi takes us to the Molino Stuckey Hotel, where as he registers, AdventureMan upgrades quietly to a room on the executive floor with a view of Venice. As we walk in our room, we could be griping, but the room is beautiful, and this is our view:
What’s a little missing baggage with a view like that?
We fall into bed and sleep for about an hour, then we get up to take a walk and have some dinner. There is a church I want to visit, within walking distance. It is chilly, and by the grace of God, I have a pair of jeans and a sweater with me, and my walking shoes. We head down to Redentore, The Church of the Redeemer, built to thank God for sparing Venice from the plague. It is simply beautiful, and we sit inside and let the peace soak into our bodies and spirits.
The hotel is on Giudecca, a large island across the laguna from St. Mark’s. We love this location, and the residential nature of the island. As we explore, there is beauty everywhere.
Along a side canal, we find a boat building shop, with workers putting together new gondolas:
We are exhilarated. We had thought we would be exhausted, but we have done 10,000 steps and way more than 10 sets of stairs. We are in Venice, where the light and the water work together to thrill our heart in a new way every time we look. Here is something special for you; the sun going down in Venice:
It was supposed to be raining. This is late October, and there are signs of rain, but there is no rain.
Dinner is at a small local restaurant, and it is divine. Is it divine, or does it just taste divine because it is our first night in Venice and we are a little jet lagged and maybe a little delirious? At Duo Mori we can eat overlooking the water, watch the vaporettos come and go, and dive into some Venetian specialties, a mixed appetizer plate with all kinds of fish and fish pates, followed by plates of spaghetti with clams and mussels, washed down by a carafe of wine. Service is slow. It’s fine with us. We are happy just to be here.
The meal is delicious, and on top of that, we have been watching how the vaporetto passengers use their magnetized tickets to open the gate to get to the vaporetto they want. Tomorrow will be a new day, and we have all-day vaporetto tickets which will take us all the places we want to go.
We walk happily back to the hotel, fall into bed. About half an hour later, dumb with sleepiness, there is a knock at the door, and our bags have arrived in Venice to meet up with us. All is well.