Monday, October 5, 2015


We took a day trip to Verona to check out another Italian town and see the famous balcony. Of course it isn’t the real balcony. Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters after all. Several years ago an enterprising entrepreneur decided that Verona did have a balcony perfectly suited to attract tourists. Situated in a small courtyard off a street near the center of town, it is easy to find and has plenty of room for the hordes of tourists who come to see. Of course there is a gift shop and a museum. The museum surprised me. I expected both more and less. After entering I climbed one floor to reach the balcony and then kept climbing four more floors. Each floor had a couple of rooms with a small display of something from the period. I saw costumes, a bed and several frescoes as I climbed the stairs. No room had more than a couple of items, but they were all tastefully displayed and fit the times. It was worth the time and energy.

Supposedly this will bring you love.

The city of Verona itself has a lot more to offer than just Shakespearean pseudo-memories fortunately. It has a magnificent Roman colosseum and several outstanding churches and museums. We started with the colosseum as we got off the city bus we took from the train station which dominates Verona’s carless square, Piazza Bra. This huge arena, Italy’s third largest, can hold up to 25,000 people. During Roman times that meant fans screaming for their favorite gladiator. Today it hosts rock concerts and a world class summer opera festival which began in 1913.

After climbing to the top of the colosseum, we were ready for lunch at Caffe Rialto sitting beneath the Porta Borsari. This gate served as a tollbooth at the entrance to the Roman city. The café includes a glass panel in the floor showing the original Roman foundations. After lunch we walked up the carless street to Piazza Erbe. We certainly appreciate the number or European cities that have designated carless zones in the city centers. The lack of cars allowed us to take our time and see several interesting bits from the past in the walls of the buildings.

Plaza Erbe hosts the outdoor market place and is close to the other places we planned to visit. After checking out the House of Juliet, we moved to the Piazza dei Signori, Lord’s Square, to find the statue of Dante and climb the Lamberti Tower for some great views of the city. After Dante was expelled from Florence for his criticism of the Pope, he moved to Verona as guests of the Scaligeri family who also opposed the Pope. Rick Steves told us that we would have to pay €6 to ride the elevator up the tower, but we managed to avoid even the €1 charge when the ticket taker took pity on us for starting in the wrong place. The views were worth the climb even had we chosen that route.

We passed the magnificent Gothic tombs of the Scaligeri family on our way to the Church of Sant’Anastasia.

This beautiful church was built from the late 13th century through the 15th century. European churches often took centuries to build and this one is no exception. In fact, the façade was never finished. Inside is another story. The beautifully painted interior highlights the other artwork.

From there we walked to the Duomo which started in the 12th century and took several hundred years to finish. While the walls were not as elaborately painted as Sant’Anastasia, it has its own great artworks and we were able to also visit the ruins of an even older church next door, the 10th century Church of St. Elena which has been turned into a modern-day chapel with fourth century mosaic floors.

By this time we were tired of walking so crossed the river to catch the bus back to the train station. We had to transfer at Castlevecchio. We had purchased a city pass that included this site, so we decided to spend a few minutes there. An hour later, we left having seen a great collection of art as we followed the ‘itinerary’ around the castle built by the Scaligeri family between 1343 and 1356. Most of it was religious art, but as the Renaissance continued, the art became more secular and bawdy. We also had a good view of the Ponte Scaligero, which was destroyed by the Germans during World War II, but rebuilt after the war with original bricks dredged out of the river.

Our return to Venice was made more interesting when the train we ran to catch was cancelled. We were on the train when the conductor came by and told us to get off. No one knew what was happening. I don’t think the conductor even knew at first. The train just sat there for about 30 minutes before leaving to be replaced by another. I think they cancelled the one we were on because even the next scheduled train that we did take was less than half full.

Then as we approached Venice we were approached by a Chinese lady who is on a whirlwind tour of Italy. She wanted to know when to get off the train. After some conversation, we were able to tell her that she was getting off at the last stop just as we were. My hope was that then we could find someone at the station to help her get to her hotel.  All she had was the name, address, and Google directions. When we arrived, I went looking for help but at 9:30 there is none available so I told her that we would help her get to her destination. Her plan had been to walk to the hotel – probably at least two miles over way too many bridges with a huge suitcase. As an expert on getting around Venice now after our five days here, I knew there was a better way. So we helped her buy her pass for the Vaporetto (Venice’s canal boat service) and get on the same one we were using. Her stop was only two stops beyond ours so we could be certain she knew where to get off with some certainty that she could follow her iPhone’s Google map directions from there to the hotel. Venice is not an easy place to get around in if you are using a paper map because streets are not well marked. However, we have used Google maps on our iPhones and found that to be very good.  I’m sure they got to their hotel without problem and then back to the train station the next day by 6:00 pm for their train to Milan. I did say it was a whirlwind tour. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Mykonos and Delos

The iconic windmills of Mykonos
 Mykonos is supposedly the party town in this part of the Greek Isles so we spent most of our time exploring the island of Delos, famous as the birthplace of the twin Greek Gods Apollo and Artemis.

Approaching Delos
First established as a sanctuary to Apollo, the good of light, harmony  and balance,  in the 9th century BC Greeks from all over their world would gather there to pay homage to Apollo and his sister, the Moon goddess for the next 600 years.

Delos became the major port for the region after it was declared a free port in 167 BC. The population grew to at least 30,000 as Delos became the epicenter of all trade in the region. Over 750,000 tons of cargo would pass through the port each year. Because Apollo was the god of harmony and balance slavery was not allowed and the island became a multicultural melting pot of different religions and nationalities. Shrines and temples to other gods were built such as the one honoring Poseidon by the Lebanese. This came to an end when it was attacked and looted in 87 BC and again in 69 BC by enemies of the Romans. Gradually the city fell into decline and was eventually abandoned. 

Today Delos is a city of ruins and a UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of its archaeological significance. Archaeological excavations began in 1872 and continue today. The museum unfortunately does not give its subject a proper display. Housing one of the most important collections of ancient Greek sculpture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a simple building with little in the way of explanatory description. The ruins are poorly marked. However, with our guide’s help we were able to get a good feel for the importance of the ruins and the power of the sculpture. He did tell us that new money is coming from some philanthropist to build a new museum that will be more in keeping with the importance of the subject.

We saw several floor mosaics. This is in the Dolphin House.
Fortunately for us, the morning rain gave way to sunshine and we were able to really appreciate the beauty and breadth of this magnificent ruin. Our guide led us through the excavations pointing out the birthplace of Apollo, several shrines and temples, athletic venues, the theater and homes of the many who lived on the island. I took the optional hike up the trail to the top of the island (only 112 meters above sea level) where Zeus watched the birth of his children and I had some magnificent views of the island and its surroundings.

We returned to Mykonos at noon where we had lunch in ‘Little Venice’ overlooking the bay before wandering the narrow maze of streets back to our shuttle. Linda enjoyed the calamari while I had an excellent Greek salad that I had expected to be a small appetizer. Streets were deliberately built in a seemingly random pattern as defense from invaders. Today, they are filled with shops selling jewelry and other items typical for the tourist trade. Another fun day in paradise.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


We floated into the small Greek village of Katakolon this morning about 9:00. By 9:45 we were clamoring onto one of five buses that would take us to the site of the ancient Olympic Games and then for lunch and wine/food sampling at Agriturismo Magna Grecia. Another ten buses would join us in Olympia – one of the pleasures of large cruise ships is that you are seldom alone. Even had we chosen to arrive at Olympia on our own, we would still have been joined by these other 500 friends and not had the benefit of a local guide. One does have to make choices.

We were impressed by this site. 150 years ago when they began the excavations, nothing was visible, not even the 30 foot tall columns. Today, we are able to walk on the same ground the original Olympic athletes and their fans enjoyed thousands of years ago. Except for a few sensitive areas, the entire excavation is open for exploration. The only rule is that you may not climb onto the stones. This freedom of movement allows one to fully enjoy the site. You can even race in the stadium as the athletes did so long ago. Or, if you prefer, you can just sit on the grass embankment and watch these pseudo-Olympians show off their talent.

Entrance to the stadium. The arch extended the entire distance of the path.
Remains of Zeus's Temple. Note the pieces of columns.
Earthquakes and time have destroyed the buildings, but a little imagination aided by the interpretive signs allows the visitor to go back in time and get a sense of the importance of the games. I knew that the Olympics were a time of peace, but had no idea that this period lasted for three months each year. Games were not held just at Olympia, but also at three other sites in Greece. It is incredible to think that these warring city states would agree to lay down their arms for three months each year when we see the security necessary to stage the games today. This does not seem like we are getting any smarter.

The Olympic Flame starts here for each Olympics
Cheaters were 'honored' here. The inscription included the name of the athlete, his family, and his town.
We aren't the first to honor sponsors for their gifts.
A highlight for me was seeing the water system they had for the athletes and spectators. A small aqueduct system fed running water the full length of the stadium so that people had easy access to water for drinking at any time, something necessary in this hot, humid climate.

Columns from Zeus's Temple
Olympia was also the site of one of a massive statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I’m not sure of the dates, but at some point it was moved to Constantinople where it would be destroyed by Christians eliminating the competing gods. Built with a wooden frame covered in gold and bronze, the metals would be removed and the framework burned. Today, we westerners (most of us anyway) see this kind of destruction as a reprehensible destruction of our history and heritage, but we can see with ISIS and the Taliban that there are still people today who see anything not of their religion as a threat.

We visited the archaeological museum after our tour of the site itself. This museum is well-organized and interpreted with good signage in three languages. The most important piece is the superb statue of Hermes of Praxiteles, one of the best examples of sculptures from the period. I was most impressed by the impediments from the Temple of Zeus. These are the sculptures that adorned the triangular space above the front and rear of the temple. One of these tells the story of a chariot race for the daughter of the king. The other shows a classic mythological battle between the Centaurs and the Lapis.

We followed our trip to the Olympic Games with a visit at a more modern agritourism business, the Magna Grecia farm where we sampled olive oils and wines and were treated to a Greek meal and dancing. It wasn’t Zorba the Greek, but it was fun and tasty and sated us for the time being.

Our day ended with a walk down the one street of Katakolon for some final shopping in Greece where we were able to finish our Greek Christmas shopping and Linda was able to complete her jewelry set. She started with a t shirt in Corfu and then needed gold jewelry to complete the ensemble so she got something from each of our three other stops on this cruise. Be sure to ask her to show it off when we return. 

Olive Tree

Sunday, September 27, 2015


We had a great tour of Santorini. I think it might be the most beautiful place we have visited and we did not see it at its best since the sky was mostly overcast all day. Small patches of blue sky just don’t provide the highlights the blues and whites deserve. Nevertheless, the beauty is still awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, these pictures only hint at the beauty.

The natural beauty of Santorini begins with the 3500 year-old caldera created when an eruption destroyed the cone of the volcano submerging it beneath the blue ocean leaving one crescent-shaped island with cliffs facing west to the sunset over the remaining small islands that draws lovers from all over the world. This natural beauty is enhanced by the stunning architecture. Pristine white buildings topped with arched roofs are interspersed with blue domes and the occasional red or pink doorway. Narrow marble walkways show off the island’s wealth.

The villages of Santorini perch high above the sea providing an interesting and perhaps scary ride or walk from either of the two ports. From the new port cars and buses negotiate seven switchbacks up the cliff side. Alternatives from the old port include a recently-built gondola or a donkey ride. Riding up on a donkey might not smell very good, but riding down can be a dicey proposition as the donkeys don’t seem to be aware of the fact that the rider’s legs are scraping the side of the cliff. Nor are they worried about how fast they might be going as they rush down the trail to reach the food and water that awaits them at the bottom. Walking is another alternative if you don’t mind the smell from that ‘stuff’ the donkeys leave behind. We chose the gondola.

One of the crew on our shuttle boat
The tour we chose here began at Santo Winery perched nicely above the cliff. We tasted three tasty wines: a dry white, a dry red, and a sweet desert wine which I liked although Linda did not. The vines are twisted into a circle to protect the grapes from the harsh sun and winds as they grow and also helps irrigate the vines as the morning dew drops to the ground where it can reach the roots. A shortage of natural water sources makes this important. In earlier days water reached the island by boat. Today, desalinization plants supplement the collected rainwater making the circular twisting of the vines important.

A huge crowd was no obstacle for this pourer
 The tasting process was highlighted by the pourer grabbing two or three glasses at a time into which she splashed an ounce or so without spilling a drop. Never have I seen anyone pour so much wine so quickly or take care of so many busloads of tasters at a time. We also had the option of a tasting tray. Our visit was too short to try even the six glass tray, never mind a tray of twelve or eighteen, especially since they were full five-ounce pours. I’m glad the Colorado couple we saw with the 18-taster had a driver.

Yes, those are tasting glasses.
From there we drove along the coast to Oia, the town everyone who ever had an inkling about visiting Greek Isles has seen pictures of. A picture of this white-walled village with its iconic round blue rooftops adorns most travel agency walls and every website that has anything to do with the Greek Isles. Blue and white are the colors of the Greek flag so when the country has been conquered by outsiders this was a way to show patriotism. Today, it is probably the law.

The old fort
Nightlife is concentrated in Fria, the capital city, but both Fria and Oia have many restaurants and tavernas to choose from. Guests staying anywhere on the island make sure they have a table in one of them to watch what must be one of the most romantic sunsets anywhere. If not in one of the restaurants, they will be sitting on one of the many terraces at Santo Winery. We stopped at one of these restaurants in Fria for a couple of drinks. While we did not get to see one of classic sunsets, we were still treated to some drama as the clouds did part enough to show us what we can look forward to on our next visit.