This is another Travelogue designed to share our travel experiences with friends.
Patricia and I usually take one International trip each year and had already cruised the Mediterranean earlier in the year, however, when our friend, fundraising guru Jerry Panas, invited me to speak at a conference he planned at his second home on the Greek Island of Hydra, we couldn’t pass up the chance. We also learned our friends Ron and Elaine Lee had scheduled a cruise from Athens to Istanbul on the Oceania Regatta which, by luck, was leaving the day after our conference ended. Everything just sort of fell into place.
Ports of call included the Greek Island of Santorini; Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey; Sochi, Russia; Constanta, Romania; Nessebur, Bulgaria and three ports in the Ukraine: Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa. Most of these were places we’d never been and we weren’t disappointed.
NO SUCH THING AS COINCIDENCE? While on Hydra we met an Australian couple, Chaz and Helen Harris from Adelaide. It turned out they were booked on the same cruise with a cabin only a few doors down from our own. We became good friends and we expect we’ll arrange to travel with them again.
THE HYDRA EXPERIENCE: Jerry titled his Conference “The Hydra Experience” and indeed it was. We flew into Athens in late afternoon on what is fast becoming our favorite airline, Lufthansa. We spent the night in the Ledra Marriott, then took the hydrofoil “Flying Cat” to Hydra where Jerry and his wife Felicity met us at the dock to take us to our hotel.
Hydra law prohibits automobiles or motorized vehicles of any type and like all Greek Islands, everywhere you want to go seems to be uphill from where you are at the time. Islanders walk everywhere and if they have a heavy load they rent a donkey. When a tourist arrives at the dock with heavy bags he can either lug them uphill on cobblestone streets or pay five or ten Euros to have a donkey do it for him.
Islanders are all in great shape, the only fat people on Hydra are tourists.
Our hotel, the Leto, was charming and, by Hydra standards, loaded with amenities. A hot breakfast is included with your room, the television works and every room has its own bathroom – somewhat of a rarity on Hydra. Streets are narrow and a charming outdoor café seems to be on every corner.
Hydra has become quite a popular place to have a second home, its quiet and life’s uncomplicated. It’s certainly a great place to get away from it all. There’s only one big problem - there isn’t a drop of water on Hydra.
Each day, weather permitting, the big “Water Boat” arrives from Athens and discharges its cargo into the Island’s water tanks. If the boat is late they shut off the water. There’s simply no water for anything – no showers and no working toilets. Both of the full days we were there the water was turned off around 2 PM and not turned back on until about 5. Islanders seem to take it in stride.
We had many good meals on Hydra, but I can’t tell you the names of the cafes – all signs were in Greek. Enough to say, try the lamb, the mousaka and of course, the baklava.
Our last night on Hydra, Jerry and Felicity had all 20 of us from the conference plus spouses up to their home for a party followed by dinner at a nearby Café. Their home is a 20 minute walk from the center of town - uphill, of course. It’s lovely, built around a central garden and we can see why they brave jet-lag to spend off hours on Hydra.
No new construction is allowed on Hydra, so if you want to buy a place you’ll just have to wait until someone dies or decides to sell. There are also strict rules about remodeling and/or modernizing. They want to keep it as it has been and of course there is the “water problem.”
As we waited to board the “Flying Dolphin” for the trip back to Athens, an elongated golf cart pulled up to the dock. It turned out to be the one and only motorized vehicle on the Island, an ambulance. A woman on a stretcher complete with IV and oxygen tank was loaded on the hydrofoil attended by a nurse and surrounded by her family. The stretcher was placed in the frontof the main cabin and the rest of us were loaded into the back. It takes an hour and a half over, often, rough water to get to Athens, and we reckoned that access to Health Care might be one of Hydra’s drawbacks.
Back in Athens, we celebrated Patricia’s birthday with an excellent lamb rack in the Ledra Marriott’s dining room. The next day we boarded the Nautica.
DON’T RIDE THE DONKEYS OF SANTORINI Our first port was another Greek Island, Santorini. Much larger and more populated than Hydra, Santorini seems in danger of becoming a “Theme Park.” Tour ships and boats come in, discharge their passengers who swarm the shops and tavernas for a few hours and then those tourists leave and another group arrives.
The major tourist town on Santorini is located at the top of a cliff. There are three ways to get from the dock to the top. The most famous is to ride a donkey and first timers are always urged to ride the donkey up to the top.
This is the Greek version of a “Snipe Hunt.” Having fallen for this on my first trip I was able to report to our friends my “donkey experience” of a few years ago.
When you go to the donkey area there are a number of handlers to take your money and help you mount your steed. I had a vague idea that one of these handlers would lead us to the top. WRONG!
Once you are on board the attendant whacks your donkey on the rump and off he (or she) goes with you desperately holding on to the saddle horn, which is the only thing between you and falling off the cliff. The trail seems relatively wide, but, soon you see why as your donkey has to make room for the riderless donkeys racing downhill. You’re lucky if you don’t get scraped off your mount as he moves toward the wall of the cliff to avoid the oncoming hoard. When you finally get near the top, your donkey will stop about a hundred yards short of your goal refusing to carry you any further.
You have to dismount, without help, and tip-toe through the donkey dung to the end of the trail.
There is also a perfectly sensible funicular that will take you to the top for only 3 ½ Euros. It’s faster and cheaper. Or, of course, you can walk if you don’t mind dodging donkeys (and their waste) all the way to the top.
We had a terrific time with our friends on Santorini. The shopping is excellent, especially the jewelry, and there are lots of little tavernas to have a beer or a bite to eat. We had Greek Salad in a very nice little place called “Taverna Socrates View” at the top of a building giving us a terrific view of the ocean. It turned out to be the last meal we would eat on shore for the entire cruise.
JUST LIKE OLD TIMES – EPHESUS The ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus are located in Turkey on the western coastline. The port city is Kusadasi which has grown incredibly since we were there 15 years ago. Once nothing but a Turkish Rug warehouse surrounded by trinket stalls, Kusadasi now boasts high rise condos, luxury hotels and an ultra-modern shopping area right by the dock.
It’s about a 20 minute bus ride from Kusadasi to Ephesus, the most interesting archeological site we’ve ever seen with the possible exception of Pompeii. Founded by Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century BC and appropriated by the Romans a century later, Ephusus was a major seaport boasting a peak population of a half a million until the Roman Empire fell some 600 years later.
The City was rebuilt four times because the harbor kept filling with silt extending the shore line outward. Today Ephesus is some 5 kilometers from the sea.
The Austrians began the restoration in the 1860s and the work continues today, now a joint venture between the Austrians and the Turkish Government. American philanthropy has played a big part in the work. Only about 10% of Ephesus has been excavated to date.
The most impressive structure in town is the Library which contained 12,000 volumes until Marc Anthony gave the whole lot to Cleopatra. That happy couple spent much time here. Another famous resident was the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, who reportedly lived here until her death.
St. Paul was scheduled to deliver an address to the local populace in a magnificent amphitheater, (which is still standing) but, he was warned there was a plot to kill him. So instead he left town and sent his remarks by letter, which became a chapter in the New Testament – St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
Thanks to Roman engineering the city had running water, indoor plumbing, street lights and many other amenities we think we invented. It also sported a large thriving brothel directly across the street from the library.
Ephesus is a great place to visit even if you’ve been there before since the experience improves continually as the excavation proceeds.
Our Turkish guide told us one story worth repeating. She said the Ottoman Turks took possession of what is now Turkey in 1453. She told us many people of different religions lived in Turkey and there was much bickering about it. The Sultan solved the problem by telling the people that they would either have to become Muslims or leave the country. Those who did neither were beheaded. She told us that today 99% of the people in Turkey are Muslims and there is no religious strife.
So that’s the way to solve religious differences.
A BIT OF HISTORY – THE CRIMEAN WAR Before we enter the Black Sea we should say a word about the history of the area. In reading about the ports we were to visit we noted Sevastopol was at “Ground Zero” of the Crimean War and that the famous and tragic “Charge of the Light Brigade” had taken place within a few kilometers. I read up on this mid-19th Century conflict since it didn’t get much coverage in my college World History course.
It turns out the English, the French, the Turks and the Sardinians (then a sovereign country) fought the Russians for control of the Black Sea and the latter were defeated, at least temporarily.
Just for fun, let’s look at this timetable:
1812 Americans fight the British while all of Europe fights the French
1854 British, French and Turks fight the Russians
1914 British, French, Russians and Americans fight the Germans and Turks
1942 Chinese, British, French, Russians and Americans fight the Japanese, Germans and Italians
Oh, well, you get the idea. It’s a little like “Who’s on First” isn’t it?
A BIT OF GEOGRAPHY – THE BLACK SEA If you look at a map of the Mediterranean you’ll see the Black Sea just to the Northeast looking like a cartoonist’s conversation balloon. We heard several stories about its formation, the most interesting of which held that during the “Great Flood,” (when our common ancestor Noah saved all of our collective “bacon,”) the Mediterranean rose and broke through the small isthmus at the Bosporus joining a great freshwater lake just on the other side. The result is the Black Sea has much less saline content than the Mediterranean. According to more than one of our guides, no fish live in its lower depths.
It provides Russia with warm water access to shipping. No wonder domination of the Black Sea has been a Russian obsession since Peter the Great.
It also provides ships of Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia with a means to trade with the world. It’s fed by a number of the world’s great rivers, including the Danube, and provides summer resorts for citizens of all the neighboring countries.
To reach the Black Sea from the Mediterranean (or the Aegean if you want to be picky) you enter the Turkish straight called the Dardanelles, only 1.2 kilometers wide at its narrowest, and then enter the little sea of Marmara which in turn brings you to another straight called “the Bosporus” which is straddled by the City of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The Bosporus narrows to 2,000 meters at one point, close enough for the Turks to build a couple of suspension bridges across it, These waterways also separate the Asian from the European continents making Istanbul a bi-continental city. In spite of Turkish dominance of the country side, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus are international waters.
YALTA: Our first Black Sea port was Yalta, famous in history as the location of a late World War II meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to discuss the progress of the war and their vision for a post-war Europe. The result, say many, was the creation of the “Iron Curtain” and the Communist enslavement of a good part of Europe. Yalta, located in The Ukraine, was chosen for the meeting because it had
not been touched by the war and, also, because it had many magnificent palaces in which to house the participants.
Located on the site of an ancient Greek colony, Yalta was the vacation spot of Russian nobility in the 19th century. It was Czar Nicholas the 2nd (and last) who built the Lividia Palace where the Yalta Conference was held. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov summered in Yalta to warm up from those awful Russian winters.
After the 1917 Communist Revolution all property owned by the nobility was confiscated. In fact, everybody’s property was confiscated – personal ownership of real estate and works of art was banned. It all became property of the state. As someone once said, “Revolutions have succeeded in making rich men poor, but none has ever made poor men rich.”
On Lenin’s decree Yalta was declared a place for “medical treatment of the working people.” Convalescent hospitals (“Sanatoria”) and temporary living quarters were built for workers from all over the USSR who could be awarded one week in Yalta every 20 years or so for their devotion to whatever job assigned them by the government.
As with property ownership, religion was banned in the USSR and for 3 generations Ukrainians lived without access to a church. Yet, today, just 15 or so years since the disintegration of the USSR there are now 5 thriving Orthodox churches in Yalta as well as a Catholic Church and a Mosque.
When we disembarked from our ship we were greeted by the music of a band composed of a dozen (or so) instruments enthusiastically playing American music, mostly marches. This is a typical greeting in any port in Russia or Ukraine and, of course, there will be a receptacle into which you can drop a dollar or two as thanks for their hospitality.
We elected a tour called “Palaces of Yalta” which took us to two palaces including the one where the Yalta Conference was held. We were driven down “Franklin Roosevelt Street,” which, we were told, is the only street named for an American president in all of the former USSR. We stopped at an “overlook” to enjoy the view and I encountered a postcard vendor whose cards were 10 cents each. I gave her a dollar and picked up 5 cards. I told her to keep the change, but, she insisted I take another 5 cards; she couldn’t take my money unless she’d earned it. This wasn’t the only time the honesty and fairness of the Eastern European people surfaced.
The Ukraine suffered a severe economic downturn after the fall of the USSR, but, it has revived itself and now is bustling with tourists and business. The palaces have been restored, using replicas of the original art works and furniture. The originals were all confiscated at the time of the revolution and ended up in the dachas of party bosses. We did see a piano reputedly played by Rachmaninoff. It was a very big piano in a very small room and my suspicion is the room was built around the piano and the Communist functionaries could never figure out how to get it out the door.
Yalta and its surrounding area is beautiful and well worth the visit. Coming back to the ship we got stuck in a monumental traffic jam - there don’t seem to be any traffic laws in Ukraine, it’s sort of “dog eat dog” world for vehicles.
SOCHI, RUSSIA Sochi was our one and only Russian Port and it’s the most popular summer resort in the country. Prime Minister Putin has his summer home here.
Josef Stalin loved Sochi’s sulfur springs so much that he built his “Dacha” hidden in the hills nearby. His hideaway was the focus of our Sochi Tour.
First, a word about the Communist worker. Under Communism, everyone had a job, but no one really had any incentive to work hard. The Government had to create jobs to keep everybody in Vodka and a few worthless Rubbles. So there is no single job in Russia to which 3 or 4 workers can’t be devoted. A West German friend once told me that when East and West Germany were first unified it took 3 or 4 East Germans to do the work of just one West German worker.
For instance, when we went to St. Petersburg a few years ago we ran across a street sweeping crew. There was no machine involved here; it was just three elderly women in head scarves. One wielded the broom; one held the dust-pan and the third, clip board in hand, supervised the other two.
I mention this now because of what we encountered when we got off the ship in Sochi. At the end of the gangway was a little shack with 3 Russian Immigration officials. Three because each had a different function and each had to lay hands on your passport. When you reached the third of these, you were handed a white card to put inside your passport. As you entered the terminal building there was another official who had to look at your passport and white card. About 10 feet inside the building stood a booth where another official checked your white card and stamped your passport.
When we returned to the ship the shack was gone, so it was portable and had been assembled and disassembled just for our arrival. There was, however, a new official standing at the gangway to collect our white cards as we boarded. In the Ukraine, all of these functions were performed by a pair of immigration officials who stamped your passport as you disembarked. By my reckoning it took 6 or 7 Russians to do the job done by a single Ukrainian.
Our tour guide in Sochi took us on a stroll down the lovely beachfront and pointed out a new condominium tower under construction. She said the new condos, all with fabulous Black Sea views, would sell for as much as $300,000. Under Communism there were no private homes in Sochi, it was, like Yalta, set aside for the recuperating and was composed mostly of sanatoria and apartments for vacationing workers.
We went to Stalin’s favorite spa and sulfur springs, where the waters have the highest sulfur content in the world and are reputed to have miracle healing qualities. Stalin built his dacha nearby so that he would be able to “take the waters” daily.
The Russian word “Dacha” means literally “cottage”, but, Stalin’s “cottage” was so large it’s now a hotel. The paranoid dictator had it painted an awful shade of “Forest Green” so it would blend in with the surrounding trees and wouldn’t be identifiable from the air.
The architect included a fountain in the original design, but Stalin had it removed because the sound of the bubbling water might drown out the sound of approaching assassins. Our guide told us that Stalin killed more Russians in the 1930s (over 50 Million) than the Germans killed during the Second World War (about 20 Million).
Stalin was proof of the old joke, “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there’s no one chasing me.” We were told he never slept in the same bed two nights in a row.
Your tour of the Dacha includes a look in Stalin’s office where a wax-figure Stalin in full uniform scowls at you as you pass by. You also have a look at his pool table on which he is reputed to have won every game since the last person to beat him, a General, was shipped off to Siberia. You’ll also see his magnificent Chess set, at which game he must also have had a substantial winning streak.
Stalin was short, barely over 5 feet tall, so all the photos of him were shot by photographers in kneeling positions. When he was photographed with others, he was always seated. When Stalin finally died in 1953 after 30 years in power the Russian people rejoiced.
THE BATTLE FOR SEVASTOPOL Our next port Sevastopol is in the Ukraine, but, it is the major Russian Naval Base. When Russia agreed to allow the Ukrainians independence it was on the proviso that the Russians would continue to occupy the port. Your guide will show you how to tell the difference between Ukrainian ships and Russian ships in spite of the fact they look identical. However, he or she will advise you that it probably isn’t a good idea to be seen photographing the big war ships of either nation.
Having the major deep water port in the Black Sea has been more of a curse than a blessing to Sevastopolers (or perhaps they are Sevastopudlians). Control of this port was what the Crimean War was all about and Sevastopol was under siege for more than a year as the British and French tried to wrest control from the Russians.
We were told that Sevastopol has been “founded” 5 times. First by the Greeks who yielded to the Romans, then in succession the Byzantine Christians, the Ottoman Turks, the Tatars and finally the Russians.
Less than a century after the Crimean War it was the Germans who laid siege to the city for more than a year before Hitler finally gained control. We were told Sevastopol was completely destroyed by the Germans and their allies, the Romanians, in 1944. Only two buildings in all of Sevastopol escaped damage.
Some buildings destroyed by German bombs still sit untouched and abandoned today. The city has a depressing Cold War Communist feel to it that you won’t find in most Eastern European tourist destinations.
We toured the ruins of Chersoneses an ancient Greek city over which Sevastopol was built. It’s a beautiful location and a museum displaying the items uncovered during excavations is very interesting. But, typical of a country where two employees always do the job of one person, we had a guide of the facility who spoke only Russian and our English Speaking tour guide had to interpret. Later our Tour Guide told us she could deliver the Facility Guide’s presentation in her sleep, however, only a government employee is allowed to guide you through public facilities.
In the park surrounding the government owned and operated museum a solitary middle aged woman in head scarf wielded a small home-made rake. No loud leaf-blowers here.
Patricia nominated Sevastopol as the home of the “worst dressed” Europeans. American teenagers will no doubt adopt the “Sevastopol Look” to replace “The Grunge.”
FAIR ODESSA It’s probably not fair to visit Odessa immediately following Sevastopol because, it’s everything Sevastopol isn’t. It’s a bustling city with a healthy business community, thanks in great measure to the mild climate and beautiful beaches attracting sun-seekers from all over Europe.
The major tourist attraction is the “Potemkin Steps” scene of a famous mutiny on board the Battleship Potemkin which some say led to the Communist Revolution. Our city tour took us to the War Memorial where a ceremony was in progress promoting young soldiers and sailors graduating from “Boot Camp.” Two years of military service is compulsory for boys in both the Ukraine and Russia.
Near the monument stands a very large modern condominium complex all with views of the Black Sea. There is a smart shopping area nearby featuring all the famous names you’d find in any high end commercial neighborhood in the West.
We visited the Art Museum and were impressed with the collection of 19th century Russian and Ukrainian art. We were also reminded that true artistic expression simply didn’t exist under Communist Rule.
We took a walking tour of downtown and were struck by how well kept are the public buildings including the City Hall and the historic Opera House. Our tour included a brief “concert” put on by a local youth orchestra. We heard plenty of Hungarian (they would say “Ukrainian”) music and enjoyed it thoroughly.
CONSTANTA, ROMANIA Of all the places we visited, Constanta showed the most evidence of its former Communist rule. Romania had a particularly brutal Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, whose overthrow in 1989 was celebrated by a rejoicing Romanian public. He starved the people and killed anyone he considered a threat. But, after a republic with a multi-party system was founded, the Communists won the election and continued to rule for another 10 years. This seems to have left Romania behind its former Iron Curtain neighbors.
We toured the old town which included the Archeological Museum and the Orthodox Church. This area was the ancient Greek province of Scythia and the city Tomis was founded here in 500 BC. The Romans left ruins that can be seen today in the Old City and their artifacts can be seen in the museum which has many treasures and suffers from a tragically low budget. Displays are crude and amateurishly constructed.
At the Church we were reminded of the strength of the Orthodox Religion in the old Iron Curtain Countries. Russians had no access to any religious services for over 70 years; two and three generations of a Russian family could live without ever experiencing religion.
But in Romania and other countries that weren’t Communist until after World War II, religion continued to have a big place in their lives. At the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Constanta we were fortunate to view a service. The place was mobbed with worshipers, and many were young people.
Our tour then took us to a new winery built in the countryside surrounded by acres of grapes. A folk dancing group of local teenagers entertained us and we enjoyed a wine tasting. The winery is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Romanian people. Their plan is to market the wine to all of Europe, but, I think our group agreed the folks in Napa and South Australia won’t have to worry about Romanian competition.
Constanta is Romania’s major seaport and signs of progress appear here and there. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have arrived and appear quite popular. One thing Americans will appreciate in Romania is that you can read the signs. Romania is the only country we visited that doesn’t use a Cyrillic, Greek or Arabic alphabet. So, the letters are familiar even if the words aren’t.
Romania and Bulgaria will be joining the European Union later this year. In our opinion the major assets the EU countries will be gaining are the Eastern European young people. They are eager, bright and optimistic for the future of their country. Our tour guide was a young woman in graduate school, hoping to work “in the law”. Her enthusiasm was so infectious we all wanted to bring her home with us. Others on the cruise spoke of the quality young people who had been their guides in Romania as well.
AT LAST – SHOPPING – NESSEBUR, BULGARIA The Bulgarian Black Sea coast has been discovered by Europeans who now flock to their seashore, sort of a low budget Riviera. Tourism now represents about 5% of the Bulgarian economy, compared to only 3% for Romania.
Founded by the Greeks as “Mesambria” in the area they knew as “Thrace” the Old Town section of Nessebur is situated at the end of a narrow peninsula. Old Byzantine Churches dating as far back as the 11th century are there to be explored and we found the first really good shopping since leaving Santorini.
Designer “knockoffs” are a specialty; you can buy a “genuine” Gucci purse for $20 and a pull over polo shirt with a little alligator on it will set you back $12. In spite of the fact they are “ripping off” the manufacturers; shop keepers are scrupulously honest when it comes to giving you the correct change. Twice we miscalculated the currency conversion, only to have the sales clerk correct us to our benefit. Once the sales person chased after us to give us an extra dollar we had overpaid. The Bulgarian people we met were charming and seemed to enjoy engaging in conversation with us Americans. They all say they want to move to America someday, too.
All of us have preconceived notions about people from foreign lands. Many of mine, over the years, were related to the Olympics. During the cold war, in the days of the Iron Curtain, the only time we saw a real Eastern European was when they competed in the Olympics. So I expected all Ukrainians to look like ice skaters and all Romanians to look like gymnasts. With Bulgarians, my recollection is, it was always their weight lifters winning the Gold Medals.
While there were indeed many beefy young men who obviously shared their countrymen’s love of “bulking up,” we were struck with the number of bright, eager, good looking young people running businesses in the town. Capitalism has arrived.
In Nessebur, we went to the local Orthodox Church just as the Mass was starting. I’m not an expert on such things, but, Patricia said the Mass was very close to the “old” Catholic Mass – done in Latin and with the Priest spending the majority of his time facing away from the congregation who stood for the entire service. We stayed for about half an hour and were struck by the number of families with children in attendance.
IT’S ISTANBUL, NOT CONSTANTINOPLE Our final stop was Istanbul which, one could argue, is the most strategically placed city in the world sitting astride the Bosporus and occupying two continents. Interestingly, the Ottoman Turks didn’t come to Turkey until the late 15th Century. Until then, it was the capital of Byzantium, founded by the emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD and known, as the song says, as Constantinople. Today 16 Million of Turkey’s 70 Million people live in Istanbul...
Since we had been to Istanbul on a previous trip during which we had toured the obligatory sites – The Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Museum and Palace, the underground waterworks and the Grand Bazaar - we opted not to stay any extra time on this trip.
We did have time to take a boat tour of the Bosporus, which has to be the most polluted major waterway we’ve ever seen. Huge gobs of flotsam and jetsam including plastic bottles and other trash came floating by our boat continuously. Along the way are magnificent homes, all of wood, dating back to the 19th century, lining the banks of the Bosporus on both the European and Asian sides. These historic properties must be kept in their original construction and, our guide told us, it the most expensive property in Asia. It must be “out of sight’ if it’s more expensive than downtown Tokyo.
Our tour included a stop at the Rumeli Fortress built in 1452 by the Sultan Mahmet. From it he attacked Constantinople and defeated the Christians the following year. The City was ruled by Sultans until the First World War. In 1923 Turkey became a republic and is officially “secular.” You will not see many people in traditional head scarves and veils, but, you’ll hear the “Call to Prayer” coming over public address systems citywide.
We also went to an art museum which had many artifacts, but, not much art. Islam prohibits likenesses of human beings in art, which explains the expression, “if you’ve seen one Mosque you’ve pretty much seen them all.
Our visit coincided with Ramadan, the month during which Muslims are required to fast from “Morning Prayer to Evening Prayer,” but the restaurants all seemed to be doing a brisk business at midday. Our tour guide told us that none of the rules of Islam have changed in 1,300 years. The Koran is literally “the last word.”
While the Sultan conquered Constantinople in the 15th Century and changed the city's name to Istanbul all English language maps continued to refer to it as Constantinople until after the democratic republic was declared 400 years later at which time the maps were changed to Istanbul. That’s what the old song title was all about.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES: We know that Eastern Europe is becoming “Americanized” because of the graffiti you’ll see nearly everywhere. Graffiti in Europe is mostly political and in many Eastern Countries, it’s not illegal to post your views with spray paint.
Greek graffiti, which is everywhere in Athens, has a classic look since it is expressed in Greek letters. Luckily, you won’t see any on the Greek Islands. But, we did see a lot of “goofy” signs on this trip, designed no doubt to attract the attention of tourists.
The catamaran, “The Flying Cat” that takes passengers from Athens to Hydra and back has a question in English prominently lettered on the prow, “How are you?” it asks.
Outside of Ephesus are a number of stands packed with goods available for sale to tourists. One has a sign that boasts, “Genuine Fake Watches.”
And our favorite, at the entrance to a shop in Nessebur, “Sorry, we’re open.”
AIR TRAVEL – UGH! Our trip originally was to take us by air through London’s Heathrow Airport. Just exactly 30 days before we were to leave, the British Police arrested a group of Islamic Terrorists intent on blowing up planes headed for the USA.
New stringent rules eliminated any hand luggage in Heathrow, you weren’t even able to take a book or magazine on board.
So, we changed our plans and booked our flights on Lufthansa Airlines. We’ve become a big fan of Lufthansa, the planes were on time, we were able to use our United miles to upgrade to Business Class, and the airports in Munich and Frankfurt are far superior to Heathrow. Just one caution, in Frankfurt every passenger is “frisked” as they pass through the checkpoint, so, don’t take it personally.
MONEY MATTERS: If you’ve read my previous travelogues you know that I recommend using your Visa Card wherever possible and your ATM Card for cash.
That’s not what I’d suggest on this trip.
Only Greece, of the countries we visited, uses the Euro, at present. But, you’ll find that they are happy to have your American Dollars or your Euros, whichever you happen to be carrying. Using your ATM in Eastern Europe will get you the local currency which you’ll just have to exchange at the next port. So, if you get local currency in an ATM, make sure you take just enough to pay for the item you want to purchase.
Also, since most of your purchases will be from individual vendors, few will take your Visa Card. So take lots of small bills. I usually carry about $150 in five dollar bills and 50 one dollar bills on a trip so I’ll be sure to have the right change when buying something for cash. They’re also convenient for tips.
MY LAST WORD: We loved this trip and recommend it to our friends. Would we want to do it again? Probably not. Once you’ve seen a Mosque, you’ve pretty much seen them all.