Friday, December 30, 2011

$1...$1....Part 2 - Alexandria

The city of Alexandria was founded in about 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great.  it was the capital for a thousand years before the Muslim conquest and it was moved to the Cairo area.  It is known for the ancient library and lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Today it is Egypt's second largest city and its largest port.
On the way to the bus we were again offered items for $1....$1.  I think those are the first words children learn in Egypt.  But they are trying to make a living, so I do succumb and purchase some postcards and book marks from the least pushy vendors.  The streets of Alexandria are just as crowded as Cairo, some closed off to vehicles and outdoor markets spill out into the streets.
Our first stop is an ancient Roman excavation.  The reason the theater was uncovered was that that fill was needed for a nearby building site.  The excavations revealed the ruins.  The complex is in the heart of Alexandria and surrounded by development.  Most of the theater is below the current level of the city from the accumulations of thousands of years of debris and dirt.  Once down the level of the theater, there is a wide avenue, the theater and Roman baths that are still being excavated, and no entrance was allowed.
The next stop was the Alexandria Museum, located in one of the fashionable older neighborhoods.  The museum is housed in a 1920s Italianate villa.  It traces the history of the city and its growth from ancient times to present.  There are exhibits of Roman and Egyptian artifacts and items from the last century of the privileged class.  Pottery shards, mosaic floor sections, mummies and burial dolls are displayed among the rooms of the mansion and its basement.

Upon leaving the museum we stopped by the new library of Alexandria.  The plans are to replicate the ancient library with the most volumes.  After a few photos on to the Qaitbay Citadel, a fort that guarded the harbor entrance.  Located on a narrow strip of land that helps form the harbor, the fort was erected in the 15th Century to defend the city.  Its thick stone walls were fell prey to cannons of the British fleet  and were repaired and the fort became a refuge for King Farouk.  After the revolution on 1952 it became a museum as it still remains.
So ends the first visit to the African continent.  Back to the cruise terminal in Alexandria.  The approach is lined with small stalls for last minute purchases, and the building itself is new.  Inside it is quite spectacular, with a soaring dome above and arches surrounding the arrival area. on the Pacific Princess to continue the cruise.  If you need help in planning a cruise contact Travel Themes and Dreams, the experienced agents can help with all your travel needs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

$1...$1......Port Said and Cairo

Egypt. one of the oldest known civilizations.  Subject of many novels and movies, who can forget Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra?  The search for the source of the Nile, which happens to be the few major north flowing rivers in the world.  The mention of Egypt conjures up images of the Pyramids,the Sphinx, exotic shopping bazaars, and vast deserts among others.

Port Said is a small city just to the west of the northern entrance to the Suez canal.  It's waterfront is lined with a combination of older buildings and new high rise apartments.  After meeting in the lounge, our group boards the tour bus for the three hour drive into Cairo.  This is where today's excursion is different from others.  Sitting in the front seat is an attractive man in a blue suit, he is our security guard.  Under his suit jacket is a small machine gun, more on this later.  The second unusual thing, there are six buses with passengers, two empty buses and at least two if not three vehicles with armed guards escorting the caravan to Cairo.
The buses pulled away from the port area and meandered through Port Said to the highway to Cairo.  Along the left was the Suez Canal, though it was hidden from view by an embankment, to the right were small settlements and farms.  The area between the road and the canal was left natural, meaning it was a narrow slice of desert, irrigation provided needed water for the fields to the right.
Among the fields and houses to the right were conical structures pierced with rows of openings.  Pigeon houses.  In the middle east pigeons are widely consumed as a source of protein.  These are not the scavengers that most people see in the city, but basically 'free range' pigeons.  Their diet consists of insects and seeds from the surrounding fields, making for a healthy meat.
As we approached Cairo, the landscape changes to developments featuring large villas.  This was where Cairo's 'elite' lived.  There we many international schools and car dealers in between the neighborhoods.  The closer we approached the city, the villas became large apartment blocks that became closer together and less lavish.  Once in the city, the apartments appeared to be incomplete, no windows, outside walls not finished, concrete piers for additional floors protruded from roofs, but the roof was covered with satellite dishes.  Tax laws, unfinished buildings are not taxed, so by not completing the buildings, no property taxes were owed.  Strange system that produces a not too attractive city.  Near the airport were more gated compounds of villas.  This was the area where many former 'elite' of the government lived.  With the new government on its way, many futures were in doubt.
Metropolitan Cairo straddles the Nile River.  In the ancient world, the east bank was the City of the Living and the west was the City of the Dead.  Cairo itself is on the east bank and was the city for the living residents, the Pyramids were on the west bank.  The urban sprawl has encroached on the ancient wonders by the city of Giza.  A few blocks from the Pyramids there was a highly polluted canal in the road's median, trash, plastic bottles and tires were floating in the water and lining the banks.  As we continued driving, we passed a person swimming in the polluted water.  EEEWWWW!!!
Finally, the bus arrives at the Pyramids.  They are as impressive as I thought they would be.  Large stone structures rising from the desert.  After a brief history of the structures we were allowed to wander up to the structures.  The largest does have a roped off area at the base to keep visitors away from falling rocks, through you can approach the others.  There is a small area that shows the original smooth covering stones that have been worn away or removed.
At the base of the plateau is the Sphinx.  The sculpture of a lion with the head of a human.  Time has not been kind the structure.  The nose and beard have fallen off and the smooth surface has been pitted from years of sandstorms and erosion.  Even in its current condition it is a sight to experience.  the title for this post of $1....$1, is from the hawkers at the Pyramids, everything was $1.  The best was to get rid of them was No hablo Ingles.
As with any good shore excursion, the next stop was SHOPPING.  The driver managed to navigate the congested and confusing Cairo streets.  I should also mention that we had a police escort.  When the bus approached a red light, on came the lights and siren, and we went through the intersection.  The store for shopping was very nice, it had a wide range of products and many that were made in Egypt.  I picked up a few gifts for my family.
Our last stop for the day was a lunch cruise on the Nile.  The food was very good, a combination of local and American dishes.  Even the familiar dishes had a local spin with the herbs and spices used.  Entertainment included a belly dancer and a 'whirling dervish', both of which were enjoyable.  Afterwards, there was time for watching the city from the open deck on the upper level.
Once back on the bus, we started the journey to the Pacific Princess in Port Said.  There were at least three buses in a row, ours being the middle, and speeding down the highway among the many unfinished buildings.  Watching out the window, I saw the rear tire explode.  As the bus filed with that funky old tire air, the driver managed to cross 6 lanes of traffic to the shoulder.  The roadway was elevated about 4 stories above grade,  offering a view into the tenements.  Within minutes the windows were filled with the residents waving and smiling at the stranded tourists.  From the time the tire blew out and we were loaded on one of the empty buses, was maybe 10 minutes.  Being very observant, I think I was the only one that noticed that the guard had un-holstered his machine gun.  It was no longer concealed under his jacket, but was hanging next to his thigh while we transferred buses.

Once on the new bus, the trip continued with anymore excitement.  The convoy slowly reformed at a toll plaza, with our guard vehicles.  Upon arrival at the port, the promenade overlooking the area was lined with locals, also waving and smiling.  The Pacific Princess was only the 6th ship that year to dock in Port Said because of the country's unrest, and they were happy to see things returning to normal.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Israel - Day 2

After a very comfortable night's sleep and tasty buffet breakfast, our group boarded the bus again to continue the tour of Israel.  Today's itinerary would circle the Sea of Galilee to the north of Jerusalem.  Along the way the countryside was dotted with small towns, Bedouin settlements and date groves.
Our first stop was a kibbutz that recreated where Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.  The was a large gift shop with various products ranging from religious to Dead Sea products.  A large terrace area overlooked the river and steps lead down to the water.  People were in the water being baptized as the crowds milled around watching the proceedings.  This is not the actual spot where Jesus was baptized, the actual site is in Jordan, so this was a recreation.
The drive continued north to the location of the Sermon on the Mount.  The large hill offers a panoramic view of the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, and is crowned by a small church.  One of the tour members read from the New Testament as we stood on the terrace taking in the view.
At the base of the hill was the ruins of a town.  In the town were the remains of Peter the Apostle's house.  There were Roman ruins of the town which we wandered around that included grinding stones for milling grains among other items.  There were additional ships in port and this site was very crowded.
Lunch was served at a kibbutz on the eastern shore at the base of the Golan Heights.  There were several appetizer plates on the table when we were seated.  The liver pate with caramelized onions was delicious, and since no one else cared for it, most ended up on my plate.  Since the kibbutz raises cattle, lunch was steak.  Small individual desserts topped off lunch.  Since the kibbutz is self supporting, there was a  general store on the other side of the room.  Everything from fresh meat, to spices to pots to cook with.  The spices were sold in bulk, and covered a large table.
Our last stop before returning to the Pacific Princess was Nazareth.  There is a church built on the location where Joseph and Mary had their house.  There is also an enclosed ruin that is supposed to be the actual house, I accepted it was a representation of a house of that time period.  The actual town of Nazareth had grown into a small city.  There were crooked streets lined with apartments above store fronts.  After a brief tour we boarded the bus back to Haifa.
When on a cruise, there is a time given for all passengers to return to the ships so it can depart on time.  Just before this time, passengers names will be called that have not returned, and if they were on board please contact the purser.  Well, at 5:15, the names of 6 passengers were announced, two of them our tablemates.  A few minutes later, it was just those two.  The Pacific Princess was supposed to depart at 5:30, at 6:15 3 passengers were dropped off at the gangway.  It turns out they were on an excursion and had a minor medical issue, but had contacted the ship, so they were aware of the situation.
A few passengers had gathered on the upper deck to watch for the returning 'Gems of the Seas'.  At 6:40 a car swerved around the barricades at the end of the pier and sped towards the gangway.  Out of the car emerged E and J and the driver.  Watching from 10 decks up it was easy to see the driver was very mad from his body motions.  After  brief discussion, he grabbed the immigration paper from E, got in his car and drove off, E and J boarded, and the ship departed.
As usual, E and J were late to dinner, and the question of what happened was asked.  They had taken the train to Jerusalem on the first day to explore the city.  They wandered around the old city and did some shopping.  It was unclear exactly what went on, but E ended up behind the counter in one store with the owner, where he 'stole two kisses'.  It seems she allowed at least the first one.  They spent the night in a hostel that had partial walls, curtain separations and a shared bath, a little different than their shipboard accommodations.
This where the story versions start to differ.  E said they went to the train station at 3:15, J said E was haggling over gold jewelry and was reminded of the time which was already 3:15.  So they got to the train station late and missed the train, the bus would not be fast enough, so they got in a taxi.  The standard fare from Jerusalem to Haifa is 700 shekels, they only had 300.  They told the driver they had the 300 and he would be paid at the ship.  Once at the entrance to the port, the Princess port agent, the driver of the car, met up with the pair and paid off the cab driver the additional 400 shekels.  E thought that had gotten off easy.
The following day they were called to Guest Services and informed of the charge for about $125 for the cab fare.  E thought this was wrong since they told him how much they would pay.  But since English was not his first language, he understood they had some money with them and rest was on the ship.  We told her that was not bad because the ship could have left them and they would have to fly to the next port.  E was that would be bad PR and they would not leave them, obviously she has never been on a cruise where passengers had been left, because it does happen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Israel - Day 1

The original itinerary was for one night in Haifa, followed by one night ins Ashod, but because of some unrest in Ashod, the Pacific Princess remained in Haifa for two nights.  This did not effect our excursion, since ours included and overnight stay in Jerusalem.  The only request from the ship was if you were going to stay on land to let them know.  But more on this later.
Haifa is a port city, and only recently a cruise destination.  This means the port itself is not very attractive.  But the city itself rises up the slopes of a small mountain.  The most recognizable site is the Baha'i Temples and its gardens, unfortunately our tour did not include this site, but it was visible from the ship.
After meeting in the lounge, our group departed for the bus and the drive to Jerusalem.  The driver navigated the streets of Haifa and we entered onto a highway like any interstate at home.  The trip was about two hours and passed fields, towns and memorials.  On our rest break I sampled fresh made tahini, ground sesame seeds, and a sweetened candy-like version.
Once in Jerusalem, we drove to the Mount of Olives for a view of the Old City.  The view was impressive with the city wall, the Dome of the Rock and many other Biblical sites.  The next stop was the Church of All Nations which is located in the Garden of Gethsemane.  There was a very large crowd waiting to enter the church, but our guide knew the staff and our group was allowed to go in through the exit cutting out an hour's wait in line.  Both of these locations were mentioned multiple times in the New Testament with the travels of Jesus.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient writings in Hebrew of the Bible, found by a Bedouin herder in caves near the Dead Sea, they are housed at the Israel Museum.  In the courtyard of the museum is a 50:1 scale model of Jerusalem in the year 66.  It is amazing in its detail, and some of the structures are still identifiable in the modern city.  Inside the museum is the display of the scrolls along with the history of their discovery.  The original clay jars from the first scrolls discovered are also on display.  The scrolls are arranged around the outside of the display area and in a circular center section.  A short stroll through the sculpture garden then back on the bus.
Due to urban sprawl, the city of Jerusalem and the town of Bethlehem run together.  I had always thought they were farther apart then the approximately 5 miles.  We went in the church that was built over the site believed to be the manger where Jesus was born.  There was a service in progress and the line to the 'grotto' was extremely long, so our resourceful guide took up around so we could glance in.  Lunch at a restaurant wa included.  It consisted of the local cuisine and  some items to appeal to American tastes.

Back in the Old City, we wandered through the narrow alleys lined with shops to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher  built on the site of the Crucifixion and the Tomb of Jesus.  The  church was dark and imposing in the deepening night.  Once inside we climbed to the chapel believed to be on the actual site, then to the tomb, also inside the church.  A memorial mass was being conducted so the was quite a crowd.  More narrow alleys and then we were in the open space before the Western Wall, part of the original temple.  To approach the Wall, men needed to cover their heads, and males and females were separated to different areas.
Once we arrived at out hotel, The Dan, we checked had a few minutes then to dinner.  Luckily the meal was served in hotel buffet style in a ballroom.  Being in Israel, all the food was Kosher, but there was a wide variety of options, of of which were delicious, and multiple bottles of wine.
The night time entertainment was a light show in the courtyard of a guard tower on the city wall.  It was very well planned with a walk along the inside perimeter of the wall with various vignettes in the alcoves.  The actual show was projected on the interior walls.  It was a show of the history of Jerusalem and I thought it was very good.  Of course was had to take in all the details because of the size of the projection.

The one thing that REALLY surprised me about Jerusalem was how hilly it was, and the fact that they were STEEP hills.  I thought it would be on rolling hills, not some that were more like cliffs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Biblical historians believe the Book of Revelation was revealed to John on the island of Patmos.  Situated not far from Turkey, it is one of the many Greek Isles that dot the Aegean Sea, east of the Greek mainland.  It is a relatively small island, and is much longer than wide.  The highest point of the island is crowned with an ancient monastery.
The harbor, used for centuries by fisherman, was too shallow for even the Pacific Princess, so we were tendered to land.  Our tour bus took us to the grotto where the Book of Revelation was revealed.  The is a shrine built on the location and looks like a small church.  After re-boarding the bus, we continued to the monastery.
The location was incredible.  But when it was built, it was also a fort, place strategically on the highest point, commanding a 360 view of the surrounding area.  Once inside it was a maze of hallways and courtyards.  The chapels contain icons from the middle ages.  On one of the upper levels is a museum with artifacts of the monastery, and many religious items.
We then explored the adjacent hilltop town.  They winding streets lined with white-washed houses was the idyllic Greek Isle.  The various owners painted the front doors individual colors, and bouganvilla draped over garden walls added additional color.  One of the stops was a private home that has been in the same family for centuries.  The owner was a charming older woman with family stories of Russian trips, European vacations and times past..
The final stop in Patmos before the required shopping was at a family owned tavern.  We had a delicious snack of local food and the staff did traditional dances.  The family across the table had met our dinner table mates.  The mother had been in a ladies restroom when E arrived.  She proceeded to enter and Out of Order stall and get locked in.  She did not pay any attention to the LARGE sign warning of difficulties.  So she is in the stall pounding on the door and screaming.  Does not surprise me.  The name derived for them was Special Gems of the Sea.
Back at the port, we wandered around the streets with various shops.  It was very quaint and the shop owners were not pushy, always a benefit.  Besides the tourist shops there were some small cafes that catered to the locals.  They were enjoying the sunshine with a small afternoon snack.  After a few little purchases, we boarded the tender to return to the Pacific Princess.

At dinner we discussed our day's adventure.  Since the island is small most of the excursions overlapped.  But the interesting event was that E tried to get on a different bus, she claimed hers had no a/c.  She had taken the bus as a shuttle, and not a tour, so she was asked to leave.  Then J revealed that back in town E got on a scooter with a man she had only met once and rode off for 45 minutes.  CRAZY

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Relaxing Sea Day....Sort of....

Since the distance to our next port is so far, we got to enjoy a day at sea.  These are great for catching up on postcard writing, reading or even napping.  About the Pacific Princess and the rest of the Princess fleet, the have the Princess Patter a listing of the day's activities.  These activities range from lectures to trivia games, art auctions or wine tasting and many more options.
The other couple from our dinner table and I liked playing trivia so we were at all of the matches.  We won a few, came in second  some, but was always in the top finishers.  Prizes were Princess gifts, pens, water bottles, etc.
Back to the dinner table.  We are now on DAY 4 of the cruise, and as always the LA women are late.  I'll just use initials for them E & J  The have been late every night, a trend that will be a constant for the cruise.  As usual, they wold order, then mid course make another suggestion, and it was becoming tiresome.  The waiter got to the point of bringing and extra soup for E so there was no need to go back to the kitchen.  At least they got to the point of sharing entrees, instead of just ordering an extra.  But that too was strange..  On night J ordered a beef dish, medium rare, like she wanted it.  After finishing her fish, E cut into the beef, called the waiter over and complained it was not medium.  The waiter replied it was ordered medium rare, BUT I don't like it this way, I want medium.  But you did not order it, J did and it was medium rare.  So E turns to J, why did you order it medium rare, I like it medium.
Listening to the stream of conversation was always interesting.  The story would go off on so many tangents, it was hard to remember what started it.  Conversations about pricing condos would go past martinis, tree house restaurants, Hollywood mansions to hand thrown pizza in the kitchen with the security guard.  But the one common thread was it was about E.  During one conversation, E was talking and J asked a question, E replied...don't ask me things while I am talking, I cannot do two things at once.
At one point during the meal, E asked me to call her travel agent when I got home and get the refund process started for the flight they missed.  I told her the agent would have to speak to her, since I was not her client.  She started over again, and I interrupted her.....BIG mistake.  LET ME FINISH!!  So she asked again and when she was done I looked at her turned to the person beside me and just started talking to her.  At least she did not ask me again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Croatia as we know it today is a new country with a long history, dating back thousands of years.  The current country is part of former Yugoslavia.  After the fall of communism in Russia, many of its former allies also experienced a change in governments.  There was a period in Croatia where the neighboring Serbs were shelling cities and killing the inhabitants.  Eventually peace returned and the country began a renaissance, and tourism picked up.
Dubrovnik's location on the Adriatic made it a major trading port.  It is the only city to have rivaled Venice for trade with the east.  Its walled Old City is a UNESCO Heritage Site and worth a visit.  The new harbor is not near the Walled City, but just a short distance away.  They have a very impressive bridge right on the edge of the new harbor, which makes a great first impression.
Once we were docked, we climbed aboard out bus and headed south.  We drove past the Old City on our way to a restored mill with a brandy tasting.  The countryside was beautiful, a large mountain range to the east and the valley and foothills dotted with small villages.  The rad was close to the coast so views of the Adriatic were constant.  Once the road went almost to Montenegro, we turned east to the mill.
The mill is still family owned and open for tours.  There was a series of mill houses along a quickly flowing stream.  The owner demonstrated the mills operation.  In the past, the miller would not charge money for the service, but a percentage of the milled product.  Considering the technology was a few hundred years old, it still operated efficiently.   By operating ropes, the operator could  start or stop the flow to turn the millstone.  After the demonstration we tasted locally produced brandy flavored with either walnuts or cherries.  For nibbles there were candied orange peels and sugared almonds, both traditional snacks.
Our next stop was the resort town of Cavtat.  Not far from Dubrovnik, but much more laid back, the Croatian version of the Riviera.  Since it was off season the harbor was fairly empty, during the summer it is full of yachts.  The waterfront promenade was beautiful and lined with cafes, some of which reminded me of South Beach.  The city itself has houses built in the 14th century to the present, and its center is car free.
The Old City is a pedestrian only area, so our bus dropped us just outside the wall.  After a brief tour of the main street we were allowed to wander on our own and shop.  We attempted to walk along the wall, but the 'Winter Hours' were in effect and it was no longer open, so wandering the ancient streets was the option.  Many of the shops catered to the tourist trade,  but there were some stores for those who lived in the city walls.

As the sun set we returned to our bus and the ride to the Pacific Princess.  Remember, professional travel agents have experienced many destinations and also take training classes to stay current.  For your travel needs, contact Travel Themes and Dreams.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

First Stop - Ravenna

So after an memorable first night dinner, the Pacific Princess set sail from Venice.  Since it was late, most of the city was shrouded in darkness.  As opposed to other tourist cities, Venice is more subdued and not illuminated like other destination, which makes departing photos hard to capture.
Like many ports on the Mediterranean, Ravenna has been around for centuries.  Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, all have had their turn running the city.  Good times, bad times, war have all shaped the city  and surrounding area into the current version.  Once away from the port area, we passed through the edge of the town and headed to Bologna.

The area close to town was industrial on one side, and fish farming on other.  Not sure if I would like to eat fish from a waterway across from a refinery.  But after a short time the surrounding area became fields dotted with old stone farmhouses.  Crops changed to orchards and then to vineyards as we headed inland.

The city of Bologna is in the foothills above the coastal plain.  The university there is one of the oldest in Europe and one of the largest.  One of its most noted feature is the shaded arcades.  They were constructed to offer pedestrians protection from the weather as they shopped.  Most of the sidewalks in the old city are covered, in fact there are over 25 miles.  Which was nice since this was the only shore day that we had rain.  It was a brief shower of only about 20 minutes and quickly cleared to reveal beautiful blue skies.
Of course this is Italy, so there are a few churches.  Our shore excursion stopped at a centuries old church complex that included a cloister area.  The brickwork was exceptional and has lasted longer than several ruling empires.
So after a few hours of wandering around, the tour allowed for some shopping time.  The agreed meeting place and time was established and off we went in different directions.  This may sound strange to some people, but I am not a big fan of shopping, my roommate on the other hand LOVES it.  As we wandered the streets, he would pause to look in every shoe or men's store along the way, and also home decor.  To me they are not that different from what can be found at home or on line.  The store that stopped me was the deli.  Windows filled with baked good, pasta and cold cuts.  The being Bologna, there has to be bologna somewhere.  Except in Italy it is called mortadella, the original that was copied by Oscar Meyer.  I was tempted to go in but it being lunch time, it was full of paying customers, so I just looked.
Our lunch was in a very nice restaurant not too far from the main square.  Once inside we walked passed a woman making homemade pasta and were seated in the former wine cellar.  Meals on excursions is a good time to meet people, since it is hard to chat while walking and listening to the guide.  Lunch was local favorites.  Our first plate was sliced cured meats, cheese chunks, olives and nice crusty bread.  The entree was Lasagna Bolognese made with spinach pasta sheets.  Dessert was a very tasty chocolate torte.  And since wine is the national drink of Italy, there were several bottles on the table.  To finish off the meal a nice caffeine filled shot of espresso, then back on the bus to return to the ship.

Remember, when you are looking for vacation ideas, cruises offers the option of visiting many locations, but not having to pack/unpack everyday.  And it is especially true in the Mediterranean, where most of the ancient cities are very close to the coast.  A knowledgeable travel agent like those at Travel Themes and Dreams, can make the difference for a great experience.