Archive for August 2012

“Now it's Istanbul, Not Constantinople”

Thursday August 9, 2012

Istanbul was a place neither one of us had ever anticipated visiting prior to booking the cruise, but we were both excited to see the city that spanned two continents. Waking up to the city skyline, Gothic churches marked by the cross became golden domed mollusks and the writing on the buildings surrounding us was an unfamiliar alphabet. Looking out to sea, deep blue waters of the Med transformed into a pungent green cesspool as we sat at port in the Sea of Marmara. Although we knew little about modern day Istanbul, we both had a deep respect for the city and it's history; beginning with it’s start as the capitol of the Byzantine Empire, then being conquered and becoming Constantinople, and again when the city became an important part of the Ottoman Empire - we couldn't wait to hop off the ship and begin to explore.

As usual our day began with finding a bank, a good map and our points of interest. A few hundred yards from the port was a BNL, where we withdrew our first Turkish Lyra, another new currency to experience - and this time the exchange rate favored our dollar! As we finished our withdrawal a man approached us offering up discount tickets for a Ho-Ho (hop-on, hop-off) bus with guidance in eight languages that took us on a two hour journey to all of the major points of interest in the city, as well as crossing the bridge into Asia. We were so excited we couldn't resist his offer, so with maps in hand, and our newfound confidence we boarded the bus and headed into the city. At our first hop-off point we debussed and headed straight to a café, nestled across a courtyard from the Hagia Sophia, to enjoy some authentic Turkish coffee.

Standing in the heart of Istanbul we were in awe of the different look and feel of this particular Mediterranean city. Megan also made it a priority to finish the remainder of her souvenir shopping here, so off we went to the famous Grand Bazaar. As we walked along the streets we browsed through the assortments of beautiful rugs and jewelry. A symbol we repeatedly saw was the evil eye, a dark piece of glass with a white eyeball that had a light blue iris and dark black pupil. It is believed by many cultures that the charm is able to cause injury or bad luck for anyone it is directed at. The Eye was widely available in the Bazaar, as well as intricate lamps, camel bone jewelry boxes, hookah pipes, and handcrafted knives. Once inside we shopped for our friends and family, Megan insisted on bartering with the shopkeepers that seemed irritated with her persistence, and even joked to Kyle that he shouldn’t let a woman do the talking. We learned earlier in the day that 99% of Turkey is Muslim, and they still uphold traditions of a male dominated society. After our shopping spree, we sat down to enjoy some traditional baklava and handmade lemonade at a little café inside the Bazaar.

Taking our time to get back to the main square for the Ho-Ho point we lingered through the streets of the high fashion area, stopping for gyros and sodas. A little after noon loud music played through speakers scattered all around the city - prayer hour, something neither of us had ever witnessed. Many of the shops began to close down and the crowds of people slowly dispersed. Making our way into the main part of town we stopped to admire the Hippodrome and a few more artisan shops.

It was nearly 2:45 when we made it back to the Ho-Ho point, we hopped on one of the tour busses and waited for it to depart - we were so excited to see the parts of the city not attainable by foot, and for the first time make it to Asia! As we sat on the hot bus looking at the Blue Mosque the attendant handed us headphones to plug into the guided system, she also informed us that the bus had free Internet. Overjoyed we pulled out the iPad and went to town. About forty-five minutes passed before we realized the bus hadn't moved. Puzzled, and realizing we only had two hours before we had to be at the port for the final boarding at 6PM we got nervous that we wouldn't be able to finish the rest of our tour. Megan got off the bus and asked the attendant when the tour would begin, she informed us not until 4PM! Wish they‘d disclosed that crucial bit of information to us before we sat on the hot bus wasting an hour…

Discouraged that we had wasted money, and wasted too much time browsing the Bazaar and eating we took the next available bus back to the ship. Walking into the port we passed a line of hookah bars where shisha was being smoked out of fruit! We decided that the next day in Izmir, because we didn't have an agenda of places to see, we would smoke hookah and spend the day satisfying our Internet craving. Despite our setback with the bus, we both really enjoyed Istanbul and appreciated all the wonders it helped us discover. It was an unexpected surprise added to an all-star list of Mediterranean cities.

Above: Megan is holding the Ho-Ho map and a cup of water, given to her by the conductor of the bus, after she proceeded to argue with him about bus times and drop off points, demanding a refund, and nearly crying. She'd tell you that it was Istanbul$#!%


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High Expectations

Wednesday August 8, 2012

Between our days in Naples and Mykonos we had a day at sea, which was a nice way to catch up and relax sans taxing itinerary. Mykonos was a unique port; we were only there from 7am until 2pm, and the shallow harbor forced the ship to tender rather than dock. Tendering means that our ship anchors near the port and smaller boats take groups of people to and from the docks. Due to the limited number of boats, we wanted to be two of the first passengers off the ship so that the better part of our day was not wasted waiting. Unfortunately our time on Mykonos was the least of all of the ports, just 6 hours, so we had to make the most of it. That morning we woke up extra early and rushed down to the lobby at 6am, hope we would get “Tendering Tickets” in the first group – we ended up with Group 4, good enough! As we waited for our group to be called to the galley we watched the sun break over the mountainous island, nothing on the cruise thus far compared to how beautiful it was.

We touched land at 7:30, and were early enough to have everything to ourselves – which meant Kyle was able to pop off many shots of people free landscapes. We made our way past a night club that appeared to still be open, (full of drunk people that seemed determined to party on through the morning). The white buildings hovered over the crystal blue ocean, backlit by early morning light creating a surreal atmosphere. In the first half and hour Kyle took over 500 pictures of pelicans, windmills, cats, churches and the ocean. We were lucky to be the first people at the windmills, Kyle had been to the island before and knew a more direct path from the docks so we snuck around the coast successfully beating the crowds.

We played on the beach near the windmills, collecting shells and taking in the views of Little Venice. A grisly bearded man broke the ambiance as he came strolling up the dirt path, approached the edge of the sea, stripped to his skivvies and jumped into the azur water. After a short while he returned from the ocean, dressed himself and continued back up the dirt path into town. Emboldened by his behavior Megan stripped down as well and also went for a swim. Kyle acted as a lookout to the mischievous 9am brazen swimming session. Reenergized we headed back into town as the shops were now open - Kyle cringed as Megan rejoiced! Every shop had different knick knacks that had to be examined. As a reward for tolerating yet another round of "junk" shopping, Kyle decided we would go for coffee on the water in Little Venice.

As the tiny town filled with tourists the ambiance was lost, we headed back to the ship for lunch by the pool and waved good-bye to Greece for a few days.


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Capture The Color Contest

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Taken while crossing Westminster Bridge just before polishing off a bottle of red wine that Megan and I shared one night while walking along the Thames.


Two parrots were rudely interrupted during their lunch at Loro Parque.


This canary stood watch over our favorite black sand beach on Tenerife.


Taken as we descended through the clouds while following the lava flow that destroyed the port city of Garachico.


The Red Cross was ready for anything at the Embarkation of the Virgen del Carmen in Puerto de la Cruz.

More about the contest...

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Room and Board on Board

Tuesday August 7th and Sunday August 11th

The ship was everything we could have asked for out of a last minute booking. Our stateroom was perfect - three super comfy beds (one was a bunk), a nice size bathroom, the biggest shower we’d had in Europe to date; also a desk, closet, and flat screen TV. Upon arrival we came to discover we had a complimentary bottle of red wine and $150 in onboard credit to use toward drinks, dining and shopping! NCL offers "Freestyle Cruising" so were able to choose what we wanted to do and when we wanted to do it, and the best part was no prearranged dining times or mandatory dress codes. The onboard amenities were pretty awesome too; between pools and hot tubs, art lectures, the gym that we frequented dailly, gratuitous amounts of food, complimentary room service, the night club, library and casino we never ran out of things to do. The highlight of being on the ship was undoubtedly the nightly entertainment. Each night there were performances by singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, comedians you get the idea…(all for no additional charge) in the Stardust Theater, and each show was so impressive, we happily would have paid to attend.

The only issue we encountered with life on board was running out of clothes after only eight days, and opting to wash our laundry in the shower to avoid the $25 laundromat fee, we just wanted to see if it could be done. Did we mention our problem with overeating? Somehow we managed to aid in the disappearance of between three and seven desserts a day… but who can really resist an endless supply of cakes and cookies?! Our “Freestyle Daily” (a daily itinerary of all possible to-dos) also provided us with far more activities than we could ever imagine, time being our only limitation! We also feel that as a young couple we got overlooked by service staff and sales people on most occasions – sure we're not their target demographic of “big spenders” but we don't deserve to be ostracized when we’re still spending good money to be on board.

All things considered, we would gladly do another Norwegian cruise again soon. There’s nothing like being waited on hand and foot while you wake up to a new city every morning.


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A Dirty Dose of Reality

Monday August 6, 2012

It was the temptation of great pizza, pasta and dessert that lured us off the ship the morning we landed in Naples, despite how run-down we still were from Rome. Megan actually believed that in this historic city the streets would be lined with cafés where big men with thick Italian accents wearing cute chefs’ hats served gratuitous bowls of freshly made pasta and mouthwatering pizza. Reality has a tendency to burst the dream bubble, and our Naples experience turned out to be the complete opposite of our fantasy.

Before leaving the ship we composed a list of the things we had heard about Naples, our daily “to do” list, which included eating real Napoli pizza, sfogliatelle, looking through the collections of Nativity scenes on Christmas Alley, the Castel Nuovo, the Doll Hospital, Castel dell'Ovo, and the Museum of Contemporary Art – which happened to be free on Mondays! Walking away from the port we easily located Castel Nuovo a 13th Century castle complete with moat and drawbridge. Around the corner from the castle was San Francesco di Paola a large church with a plaza, similar to St. Peter’s Square but unfortunately covered in graffiti and garbage. From there we headed off to explore the rest of the city, and ended up lost, in an older less maintained part of town where we saw a young man on a motorcycle and an older gentleman yelling at one another as if they were about to exchange fists. Less than enchanted with our location we walked back to the plaza in an attempt to get things back on track. This is where we began our search for pizza and sfogliatelle, despite just having had breakfast and it still being ten in the morning.

The funny thing about our sfogliatelle hunt was that we had no idea what we were looking for; let alone how to pronounce the funny looking Italian word. Walking into the first bakery we encountered we held up a paper with the funny word to the counter girl, and with a big smile on her face she turned around, reached inside the oven and pulled out two of them…

The flaky pastries were piping hot, pulled apart in crispy layers, and had a warm doughy center that tasted of creamy cinnamon custard. They were exactly what we needed to kick start our appetites for what we planned to be a long day of gluttony and feasting! Savoring our treats we continued down an alley of contemporary shops in what we believed to be the direction of Christmas Alley; unfortunately the street dead-ended and we were forced to head back to the main plaza once again.

Back in the plaza we found a pizza shop that happened to have free Internet, so we grabbed a few slices and pulled up Google maps aid in crossing things off our to-do list. Trying to orientate ourselves in the city proved to be too confusing and what was a minimal one-kilometer walk turned into a two-mile expedition into another sketchy area of town. Kyle held his camera close as numerous beggars, illegal merchants with knock-off goods and rough looking Italian thugs approached us. The streets were so littered with trash that we had to kick through the piles just to walk down the sidewalk, most areas also contained widespread stretches of broken glass – very difficult to negotiate in flip flops. After over an hour of walking we gave in to reality, we were lost, again. And after being unable to find Christmas Alley for the third time we decided to head back to the ship. Another hour went by before we passed through the port gates, and we were stunned that a few wrong turns took us so far out of the way! Unfortunately we don’t have beautiful pictures of Naples, but we did walk away with profound sense of reality.


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Roman Around

Sunday August 5, 2012

It’s fair to say Rome was our most anticipated place to visit. Of our ten ports, Kyle had already seen many of them from modeling jobs – but neither of us had seen Rome! We were also excited because the ship docked in the port of Civitavecchia, and we had already purchased train tickets to take us into Rome; which meant no initial rushing to find an ATM or Wi-Fi. A 45-minute train ride, which felt like an eternity without air conditioning, took us to the San Pietro train station just outside Vatican City. As we passed through the station the prominent dome of St. Peter’s Basilica greeted us – we squealed like little kids in the morning sunshine, so excited to be in the Eternal City!

As with any place we visit, we didn’t have a plan of attack, or any idea how to conquer this vast city. Map in hand we circled points of interest and set off on foot. Our first stop included Vatican City, St. Peter’s Square, the museum of the Vatican, Apostolic Palace and of course, the Sistine Chapel. From there we walked to Castel Sant’Angelo Castel of the Holy Angel, constructed in 135 AD, it was one of the youngest buildings we encountered in Rome. We crossed a bridge over the Tiber and made our way to Piazza Navona, where we browsed some beautiful paintings by local street artists, enjoyed the Fountain of Four Rivers, and shared beers at a café where we remained just long enough to take advantage of their free internet. The policy of the café required a minimum charge of €25 for credit cards. It didn’t take us long to achieve the minimum, just two €11 beers, and a small coffee for €26 or $32.50… Obviously at this café you’re paying for location!

Leaving the piazza we headed to the ildings we encountered in Rome. We crossed a bridge over the Tiber and made our way to Pantheon, the house of the Roman Gods and our favorite place in Rome. We admired the Corinthian columns upon entering, stood under the magnificent dome astonished by the beam of light that lit one of the brilliant paintings below. Leaving the Pantheon we walked down an alley that led to Piazza Venezia and the beautiful white palace, II Vittoriano. It was in the shadow of the marble palace we found an ATM and grabbed cash before tracking down the Trevi Fountain. We knew we were in the right place as we fought our way thorough masses of people just to get a view of the beautiful fountain. Waiting, and assisting in pictures for three other parties it was finally our turn to make wishes and toss our Euros into the fountain. Intent on making good time we rushed over to Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, lazily we climbed the many steps to the top, which overlooked the Fontana della Barcaccia. Hungry, hot and tired from walking we stayed in the shade of buildings as we walked along the road uphill to Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, which offered a great view of the whole city and the dome of St. Peter’s far off in the distance.

Physically and mentally exhausted we were both ready for a break, so we headed down a road that led in the direction of our last “must see,” the Colosseum! On the way we stopped in a local pizza place to grab a slice of the famous Roman stuffed crust pizza, and get away from the lethal heat. Megan was unimpressed with her first taste of Italian pizza, but it didn’t matter we were both famished. Leaving the pizza place we unknowingly stumbled upon Foro Romano, the oldest part of the city, which led us down the road to the Colosseum. We were both in awe as we approached the ancient building where thousands of years ago 50,000 Roman spectators would watch gladiators fight with wild animals. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to buy tickets or wait in line to tour the amazing structure, hindsight is 20/20 and we should have taken our walking tour of Rome in reverse and began with the Colosseum.

It was nearly 3PM by the time we left the Colosseum, and we had to hurry back to the train station to catch the 4:30 train back to Civitavecchia. Choosing the most direct path to the Vatican we ran into Circo Massimo, the ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. In Rome it is almost impossible to turn a corner and not run into an ancient building, famous church or significant landmark – regardless of whether or not the remnants of the old buildings are recognizable. We walked the length of the racing stadium and up the shady path along the Tiber toward the Vatican. 4KM later we approached St. Peter’s Square, fatigued and dehydrated and completely over the 90º degree heat. In the square we “window shopped” the fancy-overpriced boutiques just to spend a few minutes in air conditioning. Curiosity drew us to a crowd of people huddled around a water faucet pouring from the side of a building – were people really filling their water bottles and drinking the water from city pipes? Shocked at their actions we moved closer and heard someone mention that Rome has some of the cleanest drinking water in Europe. So we refilled our plastic water bottles and headed for the train station.

The train ride was brutal once again, a small sweatbox with little A/C. Megan napped as Kyle chatted up a few Brit’s who shared our train cab. Finally making it back to the Spirit, after a bus ride in Civitavecchia from the entrance of the port to the ship, we headed straight for the buffet to eat multiple bowls of ice cream to help cool our overheated bodies and unwind from our exhausting but rewarding day in Rome!


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Header image:Arizona Roadtrip Sunset, By: Kyle Ledeboer
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