A Travellerspoint blog

All Roads Lead To: Ephesus

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

My next stop on the cruise was Kusadasi, Turkey, which is the modern port near the ancient port of Ephesus. To explore the area, I had booked a private tour with Ephesus Shuttle. My tour guide, Oscar, was waiting for me just past customs and I was soon on my way to Ephesus!

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It was a relaxing 25 minute drive through the charming seaside town of Kusadasi and the scenic countryside to the first stop, the House of the Virgin Mary.

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The house is believed by some to be the site of the house where Mary lived the rest of her life after she, according to some legends, and the Apostle John came to Ephesus following Jesus's crucifixion. Set amid a lush, green garden, the house is considered a holy site and a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims. Below the house is a spring whose water is thought to contain healing properties and a "wishing wall" where individuals can leave prayers or wishes.

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Personally, it was an emotional moment to see the tangible prayers that so many had left on the wall. Although most were private, some, like a small pair of baby shoes, were a clear indication of the desire near to someone's heart. Whatever you believe, it is a beautiful and peaceful place that visitors approached with an attitude of reverence.

My next stop was the archaeological remains of the ancient city of Ephesus. I was not sure what to expect, but It was an incredible site that went beyond anything I could have conceived.

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Unlike cities such as Rome, where city has been built on top of city, Ephesus slowly faded when the harbor shifted and the city could no longer function as a port. Eventually it was abandoned and forgotten. Thus, once it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, there was no modern city to consider as the site has been painstakingly excavated and reassembled. To date, it's estimated that less than 20% has been uncovered. And that 20% was amazing.

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Oscar did a great job of balancing providing information with giving me space to explore on my own. Ephesus has a fascinating history. It was an important location for the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians, and holds some well known Christian history. I mean, "Cleopatra was here" was practically carved into the marble toilets. Paul preached and was imprisoned here. And Ephesus served as major center of trade for centuries. There was just so much to see and learn.

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Of course, one of my favorites was the stunning library. It was the third largest library in the ancient world behind the fabled libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. The intact nature of the ruins was also amazing, especially considering the amount of effort that must have gone into the reconstruction.

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Marble streets still existed in many places. Although only poor people walked on marble. Obviously. Only sidewalks made of tile mosaics would to for the wealthy of Ephesus.

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Throughout my time in Ephesus, history felt so alive. It was easy to squint a little and imagine being back in the bustling port city of Ephesus watching people go through an everyday life vastly different than my own or to catch a glimpse of the moments of history made there. Despite the heat (and it was hot!), I repeatedly got goosebumps just thinking about the history that happened and the lives that were lived in the place where I was standing.

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Although the archaeological site of Ephesus was the highlight of my tour, there were certainly other interesting stops that followed. The next stop was the Basilica of St. John. Today it's a ruin, but the church was built over the supposed site of St. John's tomb.

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There was also an incredible hilltop view from the basilica. From there, I could see the single remaining column of the Temple of Artemis. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the temple was rebuilt multiple times. Columns from the temple are in museums throughout the world, including the Hagia Sophia, which I had seen just two days before. As I gazed across the valley and to the ocean, I thought about the interesting and unexpected ways that history intersected across the places I had visited so far.

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After a fascinating, hot, and busy morning, I was ready for lunch. For the "traditional Turkish lunch" included with the tour, Oscar took me to Bizim Ev Hanimeli. Located in the countryside outside of Kusadasi, the meal was basically a Turkish grandmother cooking a bunch of homemade dishes. It was amazingly delicious. The only problem is that I wanted to eat everything and there were just.so.many.choices. I would have needed a mid-meal nap to even have a chance of trying all of the options.

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When I look at the pictures, I can still taste the fresh and flavorful dishes I enjoyed as an afternoon breeze moved through the open-air patio. If I had to choose a favorite (and choosing favorites is just about my most hated activity - how can one make a decision under that kind of pressure?!), it might be the stuffed bell peppers. Or one of the pasta dishes. Or maybe the cacık. But then again perhaps it was one of the salads. See, like I said, I am terrible at choosing a favorite. I did get really excited about the watermelon. I had seen it sold on the street in Istanbul and had been craving it since then. It was the perfect end to a delicious meal. Oh, and please excuse the fact that I, too, am the color of a watermelon. Apparently I didn't wear enough sun screen that day.

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The last stop of the day was a pottery shop. I was broke (see the first Istanbul post), but there were some beautiful pieces for sale. Maybe next time...

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After the final stop, we went to the Ephesus Shuttle office (which looked totally shady by the way; for about 1/2 a minute I thought I might get mugged) to pay for the tour before I was returned to the ship. At around $90 a person including lunch (the price per person changes depending on how many people are on the tour), I felt like the tour was a great value.

After returning to the ship, I spent the rest of the evening pretty much doing nothing. I even ordered room service just to be totally lazy. I obviously know how to have a good time. Although I had not been sure what to expect in Kusadai/Ephesus, this port ended up being my favorite stop of the entire cruise. Sadly, this was my last stop in Turkey - next it was back to Greece to see Athens.

Posted by cgplatt 10:18 Archived in Turkey Tagged europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Istanbul.2

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

I wish I had something exciting to share about what I did during my second, partial day in Istanbul. But I don't. I think the heat and confusion of the first day were just too much for me to face for a second day. So I took it easy, relaxing at a nearby park, drinking coffee, finding wifi so that I could reassure my parents that I was still alive and brag to my brothers that I was in Istanbul.

As the ship left Istanbul that afternoon, I found a quiet spot at the back of the ship and just watched as the ship slowly moved away from the city. It was breathtaking. There are not words to adequately describe the vastness of the city, which I could not truly appreciate until then. I sat silently, the city stretching as far as I could see on both sides of the Bosphorus and up into the surrounding hills, listening to the afternoon call to prayer hauntingly sound throughout the city. It was almost like time stopped. There was only me and the city, which seemed so peaceful, so unlike the vibrant, chaotic place I knew it to be.

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That evening, we sailed along the Turkish coastline toward Kusadasi (Ephesus). From my balcony, I watched another glorious sunset. For a while, a pod of dolphins playfully swam alongside the ship. It was such a perfect moment, I couldn't help but begin to mentally plan my next trip to Turkey.

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Posted by cgplatt 15:46 Archived in Turkey Tagged europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Istanbul!

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

The day after Santorini was another sea day. Other than having views of the gorgeous Turkish coastline rather than of the Italian coastline, it was very much like my first day at sea. Which is to say not particularly exciting, but very relaxing. Thus, the story picks up again in Istanbul. Of all the places I would go on the cruise, this was perhaps the one I was most excited about.

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My plan for Istanbul was to explore on my own, so I disembarked as early as possible to maximize my time in the city. Little did I know it would take an hour and a half just to find the Hagia Sophia. You wouldn't think a giant building would be quite so hard to find. I first had to cross the Galata Bridge and then find my way through a maze of confusing and minimally marked streets.

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I spent most of the morning sweaty and lost. And perhaps a bit grouchy. There's nothing like getting lost in the middle of the summer in an incomprehensibly large city on the other side of the world to bring out the best parts of your personality. Woe to the person who tried to scam me that morning... I basically wandered in what I thought was generally the right direction until I happened to stumble upon what I was trying to find. For those who find themselves in a similar situation, my advice is this - just take the tram. It's easy to find from the cruise ship port (just walk to the left when you exit customs) and will drop you off where you want to be. Doing so will save you blood, sweat, and tears. Literally.

There was one interesting stop along the way. I stepped into a pharmacy to try to find Neosporin. Obviously something was lost in translation because I was given Amoxicillin. Like here-you-go-no-questions-asked-here's-an-antibiotic-without-a-prescription Amoxicillin. I was obviously vastly underprepared for this situation. I should have known how to say "Xanax" in Turkish.

Despite the difficulty, I did eventually make it to the Hagia Sophia. I had bought tickets online in advance, which saved a lot of time. The only thing I would have changed is buying a multi-site museum pass rather than the single site pass. Of course, not everyone lives life by the mantra, "The more museums, the better," (which, incidentally also applies to books).

The Hagia Sophia was incredible and fascinating and wonderful despite the scaffolding.

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The nearby Blue Mosque was closed due to Ramadan, so I could only snap a few pictures outside.

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My next stop was the grounds of the Topkapi palace. This is where the museum pass would have been really handy, so I just enjoyed what I could see outside the palace before finding a spot for lunch. As a side note, money is incredibly easy to access in Turkey. There are ATMs everywhere, so do not worry about having any lira in advance.

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My requirements for an adequate spot for lunch were not complicated by that point - a place that served food and cold water and provided a place to sit out of the sun. Fortunately Seven Hills more than delivered, especially in the view department.

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After lunch it was time to brave the Grand Bazaar. Once there, I pretty much relinquished any hope of not getting lost and just gave in to the chaos. Which is kind of like asking me to jump off a cliff - both stupid and utterly terrifying. Fortunately I made it out of the wonderful madness of the Bazaar alive, but not unscathed in the money department. I might have gotten a little swept up in the Turkish rug buying experience. And the pashmina buying experience. The apple tea they ply you with must have some sort of magical powers to make you buy things. There really is no other explanation.

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One particular conversation between the rug seller and me typifies one of my great burdens in life - my inexplicable talent to identify and prefer the most expensive item in a given category. Apparently the talent extends to rugs. Rug seller: What size and color are you looking for? , Me: Ooooh! I love that one (pointing to a GORGEOUS blue and cream colored rug) , RS: You have excellent taste. That one is very expensive (Emphasis on very - I have since blocked the ridiculous amount of money following that statement from my mind.). I thoroughly enjoyed the Grand Bazaar even though most of the time I was hopelessly lost and I never was able to find the nearby Spice Market, despite my best efforts. Of course my best efforts at following any sort of directions are approximate to the skills of a kindergartner...

After a totally overwhelming and exhausting, but completely wonderful, day, retreating back to the ship was a relief. A wine and cheese concert on the lawn overlooking Istanbul was the perfect way to decompress. My day ended with the unparalleled sight of Istanbul lit up at night, enjoyed from my very own balcony as the heat and chaos of the day slowly faded away.

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Posted by cgplatt 19:28 Archived in Turkey Tagged europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Santorini

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Santorini Greece was our first port of call. I could not wait to see the stark white buildings against the bright blue of the sky and sea and to experience a Santorini sunset. So, despite the fact that we would not be in port until the afternoon, I still managed to wake up early because I was too excited to sleep. Which was probably a good thing because someone had to wait in line for a tender ticket. We had not booked a cruise ship excursion, so would not be able to access early transportation to the island without a tender ticket.

After I picked up the tickets, we made the most of our morning by enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the balcony.

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And because breakfast with a view was not sufficiently wonderful, there were also dolphins. Yes, dolphins! After a relaxed morning, we returned to our balcony to take in the view as we inched closer to Santorini.

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By this point, I was getting less patient - I was ready to be on the island! Our tender number was eventually called and after a short ride, we were there.

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This is where it gets interesting. The old port at Fira, which is where the tenders docked, is located directly below the town. And by below, I mean at the bottom of a steep cliff. In order to get to the top, one must either take the cable car (which already had a loooong line), walk up 588 donkey poop covered stairs, or pay to ride one of the donkeys. Our cruise company had not recommended the final option due to the mistreatment of the animals and I neither wanted to walk up 588 stairs nor wait in a line. So we settled on another option - taking a boat to Oia, which I really wanted to see, then catching a shuttle back to Fira, where we could find our way back down to the port. This option cost €20 a person regardless of which vendor at which it was booked.

Unfortunately, nothing was very well organized. The boat sat at the dock for 20 minutes and when we arrived at the port of Oia, there was no bus waiting (as promised) to take us into the town. Eventually, someone in our group convinced someone with a bus to take us. This consisted of a driver backing a large bus up a steep and curvy road, with nothing but a steep drop into the ocean on the right hand side. A bit nerve wracking. After all of this, I was thrilled to be in Oia.

There was no real plan or agenda. We simply walked around the town and did a little shopping. Although there were many tempting things to buy, we chose a small painting of Santorini. The artist, Katerina Drosou, who resides on the island, uses either wood from wine barrels or pieces of old houses, both of which come from Santorini. There were so many beautiful and unique options that it was difficult to choose, but we eventually settled on a small, colorful piece painted on a fragment of wood floor.

Later, we found a spot for a late lunch.

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Not a bad view for a meal.

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We shared a pizza made with Santorini ingredients including a creamy cheese (similar to ricotta), capers, and sun dried tomatoes. I also had to try a frappe. It was delicious!

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We even managed to escape much of the cruise ship crowd in Oia. Thankfully, we were the only ship in port at the time, but even then it could get a little chaotic.

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We took in the views across the island as we rode between Oia and Fira. Although I knew to expect the cliff-hugging white houses on one side of the island, I did not expect the low-lying, vineyard covered lower half of the island. All of it was beautiful, though.

Sadly, once we arrived in Fira, the crowds were relentless among the maze of streets. It made it almost impossible to appreciate the charming shops selling handmade embroidery or one-of-a-kind jewelry. Of course, for each of these places, there were two tacky tourist shops selling shot glasses and snow globes. Although I loved the opportunity to visit Santorini, I don't believe that it is an ideal cruise ship port. It is simply too small without the infrastructure to support so many people. Although I enjoyed the day, it almost felt like I had to work too hard to find the enjoyable moments.

We soon decided to make our way back to the ship. Two hours before the last tender, the cable car line already stretched well beyond anything I was willing to endure. Our only option was to brave the steps. We paused at the top to savor the beginning of the sunset before beginning the journey down the stairs.

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We slowly made our way down, taking an occasional stop to enjoy the view while doing our best to avoid both the donkeys and what they left behind. If nothing else, going down was certainly easier than going up would have been. Regardless, it was beautiful. Truly a one of a kind sunset.

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We got back to the ship just in time to catch the very end of the sunset over the island.

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After a late dinner, we lingered in the jazz lounge enjoying drinks and music. I ended the evening where the day began - on the balcony - mesmerized by the twinkling lights of the island beneath a starry sky.

Santorini was everything I expected - stunning, romantic, and yet oh-so-crowded. As much as I enjoyed our time in port, I would love see more of the island apart from a cruise and away from the crowds. In the meantime, I would have to settle for Istanbul!

Posted by cgplatt 13:14 Archived in Greece Tagged cruise port europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Sea Day #1

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Our first full day of the cruise was a sea day. We had a leisurely morning, beginning with breakfast at Blu. After checking out the morning's view from the balcony, of course.

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For most of the morning, we relaxed and enjoyed the ever-changing views of the Italian coastline as we traversed the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. We sat in the cozy chairs of the relaxation room, hypnotized by the view and the oh-so-subtle movement of the ship. And perhaps one of us got a little too comfortable.

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After wiling away most of the morning this way, we explored more of the ship.

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Clay decided to play in a blackjack tournament, which he won. Of course, only seven people entered, but he did win actual money, like $175 of actual money. Clay has his own, more "interesting," although perhaps less accurate, version of events. Written from my perspective. Obviously. I may have edited a bit, mostly for appropriateness and grammar. What can I say? I can't let it go, which is why Clay both loved and despised when I edited his term papers in college. Mostly despised. Yet he still kept asking.

"Swift Stroke of Pure Genius"
Little did I know that Clay was such a good gambler. He entered the ship's blackjack tournament, which was comprised of the best players on board the ship, including some who owned casinos in Monaco and Monte Carlo. Clay played technically sound hand after hand. Although he gave a lot of credit to luck, I know from watching the level of experience and competition at the table that he was just being modest. He decisively climbed up the ranks and before you knew it he was sitting at the final table. It was almost as if he had not been presented a worthy challenger until the final table. Once at the final table, it came down to just seven hands; the one with the most money after the last hand would be declared ship champion. The dealer had a blackjack on the 1st hand, but Clay skillfully played the next several hands, doubling his money in short order. I don't know whether Clay had a premonition on the 4th hand, but he lowered his bet to only $50 and this proved crucial as he was dealt a horrible hand of 15 with the dealer having an 8 showing. After this, he quickly recovered to put away a little more money over the next two hands. Unfortunately, going into the final hand, he was down by about $300 to a high roller who regularly plays in Vegas. The betting was done in order and could not be touched once placed. Also unfortunate was that this pro would be betting after Clay. Clay made the snap decision to only bet $200 knowing that if the high roller won her hand he was done regardless, and in hopes that she would bet a lot and lose her hand. Well, given that she was a pro, she countered and matched him exactly at $200. The cards were dealt and Clay was blessed with the fortunes of 2 queens. The pro was not so fortunate and she busted on her first hit with the dealer showing an 8. Clay tried to quickly calculate and in a swift stroke of genius decided to double down on his pair. The situation was tense and I was nervous. This proved to be decisive as he was then hit with a face card on each. The crowd reacted to the tremendous move and started cheering and patting Clay on the back for his forward thinking. It came down to the chip count and Clay managed a win by only $100. He was then presented the cash prize, a lovely custom trophy, and a stunning polo, but most importantly was declared the Blackjack Champion of the Celebrity Reflection. The pro walked away from the table in disgust and one of the other players from Monte Carlo told Clay that he was welcome in his casino at any time. I guess his summer in Vegas paid dividends after all.

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We kept the winning streak going by dominating at trivia. Clay and I are quite the team - he knows everything about sports and animals and geography and I know pretty much everything else. For our amazing trivia skills we won... A Celebrity Cruises pen!

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After more relaxation, because, really, we had not done enough of that, we got dressed up for the first of two formal nights during the cruise.

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Because Blu is a specialty restaurant, we had the choice to dress formally or not. It seemed like most people chose to wear their dressier clothes, so I would have probably felt out of place choosing more casual clothes. Plus, why would I miss out on a chance to get all dressed up? It's not like I had anything else to do that day, well other than relax and relax some more. The food at Blu was again delicious.

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After dinner, we watched the sunset from one of the hot tubs. Later we found a cozy spot at the Sunset Bar, where we rounded off our day of relaxation with more relaxation plus cocktails as we sailed toward our first port - Santorini, Greece.

Posted by cgplatt 19:01 Archived in Italy Tagged food cruise europe_2013 Comments (0)

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