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East of Istanbul

Author: ian jonsen
Date of Trip: October 2012

After a harrowing flight from Toronto to Montreal to Athens, we were happy to see the Suntransfers dude waiting for our airport to downtown (56E + tip). 4 large adults with 4 large suitcases, 3 wheeled carry-ons and 2 other bags, I knew we were slightly over their luggage limits on small bags. Our flight was an hour late, but our driver was right there waiting for us with a prominent sign when we exited the baggage area. He was pleasant and friendly but expressed some concern about fitting all the bags. After a bit of pushing and shoving we managed to get everything in, 2 of us had carry-ons on our laps but it wasnt too uncomfortable. The vehicle was a good size Mercedes, I think, a few years old and the drive was quick, overall we were very happy with the service.

About 40 minutes later we arrived at our hotel, Airotel Parthenon. We really enjoyed our stay here, it’s in a perfect location for many attractions… literally 5 minutes stroll to the Acropolis entrance, though there’s still about another 10-15 minutes to get to the top from that particular entrance. The acropolis museum and temple of Zeus are equally handy and accessible by pedestrianised streets much of the time. The hotel is clean and friendly, 2 little elevators each big enough for a couple of cases and a couple of people. The rooms are pretty basic but quite acceptable with nice marble bathrooms though a little worn in places. Breakfast included is very good, hot and cold, lots of choice and all you can eat. I’d definitely stay here again for the location and helpful staff. Only downside i can think of was the ac didn’t work very well in the room we had.

Monday was a recovery day and after a bite of free breakfast in the hotel, we caught up on our sleep time, then took a late afternoon/evening stroll, had dinner at two different restaurants and then an early night.

Tuesday, after breakfast we bought hop on/off bus tickets at the hotel desk and walked out to catch the first bus about 5 minutes from the hotel. There are two different hop on/off buses in Athens, Open Tour (the yellow buses) and another company running red buses. We used the yellow buses as they seemed to have a better timetable and at 18E for a 2 day pass including the Piraeus line, it was a good deal. We caught the first bus before 9am, driver and guide were very helpful and spoke good english. The bus catches all the main sights and then some extras and initially it wasn’t too busy. Around noon though it started to get crowded and we had people standing in the aisles. People we spoke to had come off a cruise docking in Piraeus and were using the bus as a cheap method of touring. Apparently it’s easy to get to the bus stop from the ships, sounded like a good option for a shore excursion. The bus was always on time but as i said a bit crowded at times, don’t know what it would be like in the height of season.

That evening, we decided to try the Fish cafe for dinner. It was close to all the most touristy restaurants though in a slightly more backpackers area, it provided a good alternative to Greek food. Not much by way of seating, two bench style tables outside on the street and one on the inside. The food was tasty, we had large fish n chips (9E) and small onion rings (2E) with a couple of beers. They also have burgers and pizza so you’re not stuck with just one option. Staff were friendly and spoke good English and provided quick service, though we were the only people there at the time.(7.30pm)

Wednesday morning, we were out at 8am for a quick trip to the acropolis museum, worth the 5e it costs, but I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you’re interested in ancient rock carvings. It’s basically 3 floors of rocks 30 percent original and the rest recreated in plaster. There’s a nice outdoor cafe with reasonable prices for a good coffee and a winning view of the Acropolis. I found the building itself interesting it’s beautifully designed with great views from the 3rd floor although the whole place is a little sterile and the guards following us around was a little disconcerting ….. back at the hotel, 4transfers arrived right on time for our transfer from the hotel to the port at Pireaus (36E). Once again we squeezed in with our 4 large suitcases, 3 wheeled carry-ons and 2 other bags, 2 of us had carry-ons on our laps but it wasnt too uncomfortable. Our driver actually arrived a few minutes early and with the aid of a couple of bungy cords we were soon on our way. He was pleasant and friendly and the vehicle was a good size Taxi, not sure of the make. Quick drive and overall good service..

Our cruise ship was ready and waiting. Boarding was relatively painless, we waited around for about half an hour then went through the usual process and straight to our cabins which were ready and waiting for us. Lunch in the dining room and before we knew it we had sailed. Met up with Linda and Brian around 5pm, they had travelled in that day from Florence.

Thursday was a day at sea and we spent a few minutes in the casino that day.

Friday we arrived in Istanbul and after breakfast we headed off to meet up with our pre-arranged tour with City of Sultans. I booked this service last minute as they require full payment up front and I wasn’t sure how dependable they were so we were happy to see our guide, Irran (spelling?), waiting for us at 8.30am with a prominent name sign. The vehicle was a modern window van, seating six comfortably, with the driver and Irran in the front seats. He was pleasant and spoke good English though with a heavy accent that sometimes made him difficult to understand. To be fair though, he provided extensive commentary and was willing to discuss any subject. We covered the usual tourist sites and by lunchtime were seated in the Topkapi restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous, a picturesque location, but too busy so we decided to relocate and transferred to an in-town fast food place where we didnt have to jostle with the crowds. Had a nice panini type sandwich, tasted great and only cost about $4 including a drink. After lunch we were scheduled for the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market but as we had done a lot of walking, two of our group decided they weren’t up for shopping and wanted to return to the ship. Irran, who’s first concern was that everyone was happy with his service, arranged for them to be transferred back and the others continued on, returning to the ship about 3.30pm. All things considered we were happy with the service and particularly liked the fact that all tickets had been pre-bought by our guide and we bypassed the crowds waiting at ticket booths. In addition the cost ($69) was considerably less than the ship’s excursion cost.

Saturday 4 of us decided to head out on our own. We were off a the ship and decided to walk into old Istanbul to visit the Basilica Cisterns at Hagia Sophia, the weather was perfect. It took about 40 minutes easy walk, exploring under Galata bridge on the way and asking directions a couple of times. The entrance to the cisterns is pretty unassuming and I only recognised it as I’d seen a picture of it. They don’t take euros or dollars so make sure you have at least 10TL each for the entry fee. Regular cameras may be used without additional cost, but the use of a video camera requires an extra fee. If you need currency changed, take the street to left of the entrance and follow it up about 500 metres and there’s an exchange on the right hand side. There’s a small gift shop immediately inside the entrance to the cisters, then you go down a long flight of steps to the lower level where there’s a few items for sale, a small cafe and a place to get dressed in Ottoman style clothing and have your picture taken, like a Sultan, 5 euros. It’s an interesting place, at the moment the water’s only a couple of feet deep, but it once went most of the way to the ceiling. Walk to the back of the place to see the Medusa heads and if you remember, bring some food for the fish. When you exit you’re on a different street from the entry point, turn right and go round the corner to get back to where you went in. I enjoyed the visit, it’s something a little different and I can’t think of anywhere else you’ll see anything similar.

Next stop was the Galata Tower. We decided to take the tram back as the tower is on the other side of the river and would have meant about a 50 minute walk. using the tram was easy, pop some money into a token mackine, shove your token into the turnstile and board your tram, no tickets. We got off the T1 tram at Kanakoy stop and walked up the steep steps and hill. When you reach the base of the tower, there’s a few more steps up to the entrance, with ticket desk, 12 TL (about US$7) each. Mercifully there were two elevators (lifts) which took us up 90% of the towers height, then about 50 steps up a winding staircase to the 360 degree observation level. Great views all around and enough space to pass malingerers. If you remember, bring some bread for the extremely tame seagulls flying around and apparently unafraid of humans. At the top there’s also a restaurant with semi-inflated prices, 7TL for a coffee etc and nice views if you can see past the throngs on the observation shelf, blocking the windows. It took about 10 minutes easy walk back from the bottom of the tower to pier#3 where the ship was docked, a pleasant walk though I think some of the steep cobbled slopes would be very slippery if it was raining.

Sunday we had booked the Bus excursion to Bucharest from Constanta with Princess shore excursions. We left about 6.40am after meeting in the Caberet Lounge at 6.15am. Comfortable enough bus, we were bus number 4 out of 5 busloads and almost exactly 3 hours later we were driving through the outskirts of Bucharest. First stop was the Church of the Patriarch for about a 15 minute visit. The bus was allowed to drive up the hill and drop us close to the entrance to the church grounds. Mildly interesting group of buildings of the Christian Orthodox faith, quite impressive archetecturally. The church is in current use and services were underway when we visited. Lots of gold and icons inside and a candle lighting house off to one side. By the entrance there’s a statue of the church’s founder and another of Alexandru Ioah Cuza. Can’t say I’d recommend a visit unless you’re very religious or stuck for something to do. Next stop was the Parliament building (Caoucescu’s Palace) where we had to walk about a mile to the entrance since many streets were closed off for the annual Bucharest Marathon preventing the bus from getting closer. What can I say?… It’s a huge concrete building, quite impressive in its’ own way. We entered from the back, through the gates and across a couple of hundred yards of parking lot. Inside there’s a small snack counter then all the same security you’d find at any airport. Entry cost is ……… and an extra 10TL for your camera and they do take dollars and euros. Be aware that you’re required to leave your photo ID at security in exchange for an ID tag, you get your ID back on the way out. We were told we should bring our passport with us and as it was our only photo ID we had to relinquish it, something I wasn’t too happy about. I’d recommend taking a photo drivers licence in addition to your passport as some people seemed to be using that. Inside it’s all marble and quite impressive when you think it was only built 20 years ago though it’s a bit run down in places. There’s lots of steps and walking but I’m glad I went, the view from the main balcony at the front is spectacular and very powerful. It was 12.30pm when we got back to the bus and the next stop was a restaurant for lunch, salad, chicken and veg followed by cheese pie for desert. Beer, wine, coffee and water were all included at the lunch. By 2.05pm we arrived at the Folk Village, a display of about 300 authentic wood and stone buildings collected from various locations across Romania, representing typical buildings past and present. Cost to enter is …… and there’s a good size gift shop and a small food concession inside the entrance. The chocolate covered ice cream ‘Bettys?’ were good and a bargain at 3 leu (less than a dollar). It’s a pleasant walk around the area, there’s a lake and lots of buildings to look at and a great place to just sit and people watch as long as the weather’s good. It’s an OK place to visit but I wouldn’t be overly disappointed if you don’t have time to get there. An hour later we were underway back to the ship, once again almost exactly 3 hours.

Monday we arrived in Odessa, Ukraine. The Potemkin Steps, 192 steps leading from the dockside road up onto Primorsky Boulevard were visible from the balcony of our cabin. There’s a funicular railway at one side if you’re not feeling energetic. The funicular had a sign that said it operates 8am to 10pm but when we were there at 9am, it appeared to be closed. Coming back around 1 pm it also appeared to be closed but half way down the stairs, we noticed 2 small cars moving up/down the rails, so you may need to be more inquisitive than we were. The steps are nothing special, but worth seeing, one interesting thing to notice is that although the sides appear to be parallel, the steps are actually almost twice as wide at the bottom as they are at the top. Similar to the Spanish steps in Rome except the Potemkin steps are plagued with vendors of all sorts from postcard sellers to guys wanting money to let you have your picture taken with their pet eagle. We had fun talking to the vendors who set up at the side of the steps. If you show an interest in learning, they’ll happily help you learn some Russian phrases. Russian, not Ukrainian, is the predominent language. It was an easy walk into the main shopping pedestrian area of town where we had coffees and a white hot chocolate, spoke to some of the locals, looked at the Cathedral and various statues/monuments, not the least of which was ‘the monument to the twelfth chair’.

Tuesday we had arranged for a private tour with Sergey Sorokin -Tour guide – Yalta …. We arranged for Sergey to meet us, off our cruise ship, for a four hour private shore excursion. We met at the Lenin statue on the waterfront and Sergey was right there at 9am as arranged. He has a Toyota window van which accomodated our group of six quite comfortably, there’s seating enough for eight, though it would be a tight fit. During our 4 hour tour, we visited the Swallows Nest, Lividia Palace, St Michaels church, Chekov’s House and Nevsky Cathedral. Sergey is quite personable and very knowledgable of all the sights we visited, providing excellent commentary and historical information. He delivered what he promised and we were very happy with his service.

Swallows’ Nest – …. Very picturesque building, built in 1911, in the style of a medieval castle, overhanging the sea, perched on a cliff top. Most visitors view the building from a distant observation platform, but if you have the time, it’s worth spending 30 or40 minutes walking the path to get an up-close view. There are spectacular views along the coast and an opportunity to see the buildings details, though as it’s privately owned, it wasn’t possible to see the interior when we were there. The path requires a little stamina, about 350 steps down and 150 steps up to get there and of course you’ve got the reverse on the way back. I’m 65 years old and not particularly fit, but I made it without much difficulty, there’s seating spots and the occasional small snack bar along the way if you feel the need. At the building, there’s a higher viewing platform, worth the few steps to get a different perspective. After taking the trek back to the road, we had a 30 Hryvnia (about $4) cup of coffee in a nice glass walled restaurant overlooking the area.

Livadia Palace ….. Athough it’s best known in the West for the 1945 meeting of Chuchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, in the Crimea it’s predominently remembered as the summer home of Czar Nicholas and his family. It’s an attractive building, in white limestone, with beautiful gardens surrounding it, sloping down toward the sea. Entry fee was 25 Hryvnia (about $3) and inside there’s a series of rooms maintained in their original form, either as they were during the 1945 conference or in the time of the Czar. No wandering about by youself, you have to have a guide, fortunately ours was licenced to do the tour with us. The tour was mildly interesting and there are some nice exhibits that you can get up close and personal with (no touching), but after the tenth or eleventh room it all started to blend into one continuous haze of dark wood with the babble of competing guides voices breaking the otherwise peaceful atmosphere. The Church of the Exhaltation of the Cross is in the same grounds and is a nice little stop on your way to the exit.

Wednesday we were due to drop anchor at Nessebar, Bulgaria. We decided just to have a walk ashore as it was a fairly compact small town, after a bit of wandering/shopping we settled in a waterfront cafe for a drink prior to making our way back onto the ship.

Thursday was a day at sea and we spent a short time in the casino.

Friday in Santorini we were met by NST Tours ….. We booked our NST tour online as they offered a good tour for a fair price. Our driver/guide, Thomas, was waiting for us as arranged, at the upper exit from the cable car. One of our party had walking difficulties and Thomas was quick to acknowledge this and led us a short distance to a waiting place where he could bring the vehicle. The vehicle was a modern mini bus, about 12 seats, I’d guess, plenty of space for the six of us. Over the next 4 hours we covered all the sights as planned and Thomas was always pleasant and helpful. He went the extra mile to make sure we got the best picture locations and took some good group pictures for us. We were very happy with the tour overall.

Akoritiki Excavations -Santorini ….. Down the South end of the island, the excavations are from around 1500BC and are very well maintained. Entry fee is 5 euros and the main site can be accessed easily on flat or slightly ramped ground. The main site is completely enclosed in a custom building, interesting in its’ own right, and all the excavations are viewed from elevated walkways or cement paths on the lower level, but no touching anything. They have washroom facilities there, but I didn’t see any snackbar other than a stall outside the entrance. It’s a mildly interesting site, but we only spent about forty minutes from entry to exit as it’s basically just a lot of holes dug in the ground, other than one semi reconstruction of a house. If you’ve got nothing else to do or you’re particularily interested in that time period, I’d say it’s an acceptable distraction from souvenir shopping.

Saturday was another day and sea and you’ve probably guessed already how we passed our time.

Sunday, we were scheduled to dock in Sorrento, but rough seas meant we were redirected to Naples where our tourguide, Guisseppe met us. Sorrento Topcars ….. We arranged online for a full day tour/shore excursion from our cruise ship for our party of six. Sorrento Topcars offered just what we wanted at a competetive price and we arranged a pick up at Sorrento dock for 8.00am. Unfortunately due to the rough seas, we were unable to get into Sorrento and the ship docked in Naples instead. When we booked, they had foreseen this possibility and offered pick up in Naples for an extra 100 euros. As soon as I knew of the port change, I called and we were picked up in Naples at 8.30am. Guiseppe, our driver/guide, was waiting for us with our name sign and 8 seat Mercedes window van. He spoke good English, was friendly and provided commentary all the way through an excellent tour of the Amalfi coast with lunch at a beautiful hillside restaurant terrace, overlooking the sea. We were happy with the service provided by Sorrento Topcars.

Monday morning saw us arriving in Civitavecchia where our transfer was waiting to take us to Rome. RomeCab …. We arranged pick up from the cruise ship dock in Civitaveccia, four of us plus luggage to be transported to a central Rome hotel, price 110 euros. Our car, a late model station wagon was there waiting for us when we disembarked and we were quickly on our way with our 4 large suitcases and 5 carry on bags. It took about one hour and 45 minutes to get to central Rome, as we ran into heavy traffic, as expected for a Monday morning. Our driver was courteous and helpful, though he spoke just enough English to get by. We were happy with the service and the price. Note there are 2 seperate companies, Romecab and Romecabs, this review is for the former.

Hotel Columbus – Rome …. I loved this hotel, for a few reasons. It’s literally within 100 steps of St Peters square, so great location, right on the main street into the vatican. The front desk staff (one guy) spoke perfect English, he was friendly and efficient and made us feel welcome. Our room was a long way back but everything was clean and in proper working order, though everything is old and slightly worn, about what I expected for a couple of centuries old building. Interesting tiny elevator gave us an exciting moment when it got stuck with 4 of us crammed into the 3 foot square space, but we survived the experience. They were happy to arrange airport transfer for 4 of us in a nice Mercedes for 65 euros, a bit expensive, but worth the convenience as our luggage went from room to vehicle and we left from right inside the hotel courtyard. They have an onsite restaurant, bit expensive from what I saw, though we didn’t actually eat there. There’s a nice bar and our room had a safe (code operated) in the closet. I’d go back, no problem. After dropping our cases we spent some time sightseeing and by 3.30pm we were at the airport for our flight home, relatively uneventful.

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