Saturday, September 3, 2016

Mediterranean Travels: Bari & Olympia

Our one stop in Italy, aside from Venice, was in Bari, a town I didn't know anything about before booking the cruise. It's the capital of Puglia and a lovely small city right on the water. My tour was a walk through the city, focusing on the Medieval alleys, the Norman castle, and two large churches. It was a gorgeous day, just barely on the side of hot in the sun, but walking through the small alleys with tall buildings on either side and cobblestone streets was a nice way to cool off. My favorite sight was the women sitting outside houses/shops rolling and shaping pasta, mostly orecchiette, and then drying it on screens in the sun. I also watched, fascinated, as an older man knotted (knit?) a fishing net using extremely fine filament that his friend doled out as they chatted away the afternoon. 

The first church we visited, a Catholic cathedral, was large and grand and similar to most other large and grand cathedrals I've visited. Its claim to fame is a day each year when the light shining through the rosette window aligns perfectly with the rosette on the floor of the cathedral, similar to Chartres in France. Today was not that day.

Next we visited the 11th century basilica which is a Catholic church on the main level and Orthodox downstairs. It was built to house the remains of Saint Nicholas, who died in Alexandria, Egypt. The remains were later smuggled out of the Muslim port in barrels labeled as pork products. After being lost - twice - int he building and rebuilding of the basilica, he finally is at rest. Except for the many thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit each year.

We had some free time, and I was starving, so I found a nice little cafe on a quiet square and enjoyed one last good Italian pizza. Next door was a very busy shop where people came out with gelato, so I ventured in. It was, indeed, a gelato and pastry shop! I opted for gelato, which was refreshing if not as tasty as I'd hoped. I just need to experiment more.

The tour was a bit of a letdown because the English speakers were paired with another language, and the guide had to give explanations in both languages so it took twice as long as it needed to. Plus, the other group wasn't particularly quiet during the English narratives, so I heard very little the entire day. The excursion did not win points for organization, that's for sure.

I was back on the boat an hour before departure and opted to lie down for a while before dinner. Tonight was Italian night, so I put on a green shirt and joined the fun. Our table group was a little more relaxed tonight and eager to share the day's experiences. The food was decent, and I decided to stay for the evening show, a take on classic Venetian Carnevale, complete with opera singers and dance. The singers were quite good as well as the dancers, but I was glad it was only about 40 minutes long. 

After setting my watch forward an hour in preparation for Greece, I turned in. I woke up and showered, had a quick breakfast at exactly the same time as the other 3000 guests onboard, and headed for the theater to meet my excursion group. Today I was thankfully on a solely-English speaking bus, which wasn't quite full, and our guide was very good. We drove 38 km inland through olive groves, watermelon fields, corn fields, and small towns to the town of Olympia and the birthplace of the Olympic games. 

The temperature hovered around 90 today with full sun, but the site is very well interspersed with trees providing shade. 297 Olympic games were held here, every four years, over ~12 centuries before the Roman Emperor Theodosius outlawed them as a symbol of paganism. Earthquakes took care of most of the buildings, and all that's left now are the ruins. The one place, however, where you can start to get an idea of what it must have been like is the stadium. Walking through the archway used by the athletes and coming upon this long, flat track with hills on both sides for spectators, it's easy to imagine the pomp and circumstance of the ancient games. During the 2004 Olympics some events, like discus, were held here. It would have been quite amazing to experience. 

There are lots of stones with engravings, which used to hold statues of winners and still bear their names and attributes. Columns, benches, bathtubs, and building foundations are visible. We traced the path of the gymnasium, a training ground where the athletes came a month before each games to acclimate and train. 

The area, nestled between several hills, is where Zeus defeated his father Cronos in a race, which is why it became the site of the first games. It's very picturesque, with pine and other trees providing ample shade on a hot day. Even with a bazillion other coaches there (mostly from our ship, I think; it was one of two in the small port of Katakolon) we managed to get some photos without other people and enjoy a bit of peace.

After a quick shopping stop on the main street and at a tourist trap for olive oil and honey it was back to the port and onboard. I grabbed a (very) late lunch along with the other 3000 guests. This is getting old. I managed to do a quick FaceTime with my parents to say hello and show them Greece from my balcony before dinner and bed.

Swabian Castle grounds

Orecchiette drying in the sun

I love this egg dispenser!

Making fishing nets

Bari Cathedral

The famed rose window

Interior of Basilica Saint Nicholas

The eternal resting place of Saint Nicholas, after many false starts

Tomb of Saint Nicholas

I ate at the restaurant under the central canopy and had gelato from the shop next door.

Bari's old port



Former baths


Stones inscribed with victors' names and details 
Entrance to the stadium


Site of the torch lighting, using a parabolic mirror 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Mediterranean Travels: Venice

After talking with some friends, and wanting to maximize my proximity to the whole Mediterranean region, I decided to take a cruise. The one I found that worked in the time frame I had available and went to all new (to me) places turned out to be an MSC cruise on the Orchestra. Eight days, seven nights, to and from Venice. Stops in Italy, Greece, and Montenegro. Close to perfect.

I did not have great experiences booking the tour or coordinating with either the travel agent or the cruise company, and I went into the vacation with a bit of trepidation. But, I would have a balcony cabin on the stern of the ship and could at least enjoy amazing views, even if every other thing went wrong.

I left work a couple hours early on Friday and flew to Venice via Rome. The flights on Alitalia were fine; there were no frills (entertainment), but they were also empty. So audiobooks it was! Rome was a bit of a cluster, and I barely made it to my gate before boarding time - just in time to see the board record a 20 minute delay. We left almost an hour late but landed only 30 minutes late, so it wasn't horrible. I arrived at the hotel at 11:54pm and sprinted to the bar to order some pizza before it closed. I stayed a bit outside Venice, and there was nothing else around for miles. That pizza tasted mighty good at midnight, I'll tell you.

I slept quite well and woke up to breakfast on leftover pizza - yay! I took my time getting ready and planning my day and made it to the train station (right behind the hotel) in plenty of time for the next train. The train was empty, and 30 minutes later I alighted in Venice. I was last here in 2007 for two days and remember the heat, the crowds, and the expense. It was lovely but not magical. I had a more leisurely pace today with no expectations, and I enjoyed it much more this time around. 

I started the afternoon by wandering through San Polo until I found the restaurant a friend had recommended. I arrived at the tail end of lunch time and had a lovely table in the leafy courtyard. It had rained in the morning, but it was clear and sunny now, with perfect temperatures. I lingered over caprese salad and a calzone, enjoying people-watching as much as the food. After that I browsed several shops as I made my way towards Rialto Bridge. I hadn't visited this bridge in 2007 and shouldn't have bothered today - it was packed with tourists, the bridge was under renovation, and the sun was bright. I took the Vaporetto to Saint Mark's Square to marvel at the lack of pigeons and do more people watching. After a quick glimpse at the Bridge of Sighs I jumped aboard one last Vaporetto - in the bow, as Rick Steves told me to - and cruised the entire length of the line back to the train station. 

The trip back to Quarto d'Altino was quick and uneventful, and after a lackluster dinner in the hotel restaurant I took full advantage of fast internet and did a ton of photo uploads and FaceTimed with my parents and Grandma. 

On Sunday I took the hotel transfer to the port and - to my happy surprise - was checked in and on board in less than an hour. I had plenty of time to wander and explore after dropping my small bag in my room. Lunch was a rushed, overwhelmed affair - everybody was eating at the same time, and space was at a premium. I missed half of the buffet apparently - I was wondering where the non-carb options were! But the soup and salad were good. 

I opted for an overpriced pedicure to get flip flop ready before joining the safety drill. Afterwards I camped out on my deck for 90 minutes as we started the engines and cruised out of Venice. The pilot boat was right below my balcony, and the stern of the boat offered phenomenal views of Venice from the Grand Canal. I only left my perch to make it to dinner, where I met my tablemates for the week - a couple from Atlanta and family of four from Ann Arbor. Service was lackluster, and the food was lukewarm, but I hope it was just the first night. We'll see. I skipped the evening show for a chance to relax and unpack and prepare for the week ahead. I think I remember why I didn't 100% love the cruise I did in college - the crowds. I'm going to try and embrace the experience for what it is, even as I've realized that I much prefer my small safari camps in remote African parks as a preferred way to get away from it all. But this isn't getting away - this is exploring Greece! So, open mind.

First glimpses of Venice

My initial forays through almost-empty streets in San Polo were lovely

An obligatory gondola shot

The Grand Canal

Piazza San Marco

Saint Mark's Basilica

Still a few pigeons
St. Mark's Campanile (I went up it in 2007)

Doge's Palace

Lion statue, symbol of Venice

Bridge of Sighs

Gondoliers hard at work

Just an ordinary afternoon phone call

Cruising the Grand Canal by vaporetto

The Rialto Bridge, with some of its construction siding falling off and an obnoxious billboard given entirely too much space.

When the sun hit the bridge right you could see some of the actual features under the construction siding.

Pilot boat as seen from my balcony

Leaving from the Port of Venice meant a lovely ride down the Grand Canal out to sea

Piazza San Marco, Campanile, Doge's Palace, Basilica as seen from my balcony

And we're off!
Arrivederci Venice!