Sunday, 9 September 2012


Without doubt, Venice is one of the most spectacular cities at which to arrive by ship. Just after lunch, all the passengers gather on the upper decks to watch as we sail along the Giudecca Canal and pass by St Mark’s square, the Doge’s Palace and all the iconic landmarks. There’s a bit of competition for rail space, so I run down two floors to our cabin where the view from the balcony is just as good and I don’t have to defend my space. We will be overnight here and our flight leaves late tomorrow evening, so we have pretty much a full day and half to explore. But first we have some specifics to research as we’ll be leaving Norwegian Spirit tomorrow morning at 8.45 and have to make our own arrangements from there.

It turns out to be remarkably easy to reach Piazzale Roma on the people mover – a monorail that carries us above the streets and canals for 1 Euro. Once we get there, we easily find the Deposito Bagagli where we can leave our luggage and the ticket office for the airport shuttle is a few doors down from there. We buy the shuttle tickets – one thing less to think about tomorrow – and move on to the vaporetto kiosk. The vaporetto is Venice’s river bus service, and we find we can buy a ticket for 20 Euros that gives us as many trips as we like within 24 hours from the start of the first one.

Suitably prepared for tomorrow, we set off to explore Venice on foot. We’re heading roughly in the direction of St Mark’s Square, via Rialto Bridge but we don’t bother with the map, just let our instinct take us until we are close enough for the signs to lead us. When we were in Piazzale de Roma, Alex had declared himself disappointed with Venice which had more cars and less water than he had been expecting. Not surprising, as it is where the bus terminus and car parks are located. But within minutes of leaving it behind and entering the labyrinth of canals he was totally captivated. By the time we stopped for a drink at a canal-side bar, he’d decided he was moving there.

I know how he feels – I know I’m supposed to be jaded about Venice: everyone says it’s smelly, it’s too crowded and the locals rip you off, etc. But I can’t help but love it. I take far too many photos and before we reach St Mark’s square I’ve exhausted my camera battery. We meander round the streets and over the bridges, darting off to explore interesting-looking alleys or to climb bridges purely to appreciate the view from the top. On the way Alex gets a gelato and I find a lovely Murano glass jewellery shop that will need a return visit tomorrow.
It’s dusk when we board the vaporetto and set off back to the ship. It crosses to the island of Giudecca before following the route the Spirit took earlier in the day. Alex assures us that he knows which stop to get off but he overshoots and we end up back at Piazzale Roma and have to take the people carrier again.

Alex has arranged to have dinner with his friends in Raffles so it’s just Simon and me again for dinner. My fish arrives on what looks like rice pudding with a heap of whole olives beside it; once I taste it I find the risotto is perfectly cooked but the idiosyncratic presentation lets it down. Simon and I are reminded of the couple we watched dancing last night – step-perfect but with no emotion. My dessert tastes so uninteresting that I only eat one forkful; the waiter offers to bring me a fruit plate instead. It feels as if the food has deteriorated during the cruise – maybe they’re running out of ingredients! – or perhaps it’s that we have become more jaded as the Spirit’s shortcomings have slowly revealed themselves. It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed ourselves – we have had a fantastic time - but it seems to be despite the ship, not because of her.
We return to the cabin to finish packing and our cases disappear within minutes of being placed outside our door. Alex goes out, first to swim with his friends and then to meet them again in Galaxy of the Stars (yes, its real name!) to say final goodbyes. It’s around midnight when we get to bed and it seems odd to be sleeping on a stationary ship.

We’re up at 7, at breakfast by 8 and in the queue before they call our colour (purple) to disembark. Yesterday’s research pays dividends as we make straight for the people mover, then to the Depositivo Bagigli and onto the vaporetto. It takes us almost the whole length of the Grand Canal and again I take far too many photos. It’s still before 10 when we reach St Mark’s Square but it’s already mobbed and there’s a large queue waiting to go into the cathedral. We’ve decided to give interiors a miss and just soak up the scenery. Simon navigates us around a walking tour from Rialto Bridge and we stop in the middle to have a drink at a cafĂ© I noticed from the vaporetto close to the bridge. After we’ve completed Simon’s itinerary we hop back on a vaporetto back to the St Mark’s stop and walk along to see the Bridge of Sighs.
Alex has found a restaurant for lunch, recommended in a Tripadvisor guide, but before that he is determined to have a pigeon eat out of his hand. We tempt them with cereal bar and get the shot Alex wants but then we spot a blue and green pigeon and now there’s a new mission to entice that one. He’s not convinced so we have to give up. And, anyway, we just got told off by the pigeon police. It’s amazing how quickly the streets become less busy once you leave the tourist hot-spots. We find the restaurant – the Rosa Rosso – easily despite a diversion due to building work and it is just gone 1 when we reach it. We take their last outside tab le and enjoy pizza while watching the workmen operate a complicated human chain to get wheelbarrows full of cement from one place to another.

There’s a great deal of renovation work going on here; building seems to be a stable profession in Venice. I had seen some interesting-looking shops on the walk here so I leave the boys to finish their drinks and go back to check them out. The silver shop is just too intimidating: it has lovely pieces but they are all behind glass and the prices aren’t visible. The mask shop turns out to be a theatrical mask maker, manufacturing on the premises despite having his arm in a sling. As I look around a journalist comes in and asks if she can write a piece about it. The masks and costume shops are an essential part of Venice’s appeal; it’s easy to imagine the glamour and decadence of its masked balls.
After collecting the boys, we work our way back to the jewellery shop I found yesterday – this time crossing the Grand Canal by gondola taxi. Simon has a beer in a nearby bar while Alex and I shop. It’s been difficult to buy things on this trip, as we haven’t wanted to waste time shopping in a tightly packed itinerary and most of the shops and stalls we do find sell only “tourist tat”. I spend more than I should on an original handmade necklace containing all three kinds of Murano glass and the proprietor makes me a bracelet and earrings to match and then gives Alex all he needs to make me another pair of earrings.

Back on the vaporetto, we head towards the north, to visit the Jewish ghetto. The jews inhabited their own island, gated and with a curfew and there is still a jewish community there although of course they are now free to come and go as they please. It has quite a different feel to the parts of the city we have seen so far and the jewish influence is still very apparent including a kosher wine bar and restaurants. A rabbi obligingly emerges from the gate and into my photo as we approach.
It’s towards the end of the afternoon so we begin to work our way back to Piazzale Roma. The sun is setting and the light is quite different to the middle of the day. We’ve been fortunate to be able to see the city at all times of the day and to appreciate the difference in its atmosphere. I especially enjoy the way the light plays on the water of the canals at dusk.

We have a couple of hours before we need to take the airport shuttle, so we sit in outside a bar between two canals and have a drink, then stroll along another undiscovered stretch of canal into what is clearly a less prosperous part of the city. Unlike many of the canals in the centre of Venice, these have wide pavements and create a much more spacious feel. I watch a woman drag her heavy shopping trolley up the steps onto a bridge and acknowledge that this must often be a challenging place to live. But for all that, I agree with Alex – I’d jump at the chance to live here for a while, too.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


Piraeus is our penultimate port; after today we have a sea day before arriving in Venice for an overnight stop. We have booked a transfer to Athens for independent sightseeing and we're dropped by the Temple of Zeus. We decide to see that when we return for the pick-up and Simon navigates us to the Acropolis.

We approach via the theatres, one small and in poor repair bur with stone seats complete with backrests, the other large and intact and clearly still in use. It's a long, hot climb to the top and the higher we get the more people we encounter as the routes converge.

For me, the Parthenon is a big disappointment; it's too crowded and the restoration is too intrusive. Inside the Parthenon there's a crane and a two-storey portakabin. it's also incredibly hot and Alex complains incessantly - at least until we bump anto his friends Ander and Julen when he perks up.

Much more appealing is the Agora which we can see over the walls. It looks cool and shady with plenty of trees, unlike this arid hilltop, so that's where we head next. The buildings aren't well-preserved, mostly the foundations alone remain, apart from a picturesque early mosque and an intact temple on top of a hill. There are fewer people here and the olive trees provide welcome shade. Our tickets cover multiple sites so they're pretty good value at €12 each. Our final stop before lunch is Hadrian's library but by now Alex has had enough and sits in the shade while Simon and I look around. It doesn't take us long; we're less vocal about it but we're more than ready for a sit down and a drink.

We're in the tourist-oriented Plaka district and the restaurants are trying hard to entice customers with the kind of front of house staff that have the opposite effect on me, but we select one that has a blackboard outside in Greek rather than English and hope for the best. It turns out to be a good choice and we enjoy a meze plate and Greek salad and some cold drinks. The service is a tad leisurely for people on a schedule but the bill is accompanied by a slushie for Alex and shots for us and seems reasonable at €52 for much more food than we could eat and several drinks.

Simon navigates through the narrow streets of the old city and I feel like we're in Mykonos again. I had not seen this side of Athens on previous trips and I prefer it. We encounter more ruins on the way but don't have time to go in. We reach the Temple of Zeus at 2.50 to find it closes at 3 and last entry was 5 minutes ago. Oh well. We've had our fill of ruins by now and we have a pretty good view through the railings. Alex buys a couple of weird balls from a street vendor that flaten when they land and then coalesce again, and we head for the pick-up point.

Back on board we all swim then Simon and I sunbathe while Alex swims with his friends. He wants to eat with them in the buffet tonight so Simon and I have a date. We explore the options for a pre-dinner drink but our favourte bar, Maharini's  has been taken over by a scheduled gathering of Dorothy's friends and we don't fancy the sports bar or the 'English pub' so we go to Champagne Charlie's. 

We manage to get a window seat in the Garden restaurant but the food's not great; Simon's  chicken comes with cheese-filled tortellini and cubes of undercooked vegetables. To be honest, the food hasn't been the best, but the itinerary has more than made up for it.

Monday, 3 September 2012


I wake early this morning. We've all been battling a cold and the boys are a few vdays behind me so I let them sleep. In a sudden fit of enthusiasm I go to the Fab Abs class and then grab a coffee and take teas to the boys. They are still asleep. It's pretty windy on deck but still warm so I stay there until they materialise. Our trip to Ephesus meets at 1.15 and we're all out of sync for meals. There's a barbeque on the pool deck so I grab a bite there then have a quick swim with Alex while Simon goes to the buffet.

It takes just over an hour to reach Ephesus. It's very busy with many tour groups and most of them seem determined to photograph each other in front of every monument. That's in direct conflict with my policy of keeping people out of my shots as much as possible! The most impressive parts of Ephesus are the library and the amphitheatre, although the communal toilets also prove popular. We're told how the Romans used sponges to clean themselves, dipped in the water that ran along a channel below the seats. Alex observed that you would want to be at the beginning of the flow since everybody else would be washing their dirty sponges in it.

Ephesus was an enormous city - population estimated at 250k based on the capacity of the theatre - and we're only able to visit the most prominent parts. Leaving the site we run the gauntlet of shopkeepers trying to attract our custom but Alex and I can't resist buying some figs which are enormous and fabulously juicy.

 Our guide, Bert, gives us a lot of information, not just abiut the site but also modern Turkey. On the way back to the ship we have the inevitable stop at a leather shop, but I would much rather have stayed at Ephesus longer. As it is, we only just make it back by last boarding time.

We watch from our balcony as the last passengers arrive back, apparently from tours that have been held up. Izmir - ancient Smyrna - is Turkey's 3rd city with 4M people and one of Europe's largest commercial ports so it's not surprising the port area gets congested!

Alex has returned with a migraine and we realise that despite nagging from both Simon and me he forgot to have lunch so I grab him a plate from the buffet and some painkillers. We're late getting ready for dinner and there's a queue at the Garden Room so we eat at Windows. Alex's friends and their parents are a couple of tables away, right by the windows. It would be a great spot to spend our last evening in Venice; I decide to try and book it.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Return to Istanbul

Today we are at large in Istanbul, showing Alex the city Simon and I got to know rather better than expected thanks to the unpronounceable volcano in 2010. We've also arranged to meet Nefise for lunch. So we're up bright and early and even manage a formal breakfast in Windows befre Spirit docks at 9am. We're among the first ashore and make a beeline for the taxi rank but the driver quotes us a fixed price in Euros so we move on to the next rank. Here the driver agrees to use the meter but once we're in the car goes back on his word. Frustrated, we pile out of the car and head for the tram station.

It feels odd to be in a place that is both so exotic and yet familiar. We enjoy pointing out the landmarks to Alex as we trundle towards Sultanhameht; both the famous places and the ones that bcame significant to us. Once off the tram we walk briskly towards Topkapi Palace to beat the tour groups; a not entirely successful strategy as it's much busier than we remember.

We show Alex the palace, including the harem and the treasury that we nicknamed the Museum of Bling. He's particularly taken by the enormous diamond which, legend has it, was found on a rubbish dump and exchanged for 3 spoons by a street pedlar. By the time we finish there it's almost 12, so we head to the Hippodrome to meet Nefise.

We've decided to eat at the Grup restaurant where we and the Walters met every night for dinner after we got stuck. Nefise has brought a friend called Cihan who speaks excellent English. We have a most enjoyable lunch but are rather taken aback when Nefise and Cihan insist on paying - they are most insistent so we concede, but agree later to send a gift from England to say thankyou. They insist on walking us to the Blue Mosque - where Cihan explains that the chains draped under the entrance were to fordce the Sultan to bow as he entered - and we insist that they both let us return their hospitality in the future.
There is a massive queue for the infidel entrance to the mosque, so we settle for a stroll round the courtyard and move on to the cistern, stopping en route for a photo of Alex next to the sunken pillar that was our meeting point on our previous visit. There's a queue but it moves quickly and we're soon inside. Alex is fascinated by the fish, some of which are enormous. We work our way over to the back corner to see the two Medusa heads and speculate about how they came to be here; we agree that they and all the other columns were salvaged from other buildings.

We pass along the street behind Aghia Sophia to admire the traditional wooden houses, then take Alex to see the two hotels we stayed in before and visit the parrot from the Safir, who has moved to another hotel. He looks significantly more motheaten than I remember. Next stop is the New Mosque which is crowded but apparently more with Turks than tourists. A boy is dressed like a prince for his circumcision, playing happily with his sister, either oblivious to or resigned to the ordeal in store. The spice market behind is our next stop and Alex is captivated by the colours and aromas. Finally we go round he corner to the horticultural section which also includes baby rabbits, chicks and leeches.

We catch the tram back across the Galata bridge and return to the ship. As usual, the call goes out for latecomers to identify themselves. At our departure time the gangway has been stowed but one passenger is apparently still absent. Half an hour later we're still dockside, although it's unclear whether weare waiting for him or a gap in the traffic - it's a ridiculously busy waterway.
This is a port where our balcony really pays off: our view is of the two principal mosques and Topkapi Palace. We enjoy some marvellous views as we sail away and turn towards Asia. Later at dinner, Alex hails this as one of his standout days. Mine, too.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


It was decidedly rougher during the night and when we arrive at Mykonos the wind is still strong and the sun hasn't made it over the headland. Our cabin is portside so we are able to watch the ship manouevre into place.  We are exploring independently today so we disembark as soon as we are able and take the shuttle bus to the capital, imaginatively named Chora (greek for town). This being a party island most peple are still asleep and we work our way through the quiet streets towards the bus stop. We take a fairly circuitous route that takes in the iconic windmills and some of the bars at little venice.

The town was supposedly designed to confuse pirates and consists of narow streets that twist haphazardly but that doesn't deter the  scooters and quad bikes. It's wonderfully picturesque with whitewashed houses,blue shutters and pink bougainvillea. The two bus stops are right on the edge of town a the buses would never make it further.

The bus we plan to take to Ornos beach doesn't leave for another 50 minutes so we explore the area and find a sweet little beach. It has two tavernas and a handful of holiday apartments but nothing is open yet. A family of ducks doze under a bush. We consider staying here but decide to stick to our plan and return to catch the 9.30 bus. It takes only 10 minutes to reach the beach which is at one of the narrowest points of the island.

Alex is initially disappointed as it is full of sunbeds and umbrellas but we head for the far end where the sand is clear. Simon and I sit down on the chairs nearest the water's edge and Alex heads straight for the sea. He soon tempts me in but every time I stop moving fish nibble my legs, which I find a bit disconcerting.

We have to leave on the 11.40 bus as we have to be back on board by 1.30, but it gives us the chance to walk back through the town when the island is awake and the shops and bars are open. It's all very stylish and a long way from the greek islands I remember visiting years ago.  By the time we retur to the ship the wind has dropped somewhat, but it's still too windy to use the sundeck. A good opportunity for a leisurely lunch in windows.

Since we're on board I give the bingo a try. I have a free card that was dropped off at our cabin. I'm not tempted by the paid games as they are horribly expensive. But it means I vsit a new venue where I find a pool table (which we'll save for calmer waters!) and a viewing window to the bridge.