Archive for December, 2006

as the sparks fly upward

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

UnbeLIEVable. When we read that the Dutch set off fireworks at New Years, I didn’t realize it meant ALL of them. We’ve been hearing random booms pretty much all day, but at midnight the real action began. It’s 12:40 now and has only just calmed down a bit.

Americans know two kinds of fireworks: the kind you go to the park or town square to see professionals let off on July 4, and the small ones you can buy yourself if you happen to live in a state more permissive than Pennsylvania, that go off on the ground or shoot a few sparks into the air. Now imagine if everyone on your block had those big professional fireworks, and if they were being set off everywhere around you, not just by those few kids whose parents let them do anything. Our apartment has big windows in three directions, and for a good half hour there we were stationed in front of them, watching the fireworks going off in every direction. Some were close enough to land in the stream right below our windows, and the noise was nonstop (I imagine the cat was trying to figure out how to hide beneath a waterbed).

It’s windy here, as usual, but fortunately a bit damp, also as usual. Still, I can’t imagine any Dutch firefighters ever get to take New Years Eve off. I have never seen anything quite like this scale. And they say the Dutch are calm and sedate!

home again

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

In summary:

Five countries visited, all new to us: Italy, Greece, Egypt, Libya (though we never actually got off the ship), Vatican City
Seven cities visited, also all new: Pompeii (well, it was a city, once), Athens, Rhodes, Cairo, Rome, Genoa, Milan.
Four cities driven through but not stopped in: Naples, Pireia (Athen’s port), Alexandria, Civitaveccia (Rome’s port).
Problems in traveling home: None, thankfully – several flights within Europe were canceled yesterday, but thankfully not ours.
Problems found at home: One – the cat decided to show his displeasure at our absence by using our bed as a commode. A while back, evidently, because it was dry and the stain was faint, but the smell required a change of bedding before we could go to sleep.
Two things we are nearly out of: laundry detergent and cat food (not that he deserves any, the little pisher).
Two American things I am missing right now: large washing machines and supermarkets that are open on Sundays. Fortunately there are a few small stores at the train station that are open on Sundays, so we were able to get the detergent and some food (for us – once the cat finishes what’s in his bowl, we’ll have to give him tuna until we can get to the pet store Tuesday. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled).
Plans for tonight: exchanging presents, so we didn’t have to taken them on the cruise. Drinking wine – the train station store didn’t carry champagne. Sleeping in.

Prettige nieuwjaar, alles.

Milan so far

Friday, December 29th, 2006

The bus from Genoa dropped us off at Milan Linate airport, whence we took a cab to our hotel. There are not all that many hotels in the area of the Duomo (Milan’s cathedral) but ours is reasonably priced and is only a five-minute walk away. Nice hotel, too. (It’s the Ariston, if anyone wants a recommendation.) After all that bland cruise food, we opted for a walk to McDonalds the first night, then enjoyed the chance to sleep without an alarm set.

Milan is cold! It’s up on Northwest Italy, not that far from the Alps (and Austria and Switzerland) so this isn’t surprising, but it’s far colder than Rome, somewhere around freezing. Fortunately we hadn’t packed our winter coats away, so we were ready for it. We ate the very good hotel breakfast, then spent our first morning trying to find a Fed Ex or UPS office to deal with our luggage problem. We finally found one (just around the corner from the hotel, after we’d walked much farther the other way) and posted one full suitcase off home (actually to work). Between the extra-weight charge from KLM and the cost to ship it home, it ended up costing us about half as much as one of our cruise fares. Quite a bit for a “learning experience”! Lesson to learn: KLM allows only 20 kg per person for flights within Europe. Don’t listen to what their website says.

The afternoon was more enjoyable. We visited the Duomo, which is second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome. It is huge, and the stained glass is definitely worth seeing, but the realy incredible part is the roof. We wondered if it was built only for the glory of God or if the designers were secretly hoping for other humans to aprociate it as well. You can walk up or take an elevator (we’re still ill – we took the lift) and then can walk over most of the roof. There are more spires than anywhere I’ve been since Bryce Canyon, only here if you lost a cow you’d promptly forget all about her in marveling at the statues, an entirely unique one on each spire. There are fretwork and spirals and carving; the whole thing suggests a fountain in stone somehow shaped into representations of every character in the Bible and mythology. It reduced Mark Twain to awed gibbering, so it’s not shocking if I can’t find fitting words.
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At the heart of Milan are a great cathedral, a great museum, and a great shopping center, which probably says a lot about the city. We left the museum for another day, and explored the Vittorio Emmanuel shopping arcade, appreciating both its famous floor mosaics and the tasty food in one of its cafés. We also had espresso (decaf) since that seemed to be a specialty, and a tiramisu that was very different and even better than the American version – mostly custard, with just a bit of cake soaked in something alcoholic at the bottom. (I also took a brief look in the Prada store and a few others.) After that we looked at the outside of La Scala opera house, then went back to the hotel to nap. Dinner was pizza not far form the hotel, once again with actual flavor. (Have I mentioned that we really didn’t enjoy the cruise food??)

This morning it took me a while to get going due to some of the less pleasant manifestations of the ending of my cold, so we decided to skip walking around the area of the designer stores (I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to afford anything anyway.) We stood in line for tickets to the Palazzo Reale museum, but didn’t buy them after finding out that the Museo Duomo, the part we’d been most interested in, wasn’t open. Instead, we walked to the Castello Sforesco, which is notable for both its architecture and the museums (plural) it contains. The castle itself was begun in the 1300s, and fortunately the museum has respected its home and not transformed it too much. There are still frescoes on some of the ceilings, including one by Leonardo, who was also the primary architect of the castle at one point. The castle’s collections are vast; as we did at the Vatican, we made a point of seeing only the parts we most wanted to view. We’re feeling a bit overloaded on Egyptian and other antiquities, so instead we began with the Museum of “Ancient Art”, which here means mostly medieval and Renaissance items. This was well worth seeing and finished on a high note with Michelangelo’s last unfinished Pieta. We also visited the furniture, decorative arts, and musical instrument sections, also well worth seeing, We never did get figure out how to get to the Treasury Room, but by then we were tired and hungry so we found a nearby restaurant, then turned back to the hotel. We’ll go eat some more in a couple of hours, then tomorrow probably go see yet another ancient church (or possibly cathedral, not sure) before heading off to the airport.

Genoa almost by accident

Friday, December 29th, 2006

We’d signed up to tour Genoa because the tour finished with a transfer to Milan. As it turned out, it was possible to just buy a direct transfer to Milan, but they didn’t tell us that until after we’d booked the Genoa tour. Ship excursions are not refundable. These two facts may not be unrelated. Others on the tour seemed to be there for similar reasons, which made things a bit difficult for the poor tour guide. The other people on this tour included both English and Germans, so she had to say everything in two languages and aside from us and one Australian family, all were more frail than those on our previous tours and kept asking for coffee and rest breaks. To top things off, unlike the English and Welsh couples we’d shared a dinner table with and whose company was the best part of the cruise, the English people on this tour were like the worst ones from an Agatha Christie novel. They didn’t quite use the word “wogs” to refer to the Italians we encountered, but we kept getting the feeling they were thinking that way. (To be fair, it didn’t help when someone tried to steal one woman’s purse.) One woman kept talking about her “little man” back home who makes her eyeglasses.

Nonetheless, we did enjoy the tour. After the first few stops, the worst complainers left the tour to go straight to the bus meeting point, which helped considerably. We got to see the house where Christopher Columbus grew up, the wonderful twisty and dark streets of medieval Genoa, a church with several paintings including some by Rubens, and the magnificent 12th-century cathedral. We also picked up some sandwiches that were better than any of the cruise food. However, still fighting off our colds, we slept through most of the drive through the Alps on the ride to Milan (we’d seen it on the way up, anyway.
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As we approached Milan, we drove into a thick fog, enough to make us glad we weren’t planning to fly out right away. I do hope the other people on our tour were able to fly home. Some of them won’t be happy until they’re back in England, anyway.

three answers

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Sorry, I didn’t mean to be mysterious. Romans used triangular bricks for double walls, with cement between layers of brick on both sides – the triangular shape saved on brick cost and weight and also bonded better to the cement. In ancient Italy, prostitutes were called”lupenare”, or she-wolves, possibly because they used a wolf-whistle-like sound to attract men’s attention. So it’s possible Romulus and Remus were actually taken in and raised by a prostitute after their mother (a god or half-god, I think) had to cast them out. And Roman amphitheaters were used as mass-media devices for propaganda purposes according to our guide: people saw that criminals (including Christians) got punished by beingkilled or sent to be gladiators, and got a good idea of the power and reach of the Empire from the impressive shows put on.

partly back

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

We’re back from the cruise, though not back home yet. We’re in Milan for a couple extra days, because we keep forgetting that by this time in an exhausting vacation all we want is to go home. However, Milan should be enjoyable. Our hotel is very nice and is about a five minute walk from the Duomo and the museums and shopping* around it, and twenty minutes from Leonardo’s Last Supper.

*Of course, I still have Ted with me, which limits shopping possibilities considerably, as does the bill from the cruise.

Getting a pair of colds is not such a great way to finish off a cruise. Also, MSC Musica is not a ship I’d recommend traveling on: huge and pretty, but the organization, design, and anything requiring forethought and communication suck. And the food was bland and only available at set times. I will not be traveling on MSC again. However, we got to see Rome, Athens, Rhodes, Cairo and Giza, Genoa, Pompeii and now Milan, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the holidays (unles it’s seeing those places and getting to spend time with the people we love too).

Rome

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Ted’s family know that he has a morbid and pathological obsession with getting to the top of any building he’s in. (OK, not that pathological; it only applies to being a tourist. Otherwise, things could get difficult whenever he steps into my 20-story building at work.) In Rome, he may have finally gotten to the top as thoroughly as it is possible to do.

We were actually considering skipping the Rome excursion: we were both still feeling fairly crappy and it’s a city we’re very likely to come back to. However, having been on the boat for four days straight, Ted was getting a little stir-crazy. Also, he’s never been known to take the easy way out of anything … and I’d have regretted missing my first trip to Rome, I admit. So we took the trip. This excursion was a bit different from our previous ones: titled “Rome on your own”, it was just a bus transfer to and from the city. We thought that would be better than following a guide around, though as it turned out we did some of that too. You wouldn’t think an unguided trip would be as susceptible to poor organization, but it was: no one on the bus told us just where in Rome we were being droped off or when to be back at the bus until we asked the lone staff member on board. She told me later than she’d been transferred from another excursion to this one at the last minute and given no information.

The bus left us right near St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – other passengers had told us cruise ship buses usually stop there, because there’s a big underground garage, so we’d been expecting it. Our guidebook fortunately had warned us that in winter the Vatican Museums close at 1:45, so we went there first, after waiting in line for nearly an hour. “Museums” is correct; there are several distinct ones connected into one. Because we had a lot to see, we skipped the Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian galleries. Instead we concentrated on the Renaissance stuff: we saw tapestry rooms, the Borgia apartment, Pope Pius the Whatever’s rooms which now have displays of ceramics and micro-mosaics (incredible stuff), the Raphael rooms, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican library. Apparently no Pope has ever seen a surface he didn’t think would be better painted, prefereably by one of the world’s great artistic geniuses. The effect is magnificent, and also overwhelming. For example, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you’ve passed through any number of other rooms with painted ceilings, though none quite so remarkable. It dulls the impact a little, though nothing can quite blunt that effect. (Ted’s comment: “It would have been much easier to daydream in a church like this!”)
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When we had grabbed a bit of food we emerged from the Museums, grabbed a cab nearby and headed for the Colosseum. (Our top three priorities had been the Vatican, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon, but the last fell victim to time pressures and will have to wait for another visit.) We walked around the outside a bit, then unexpectedly got lured into an English language tour. This turned out to be very good: for an extra 10 Euros apiece over the base admission price, we got in with no waiting (the line was substantial) and also were enlightened as to who really raised Romulus and Remus, why the Romans used triangular bricks, and how the Roman amphitheaters benefited both the proletariat and the rulers across the Empire. Worth it, we thought.
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After that we walked up the Sacred Way (Via Sacra), found our way over to a building Ted had been curious about that turned out to be the Central Museum of the Renaissance, and took a cab back to the Vatican. We waited in a line that only took 20 minutes or so, and emerged into St. Peter’s enormous Basilica. We’ve been in a lot of cathedrals in recent months, but this is the cathedral to end all cathedrals. Its incidental sculptures are by the likes of Michelangelo, who also served as chief architect for a time, as did Raphael. It is huge, ornate and beautiful with, again, no surface left unornamented. We took a quick turn around the Basilica, then stood in line for the cupola, planned and built by Michelangelo. Courtesy of John Paul II or possibly one of the Piuses, you can take an elevator partway up; after that there are a mere 320 steps to the top of the dome. (It was a little easier after I remembered that it was over 300 strides from the lake to the boatyard in Arizona – at least this time I wasn’t carrying a boat on my head.) What they neglect to mention is that there’s a gorgeous view of the Basilica from the base of the cupola, only a few steps up from the elevator. The steps went fairly fast, not nearly as bad as the ones we climbed in Utrecht. At the top, though, you look out over Rome from all directions but not into the Basilica. After descending, we took a last look around the Basilica, including a visit to the Pieta, then left to rejoin the bus for our trip home.
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Overall, the cruise itself (food, activities, organization) has been a bit of a disappointment, but as Ted has said, it was a very good floating RV from which to visit a swath of Europe we hadn’t seen. We would not have liked to visit Egypt on our own (not after seeing the security provided!) and it was a nice easy way to visit the glories of Pompeii, Athens and Rome – and Rhodes, which we’d have missed otherwise and which I loved. It was worth doing, but if we cruise again it will certainly be on another line – and now we have a few less things to visit when we return to Rome.

Next: a few days in Milan, then home.

four days at sea

Monday, December 25th, 2006

Our second day at sea was Ted’s birthday. We didn’t do much during the day, but dinner featured a jazz rendition of Happy Birthday complete with spoons-playing, courtesy of an Englishman at our table, a Balinese Happy Birthday song from the waiters, a cake form the Matre d’Hotel, and champagne from me. It was a lot of fun: ours is definitely one of the more raucous tables – and we’ve had lots of singing, because the third couple there is Welsh.

The next day it turned out to be as well we couldn’t go to Tripoli, because we’d both come down with colds. We spent most of the day resting, hoping to get over them as quickly as possible. We did force ourselves out to the Christmas Eve dinner though, and were glad we did. More singing at dinner – we ever made the waiters sing again, though we’re not entirely sure whether it was a Christmas song or a drinking one. We sat at table long enough that the waiters were very glad when we left, though with our colds Ted and I elected to skip the boat’s Christmas choir singing.

Today, Christmas Day, we’re feeling a little better – still both sneezing and snuffling, but I at least don’t have the general feeling-like-crap thing going that I did yesterday. We exchanged some small gifts, but will keep the main ones until New Year’s Eve when we’re home again. To those who celebrate them, as the cruise director would say, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Frohliche Weihnachten and Merry Christmas; as our Dutch neighbors would say, Prettige Kerstdag.

seven and forty

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

The news that we (American passengers) would not be allowed to visit Tripoli means that we have four days in a row aboard this ship. It is a very large ship, fortunately, but still. Also, there is exactly one ping-pong table and two foosball tables. There are a minigolf course and a tennis area (I don’t play tennis) and of course there are some of the usual cruise activities, but according to our table mates, veterans of several cruises, the activities do not compare to those on some of the American lines. (The food certainly doesn’t.) A movie theater would have been ideal – actually, there are at least two areas on the ship that would work perfectly for movies. I don’t know why they don’t show them, other than on the TVs in the cabins. However, the ship has been rolling quite a bit the past few days, much more than previously; no one seems affected that I’ve seen but maybe watching movies would contribute to seasickness?

On the other hand, if we had to miss one of the planned stops on this cruise, Tripoli would have been my choice. Also, it’s fortunate that we had the stop in Egypt to get our feet on the continent of Africa; we would have been very disappointed to miss the chance to visit our seventh continent.

One other feature of our not going ashore tomorrow is that, today being Ted’s 40th (!) birthday, we can drink as much champagne as we want and not have to worry about the consequences.

Egypt

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Egypt was a bit of a mixed bag. We had an excellent tour guide, going on a ship’s excursion was clearly the right thing to do, and the Pyramids were … themselves, than which nothing more needs to be said. On the other hand, if Egypt’s not a third-world country, it’s got to be close to one. The guide told us that most people in rural areas were desperately poor, with families having 10 children and living in one-room houses along with their animals. We docked in Alexandria, which is the second-biggest city in Egypt in its own right. There was an excursion which toured the city, and I’d have loved to see its new library, but on our first trip here it was clear that the thing to do was to tour the Pyramids and the National Museum. The buses were there promptly at 8:15, when we’d been told to meet them, but did not depart until 8:45 or so. The reason for this was not any lack of organization but because all the buses had to depart together in a convoy escorted by soldiers including an armed one on each bus. This was a bit disconcerting – last time we had an armed guard it was to visit the DMZ in Korea, and that one is still technically a war zone! (The Korean war ended in a ceasefire, not an armistice – but it’s now a ceasefire that’s held for 50 years.)

The drive to Giza took about three hours. The country we passed was greener than expected, fields rather than deserts. We saw many animals still used to work the fields – camels, horses, donkeys, and buffalo – as well as many of the small one-room houses and some curious tall cone-shaped buildings, usually in pairs, that turned out to be pigeon-cotes. The guide, Heba, told us that the pigeons are raised for food. She also told us that 70% of Egyptians work for the state; I’m still not sure how you can run an economy that way.

I saw much of our day in Egypt through the lens of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody mysteries and it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed in the hundred years since the setting of those books. Apologies to any readers here who haven’t read them, but they’re the source of much of what little I know about Egypt. (Peters herself is an Egyptologist, so the settings are reliable.)

As we came to the Pyramids we were a bit dismayed at the thick smog over Cairo and Giza that meant we wouldn’t be able to take pictures against a blue sky. It was somewhat better on the rise where the Pyramids stand, but I’m not overfond of air that I can see, and by the end of the day everyone on our bus was coughing. (Or maybe that was from when the woman in the seat in front of us, who had been reapplying her make-up all day, switched to putting on perfume.)

At the Acropolis, there were people everywhere but they didn’t bother us, probably because they weren’t trying to bother us. The majority of them were tourists and the Greeks there were either tourists themselves or were working in the Acropolis Museum. At the Pyramids, on the other hand, we were accosted every minute. “Take a picture of me! Hello, what’s your name? Excuse me, excuse me, lady! Come for a ride on my camel! Give me your camera, I take a picture of you!” The tour guide had warned us to be firm, and we were, but it was like brushing off flies. There were always more of them. Even some policemen gestured us to come over to them (the rules on where we could walk changed every minute according to who was trying to get money from us), told us to give them our camera to take a picture of us (we gave it to them because they were uniformed police) and then asked for money. There were people selling things everywhere: camel rides, horse-cart rides, wood statuettes of cats or pharaohs, small agate pyramids, postcards, headdresses, scarves. There were also police everywhere, to keep the vendors from actually grabbing tourists and making off with them. I was channeling Amelia Peabody and being firm with my “No, thank you”, but it’s also true that the many vendors were bothering Ted much more than me – this seemed to be a gender thing, so we surmise that it’s either because of the Muslim prohibitions about contact between the sexes or because they expect the man to be the one with the money.

After we left the Pyramids themselves, the bus took us to a plateau where we could see the three in line for a photo opportunity (and a chance to buy even more stuff) and then we went to the Sphinx. The vendors weren’t quite as importunate here, though the sightseeing crowds made it difficult to get good photographs. No matter what people do, though, the Sphinx and the Pyramids themselves have a majesty that cannot be lessened by the ants swarming at their base.
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In addition to Amelia Peabody Emerson, I seem to be channeling the Romantic poets this trip, for some reason. At the Acropolis, I kept hearing Keats: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness / Thou foster child of silence and slow time…” which was actually just what it would have been like, without the tourists. At the Pyramids, I was hearing Shelley instead: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” That’s not quite what it was like, but I kept be struck by how sure the ancients must have been of their beliefs, to spend their whole lives and the resources of a whole country to prepare for their afterlives. I wonder if it ever crossed their minds that they might be wrong.

Next, we were taken to a local hotel (part of an international chain) for a lunch buffet, then to a shop which sold papyruses (real papyrus, according to the guide, “not like the fakes sold at the Pyramids”) and one with jewelry, including gold cartouches with your names in hieroglyphs, for which the guide had taken orders earlier in the day (we were wondering how much kick-back she gets). I avoided the gold cartouche, being fairly sure I’d never wear it, but we did get a papyrus with our names written in, for later framing. It should go well with the Aboriginal painting from Australia we have. (This is where Elizabeth Peters’ books didn’t help – I had a bit of trouble resisting a pair of Nefertiti earrings like the ones John Smythe gave Vicky Bliss, though of course these were copies.)

We finished up with a trip to the National Museum. The collections there are astonishing and huge, but the Museum as a whole is not as rewarding as the one in Athens. It is much better than at Amelia Peabody’s first visit in the 1880s; apparently then the collections were jumbled and no one was sure of exactly what they had. Now every item is numbered and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into grouping them. On the other hand, only the more important pieces are labeled with any information and the lighting is very poor – they’ve only just started keeping the Museum open past 5PM, and it’s mostly designed for natural light only. Fortunately it was a cool day, because we were told the museum also isn’t air-conditioned. (They’re building a new larger one in Giza.) It was frustrating touring it with the guide, because it was noisy and crowded and I couldn’t hear her very well or see what she was talking about. Unfortunately the guides all seemed to be taking people to the same pieces, because we were always in a mob, yet other parts of the Museum were relatively empty. It might have been more enjoyable to go off on our own, but we’d probably have missed the chief treasures by sticking to the less crowded parts. I explained to the guide at one point that we’d left her to wander about a bit because we couldn’t see or hear in the crowd and she asked ME if I just didn’t like museums. Humph. (Actually, I just don’t like crowds.) A few minutes later by Tutankhamun’s sarcophagi I asked her about the exact relationship between him and Akhenaten, the heretic Pharoah (he was Tutankhamun’s father-in-law). She was unable to explain how in that case Tutankhamun got to be Pharoah – I think he was a nephew.

The Museum was the last stop on our tour. On the way back, we paralleled the Nile for a good way; the guide pointed out that the most expensive real estate was by the river. The Four Seasons was there, but none of the apartment buildings we saw looked like anywhere I’d want to live. The odd thing, after all the poverty we’d seen, was that we spotted a few rowers on the river and they were in Empachers. (A single starts at around $8000.) There were a surprising number of animals in the city: cows and goats grazing, horses and donkeys putting carts with vegetables for sale. The center of the city has terrible traffic (it was probably rush hour), and our bus driver steered very tight corners, often only a foot or so from another vehicle or a building. We actually got through all the traffic relatively quickly, due to our police escort. They even had the sirens on for a lot of it until we got out of the most crowded areas.

Once it got dark, the ride back was long and dull and most people slept. We got back to the ship around 9PM; fortunately they’d deciding to have the dining rooms open from 6-11 instead of the normal dinner seatings, so we didn’t have any trouble finding food. We’re very glad we got to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the National Museum: we’re just not quite sure if we want to ever come to Egypt again.