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3 Countries, 11 cities and only 11 days to see them all
The Cruise Itself:
The first thing I was very impressed with Celebrity was the check in process at Civitavecchia. Like most cruise ships it took place in a large warehouse like hall, but impressive part was the amount of Celebrity personnel available to help with the check in process. From the moment we pulled up to the curb there were about a half dozen people immediately available right outside the car to take and check in the luggage. Headed inside and probably 30-40 people there to facilitate us getting to the right lines, and directing us of what we needed to do.
The Galaxy is about 10 years old and is due for a refurbish this coming year and so was curious and actually quite impressed on how it was maintained. I have been on some ships/cruise lines (QE2 comes to mind) where preventative and corrective maintenance was pretty apparently minimal when a ship was near overhaul, but in this case was thrilled to see that wasn't the case. Checking in on the first look at my cabin was very pleased. Carpeting, bedspreads and overall material conditions were excellent. Fresh flowers and a chilled bottle of wine waiting, and even the ice bucket in the room had been filled with ice. I really admired Celebrity's attention to details. Balcony seemed a bit crowded with a small round table and two chairs, and a bit of rust on the metal outside on the balcony, but I looked very carefully and could find next to nothing that really needed any material improvement for the cabin.
Public spaces are very well maintained as well. Clean, bright, pleasing to the eye. Again very good attention to detail, flowers and original art everywhere, and people cleaning and polishing 24 hours a day it seemed. Food was in a word excellent. The daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets were very nice standard cruise ship fare. Where Celebrity and Galaxy really shines is the main dining room. Reminded me of eating at a Michelin 2 star restaurant with the service, presentation and quality. It amazes me to this day how they can present 2000 dinners a night and maintain this standard.
Decks and Pools- well maintained and smartly run. Was interesting to go on deck at night and see the maintenance people working in the twilight hours to prepare the pools/decks for each coming day, so by the morning the pools/decks were fresh, organized and clean.
Exercise and Fitness-Stunning views of the gym and again I found the equipment and material condition excellent on the machines. The gym was pretty crowded the three days I went and probably could have used an extra person up there to help facilitate its use with customers better.
Spa-Run by Elemis (of London I think)- A bit pricey for a massage, but you get a great massage. The therapist I had was superb. Like most all cruise ships, they try and sell you on their products at the end, but that comes with the industry.
Shore excursions- Really nicely done. My only complaint here was with water. They charge about $3-5 for a bottle of water as you are leaving the ship, since I'm sure they distill their own and cost them next to nothing to produce, this to me was a frivolous way to generate revenue, and heard a lot of complaints from fellow passengers about it. With the Med being about 100 degrees in the ports, it would be nice just to offer 1 bottle free at each port as you leave the ship. It would show concern for the passengers and a nice goodwill gesture to make Celebrity standout.
Service- Couldn't ask for better. It seemed liked half the time I approached my cabin, the cabin steward had already opened the door and was holding it open for my arrival. Cabin was serviced at least three times a day. The service and quality of the food was excellent, and can't remember one night, that had to wait for any part of a meal. Ships material condition as well as the cabins was very good as well. You won't be disappointed with the Galaxy, it run top notch from every level of its organization and it really shows from the eyes of this passenger. Overall- Celebrity Galaxy is a first class organization and would highly recommend it to either a seasoned or first time single or family orientated cruiser(s).
Three Greek Islands We Visited:
Mykonos : Beautiful white sandy beaches, lots of winding hilly streets. The best looking people on the planet inhabit this island. Seems like every woman on the island looks like a cover model from Sports Illustrated, and every man looks like he should be on the cover of GQ. Real friendly patient people, not pushy at all in the shops. A real realaxed WHATEVER type easy going attitude. Lots of naked-ness at the beaches. Only scary part was the 300 pound tourists in their thongs on the beach, but guess you have to accept the good with the bad.
Rhodes : You take a bus ride for about ½ hour to reach the outskirts of Lindos and then the real fun begins. You climb, climb, and climb hundreds of open steps to reach the temple at the top. For someone like myself who doesn't have a real love of heights (remember I chose submarines in the Navy, not a lot of height involved). Of course while I was climbing, I was picturing myself falling from the steps and plummeting down the open side of the mountain, so that made it even more special. Then when I was getting confident about how well I was doing, nearing the top, saw a ~70 year old lady (with her can no less), and that gave me the inspiration for success.
Loved learning about this city. A guy in the town down below told me the story of how Rhodes came to be as told for hundreds generations. Cool story. The gods of Greece were dividing up the earth, but sadly the Sun God was out of town circling the earth on his chariot. When he returned there was no other space he could claim, as every thing was already accounted for. So what's a God to do?
He summoned his power and created an island from the ocean and declared it as his own, one that would have sun year round. Rhodes on average to this day has ~300 days a year of Sun.
It really is a fascinating place, as you drive around you see dry river beds everywhere, as they only fill up during the winter. You would think this would create problems with drinking water, but quite the opposite. Rhodes has so many underground springs, the actually export tanker trucks of water, and even though the soil itself looks barren, you see olive trees in every open space you look.
Another spot we passed by was the beach of 300 toilets (don't think that's its technical name). It had a spring nearby that provided water that was a natural diuretic, so people used to come from the far reaches to drink the water, and then……. well, you can figure it
Afternoon did a little shopping, ended up picking up two paintings, not really sure what they are of, but both just caught my eye. Actually getting better at negotiating for prices, an art form I was told I need to learn before we get to Turkey
Santorini was another real superb spot in Greece. You arrive in the port , but the cities themselves are a couple of hundred feet up in the mountains.
You can either:
Walk the 600 steps up to the city
Take a donkey up to the city
Take a cable car up to the city
Since the donkeys take the same steps as the walkers, and my sneakers are still pretty clean, I chose the cable car. Nice ride up, and beautiful harbor views once you get up there. Spent part of the afternoon talking to a woman who is a painter. A real classic beauty, talented, maybe 30 years old, lived in some Greek city I could never pronounce or write most of her life, moved to Santorini a few years ago, and just seems totally content just to paint and share stories.
Headed down to the black sand beaches this afternoon for an hour or two on another part of the island. Funny how my mind perceives things. Pretty beach, beautiful Aegean Sea as far as you can see. It just didn't seem like a beach though with the black sand. Almost felt like I was walking around on a giant charcoal bed. Only stayed for a bit as the ship sails for Turkey at 3PM
Turkey Triple Play
Well we had our three days in Turkey, Two half days and one night in Istanbul and one fully day in Kusadasi. Was really quite surprised in general with Turkey as it wasn't at all like what I might have expected. Since my only preconceptions of Turkey were from the movie Midnight Run, and stories of the Ottoman empire from school., and since didn't end up in a Turkish prison or made a unic in the Sultans palace, overall it was a great time.
First think that struck me about Istanbul was its size, and geography. The city itself is the only one in the world built on two continents (Europe and Asia). The city sits on the water of the Black Sea and combines with the Sea of .Marmara. The separation of Asia and Europe occurs on a point known as the Golden Horn. The city itself is enormous (we cruised on the shores of the city for three hours before arrival). It just seems to go forever. I think someone told me Istanbul has a population of>9 million residents.
Because I wasn't sure what to expect in Istanbul had hired a guide and driver for during my stay, they were there at the pier to meet me. Seda was a real sweet girl (25-30 years old, and real pretty) with a great laugh and lots of fun as well as informative. I guess I expected the Turks to be somewhat Middle Eastern in appearance as a whole, and while many were, there was also a large group of the population that had very European features as well.(blond or lighter brown hair, blue or green eyes), I found out later this was mostly due to the influence of the Ottoman empire (last Sultan was put on the boat to exile in France in 1923). So its much more of an integrated society than I ever expected. Although it's a Muslim country reminded me of Jordan , kind of Muslim with a lot of Western influences.
Our plan of attack for today was to see the St Sophia museum and then head off to the Grand Bazaar, since the ship didn't get into port until 1PM, I think that's all we'll really have time for. The St Sophia museum was a royal palace of Emperor Justinian in 326 AD , was completed destroyed by fire in 404AD, and rebuilt larger (and probably with smoke detectors), 10000 workers were used to reconstruct it, and it was rebuilt in 4 years. From what I understood the huge frescoes and mosaics that covered the walls were actually hidden behind whitewash/plaster at the end of the ottoman empire and were only recently uncovered a few decades ago, they adorn almost every wall and ceiling in the buildings.
Then we headed off to the Grand Bazaar, and it really is grand. Somewhere around 3000 shops under its many roofs. Quite the place, the Turks are the ultimate pushy salesman, they make used car dealers seem sedate. Every purchase no matter how big or small is a negotiated one, which although I dislike, out of necessity got much better at it as time here progressed.
After a few hours there we went to a rug dealer who was also the guides uncle, sat down and had apple tea (unbelievably good), and talked Turkey (literally). Was just fascinated about how thinks work there. What apartments cost ? (1 BR around $700/month), what they thought of the US?, How western religions are perceived? What exactly are the differences between the Koran and the Bible and how are they alike? I asked a LOT of questions and really enjoyed my discussion time with them. I bitched a bit how I thought it sucked that you had to negotiate every purchase, so her uncle volunteered to act as my go between for anything I wanted to get at the bazaar (his shop has been in the bazaar for about 20 years). I went around with him for a few hours and picked up some "cool stuff".
By this time it was about 7 PM and my gui de offered to take me out with her friends for the evening. About 8 of us went out of a Turkish dinner (meatballs are specialty in Istanbul), then headed to two Turkish night clubs, and then they put me in a cab and took me back to the ship (driver we initially had was off duty at 8PM). Long day but a lot of fun. Learned some Turkish phrases (which of course I forgot by today). Met some nice people, did some and observed some funky dancing, real nice evening.
They picked me up right on time again this morning for another half day of sightseeing (ship sails at 2 PM). Fit in a lot today. Started at the Topaki Palace. One think I did forget to mention was my guide had press credentials for both the vehicle and us, this really worked out great as we didn't wait in line for any of the tourist stops. Went right into the palace and spent about 2 and a half hours there. Saw everything from the Gemstones of the Ottoman empire, the rooms where the sultans would meet people, to the Mosques where he would pray, the enormous kitchens, to the circumcision room of the princes.
The Sultan was busy man, he had three or four primary wives and then several hundred concubines, a Grand Viser acted as his Vice President and and many other lesser Visers , advisors, etc. All in all about 5000 people worked at the palace to support the Sultan and his harem. Only one person was ever allowed to look the Sultan in the eye, and that was his Mommy. Her official name was the Mother Queen. Eveyone else would have to look down if speaking to him.
Then headed off to the Blue Mosque. One thing I thought was kind of interesting was the Sultans entrance to the Blue Mosque. Although several thousand people came there to pray, the Sultan was the only one who was allowed to enter the courtyard on horseback. The interesting part was his entryway to the courtyard, It had a heavy chain that came down both horizontal and vertical about halfway down, this was there to make the Sultan bow down upon his horse upon his arrival to the Mosque, to remind him, he was just a simple man like everyone else (except he was a simple man with 3 or 4 primary wives and a few hundred concubines, and that aint too simple).
Overnight we sailed to Kusadasi which is south of Istanbul and is a port on the Mediterranean Sea. Kusadasi has a population of about 50,000 (Turkey overall has a population of 65,000,000. This port has shopping for as far as the eye can see from when you leave the ship, and beautifule Azure blue waters. The main attraction is close by at a city called Eshesus. Lots of historical sites from visits of the Virgin Mary, Alexander the Great, John the Baptist, etc. More statues of gods and goddeses of just about any persuasion. Today just walked around, took it all in and kept the pace slow and easy. Seen more temples, chuches, monuments etc in the past 7 days then I think I've seen in my life, so most of these looked too much like the others to differentiate.
Some things that surprised me about Turkey
1. Very clean, you very rarely see paper, cans, cigarette butts or anything else laying in the streets in the cities we visited.
2. Police You see very few policeman on the street or Military types, Seda had told me this is because most of the police wear street clothes and just kind of roam around the city.
3. Turkish Ice Cream-If you have a chance to try it-DON'T- Its kind of like eating string cheese or taffey. Had an ice cream cone of the stuff and even in the 100 degree heat, maybe two drops melted in an hour, its very durable, just not very tasty or user friendly
4. Salesman-People were relentless about making a sale. Found that whatever there asking price was, could eventually talk them down to about 1/3 to ½ of the original price. With the dollar being what it is, could still find knockoff Ralph Lauren Polo shirts for ~$8/each, but noticed most good were pretty comparably priced in the US.
5. Real Estate- Although a one bedroom room apartment in Istanbul ran about $700/month, still some great deals over here. While we were in Kusadasi, which was a few hours from Istanbul. There you could buy a 5 bedroom apartment in a luxury building for $150000.
Today I was kind of dreading since it's the last full day on board and I had booked a 9 hr tour and thought I would be bored with it and would rather spend the time onboard, but since I already had prepaid for it, I went ahead and got up at 6AM so I could board the bus, even though last night was a late one, still made it on time and on schedule.
So very glad I went on this tour. It probably was the highlight of the trip, plus most all the people that were onboard were ones I had become friends in the process of the cruise. Two things you immediately notice about the route once you leave the Naples areas is the the views and the road.
The Views-Never ever seen anything like them in my life. Just imagine a thirty mile stretch of road that had shear vast drops to the aqua blue ocean. It seems like most all off the houses perched on these cliffs had their own private little stretch of beach. Hundreds of these beach areas as my drove up the cost to Amalfi..
The Road-Hopefully never drive one of these myself.. My car takes curves with the best of them, but this road had more hairpin turns along it than any stretch og highway I've ever seem. We drove down this highway on the 35 foot bus, hats off to that bus driver.
The guide told us a good joke about the bus driver. Here goes "A priest and a bus driver of the Amalfi Coast are at the gates of heaven, St Peter asks them why they should get in to heaven. The priest pleads his case tells St Peter he prayed every days, gave sermons to his people and devoted his life to God. St Peter asks the bus driver to plead his case. The bus driver says he did nothing special except drive a bus on the Amalfi Coast.. St Peter thinks about it a while and then decides the bus driver is in and the the priest is not. The priest protests and asks why. St Peter tells him, Yes you devoted your life to God, and yes you preached to your flock but most didn't listen and fell asleep, then he said but with the bus driver, almost every day his passengers would be praying as he drove the bus. (It loses some in the translation, but I still liked it).
We then headed up past Positano and Praitano and then stopped in Amalfi. You see mile after mile of some of the most beautiful homes and villas, with the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Amalfi was really charming city, walled in with cobblestone streets, nice shops and a large church in the center. Then headed northwest again to Pompei.
Just a quick backround on Pompei. Twenty thousand people lived in this provincial town and most all perished after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Twenty one feet of ash covered Pompei and essentially acted to preserve the city, and then in 1748 they discover it and started restoration efforts
Some of the things that really strike you are the amphitheater and temples to the gods. The homes themselves were simple and interesting. For example the kitchen and the bathroom were both in the same room, with all the waste being directed to the streets outside the home. So many of the streets had stepping stones so you could manage to get across the streets without stepping in your neighbors "gift".
Another part of the city that I thought was funny was the local "house of "pleasure". Let me see if I can phrase this as delicately as possible. Outside the house it had a stone symbol that was shaped likes a particular mens body part to identify it as a location for fun. Inside above each of the bedchamber entrance ways it had murals drawn of the events that would take place inside that particular chamber. I think each of the ladies had a particular specialty , from what we saw from the frescoes. A fascinating look at Pompei can be seen by some of the plaster casts. These were made from the people, and items that were essentially frozen in time when Vesuvius erupted. Between Pompei in the afternoon and the towering cliff side views of the Amalfi coast in the morning, I do think this was the pinnacle of the trip but sadly after we return to the ship, must pack up, and start the journey home
Well left the ship this morning (3rd) for the last full day of my European jaunt, and I have one day to see every site Rome (pretty doable, don't you think?). The guy who picked me up at the port is going to be my guide for the day. We start out at the Arch of Titus,and headed to Nero's Golden House, it got its name from the extensive gold leafing. It also in its prime had ceilings of ivory embedded with semi precious stones, which made it look like an early version of Donald Trumps apartment.. It was a party house of 300 rooms and no bedrooms and frescoes covered every wall.
We then headed to the Pantheon, one of the few complete remaining structures in Rome. It was built to honor the seven gods and seven planets. It dates from 125 AD. The building itself is circular and is as high as it is wide with a great eye (hole) 27 feet in diameter opening to the sky.. 4500 tons of weight of the dome is carried by eight piers . The thickness of the dome varies from 4-21 feet. Looking at the structure of it, I don't think it could be created today and totally blows my mind that this entire building has remained intact for almost 2000 years. They said the interior of the roof was probably intended to symbolize the arched vault of the heavens. . The Great Eye (aka the hole) at the dome's apex is the source of all light and is symbolic of the sun.
Then onto Circus Maximus, which is a park today. Not much to see anymore but was built for chariot races and could hold 12 chariots at a time. Headed next to this beautiful square called Plazza Navona, grabbed a quick bite there and admired the fountains and reconstruction in progress. Then headed to see the fountain of Triton, and my personal favorite, the Trevi Fountain. The architectual details of each was truly magnificent, but especially the Trevi fountain. The legends say that if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you'll return to Rome (I threw a couple my first night in Rome and a couple more today).
Now it was time for the main event. The Coliseum. It was the largest ever built in the Roman empire, and you can't describe it, you just have to experience it. Built around 70 AD it was used for about 500 years and it held 50000 spectators. There was a series of underground tunnels to bring in gladiators, animals, and even a separate one for the emperor. From what I understood many of the animals the brought in from conquered lands in Africa. Rhinoceros, hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, panthers, leopards, crocodiles and even ostriches were used. First they would have an opening act of tossing naked unarmed prisoners in with some of the beasts, for a quick slaughter, then would have singers and acrobats, then the actual armed gladiators slaying the beasts. It really sounded like a nice family orientated afternoon. Another interesting thing I heard, was they also used the coliseum for mock sea battles as it was built water tight. Inside the coliseum today are some great exhibits explaining the many gods of Rome and how they were perceived and affected peoples daily lives.
Well been one wonderful trip, so time to get some dinner, and head home in the morning. Ciao!