Greece and Turkey: A Brief Personal Travelogue

by Martha Culver

Day One: Boston to Philadelphia

My mom and aunt (twins) hit a big birthday this year, and, to celebrate, are taking their kids on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to Greece and Turkey. All nine of us converge on the international terminal at Philly Airport from our various East Coast cities. Only one of us has ever been on a cruise, and no one’s been to the Mediterranean before. After having our passports checked about 16 times, we board the flight. We eat a salty dinner and watch that terrible Reese Witherspoon movie about spies dating the same woman.

Day Two: Athens

We arrive in Athens exhausted, with swollen feet. The airplane “breakfast” of a muffin top is so awful that even my husband won’t eat it. We check into our hotel and take life-saving showers before heading off to a late lunch and the Acropolis. It’s hot. There are 300-odd steps up to the Acropolis. I finally reach the top and stand, baking in the sun, thinking to myself, I can’t believe I’m standing in the Acropolis. Not the most original thought ever, but I’m working with two hours sleep. We try to stay up for a European-hour dinner, but give up and eat at 6:00, staggering back to the hotel to go to bed at 8:30.

Day Three: Athens and Lavrion

We sleep for 12 hours and wake up ready for more sightseeing before heading off to our cruise ship. We walk through the Botanic Gardens (not so impressive) and see the changing of the guard at Parliament, near Syntagma Square where all the protests have taken place (very impressive). It’s hot. There are a lot of pigeons. How do the guards keep from passing out in their tights and skirts? After lunch we take a bus to the cruise ship at the port of Lavrion, which to our untrained eyes looks huge. We check in, unpack in our cabins and register for the all-important unlimited drinks package. We meet Florentina, our Romanian cruise director, who is tall, blonde, pretty, and frighteningly good with languages, switching smoothly between English, Spanish, and French without hesitation. When we come back from dinner our awesome cabin stewards have made us turtles out of pool towels.

Day Four: At sea, Istanbul

We wake up in the Dardanelles, heading toward Istanbul. We sunbathe on the pool deck and break in that unlimited drinks package. My daughter, who has the non-alcoholic package, soon acquires a taste for virgin strawberry daiquiris. We reach Istanbul in the afternoon and head out to the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar. There are people everywhere. It’s hot. We buy spices and Turkish Delight in the Spice Market, but decline the furs, knockoff designer handbags, and jewelry designed for Alexis Carrington on an extravagant day at the Grand Bazaar. That night, the rest of the family leaves for an evening excursion in town, but my husband and I eat dinner with our daughter on board the ship. We sit with an Australian man of Greek origin and his three lively daughters. He says the Greeks in Athens are more depressed than he’s ever seen them. The crisis has really hit home, and no one sees a good way out.

Day Five: Istanbul

Our tour guide in Istanbul is a smooth operator, wearing impressive gold jewelry, expensive sunglasses, and a neatly kept goatee. It’s hot. We visit the Blue Mosque, where my short sleeves are apparently too short and require a shawl. I try not to be annoyed, unsuccessfully. We visit the Hagia Sophia, which is mind-bogglingly huge, and would be more beautiful if the Byzantine and Islamic parts didn’t combine to make a strange kind of mishmash. We visit Topkapi Palace, seat of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The jewel collection puts the Smithsonian to shame. Istanbul makes New York look small and slow. So many people, so much bustle.

Back on the ship we meet Willie, a young man who at first seems rude and presumptive, if also friendly and enthusiastic. We find out from his mom that he’s autistic. We dress up for drinks with the captain and make friends with Dareck, the lounge waiter from Goa, who invites us to his house in the off-season. After dinner we watch the show in the ship’s theater called “Legends of Pop” with tributes to Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. Most of the dancers and all of the singers are from Eastern Europe. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Bulgarian guy dressed up as George Michael sing “Faith” … phonetically. Later my husband, sister, cousin, and I go to the disco on the top deck. We recognize maybe half the songs. I break a toenail and bleed through my shoe, but don’t notice until I hit the ladies room. It’s time for bed.

Day Six: Izmir/Ephesus/House of the Virgin Mary

We arrive at Izmir in Western Turkey right after lunch. Our tour guide today is a laid-back, smiley guy who likes to sing and make jokes. We arrive at the house where Mary reportedly lived out her life after Jesus’ crucifixion, halfway up a hill, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. The modest brick house is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by olive and cypress trees and lush gardens. I walk through this sacred place, feeling a sense of spiritual peace wash over me. Everyone is quiet. I take a candle, light it, and place it in the candleholders outside, praying for strength and courage, and for my family. As I start to get emotional, Willie gets in my face and asks me loudly where the candles are. Stifling a snort, I point them out. Life can always be counted on for weird curveballs just as you’re starting to take yourself too seriously.

Ephesus is just down the road and is amazing, but very hot and sunny. We take a lot of overexposed photos that capture just how blindingly bright it is there. We walk downhill from one end of the excavation to the other. Our tour guide tells us interesting stories of daily Roman life here 2,000 years ago, but his most interesting story is that he proposed to his wife, another guide, in front of hundreds of people in the amphitheater while she was leading a tour group there. Happily, she said yes.

Day Seven: Patmos/Mykonos

Some of us get up at the crack of dawn for a tour of the Grotto of the Apocalypse (where St. John wrote Revelations) and the St. John Monastery on Patmos. Both are beautiful, but it’s hard to be religiously moved when you’re half-awake. The view of Patmos from the monastery, at the top of the hill, is astounding, though. Deep blue-green water and little white houses dotting the landscape. We’re definitely back in Greece. Our cruise ship looks huge in the tiny Patmos port. There is no one around. It’s heaven.

After lunch we arrive at Mykonos. My husband, daughter, and I are not doing a guided tour there. We head off to the beach on the other side of Mykonos Chora, walking through its narrow, winding streets and over the hill past five huge windmills. We play in the water and sunbathe. The water is blessedly cool and takes the edge off the heat. There are many people on the beach, but it’s not crowded. It’s heaven. I’d happily stay here for a week, hanging out on the beach and riding a little rental moped around the island. Next time.

Day Eight: Rhodes

We reach Rhodes the next morning, and, still basking in the glow of Patmos and Mykonos, hope for more peaceful experiences here. Not a chance. It’s packed. We anchor next to three enormous cruise ships that dwarf our 1,000-person boat. Our excursion to Lindos features hundreds of people plodding up the 300 stairs to the Acropolis. It’s hot. At some point my daughter mutters, “This is the worst.” She’d rather be in the ship’s pool right now, or on the lovely beach below us; I don’t blame her. Our guide, a shrill woman who delights in hurrying us along, doesn’t help. Later, in the old town of Rhodes, we see beggar girls everywhere with tiny puppies who (we hope) are just sleeping. My daughter picks one up because she’s so worried it’s dead. I take a photo, give the girl some change, and wish I had some hand sanitizer handy.

We return to the ship and spend the rest of the afternoon watching our daughter cavort in the pool while we enjoy yummy, yummy pool drinks. The after-dinner entertainment theme that night is “International.” I get choked up hearing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” and again, weirdly, during a Riverdance number. I want to go home, I think. And then, 30 seconds later, I never want to go home. That night we hit the first (and only) rough seas of the trip, and I lie awake terrified as the ship pitches to and fro.

Day Nine: Crete and Santorini

Early the next morning, the others leave on a “food and wine” tour of Crete, but my immediate family stays behind on ship. My daughter swims all morning; I watch her and drink pool drinks, trying to recover from my restless night. Two of those enormous cruise ships are anchored nearby, and they fascinate/horrify me. The rest of the family returns from the tour and says it was strange to do a wine tasting at 8 a.m.

We reach Santorini after lunch, and it is spectacular and almost otherworldly. We climb an active volcano, swim in a volcano-warmed bay, and then sail back to the main island, just in time to take a hurried walk through Fira, the town at the top of the cliff. We take the cable car down the hill, declining the (terrifying) offer to descend via donkey. An American woman in front of us at the cable car ticket counter complains that she’s been ripped off. She doesn’t help improve the stereotype.

That night we have a special “last night” dinner on the ship and say goodbye to (and tip) our favorite stewards and waiters. The on-board entertainment that night seems lackluster — or maybe we’ve just had enough — and we leave early to finish packing.

Day Ten: Athens, Philadelphia, Boston

This is a marathon day, starting at 6 a.m. in Greece and ending at 10 p.m. Eastern time. We endure a 10 ½ hour flight from Athens, eating more salty airline food, watching even crappier movies, and trying to stay awake. My feet, ankles and legs are swollen beyond recognition and hurt like crazy. My daughter falls asleep an hour from Philly, and I have to keep waking her up through immigration and customs, and to get on and off the flight to Boston. She falls asleep for good in the car on the way home, and we carry her into the house. I’m so tired I feel drunk. My husband and I fall into bed, leaving the laundry for the morning.

Martha Culver lives, works, and writes a blog outside Boston.