Mediterranean blues

By on February 27, 2010
Cruising through the Mediterranean today is not unlike experiencing the life of a historic pirate on the high seas; you’ll sail for days at a time before reaching land, explore new destinations in exotic lands, and bring home expensive souvenirs of your adventure.Except, of course, on a modern luxury ship, where there’s no need to swab the deck. Contrary to popular belief, cruises are not overwhelmingly expensive. On most upscale cruise lines, a standard room for two generally runs no more than US$150 a day. We took one of the Holland America Line’s newest ships, the Noordam (2006), through the Eastern Mediterranean (known as the Roman Empire Cruise), departing from Rome and stopping at Croatia, several Greek islands, Turkey, and Sicily. We visited over six beautiful destinations in ten days.

Cruises are supposed to be relaxing for parents, so the ship offers a kids program which runs activities all day for children between 4 to 17. For older teens (16 to 18) who feel they have outgrown the program, there is a sports deck to play basketball or soccer with other guests. Right below it is a gym full of state-of-the-art equipment for those looking to pump some iron. Also, older teens may swim in the adult pool as long as they “act grown-up”, a role that many assume with ease.

Starting at 6pm and then again at 8pm, an elaborate five-course meal is served in the main dining room. Friendly waiters are willing to make any adjustment to an item on the menu, and a knowledgeable maitre d’ can assist you in choosing the perfect bottle of wine to accompany your meal. The menu offers a variety of themed dishes that change each night, many based on the local cuisine from the destinations on the cruise.

After dinner, colorful nightlife begins on the ship. Every night, there is a production in the theater, ranging from variety shows to stand-up comedians. Afterwards, the ship’s casino is filled with avid gamblers vying for the $200,000 jackpot. At the piano bar, guests sing (or attempt to) their favorite songs played on request by a professional pianist. Across the hall, the disco opens its doors to anyone wishing to dance the night away.

When arriving at each port of call, it is wise to always have a “Shore Excursion” booked. Shore Excursions are guided tours at each destination that vary in duration, price, and activities. There are eight-hour tours of the main attractions in each destination that may include some strenuous walking / hiking, and short three-hour tours with minimal walking that view only certain attractions. Depending on the tour, prices range from $90 to $200 per person.

Our first destination was Dubrovnik, Croatia, a small seaside medieval city with bright orange rooftops. Although it was shelled by the Serbians in the early 1990s, the city was rebuilt in a matter of years. In its heart stands the 18th-century cathedral of St. Blasius, dedicated to the eponymous patron saint of both the city and of throats, and the protector of the former Republic of Ragusa. The city is fortified by a mile-and-a-half-long wall, and for a fee of 5 euros, you can hike its entire length and look out onto the city and sea below. Our excursion included a stop at a charming bayside village and lunch at an olive farm in the country.

Nearby on the Peloponnesus peninsula is Olympia, Greece – the site of the very first Olympic Games in the 8th century bc. Athletes came from all over the Greek and Egyptian empires to compete. One of the most important events of the games was sprinting, done by young male athletes on a sand track roughly 194 meters long. The boundaries of the track are still intact, so those who have the energy can run the length of one of the world’s first marathon tracks. One of the wonders of the world, the Temple of Zeus, was being renovated at the site.

Santorini was not always an island. It was once a volcano that sank into the ocean after it erupted. Now, the picturesque towns rest on the volcano’s crater, known as the caldera (Spanish for caldron), its white houses clustered together on cliff-tops that overlook the sea. The towns are built atop the crater, so visitors have the option of either walking 600 steps up the mountain, or riding a donkey or cable car. (Although more expensive, most people take the cable car and avoid the smelly donkeys.) Below the towns are the volcanic beaches – beaches with dark black sand, lined with Greek tavernas and souvenir shops.

It is believed that after the death of her son Jesus Christ, Mary moved to the Turkish city of Ephesus (controlled at the time by the Romans) where she spent her final days in a small stone cottage just north of the Roman city. The cottage rests on a tall barren hill that looks out to the Mediterranean and the ruins of Ephesus. When walking inside the cottage, visitors are not allowed to speak but are instead to admire the surreal surroundings and decor. Most tours proceed from the house of the Virgin Mary to the ruins of the ancient city below. The city that once belonged to the biblical people known as the Ephesians is still in fabulous shape, with the Library of Celsus at the center of the city and many of the homes and restaurants having experienced little renovation. The facade of the library is still impressive despite having been built 2,000 years ago. The walk through the city is mostly downhill and the scorching sun can sap your energy in the summer. Sunscreen, a bottle of water, and a fan are indispensible.

Much cleaner and more tourist-friendly than it once was, the city of Athens is considered an essential visiting spot in Greece. Most tours begin with a drive from the nearby port through the city and to the Parthenon and its archeological museum. The Parthenon can be an exhausting experience; long lines of tourists wait outside a small gate at the foot of a high hill where the remains rest on top. The Parthenon itself is a grandiose structure, but the amount of visitors crawling on the grounds beneath it taking pictures can take away from its awe; make sure to visit in the early hours of the morning (before 10am) or in the late afternoon (after 4pm). The National Archeological Museum, on the other hand, is a much different experience. Thousands of ancient Greek artifacts dating back to 5,000 bc can be found here – everything from pottery and cookware to swords and rusty full-body armor. Each exhibit and artifact is dated and explained in great historical detail.

On the last night of the cruise, we reluctantly placed our luggage outside the stateroom door by midnight so that in the morning there was no need to carry luggage with us through tight corridors and off the narrow gangway. In the theater, the captain bid everyone farewell with a champagne toast. In the morning, each floor disembarked the ship at intervals of 15 minutes, a measure which prevented a massive back-up on the gangway below. Not surprisingly, after getting off the ship and watching it fade into the distance on our way to the airport, my father began to excitedly discuss the options for our next cruise!

Christian Sayre is a senior high school student at the American School in Japan.

We booked our “10-Day Roman Empire” cruise at Holland America.
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About Christian Sayre