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.

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