“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 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.
We wake up docked in Pireus, the harbor area of Athens. We are relaxed, our bags are packed, with just clothes out for dinner and for travel tomorrow. Very early tomorrow. Our wake-up call is for 0230, that is two thirty in the morning for your non-military folk.
AdventureMan and I have a funny relationship with Greece. Back in the day, when he asked me to marry him, my brash young lieutenant said “Marry me, and I will take you to Greece.” A year later, on our way to Kenya, we were sitting on the tarmac in Athens, in the middle of a coup attempt. I turned to him and said “this does not count as taking me to Greece.”
Years later, when he was working to hard, I called him and told him we were leaving the dark and cold of winter in Germany and spending a week in Crete. We had a wonderful time – it would have counted for me, but AdventureMan said Crete did not really count as Greece.
So, finally, we are truly in Greece. His promise has been fulfilled 🙂
We are taking the panoramic tour of Athens, and the first stop is a photo op for the Acropolis, which is undergoing restorations, and is covered with scaffolding and nets.
In front of a gigantic, soulless stadium where Olympics were held in the distant and not-so-distant past, an enterprising young man was doing lunges and thrusts; you could have your photo taken with him for a fee.
Only seconds after I snapped this shot, however, he did some kind of maneuver that brought his cape up over his helmet, and it got stuck. He couldn’t see, the cape covered his whole head and he had a sword in one hand and a big shield on the other arm and he was blind as a bat. It was so unexpectedly hilarious. A fellow costumed entrepreneur rescued him before I could snap off another photo.
Across the street, a statue of an Olympian.
I’m pretty sure the building below is the university
The details are all getting jumbled in my head and we are on a bus with 34 people. When we get off at the Archaeology Museum, all 34 have to use the restroom, and I tell AdventureMan to have fun, I am making my escape. I find a wonderful cappuccino and a table in the outdoor cafe where I am happy listening to the birds and enjoying ancient art all by myself. Actually, very shortly a Scottish couple we have encountered a few times invites me to join them and we have a great chat. Some of us are just wired that way.
Each group has it’s own red ‘lollypop” (in the tour guide’s hand, just slightly to upper right of center)
We all get back on the bus and are dropped off at the Plaka area, very cool. We wander around and then see one of the guides at the restaurant which I think translates as Plakiotessa, and it has a menu we like, so we go there, too. It is another great day for eating outside, woo hoo, and AdventureMan and I decide to split an appetizer plate. We don’t need to eat the way we ate in Santorini more than once in a blue moon, but we enjoy every bite.
This was truly delicious! Relatively light and plenty for two. We saw equally beautiful dishes going to other tables, too.
We’re not quite ready to end our Athens leg, so we explore the area a little, then hop on a Hop On, Hop Off bus. We explain to the lady that we only want one loop, and she gives us a special deal. You get on, you get earplugs, and rush upstairs to get a seat. You plug your ear plugs in and choose your language. My earplugs lasted about 7 minutes.
The bus took almost exactly the same route as the bus tour of the morning. We were bummed, until just after a big outdoor flower market the bus took a different turn and we ended up in a part of town that reminded us of Doha and Kuwait, an area full of souks, braziers, spice shops, antiquities. We were so enchanted, I didn’t even take any pictures. If we ever go back to Athens, that area will be our first stop.
We got to see the soldiers marching to the changing of the guard:
I’m pretty sure these are on top of the National Library:
The market near which is the souk kind of area we loved.
Back at the Plaka, we get off the Hop On Hop Off and right on to a shuttle to take us back to the ship. AdventureMan hits the spa and I take a nap. Perfect.
It’s not that Athens isn’t a lot of fun. I think it could be. Being in a new city, often a new country, every day is not very relaxing, and I think by the time I hit Athens, my enthusiasm for the struggle had waned. It’s not you, Athens, it’s me.
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 a little disorienting, waking up each day in a new location, today, even a new country. We awoke early to watch the ship enter the Kotor harbor; the scenery is spectacular, and spectacularly different from Venice, Koper and Dubrovnik.
The ship home page tells us it is chilly:
There is a hike in Kotor, too, and one look, we look at each other and know that this is not the hike for us. We will choose to go into Kotor and explore. This hike may zig-zag, but it is a steady, steep incline, and then a steady, steep decline when your legs are weak and shakey. Ummm. Pass.
As we eat breakfast, we watch the first tour groups head out. This is one of the places where we had turned our tour tickets back in, preferring to do it on our own.
We exit the ship, cross the street, and we are in the Old City of Kotor. We find that this is a town full of truly beautiful and welcoming churches, Catholic and Orthodox.
The clock tower in the large main square
The Cathedral of St. Tryphon has uneven steeples. Some stories told us it was because they ran out of money, but there were others that said it happened in an earthquake.
Doors of Saint Mary’s
Inside Saint Nicholas. They had chants playing, places to sit, and local people coming and going, lighting candles. It was a lovely place to be.
Saint Luke’s, where I found a beautiful cross for my grandson
Inside the Maritime Museum
Kotor’s Cat Museum
Time for refreshment. We find a hidden cafe, Perper’s, and I see blueberry juice on the menu. That’s exactly what I want:
We find a way to access the city walls
This is the church, Church of Our Lady of Remedy, I believe, (below) that is half way up the zig-zag path we did not choose to hike today. A few people on the ship hiked to it, but I don’t know anyone who went further. Many people make the pilgrimage from Kotor to pray for good health.
As we are headed back to the ship, we spot a Farewell Montenegro sign. We have thoroughly enjoyed our day in Montenegro, and would happily come back.
On board, we give the Pool Grill a try, and like the food. After eating, we meet up with our friends who tell us that the food at the Pool Grill can be customized. For example, I got the shrimp salad sandwich, but didn’t eat any of the bread, or the fries, and I should’t have eaten any onion rings, but I did. Our friends explained you can ask for the shrimp salad or Mahi Mahi without the sandwich – we really like these people! They think like we do! From this point, I had the shrimp salad on greens!
We take dinner once again in the World Cafe, find a quiet table and have a dinner that delights us.
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!
Up at dawn after a wonderful night’s sleep – we have to have our bags in the hallway by 5 a.m. for pick up and taking to the ship.
Venice at dawn:
We decide to go to the big buffet today, and, while the buffet is lavish, the dining hall is crowded and noisy, and service is slow and confused. We are nostalgic for our breakfast the day before, quiet, serene, plentiful if not lavish, enough. We could make our own cafe mochas. We go back to our room and debate whether we have time for another vaporetto ride before the shuttle to the ship, and decide we probably don’t, but we do have time for one last wonderful walk. This hotel is in a great location for uncrowded walking.
By 10:30, there is a large crowd waiting, and we are lined up to go aboard the shuttle to the ship. It is a short trip, then we are offloaded and we walk about a quarter of a mile to the processing terminal. I mention this because we don’t really enjoy being a part of a herd, and because people considering travel on the Viking sea cruises need to know about the walking involved, especially if they have mobility issues.
There is a demographic who is on these cruises. No children. These are “destination” cruises, and while they have entertainment on board, entertainment is not a big draw, nor do they bother with casinos. They are destination rich, and enrichment lecture rich. They have a gorgeous spa, and nice fitness room, plus a jogging track on deck 2 and a fitness deck on deck 8. But many people in my demographic begin to have mobility issues, some use canes, some are in wheel chairs, and they struggle with these aspects of the trip, the herding, the walking, even though it is a short distance.
Another snaking line and then we are photographed and given ship cards as we process. Our bags go through screening, and then we enter the ship, to wait in one of the lovely ship spaces to be able to go to our cabin. It isn’t a long wait, but I am stewing a little. We are wasting time! We are in Venice! We don’t have to stand in line; we could come later and process in! We have a quick lunch and head to our cabin.
Our cabin is lovely. We took a “penthouse” because to us, the cabin matters. Philosophies differ, many people choose small cabins, or cabins closer to the fine restaurants because they don’t intend to spend much time in their cabins. We are less social. We like the destinations, we like the spa, and we take our meals in the restaurants, and we spend time in our cabin. We love having our own “veranda” and we like having enough room to lounge around and not bump into one another. This pretty much fits our needs.
One thing we loved is that it is sparkling clean. We also love that there is fresh water waiting for us, and it is refilled every night. Viking excels in these small, but important touches. Notice that there is room for two people to pass each other between the bed and the storage units.
Lots of places where you can charge up your phones, iPads, computers, camera batteries, etc., and the outlets accept a variety of plugs, and the outlets are plentiful.
A double closet, in the hall way so it doesn’t inconvenience a person sleeping in a bed or the other person who might need to get into the closet while the other person is sleeping. Small matter? It matters! There is also a safe behind one of the drawer units, and up top, an in room individual coffee maker. I never used it because coffee was available everywhere on board, and you could drink it in lovely areas.
One person on Cruise Critic criticized that the coffee was bland and never felt caffeinated. I didn’t find the coffee bland, but I also wondered about the caffeination. But a little less caffein is probably not such a bad thing for me 🙂
Storage under the flat screen TV with two sets of three drawers each, and two great shelves for shoes., under which is a longer drawer.
Another of those small things that matter. We had bedside lamps, and we also had these more focused individual bed lights so that one could read while the other slept. Lovely touch. When I didn’t have enough hangers, Fernando, one of our cabin stewards, quickly brought me more; he and Dina made us feel like treasured guests, and every wish was fulfilled with a smile.
More drawers on the right, and a pull out drawer / refrigerator on the left. Contains champagne, which we didn’t drink, and whatever beverages we wanted – we are so boring, we had a little beer, a little wine and mostly coke and ginger ale. Never touched the hard stuff.
I neglected to take a photo of the bathroom, which was beautiful, all beautiful surfaces and glass, with drawers and shelves to hold all the things you keep handy in bathrooms, and lovely toiletries so we didn’t need to bring any hair shampoo, conditioner, soap, shower caps, or even a hair dryer. While some mornings were chilly, the floors in the bathroom were heated, oh what sweet luxury. The towels were oversized and thick, and the bathrobes ample and warm. Some people wore their bathrobes to the spa, one man even showed up at the fire drill in his bathrobe!
Our veranda. We loved being able to sit or stand outside as we entered or departed a port, but it is hardly private. There are people just like us with verandas on either side, so you can’t help but overhear one another’s conversations. We are sort of private people, so we rarely talked while on the veranda, or even if the door to the veranda was open.
Storage, TV, water . . . we loved that there was a bridge camera, and that the TV also showed the time. It was a huge relief NOT to watch TV, with the utterly vicious election going on.
We had booked ahead, having heard about the super restaurants on board. We ate dinner the first night in Manfredi’s, an Italian food restaurant. The food was really, really good. In the bread basket the table was this very unusual bread, just a thin thin sheet, sort of like peanut brittle, only savory, with slices of garlic baked into it. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it was delicious.
The food was delicious. And we never went there again. We cancelled our second reservation. The food was wonderful, but too much. We had no control over how much would come. The tables were very close together, and some the people spoke very loudly. The staff was attentive and helpful, but there was also a lot of loud inter-staff co-ordination, a lot of clatter as they picked up dishes, and clanking as flatware and tableware were picked up together. It was noisy, and not private, not elegant dining. The staff sent in orders by cell phone, and to do that effectively, you have to be paying attention. It wasn’t working for us. The food is delicious, but I can’t even remember what we ate.
We explored the ship, and unpacked and fell into bed. At some point, I felt a slight bump, and could sense movement, so I went to the veranda – and we were leaving Venice. I opened the door, which squeaked, and wakened AdventureMan, who joined me, and we sat whispering to one another, watching the lovely sight of slumbering Venice at night drift by. We know that we had extraordinary luck; Venice in late October can be really rainy. We would take that chance. We would go back again in a heartbeat.