Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DAY 5: Corfu, Greece (Oceania Cruise)

We wanted to try different types of shore excursions, including ones offered by the cruise line, independently arranged bus tours, independently arranged private car tours, and independently independent – just doing our own thing!

For Corfu, we chose one of Oceania’s tours, which we would not have been able to duplicate on our own. At $199 per person, it was definitely one of the most expensive ones, but it included a tour of Achillion Palace as well as – and this was the really special part – a home-cooked Greek feast at a private villa with commanding, panoramic views. We were not sorry for our selection.

First, the bus took us to Achillion Palace.

Statues at Achillion Palace, Corfu, Greece

The tour guide gave us the background of the palace, once the summer retreat of Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissy), Empress of Austria (1837-1898). According to the guide, Sissy was considered a bit wild in her day. For example, she was the first woman in her circle to wear trousers while horse-back riding. Because of her unconventional ways, the Archduchess Sophie wanted her son, Franz Joseph I, to marry Sissy’s older sister, Helene, who was considered more compliant. (The fact that Sissy and her sister were first cousins to Franz Joseph I, was not a concern.) When arriving to town for the ball, when the engagement would be announced, Sissy was locked in her room until the time of the ball, so she wouldn’t cause any trouble. However, she escaped the room and went fishing. There she ran into Franz Joseph I.

It had been many years since they’d seen each other as children, and though she knew who he was, he didn’t recognize her. He was smitten. It wasn’t until the ball that he realized that it was his beautiful cousin Sissy for whom he’d fallen, and he would dance with no one but her. Much to his mother’s chagrin, he informed her that he would be marrying Sissy, not Helene. In an unrelated event decades later (eight years after building Achillion Palace), Sissy was assassinated by an unstable individual seeking notoriety. The palace was later bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

Achillion Palace, Corfu, Greece

Staircase at Achillion Palace, Corfu, Greece

Sissy at Achillion Palace, Corfu, Greece

No, this is not the ghost of Sissy, but a statue of her on the front porch. She has been likened to Princess Diana: beautiful, well-loved, and somewhat unconventional.

An interesting tidbit of information is that the palace was the birthplace of Britain’s Prince Phillip on June 10, 1921, exactly 90 years ago (lacking 10 days) as I write this. And for James Bond fans, the movie “For Your Eyes Only” is said to have been filmed at the palace.

After a tour of the palace, we boarded the bus for Villa Rosa. What a treat that was! We were greeted with Greek musicians and dancers in local costumes, as well as small glasses of strawberry-infused liqueur or ouzo, an anise-flavored aperitif.

Musicians and ladies in Greek costumes at Villa Rosa, Corfu, Greece

Dancers in Greek costume at Villa Rosa, Corfu, Greece

Villa Rosa is a private villa perched high in the hills, with beautiful gardens and pool, and gorgeous views of the surrounding sea.

Villa Rosa, Corfu, Greece

Roses at Villa Rosa, Corfu, Greece

But the best part of all was the home cooking of the hospitable lady of the house, which far surpassed any expectations we could have had. We’d been told we could take a dip in the pool if we wished, but we were all too busy eating and drinking! I doubt any of us had ever had better Greek cooking, and it was definitely an experience to remember.

Plate of delicious Greek food at Villa Rosa, Corfu, Greece

One of the things we couldn’t help noticing, while riding on the bus, was how many unfinished residences there were – both single- and multi-family constructions – where they appeared almost to be abandoned, with no work going on to complete them. Some of them promised to be quite nice if and when finished.

Our guide explained that people work on the houses while the money lasts, then when it runs out, they wait till they’ve got more money to continue. We would have thought, with the multi-unit constructions, that they would finish a few of them so they’d have money to finish more, but obviously we have only the most superficial information regarding Greek construction/finance laws. (For a slightly different situation and explanation, see the Zakynthos blog tomorrow.)

The bus returned us to Corfu Town (also known as
Kérkyra), where we had some free time for shopping or exploring. I strolled the town, while Al toured the fort.

Al’s view from the top, Corfu Town as seen from the fort

Canon at the Old Fort in Corfu, Greece

Following are some photos from my stroll around Corfu Town:

A seaside park in Corfu Town, Greece

Horse-drawn carriage rides are available in Corfu Town, Greece

The Listón in Corfu Town, Greece

The Listón was built by the French as a replica of the Parisian Rue de Rivoli.  In earlier times, only aristocrats with certain credentials could stroll beneath its arches.

Pigeon rests atop a statue in Corfu Town, Greece

There are a lot of outdoor cafés in Corfu Town. This was one of my favorites.

And there’s plenty of shopping!

Handmade items hang in an open-air shop in Corfu Town, Greece

Corfu, Greece is known for their kumquats and kumquat liqueur

Busy shopping street in Corfu Town, Greece

Our favorite part of the day was the villa, but the drive to it, and to the palace, required routes that were less than lovely. In places it reminded me of some of the Caribbean towns we’ve seen. In other places it just seemed to be in need of better zoning laws so you wouldn’t see a tire shop next to a residence next to a business that sells wrought iron gates next to…

As for Corfu Town itself, I imagine it must look similar to the way Cuba does now – nice at one time, but seriously in need of upkeep and paint.

Corfu, Greece

One of the interesting aspects of a cruise is coming back afterward and comparing notes with other passengers. What did they see and how did they like it? For example, the next day we went to Zakynthos, where we saw some seriously gorgeous views; and a young couple with whom we lunched, said it reminded them of Corfu. ??? It turns out they’d taken Oceania’s 4 x 4, off-road shore excursion, and were led into some beautiful areas of the island that we didn’t see. So next time in Corfu, maybe we’ll tackle some off-road adventure!

CRUISE INFO re GETTING TO SHORE: If you’ve ever wondered how shore excursions are handled, there are several ways:

• The absolute best (but not often possible) is when the ship can dock right near the center of town, as ours did in Kotor.

• More often, the dock is further away, not within walking distance of town. I don’t know if every cruise line does this, but whenever this was the case on our cruise, Oceania always had full-size buses ready to shuttle us to and from the town for the entire duration of our stay. Maybe we were just lucky in our timing, but we never had to wait more than five minutes (if even that long) before catching the bus and departing.

• Still other times, tenders must be used to transport passengers between the ship and shore. On our cruise, this was done with lifeboats, except in Santorini, where they require that local boats be used. Either way, you feel very safe. There are four attendants – two on each side – who take your arms and keep you steady as you board the tender. (We even saw an older gentleman with a cane, getting onto the tender, which was an encouraging thing to see. He wasn’t going to just sit at home – or even on the ship – when there was a world to explore out there, so hats off to him!)

A complaint I’ve heard about cruise ships is that they give precedence to the people who’ve purchased their shore excursions, letting them board the tenders first. When you think of it, this makes sense. These are known tours that are taking place within a given window of time, whereas some of the others of us may just be going over to stroll around the town. It would hardly seem right to make an entire busload of people wait for tour takers who weren’t able to make an earlier tender.

Oceania has a very organized system. Tender tickets are given out in the Marina Lounge (theatre). A different type of ticket is given for each of Oceania’s tours so each tour group can be kept together on their respective tenders. For everyone else, colored tickets were given in the order in which they arrived at the lounge. Tickets are called by color for tender boarding.

There were interesting Venetian masks to look at on the walls of the Marina Lounge.

Amazing Venetian mask as wall decoration in the Marina Lounge, Oceania Cruises

Venetian mask as wall decoration in the Marina Lounge, Oceania Cruises

CRUISE TIP: I can’t speak for other cruise lines, but for Oceania, it’s good to show up at the theatre as soon as possible to get a colored ticket. Get the ticket first, and then make your final restroom stop or whatever, if needed.

CRUISE INFO re MAILING POSTCARDS: I’d wondered how to handle postcards when we’re sometimes spending only one day in a country. Would we have to buy the postcards, find some stamps, write the cards and mail them – all during the shore excursion in that country? (And if we didn’t finish in time, the stamps would be of no use to us the next day?) I was happy to find out that Oceania provides a mailing service, in conjunction with the local postal authorities. You write your postcard (can even use ones of Marina, located in the desk drawer in your cabin), hand it in onboard, and for $1.50 each, they mail it for you.

Monday, May 30, 2011

DAY 4: Kotor, Montenegro (Oceania Cruise)

Kotor, Montenegro – when we say gorgeous…!

That’s really the color of the water.

Kotor is a place you don’t want to miss if you ever have the opportunity to see it. It has incredible natural beauty, combined with an Old World architecture and friendly residents. Kotor and the bay seemed to us to be a largely undiscovered jewel, well worth seeking out.

The town is located at the farthest reach of Kotor Bay, sometimes referred to as Europe's southernmost fjord (though it isn’t technically one). Fortunately or unfortunately, we temporarily forgot about that when we went to bed the night before, so we didn’t get up as soon as we would have, meaning that we got some extra sleep but missed much of the cruise through the “fjord.” At least we got to see it on the way out at the end of the day.

Along the “fjord,” mountains and cliffs come almost to the water’s edge, leaving just enough space for a road and some houses, or maybe a small village here and there. However, the scenery was no less spectacular in Kotor itself than on the ride to reach it. Kotor marries these incredible geographical features with a charming medieval, walled city.

We were able to see it with a bit of sun first thing in the morning, but it quickly turned cloudy, with intermittent light rain, which nevertheless failed to dampen our spirits in this gorgeous setting.

View of Kotor, Montenegro from Oceania’s ship, Marina.
The domed building is the Church of St. Nicholas.

Pulling back on the previous shot, this puts the town into context. Perhaps you can make out a zigzag wall ascending the mountain. Climbing that wall is a popular tourist activity.

The keeper of the gate in Kotor, Montenegro

First we set out for the nearby village of Perast, catching the local Blue Line bus for the 25-minute trip there (€1 each). This gave us the opportunity to ride with the locals and interact with them a bit. They were very helpful with any questions we had.

Though a place of considerable beauty, Perast doesn't receive as many tourists as Kotor. There we had the feeling that we were really witnessing what life is like in Montenegro. It doesn’t take long to see the village, especially if not taking boats out to its two small islands. I would have preferred a little more time for Perast itself, but we limited ourselves to less than an hour so we could catch the next bus for the return to Kotor, which has much more area to cover.

A café or tavern in Perast, Montenegro

Boats on the shore of Perast, Montenegro

This photo, taken from Portomontenegro.com, shows what the islands off Perast –
Sveti Juraj and Gospa od Skrpjela ("Our Lady of the Rocks") – can look like on a pretty day.

Back in Kotor, one of us set out to ascend the 1350 steps up the city walls to St. John’s Fortress, which sits at a 1200-foot elevation. It affords a panoramic view of the Bay of Kotor.

Walls and St. John's Fortress above Kotor, Montenegro

Oceania’s ship, Marina, in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro,
and the uneven steps that lead to St. John’s Fortress

Al Scheck on the walls above Kotor, Montenegro, with Oceania’s ship,
Marina, in the background

Marina looks huge next to the town, but it’s only a mid-size ship, carrying up to 1250 passengers. What if it were a large cruise ship? (E.g., Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas accommodates three times as many passengers.)

Rather than climb the walls, the other one of us preferred to sit in an outdoor café, sip some local wine, and people-watch.

Vranac wine at an outdoor café in Kotor, Montenegro

People-watching at a café in Kotor, Montenegro

Once the wine was gone, there were plenty of alleys to explore. It’s interesting to see how colors are used in different municipalities. For example, Santorini is known for its whitewashed buildings with blue trim. In Kotor, especially in the back alleys, there is a lot of this dark green color with the stone. At times there’s also almost a patchwork look to the walkways (just barely visible in the photo below).

Open door leads to private courtyard in Kotor, Montenegro

Outdoor café in Kotor, Montenegro

An old-style water pump in Kotor, Montenegro

Very old stone balustrades on a staircase in Kotor, Montenegro

Mode of transportation – by cart – for deliveries in Kotor, Montenegro

I prefer sunny weather, but there was an undeniable charm to this place, even under the cloud cover. Exploring this town was like being transported to another time. In addition to the alleys I love, there are of course squares and churches. In the second photo below, note the differences between the two towers. One theory is that they ran out of money before finishing the left one.

St. Luke’s Church (dating from 1195), in Kotor, Montenegro

St. Tryphon's Cathedral (dating from 1166) in Kotor, Montenegro

Beautiful flag of Montenegro. I hope to see it flying again some day!

We returned to the ship, conveniently docked right near the city walls, in time for “happy hour” in Horizons Lounge. Happy Hour occurs daily from 5:00-6:00, and during that time, drinks are two for the price of one, and come with free munchies or appetizers. (It’s fine to have the first drink there and take the second one into the restaurant to accompany dinner.)

Being at the bow of the ship, the Horizons Lounge offers a great view, so the place was packed. By now we all knew how beautiful that “fjord” is, and I don’t think anyone wanted to miss it as we passed through it on our departure, even if through rainy-day windows! The busyness of Horizons meant that we shared a table with another couple, Ben and Shirley from Texas, and enjoyed getting to know them.

Dinner that night was at another specialty restaurant, Polo. We sat at a table for 8, right at the bow of the ship (on a different level from Horizons), with a great view of the sunset. It was wonderful! I’m not a foodie, but even I got excited about the meal. My appetizer was a tower of beet root (the same as just “beet,” I think), layered with garliced goat cheese and topped with assorted little green sprigs. For an entree I had filet mignon and truffled mashed potatoes. Yum!

Beet and garliced goat cheese tower at Polo, a specialty restaurant
aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

All three of the other couples at our table have cruised extensively, including two to three times each on Oceania. When we told them this is our first cruise, almost in unison they said, “You’ve started at the top.”

I find the social dynamics to be interesting on the cruise. Obviously there are a number of very successful individuals who cruise, many of whose net worth we will never approach in this life. But we never saw any one-upmanship in that regard. This was vacation, and a cruise ship is a great equalizer. Conversations were about: Where are you from? Have you cruised before? Was it on Oceania, or if not, how would you compare it? Where else have you cruised and what was your favorite place? Only then might company names be mentioned, but no one ever said, “I’m an executive vice president with Ford Motor Company,” for example, or, “I’m staying in one of the Owner’s Suites.” The cruise brought together over 1200 interesting, accomplished people who like to travel and who are well-traveled. If you are that type of person, or you enjoy being with that type of person, you may enjoy that aspect of cruising, which is not so readily available with independent travel.

For more information on Kotor, see my pre-cruise blog.

TIP FOR PERAST: The Blue Line bus to Perast can be caught at the end of the outdoor market (just to the right of the entrance in the city walls, but outside the walls). The cost was €1 per person, each way. Oceania had the bus schedules available for us on the ship, but the locals are also happy to tell you when the next bus is due; and when the bus driver drops you off in Perast, he can tell you when to be back at the stop for the return trip.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

DAY 3: Dubrovnik, Croatia (Oceania Cruise)

Dubrovnik has long been one of my bucket-list destinations.

It wasn’t a disappointment!

But first, what a beautiful morning on the ship! We started with breakfast on the outside deck of the Terrace Café.  That was so nice, right there in prime real estate. Looking at this picture makes me want to be back on the ship again!

The al fresco area of the Terrace Café, aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

As we weren’t scheduled to arrive in Dubrovnik until 1:00 p.m., it was nice to have some relaxation and more time to explore the Marina.

The Internet café aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

Concierge-level staterooms and all suites come with a laptop in the cabin, but this Internet café provided plenty of computers for everyone else.

It is important to note that the computers are for Internet usage only. We didn’t realize that ahead of time. We just knew we’d have a laptop in our room, so Al took a thumb drive so he could download files from his video camera. However…it doesn’t work for that!

The Internet manager there was fantastic, though. He repeatedly downloaded the files for us, always with a great attitude. If not for him, our video camera would have been of very limited use for our trip. Next time, maybe we’ll take an iPad along. (That should fit inside the room safe; a laptop would not.)

Internet usage comes at a price on a ship: $0.95 a minute. Another option is to use the email address they give you for the cruise. With that, all incoming emails are free, and outgoing ones are $3.95 each. There are packages available, but I feel sorry for anyone who would be on the computer  (on a cruise) enough to make them cost-effective!

If you prefer to read the old fashioned way, there’s a ship library. It was built to resemble a series of cozy nooks and intimate studies, each with a different feeling from the one before it, some with faux fireplaces for added atmosphere. Brilliant concept!

Cozy nooks in the library of Oceania’s ship, Marina

Private-study feeling of the ship library aboard Marina (Oceania cruises)

One room of the library aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

And conveniently located next to both the library and Internet café is Baristas, great for a cappuccino and biscotti.

Baristas on board Marina (Oceania Cruises)

Dubrovnik is a beautifully preserved, fully walled city on the Adriatic.  Probably the most popular “must-do” tourist activity there is to walk the city walls. It’s a distance of just over a mile total (but with numerous steps up and down). This affords views of the fort, the sea and harbor, into the gardens of residents, and perhaps most famously, across ancient tiled roofs of varying heights and angles.

I don’t know if it’s a law that all the awnings and market umbrellas in town must be white. If so, it’s a good law. They provide an elegant touch, dotted against the beautiful old stones of the city.

Dubrovnik’s main street below is the Placa (formerly called the Stradun).

The many tiled roofs of Dubrovnik

Lots of little alleyways bordered by beautiful old architecture in Dubrovnik

The Old Harbor of Dubrovnik

We don’t know if it’s a typical Sunday afternoon occurrence in Dubrovnik – or if our timing was just lucky – but we were treated to performances by a series of bands in front of Church of St Blaize. When one band finished, the next came down the Placa, playing their instruments, and then had their turn to perform on the cathedral steps. It all felt very special and fun.

A band readies itself for its performance on the steps of the
Church of St. Blaize in Dubrovnik. At the left is Orlando’s Tower.

Another major tourist attraction is the Rector's Palace.

Portico roof at the Rector’s Palace, Dubrovnik

Fresco and column at the Rector’s Palace, Dubrovnik

Atrium inside the Rector’s Palace. Apologies for the column in the middle of the photo.
We didn’t take the time for the tour, so I photographed what I could from the front door.

I enjoy the architecture of cloisters, and Dubrovnik has two worth seeing: one at the Dominican Monastery and the other at the Franciscan Monastery.

Cloister at the Dominican Monastery in Dubrovnik

It was near the end of the day and I’d decided not to pay the admission fee to the the Franciscan Monastery, but rather, just to see what I could from the entrance. However, the attendant said, “It’s Mother’s Day” (how nice that he would even be aware of the American holiday) then added with a smile, “Shhh! Just come in.”

Cloister at the Franciscan Monastery in Dubrovnik

We wondered if we’d feel we had enough time to do justice to the various ports of call, but we can honestly say that we felt we did. When you don’t have to drive into town, find your hotel, check in, unpack and repack – or even eat (because you do plenty of that on the ship) – it’s surprising how much ground you can cover!

We returned to the ship to find there was a Captain’s reception in Horizons Lounge (we should have spent more time looking at the daily schedule Oceania provided!). We didn’t feel properly attired but were graciously assured that it was fine, and we should definitely come on in. And it was fine, and very enjoyable. We changed before dinner – Oceania’s dress code for dinner is resort casual – and ran into Jeff and Patti, whom we’d met at dinner the night before. We made it an impromptu foursome for dinner in the Grand Dining Room.

Jeff and Patti in the Grand Dining Room on Marina (Oceania Cruises)

DUBROVNIK TIP: To purchase tickets to walk the wall, make a hard right after entering the Pile Gate. Croatia is not on the euro, and neither euros nor credit cards are accepted as payment for walking the wall. If you need to exchange money for this, from the Pile Gate, walk past Great Onofrio’s Fountain, and you’ll find an exchange shop a short distance down the Stradun/Placa on the right.

The admission for walking the wall was 70 kn per person (€10 on our date of travel) and covers one time around, in one direction, with no on and off. If you wanted to get off, you’d need to buy another ticket to get back on. It can get quite hot on the wall, so take plenty of water with you.

There are several checking points, and one must show a ticket to pass, so if you and your travel companion(s) are taking the wall at different speeds, you’ll want to make sure that each has his or her own ticket. Also note that following the wall can get tricky near the Maritime Museum. Just remember not to go down the steps unless you’re trying to leave the wall; if you instead take a bend to the right you’ll see where it continues.

TIP re DUBROVNIK BATHROOMS: While standing in a slow line for a two-stalled ladies’ room, it came to one woman’s turn. She opened the door, took one look, and said, “I’m not going in there!” It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a toilet like this, with corrugated footing (stainless steel in this case, ceramic in the Italian one I saw), where you squat and aim for a hole in the flooring. The important thing is that they do flush! Because the flooring can become wet and slippery (either from the obvious, or from flushing), one woman in line said she had slipped in such a bathroom once before, and that it took many washings to feel clean again; so a word of caution.

I am happy to report that we located modern bathrooms (men’s and women’s) in the city. Go to Great Onofrio’s Fountain, face the gate in the city walls, and look left. There’s a large banner or sign that says Klarisa Restaurant. Go through the large double doors under that sign, and you’ll immediately see signs directing you to turn right for the toilets. Had we not been returning to the ship for dinner, Restaurant Klarisa might have been an interesting place to try for dinner. It has outdoor dining in the ancient courtyard of a former women's monastery.

For more photos, see my Flickr account.