This continues my series on Euro Vacation 2014 (part 1 can be found here). Once again I’m several days late. I won’t tell you when (or if) I catch up so that you can’t judge me. Only I can judge me. And man oh man do I.
Day 1: Barcelona / Equinox
Day 1 began in Barcelona with a pretty medium-grade hangover. If there’s one theme to this trip, it’s that I thought I drank more in Vegas than I ever would for the rest of my life, and I was wrong. Once we get on the ship you’ll understand why, but we’re not there yet – we’ve woken up late (checkout is at noon), and we’ve had standard minor snafu-ery getting a quick lunch with eight people, so we don’t make it to the boat until about 2:00 or so.
The first day on the boat is simultaneously the most exciting (“We’re on a HUGE BOAT!”) and the most boring (“We’ve explored the boat everybody! Now what do we do?” “Meh.”). It’s also the first experience you get with the food and amenities, so I’ll likely focus on those today more than I will on other days.
They hand you champagne as soon as you step on board, which is great, except at this point I haven’t worked out, which I’d like to do before they do the lifeboat drill at 4:00. Of course, my workout clothes are in my bag, which still needs to be brought to my stateroom, because it’d be a travesty if I had to do any of my own heavy lifting (also, they take this time to do security stuff, like searching your bag for contraband). The tradeoff being that it can get to my stateroom literally whenever they darn well please, so at 3:30, when it’s still not there and it’s clear I’m not going to be able to squeeze that workout in, I grab another drink. And that’s the story of how, at about 5:00, I worked out drunk!
And here’s the crux of the matter: We have paid a fixed price ($180…ish), and we get free drinks everywhere on board. Everywhere. Any drinks. Well, almost any drinks; most drinks are between $10 and $13, and our plan covers everything up to $13. There are a few things that are like $9999 or whatever; we can’t get those. But it means unlimited gin and tonics, for instance. For the entire trip. I cannot stress how much I have abused this at this point. (One note: it actually makes some stuff objectively better, like when a drink isn’t that great and you can just ditch it, rather than drink something nasty because you don’t want to spend to replace it; on the other hand, the thought, “I don’t really want to drink anymore because I can have this when I get home,” has become totally invalid, because you can’t have it for free back home.)
Anyway, the ship is pretty similar to other ships I’ve been on. It’s enormous. It has 16 decks (14 of which are accessible, since 13 doesn’t exist and 1 is crew only), and it’s over a thousand feet long. Our stateroom has a window, which is new for me, and I can actually go the casino, which is weird. It’s also got a hot glass studio on the 15th deck, where it also has a lawn with real grass for some reason (which is apparently only used for bocce and corn hole — sorry, the crew isn’t allowed to call it that, it’s Baggo™). It doesn’t seem materially nicer in any way than the Royal Caribbean ships I’ve been on, but it certainly doesn’t seem any less nice either.
After an hour or two in the hot tub, we manage to clean up and make it to dinner, which is nominally a 4-course affair, but rapidly turns into a 6- or 7-course feast as we order multiple items for each course. The food is more plentiful than it is objectively good; at some point, cooking for the 2850 guests on board necessarily involves some freezing and thawing, not to mention some blatant disregard in terms of meat temperature. I have yet to taste a dish that is objectively bad, but really I can’t say that the food seems that much better than the food on any other cruise I’ve been on. That includes the buffet, where the sushi is tasty and totally edible, but just looks like it’s been sitting out for an hour or two (even though it actually hasn’t). The wine list also leaves something to be desired; their selection is largely American (including the world-famous Kendall Jackson winery, which you may know from the $9 shelf at your local supermarket, which they are selling for $11 a glass). But what do I care, it’s free, right? So I have a 6-course meal with free wine and a glass of Tockaji, which we recognize from a previous Vegas trip, and a Bailey’s coffee, and everything seems A-OK. (Also of note, my tastes have changed considerably since I last went on a cruise, so it’s possible it’s way better but only seems the same to me.)
After dinner, we check out The Show, which details the entertainment available on board for the rest of the cruise. The show itself features the Equinox performers, a group of dancer / singers who appear individually to be adequately talented, but in ensemble are obviously all hearing slightly different music; it looks like they are all just a tiny bit off-beat, not enough that you notice compared to the music individually, but definitely enough that you notice compared to each other. Combine that with wildly different levels of enthusiasm, from apathetical facial expressions to flamboyant dance participation, and you really get a unique Equinox experience that will convince you never to go back to any of their Shows.
On the other hand, Trombone Jerome and his house band are pretty good and play a mean “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and there’s a gorgeous songstress whose voice isn’t too bad either. There’s also Cruise Director Paul (different dude than Tour Guide Paul from Barcelona), whose voice sounds like it speaks only in proper nouns, in part because of the way he says things, and in part because it sounds like most of what he says is trademarked: “Welcome to The Celebrity Equinox Experience™. Tonight We Have Just a Sampling of the Fabulous Performers™ That Will Enhance Your Experience™ Onboard the World-Class Celebrity Equinox™. Sit Back™, Relax™, and Enjoy The Show™!” Paul also mentions all the acts that will be performing for various The Shows; I’m most looking forward to the Freddie Mercury impersonator and least looking forward to the ventriloquist who came in 11th on Britain’s Got Talent (“but it’s OK because it was the year Susan Boyle was on, so really it doesn’t count as a true 11th.”)
The night ends with everyone in Quasar Club, which has two elderly couples dancing to Michael Jackson, being spun by Equinox’s own DJ Gio. (“This is my nightmare,” say I, as I go off to write my last blog post.) I explore the ship a bit more, finding, among other things, a group of Aussies in neon orange suede jumpsuits spread amongst various levels of the ship, and I ultimately rejoin my compatriots in the nightclub and convince them to go to the martini bar, where a talented bar tending staff is doing awesome martini-related tricks, and one of the aforementioned Aussies is leaving with two girls (!!!!). I know the night has come to a close when he returns (“Well that didn’t’ last too long…”), and I go up to the bar to order a water and the jump-suited Australian calls me a pussy. This actually happened.
It’s been a long day; I promise tomorrow’s entry will be shorter.
Day 2: Villefrance-sur-Mer / Nice
Four of our group of ten have decided to head into Villefrance (a city on the Côte d’Azur where I think my mother recently lived for a summer, because she is a French nerd) at 10:30. I get a workout in first, then meet everyone downstairs to discover we are not actually able to pull into port, because the port is too tiny. Instead, we’ll have to wait about an hour to get a boat into port, so we head up to the buffet to get breakfast and decide to eat outside upon discovering that the Côte d’Azur is gorgeous.
My mother had sent me pictures of Villefranche, but they were all like, “Look at this cute flower!” or “look at this cute alleyway!” It turns out that Villefranche is nestled in between mountains jutting out into the Mediterranean, which basically separate all the cities of the Côte. Of note, Marseille appears to be a major draw along the west end, while Monaco is a major draw along the east. Nice (and Villefranche, two stops away), seems to sit somewhere in between.
We head into the town and rapidly discover that the best thing we can do is head to the train station and get a ticket toward Nice, which we do. We wander into the city and get lunch at a café a couple blocks away from the station on what appears to be a major route through the city, where I correctly explain in French that they have charged us for two Hawaiian sandwiches, when we have only ordered one. This is the highlight of my trip to date, and I will not shut up about it. It is exasperating for everyone else.
We eventually meet the rest of our group by happenstance and climb a hill at the east end of town, leading to an incredible view of two of the valleys wherein nestle the cities and hamlets forming the major attractions along the Côte.
Not much else happened today; we headed back to the boat (“We could buy wine and cheese at a café in Villefranche, or we could head back to the boat and drink free wine and eat free cheese,” led to the obvious conclusion), and we hung out in a hot tub and discovered a new bar called Slush, which serves boat drinks, until dinner. After dinner we headed to a Molecular Bar, which serves “molecular gastronomy cocktails,” which means they put dry ice in your drink and charge you more ($12, or as us Premium Beverage (PB, for short), say, “free”). My night ended as the night before had; with a glass of scotch and a blogging.
Day 3: Pisa / Florence
We had booked an Offshore Excursion for the third day; a semi-guided tour through Pisa and Florence. Those of you who have ever been there will know that neither is actually on the coast; the ship was parked at a port, and we had to take a bus into the cities (a half hour into Pisa and an hour and a half from there to Florence, then an hour and a half back). The bus had a guide, but our time in the cities was up to us, hence the semi-guidedness.
The Miracle Square in Pisa was actually really cool; the Leaning Tower is basically the newest thing there, dating from the 15th Century, while the Basilica is one of the first Renaissance buildings (designed in 1296 or some such), and the Baptistry is where Galileo was baptized; all three of these incredible early Renaissance buildings sit surrounded by a grass lawn kept pristine in spite of millions of visitors per year. Pisa was actually one of the most powerful cities in Italy in the 13th and 14th Centuries, and man does it show. The architecture in this square is breathtaking, although I spent all of my time waiting for the basilica to open instead of waiting in line to climb the Tower, which turns out to be a poor choice when the basilica opens a minute after we are due to be back to our tour guide so that he can lead us back to the bus.
Up the Arno River, Florence is of course also incredible; we visit the Ponte Vecchio and walk along the Arno before cutting inland to visit the Duomo. The Duomo is everything La Sagrada Familia last week wishes it could be; incredible in stature, yet mature in its opalescence; the main structure took 140 years to complete (less than La Sagrada to date), its main dome and two smaller domes are all magnificent in scope, and a façade finished in the 1870s (roughly the same time as La Sagrada was being started) is adorned with classical marble statues and detailed marble trim that put Gaudi’s concrete modernism to shame. The fact that the Duomo sits on a square surrounded by buildings hundreds of years newer speaks to Florence’s power during the Renaissance and thereafter (compared to Pisa, where one gets the impression that property value wasn’t exactly going up in the city after the Tower was built). We end our time in the city by visiting the cathedral, wherein are buried (either symbolically or actually) Florence’s greatest people, including Dante, Enrico Fermi, Michelangelo, and countless others.
When we get back to the ship, we enjoy more Slush time, a huge dinner (as always), and an ice martini slide. The martini slide is hosted by our friends at the Martini Bar, but is elsewhere, in a “club” on the ship that features an EDM DJ and a bassist (the bassist plays along with the DJ and actually seems somewhat talented, I guess, but the DJ is clearly not the right call for this cruise, where the median age is somewhere north of 60). Once our martinis have been served, it becomes clear that no one is dancing (and in fact almost no one is there). When in Vegas, I had thought that Deadmau5 had a boring concert, but now I understand that he must have been really talented. People actually paid to be bored by him; this guy was playing for free, with free drinks, and no one was showing up. We request that he play the Fresh Prince theme, “or any other such Will Smith song.” He tells us he’ll “see if he has it;” evidently he does not, because we never hear it. We all have a good laugh about his lack of talent and the terrible music he’s playing.
Day 4: Rome
Astute observers will note that Rome is also not located next to the sea; this morning, four of us take an early train into Rome from Civitavecchia, Rome’s port, and do something similar to what we did yesterday; our guide tells us on board the train what’s worth seeing or trying to get to, but once we get there, we’re on our own.
We start out near St. Peter’s Basilica, although we don’t go in (we can wait an hour and see the Pope, since it’s Sunday, but we decide not to). We walk along the Tiber until we cut in in search of the Forum, which we finally manage to locate but can’t figure out where to get tickets to go into, so we just admire it from above. We’re also near the Coliseum, which we also admire from outside, because the line to get in is approximately seven years long.
I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a weekend, or because my memory is fuzzy, or because everything in Rome is way more famous now or something, but everything is more crowded. After lunch, we wander up to the Pantheon, which is packed to the gills with people; the last time I was there I hardly remember there being anyone else. We also see the Trevi Fountain, which is impossible to get close enough to throw a coin into; the last time I was here I think we sat down at a café in the square and had a leisurely snack with Paul Giamatti. Today they don’t even appear to have tables set up outside, since there’d be nowhere to put them because the square is so packed.
The other cool thing we saw was an enormous monument to the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel; this monument also houses a military history museum (super weird; they basically glorify their valiant effort in WWI, which the rest of the world saw as a humiliating sideshow by the bumbling Italians on the Isonzo, and then glorify their Axis effort in WWII) and their tomb of the unknown soldier. It was a pretty impressive monument.
The things that struck me most about Rome as we trained back were the crowdedness, the history, and the fact that I was allergic to it. I have never felt such a distinct difference in the way I felt as when I showered after the Rome trip. I’ve already discussed the crowdedness, but in terms of history, I think the Pantheon is the best example; here’s a place that was (I think?) created by Romans some two thousand years ago, then gutted by the Catholic Church for their own purposes in the late Renaissance, and now houses the tombs of the modern, unified Italian kings. Rome is an incredible place in that right next to a 20th century monument lies the excavated ruins of a 1st Century Roman emperor, and people have inhabited the place continually between the two. Otherwise, my impression is that it’s kind of a dirty, gross place; if I were to move to Italy, I’d move to the Amalfi coast or to Tuscany. I’d visit Rome once a year and pick out a tiny neighborhood of it to explore in detail.
Back on the ship, we seem to have settled into a routine of Slush bar / hot tub and then dinner. Dinner tonight involves at least three of our group getting three entrees apiece; this (to date) marks the height of our gluttony. I expect to have gained about 15 pounds from the start of the trip to the end. That will put me at a new record for sure.
Our day tomorrow starts late, so we make a late night of it out by the Martini Bar. Guess who’s playing? It’s EDM DJ Jerk and his amazing sidekick, Bass Boy! I make a euro off the group by requesting “any Will Smith, like maybe something off of Big Willy Style, but even Willennium will do.” Unsurprisingly, EDMDJJ does not oblige. He stops playing before we go to bed. I have at least three liter bottles of Evian (the premium beverage package gives me access to Evian water, while the plebes with the regular package have to drink some generic garbage).
Day 5: Pompeii
We have a late day today, and our excursion doesn’t start until the afternoon, so there’s plenty of time for a workout and breakfast beforehand. We meet in the early afternoon on the pier to head out to Pompeii, which I’ve been to before, when I played “the lava game” there. (You know, where you pretend the floor is lava? It was in poor taste, to say the least.)
We are docked in Salerno, and we have to pass through a tiny portion of the Apennines in order to get to our destination; they are gorgeous and larger than I imagined they would be. Our tour guide (who incidentally is a Brazilian man named Juan) tells us that they form the conclusion of the African Atlas range, which I have heard is actually the continuation of the Appalachian range, whence I hail (…ish). I find this somewhat hard to believe, since these mountains seem significantly more impressive and less worn than those of my homeland.
In any event, Pompeii is roughly as I remember, except we get to visit the red light district, where they have “explicit erotic frescoes” that act like a menu (as in, “Oooooh, I’ll have that one!” and then you point to the picture of a naked lady on top of a naked dude; presumably they are engaging in some sort of primitive mating ritual). We also see a number of bodies (these are actually plaster casts of the space inside the ash surrounding the skeletons; the bodies themselves have decomposed and left the space), including the one I most remember, whose mouth is open and appears to be screaming in agony as he suffocates and burns to death as the volcanic ash buries him. It is haunting; I did not take a picture.
Otherwise, our tour guide is remarkable in his mixed love and hatred for Italy; he seems incredulous to the point of embarrassment about his countrymen’s driving habits, from their lack of respect for other drivers to their lack of respect for their own lives vis-à-vis seat belts and helmets; he laments their inability to change their attitude about the role of women in society (“Until 50 years ago it was the case in Italy that women …” is a phrase uttered more than once); while at the same time he clearly romanticizes the laziness of Southern Italy (“We would be happy to have tourism and gastronomy as the driving force of the economy, while the north forces this industry upon us!”, and he also uses the phrase “slowly, slowly” to describe our movement through the city). I am assured by the more Italian members of our group that I simply do not understand Italians when I mention that he seems to both hate and love Italy.
On the way back, I realize I have misplaced my SeaPass card, which I need to get on the ship. Fortunately, this is not a huge problem; I have my driver’s license, and the crew lets me on with the proviso that I immediately visit the guest relations desk to get my card back. Disaster averted! Otherwise, the ship brings more of the same; Slush bar and hot tub (our friends DJ A-Hole and The Bassist Extraordinaire pass by while we’re in the tub and I loudly lament that no one on the ship will play any Will Smith; they definitely hear); too much dinner (although admittedly I only have one entrée), too much wine, and another night near the Martini Bar. We go to bed surprisingly early, considering tomorrow is a sea day, and we have nothing to wake up for.
Day 6: Sea Day
We are at sea today; we have no excursions to wake up for. The biggest issue we face is when will it be acceptable to start drinking without effectively being alcoholics. I manage to hold off until after my workout and breakfast; I finally meet up with everyone on the lawn deck around 2:00, so naturally, I start drinking around 2:00.
We play bocce all afternoon while a hot glass show occurs from 3:00 to 5:00. At the end, they raffle off some of their pieces. We win nothing.
There is a bocce tournament soon thereafter, and we have been practicing; my roommate and I come in second, while another pair of us comes in third. We win medals! This is literally the first medal I think I’ve ever won. I’m awkwardly proud of it.
We make our way to dinner very gradually through a bar off the tail end of the ship; there we meet a British couple that has gone on a whopping 9,734 cruises (or a similar number; don’t quote me on that). They claim their favorite line is Celebrity, but they are upset that Celebrity is attempting to lose its rep as “the old people’s cruise line,” (when we met them they asked if we worked for the ship because we were “so young”) in favor of attracting the 25-40 crowd with their new musical selection, which they have noticed will literally clear out any venue where that “damn bass-wielding DJ duo” shows up. They are obviously talking about our good non-Will-Smith-playing friends DJ Jerkwad and The Boy Bass Wonder, and we applaud them in their observation. Also, they invite us to try the sangria, which we didn’t even know they had! Things are looking up!
Nothing much else happens today; eventually I manage to make it back to my room in spite of my keycard not working, and we settle in for another late morning tomorrow.
Day 7: Mykonos / Ancient Delos
We pull into the port of Mykonos in the Cyclades around 8 in the morning, but our excursion doesn’t start until 1:45, so we wake up sometime after 11 to make the most of our time in Mykonos by totally avoiding being in Mykonos. This proves not to be the worst decision we’ve made on the trip.
Around 2:00, we board a tender boat from the ship and make our way to Mykonos, where we immediately board another boat and head out to the island of Delos, where sat the ancient and aptly-named Greek city of Delos. The tour is guided, which is good, because otherwise it would be almost impossible to figure out what anything is. Our guide is very knowledgeable, but not great at guiding; at the end of the tour this is explained when she finally A) tells us her name and B) informs us she’s actually an archaeologist studying an even ancient-er civilization, the Minnoans.
Anyway, the island is actually pretty cool; the ruins that we’re exploring actually date to the Roman settlement of the island; it turns out it was an important hub for the Minnoans and Ionians as far back as the 11th Century BC before the classical Greeks took over sometime in the 5th-2nd Centuries; eventually (2nd Century BC) it was conquered by the Romans before “the enemies of Rome” burned the city in what is described to us by our guide as “The Catastrophe.” Also, I slowly come to realize I’ve heard of Delos before as part of the Delian League, which is a thing I don’t really remember anything about and definitely need to look up when I get Internet access again. As part of this trip it becomes clear that no one in our group really has any clue about any of the ancient civilizations being discussed or how they worked, so apologies to all of the history that I have butchered and will continue to butcher.
Some of the cooler aspects of the city include surviving burn marks from The Catastrophe; tile mosaics set into the floors that held about 6 inches of water, which served as ancient air conditioning; wells that still draw water; and a number of surviving statues, including several lions, which guard the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, which is pretty cool. Do(es) your god(s) have a birthplace? I didn’t think so.
When we make it back to Mykonos, we discover that the only worthwhile part of town (Little Venice) is basically a lot of narrow alleyways with shops that all sell the same things. It’s actually pretty cool, but it takes about 15 minutes to see everything, and unless you’re going to stop for an authentic Greek meal, it’s not really worth a lot of time, so we head back to the ship.
Nothing else really happens for the rest of the night, and anyone still reading this breathes an enormous sigh of relief.
Day 8: Kusadasi / Ephesus
Today is an early day, which is rough for all of us, I think. Still, we manage to board the struggle bus and make it out to port at 8:30 or so for a guided tour of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, just outside of Kusadasi, in modern-day Turkey. I’ll spare a description of our tour guide other than to say that she thought we knew way more about current events in Turkey than we actually did, and she was definitely on the side of “the youth” in the country, which I think means opposing any move toward Islamization of the state.
Ephesus is impressive; it seems like the logical conclusion to our tours of ruins so far. Where Pompeii was a city of thousands where refuse flowed freely in the streets, and Delos was a city of 30,000 with a working sewer system and steady supply of water, Ephesus was a city of 300,000 with working sewers, the first recorded church, and the traditional deathbed of Mary, whom some of you may remember as Mama Jesus from Sunday school. It’s also the city whose inhabitants were addressed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; I am slow on the uptake of this fact.
Only 15% of the city has been excavated, but it seems the major stuff has been restored, including the main road, the port road up which walked Mark Antony and Cleopatra “on their honeymoon,” the library façade (easily the most impressive ruin we’ve seen so far), and much more. It is a shame we don’t get to spend more time here.
After we head back to Kusadasi, we skip out on a carpet-making demonstration (although we are assured that the Turks really know how to hand-craft a good carpet, we counter-assure that it’s boring) and head out to explore the town. In the town’s enormous bazaar we discover that Turkish salesmen are incredibly pushy; we literally can’t stop to look at anything in any of the shops, because as soon as we point out anything the proprietor of the shop will approach us and demand that we be interested in purchasing the good in question. This is true of everything from the glasswork blue eye pervasive to the region (and said to ward off “the evil eye,”), ugly ceramic cats, and tattoos. Not henna tattoos; we are literally asked if we would like to be the lucky recipients of the “cheapest, highest-quality tattoos in Turkey” in no fewer than three tattoo parlors (we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on Sex Shop and Tattoo / Piercing Lane).
The bazaar is enormous, and everyone seems to be selling exactly the same stuff in each shop (or at least there are four or five types of shop, which repeat ad nauseum). This includes shops selling “Genuine Fake Watches,” whose selling point appears to be that their fake Rolexes are genuine watches. Or possibly that they are genuinely fake and don’t tell time at all (possibly not even twice a day). It’s unclear, because we are never able to get close enough to one of them without accidentally legally buying one or marrying a shop owner’s daughter.
Back on the boat, we enter today’s bocce tournament to discover the same people who came in first last time have entered again; their names are Tim and Allen and they are 40-something bros. They’re the kind of people I hope to manage to become (to their credit they are universally positive in their boisterousness), but at the moment I hate them, in part because of how unnaturally good at bocce they are. The joke’s on them, though; they lose tonight, and a pair of little old ladies take home gold. Two of our crew pick up second place, but not me; I don’t even make the medal round.
Dinner is a sad affair; my roommate has fallen ill, and we have an empty seat at the table. This also marks the point at which our server remembers that someone always orders an espresso and a glass of Sambuca after dinner; unfortunately, that someone is sleeping in our room at that moment. We literally pour one out for our fallen homeboy.
Day 9: Piraeus / Athens
We have an early day today; roomie is still sick, so he won’t be joining us. A large portion of our day will therefore be spent finding something suitable to bring back to him.
We have docked in the port of ancient Athens, Piraeus, which is some 7 miles outside of the city (connected by the Poseidon road, running along the sea) and is visible from the Acropolis. During the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, a walled road ran between the port and the city in order to protect Athens’s commercial interests and allow them access to the port without worry about attack.
We get a guided tour of the Acropolis, which includes among other things the Parthenon, which is enormous. The columns alone are the largest columns we’ve seen, and we find out that it took a mere 15 years to build it (take that, La Sagrada Familia!). It was also built entirely by free people; Athens took it’s commitment to democracy seriously and may or may not have abolished slavery, but no slaves were used in constructing the Parthenon, which is in honor of Athena (Parthenos meaning virgin, apparently it was the temple to virgin Athena).
Before we go up, though, we receive a brief history lesson, which I quite enjoyed, and so I will bore you with it now. The history of Athens begins some 5,000 years ago; about the 6th Century BC they establish a democracy (an actual date is given, although I forget it; it is unbelievable to me that we can attach dates to this event and the events that follow). Sometime thereafter, in the early 5th Century BC, the Persians invade. They send a smallish force initially, and they are defeated at Marathon in 490 BC. The tour guide glosses over this part, but after the battle the Greeks send (according to who you ask; I have friends who can clear this up) either a soldier, a slave, or Pheidippides (who famously ran the 100+ miles from Athens to Sparta in only 36 hours in order to request help from the Spartans for the battle) to run the 26.2 miles back to Athens and announce the victory (according to legend, he proclaims “Nike!” and then falls dead from the exhaustion).
The Athenians, understanding the might of the Persian Empire, consult the oracle at Delphi, who tells them that they will be protected by wooden walls; their city walls are already built of stone, so they interpret this to mean that they need to build warships to protect themselves; thus the port city of Piraeus is constructed in order to build and repair Athenian triremes. The Athenians meanwhile rally other city-states to their cause, including the Spartans, to help protect against further incursions. This ultimately leads to the formation of the Delian League (I knew I had heard of this!!), which serves as an alliance whereby the Greek city-states will help to fund and staff their mutual defense from further incursions; to ensure neutrality, the funds are housed in the Mediterranean island of Delos (we were just there!). This marks the first time the Greeks really thought of themselves as a single people, rather than as Athenians, Spartans, etc.
Anyway, in 480 BC (possibly before the formation of the Delian League, that part was a bit fuzzy), the Persians return. She glosses over this part, but the Greeks find out with just enough time for the Spartans to send a token force to hold the mountain pass at Thermopylae; millennia later this will be memorialized in the movie 300 (of note, legend has it that the Spartan force actually did say the “We will fight in the shade!” line, among other things, and the 300 were ultimately defeated when a local goat herd (whose name means “traitor” in ancient Greek) or some such showed the Persians a goat trail around the pass).
In the year of war that followed, the Persians burned Athens, but ultimately the Greeks prevailed, with important victories like the naval battle of Salamis led by Athenian triremes (wooden walls!). As part of the burning of Athens, the acropolis was destroyed; the Athenians then used this as an excuse to secretly expropriate a huge chunk of the funds set aside for the Delian League in order to rebuild the Acropolis (which is how we know when the Parthenon was built and who built it), which ultimately led to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. When the war ended in the late 5th Century, Athens ceased to be a world power, but from the establishment of democracy through the end of the war, Athens was a cultural and economic powerhouse in the region, and ultimately established itself as an important place for learning through Roman times.
The thing that strikes me most about the Acropolis is its age; it is a full 700 years older than, for instance, the ruins we saw on Delos, which basically means that when the ruins we toured on Delos were being built, the Parthenon was roughly as old as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Duomo are now. Nobody else seems impressed by this, so I will move on.
We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering through old Athens (the Plaka) looking in shops, and ultimately get roomie a bottle of Ouzo and a small bronze hoplite helmet. That night, he rejoins us for dinner; I literally order steak for dessert, and it is the best decision I have made on this trip. We end the night in the casino, where I lose all of my money playing craps right before the table goes on a roll; one of our group ends up with about $250 on a $100 investment. Not a bad night… for him.
Day 10: Sea Day, Part II / Massage
No history lessons today, just us being at sea. We admittedly did a lot less sitting outside today, because it was kind of cold out, especially if you weren’t in the sun, and all of the sun seats were taken. Instead, a lot of cards were played. My opinion on cards is generally positive; my opinion on playing 6 hours of cards during vacation is generally negative; cards are something you play when you have nothing else to do, they are not something you do when you are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So I only played about 4 hours of cards. The rest of the time I spent writing for this blog that no one reads.
I also spent about an hour and a half getting a massage. This is not a thing I’ve ever done before, and actually it was pretty weird (but obviously great). It’s also noteworthy that I love being touched. That’s a weird thing to love, but seriously, it’s one of my favorite things. In elementary school, we wore t-shirts, and it was always a thing that if you sat in front of the delinquent kids, they’d eventually lose interest in whatever was being taught (“Seriously, when will I ever need to know how to read? Boring!”), and they would start tracing the back of whatever was on your shirt. Most kids would immediately tell on them (or hit them), but I’d pretend I didn’t notice so they’d keep doing it. That’s how much I love to be touched.
Anyway, the instructions for getting massaged were vague, and the people giving them didn’t speak great English, so I spent the majority of the time beforehand sitting in the locker room, because the person I checked in with said “your therapist will meet you…” and then pointed down, the universal symbol for “right here.” I only found out about 3 minutes before my massage was scheduled to start that they apparently meant “downstairs,” because I befriended a middle-aged man in the locker room. This guy was incredible; he owns a construction business in New York and apparently goes on 4 cruises a year; he claims to have been to enough places that he doesn’t care where they go, he just stays on the ship and gets a massage every day. I want his life.
In any event, upon meeting my therapist (I requested a dude; apparently they are able to apply more pressure), I was told to disrobe, and was covered in a sheet. (I later found out from some massage experts that they never completely disrobe, but everybody else says that they do it totally naked, which is what I did.) My masseur immediately worked his way up my feet, calves, and thighs, during which time the following thought ran through my head: “Well, I better prepare for insertion.” Luckily he sorta glanced over my butt before focusing all of his deep-tissue attention on my back for a good 15 minutes. He was all elbows and thumbs, and I mean that in absolutely the best way. He eventually managed to get my arms, legs, and head worked into the mix before he cracked my back (the position he got into to do this is best described as him roughly mounting me, which by this point I was totally OK with). It’s several hours later and I haven’t moved since, because I’m too relaxed to want to.
Otherwise, I watched (another) bocce tournament, which Tim and Allen won (again!); then I played Tim and Allen and we totally won on a come-from-behind 4-point round, which was totally badass. … OK, maybe you had to be there. Also, I rediscovered my feeling of full; for four or five days prior, I had lost all sense of being full and only felt either hunger or a sensation best described as, “Eh, I could eat more,” but at lunch I had a plate of pasta and legitimately stopped eating the food on my plate, not because I knew it would kill me, but because I didn’t want any more. And it was tasty food, too. This feeling returned at dinner; we’ll see how it goes tomorrow, but I’m hopeful it will go away and I can manage whatever they have on tap for the last formal night on the cruise.
Day 11: Dalmatian Coast / Dubrovnik, Croatia
8:15 in the morning is, even in my opinion, too early for a wine tasting. Luckily, it took us an hour and a half to get to the winery, so we didn’t start until about 10:00. Unfortunately, we started with a grape-based liqueur, somewhere around 40% ABV, that our guide described as a cure-all and “the best window-cleaning fluid in Croatia.”
On the bus ride there, we learned some about the history of Croatia generally and Dubrovnik specifically. In a sentence, Illyrians called the Dalmati settled the area and were wiped out by the Romans, before the Romans were chased off by Slavs from the North, who eventually set up the city-state of Dubrovnik, which rivaled nearby Venice through the Renaissance (and had a GDP of approximately half that of the entire Spanish empire at its height); this state was eventually conquered by the Ottomans and turned into Yugoslavia, which broke apart into several Slavic countries, including Croatia, in the early ‘90s, after which it was discovered that the American Zinfandel actually hails from this region. (I didn’t say it was a short sentence.) The wine we drank was actually a child of the Zinfandel grape and some other grape, producing a a full-bodied, dry red.
After the wine tasting (whereat we purchased a sage-flavored liqueur), we had a pleasant surprise in that we were served lunch, which came with more wine (woo!). We also tasted some of the world’s finest oysters; oysters aren’t really my thing. After that, we went to a local village where they produce olive oil in the same manner that it had been produced centuries ago; they used a horse to grind up the olives into a powder, put them into coconut-rope baskets, poured boiling water on them, and crushed them with a screw press. The water and the oil pour out of the baskets into a cistern of sorts, where eventually the water and oil separate, and they scoop the oil off the top. Also, we were served prosciutto, olives, and wine, so all in all it was a pretty great experience.
By the time our tour got back, we had been drinking for 6 hours and it was only 2:00, so we wandered into the old city of Dubrovnik, which is surrounded by a mile of walls. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to walk the walls, but we explored the old town a little bit and found plenty of stray cats.
We managed to make it back to the boat despite a harrowing cab ride with plenty of time to lounge about in the sun and get ready for the last formal night, where one of the guys in our group had no fewer than 3 lobsters. We also did the thing where we cheer for the kitchen and wait staff to thank them for their work over the cruise, since we knew it was coming we were able to write out signs saying “We love you Ernesto & Esteban” and wave them about during the affair. They actually seemed pretty touched, and it may have been one of the nicest things I’ve ever been tangentially a part of.
Otherwise, the night ended with cards at the Molecular Bar, where we have at this point become somewhat regulars.
Day 12: Venice
We didn’t get in to Venice until about 1:00, but we sailed in along the river that borders the city, so we were able to see St. Mark’s Square and the many churches lining the Grand Canal.
We decided we would have a brief journey into the city and just walk to St. Mark’s and come right back; we ended up spending 7 hours in the city all told attempting this feat. The confusion started with our taking the famed People Mover from the port, which is heavily advertised, and only a euro. It took us no more than about 200m, and we waited for it for 7 minutes, so altogether I’d say it wasn’t worth it.
Once we made it into Venice proper, we began following what seemed like helpful signs to get to San Marco, but it turns out these signs are apparently put up to lure unsuspecting tourists trying to get from Point A to Point B through the entire rest of the city (at certain points we literally saw signs saying, “<- San Marco | San Marco ->”). On our way back we passed an elderly couple who was standing and looking at a map and a series of signs; when we asked where they were headed they said they were trying to get to St. Mark’s but they were giving up, because they’d been trying for hours.
The city is actually really cool, because there are no roads, only canals; the taxi service and public transportation are all boats, and there’s gondoliers everywhere (although they look kind of sad, in that their black-and-white striped shirts are clearly mass-produced and kind of cheap looking, as though they are wearing them only because they know it is a stereotype). There were also little shops everywhere we went, where they sold Murano glass (or glass purporting to be from Murano, at least) and other standard trinkets and baubles.
San Marco itself was impressive; the local church was constructed in the 9th Century, and the square had apparently been burned down 4 times, and rebuilt to be more impressive each time. The Grand Canal is lined with enormous churches and basilicas and the like, and altogether the city was quite impressive, if a bit difficult to navigate.
We made it back to the ship with about an hour before dinner, just enough time to pack up and head to the Molecular Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. The bartenders regaled us with tails of bartending horror at the pool bar (a blended frozen Heineken and virgin screwdrivers were some of the orders mentioned). Dinner wasn’t particularly exciting, other than it seemed like everyone had run out of steam, so most people only ordered one entrée for a change. After dinner we headed back to the Molecular Bar for one last hurrah before heading our separate ways; the next day we’d all depart, largely to different destinations at different times.
It was a good trip.
So concludes my Mediterranean experience. I’ll put together a (short) collection of thoughts about the whole experience for next week as a sort of conclusion piece, then it’s back to my regularly-scheduled programming of forcing my ill-formed opinions into your brain.