Thursday, September 6, 2012


Greece and Turkey: A Brief Personal Travelogue

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. 


48 Comments / Post A Comment

Tuna Surprise

I love this! More travelogues, please!


@Tuna Surprise I wanted to agree with you, and remembered that I kept a little journal during my trip to Germany/Switzerland two years ago. Maybe I can type it up and see if it passes muster...


@Tuna Surprise IF you are serious, I did just come back from my first trip to Europe (first trip outside the U.S.! and I'm almost 30!) and I would really like an excuse to write about it!


@frigwiggin and shantasybaby: Yes, please! I would love to read them.


@Tuna Surprise Hmmm....so how does one go about this? Email Edith and offer up your musings? Write an excerpt and see if it passes muster? Become a world-famous blogger and wait for the 'pin to beg you to contribute?


is just so addictive! @v

Heat Signature

I like this because it sounds like something I'd write about my travels: "It's hot. It's crowded. But there are also lots of amazing things that happened as well."


@Heat Signature My physical comfort looms so large in my head that it's often what I remember most about various life experiences. "How was your trip to Greece?" "Great, but my ankles were swollen and ached the whole time!" I'm not the hardiest/most stoic person in the world...


@Bittersweet I am glad that I am not the only one a little distracted by the physical discomfort of travel! Recently, we went on our honeymoon in Europe My feet EXPLODED on our first (and only) day in Amsterdam and then I had to walk for 3 days in Spain on grody hobbled foot stubs (or rather, really blistered feet.)So much muggy sweat. So much walking. For someone who lives a very car-centric, lazy lifestyle, it was interesting!

mari d

@Heat Signature
I SO know what you mean. Maybe its because I live in temperate Los Angeles, where I'm rarely physically uncomfortable. So when I am, it stays in my memory bank.

I had the glorious opportunity to stay at the London Ritz (rich boyfriend) a few years ago, and sadly, even surrounded by all that luxury, my strongest memories are of how jet lagged/hungover/cold I was. PATHETIC

Kirsten Hey@twitter

I love Greece. In the last 15 years I've been lucky enough to have holidays in Zakythos, Corfu (twice), Crete, Rhodes, Thassos, Halkidiki, Skiathos and Kalymnos plus day visits to Telendos, Spinalonga, Santorini, Parga and Paxos. Apart from Halkidiki where the weather was rotten, every holiday there has been absolutely awesome. I have nothing but love for Greece - it's fab.


@Kirsten Hey@twitter Halkidiki can be awesome too. I had one of the best days of my life there.

Kirsten Hey@twitter

@travelmugs yeah, it was only the weather that was rotten. But it was so rotten we spent every day going crazy in the apartment. The rain was torrential, there was localised flooding, we'd packed for a beach holiday so had NO clothes or footwear suitable for heavy rain, and if we had gone out in it we'd never have got anything dry again. It was so cold we had to get blankets. So we were stuck in the apartment, going mental and dancing to Club Tropicana, and watching CSI. And also something called "50 fashion faux-pas" - number one was mom jeans.

social theory

thank you for this lovely travelogue! this is very relevant to my interests!


I don't really get why anyone would be annoyed with the mosque that her outfit didn't meet the mosque's requirements - I mean, they are what they are. My skirt was too short so I had to wrap a longer one around me. No biggie. It's free, it's amazing and in return for visiting, you cover what they ask you to cover.


@Eatbigsea I was actually trying to be self-deprecating, not criticizing the mosque's dress code. In fact it was a memorable visit, I was very impressed, and I donated a few euros when I left.


@Eatbigsea Yeah, I thought that was a bit lame. I mean, the sultanahmet mosque is not just a tourist attraction for you to consume on your own terms, it is primarily a functioning house of worship.

Also it's the only thing you shared about your experience there, other than the picture.


@zeytin Yeah, they don't let you in Catholic churches in Europe either if your shoulders are showing, which happened to me, and they didn't even have something to cover them with so I just didn't get to go in.


@Eatbigsea I always get annoyed when I visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem and have to cover up, but I suppose that's a little different because it's more about the way the Orthodox control the site and set up their own standards for how other Jews should act.


@Eatbigsea When i went i was weirdly proud my outfit passed the test of appropriate-ness, and very judgey of the girls wearing micro shorts!
To be honest i found it easier to just cover up most of the time in Istanbul to avoid the staring...


@zeytin As I said, I mentioned it to underline my own shortcomings and impatience, not to deprecate the policy of the mosque, which I respected. In fact, my annoyance with myself was that I'd purposely worn capris and a short-sleeve shirt to be modest and respectful, and was mad that my short sleeves didn't meet the standard.

I could've said more about the mosque - how beautiful it was, how the lights hung down in circular patterns above our heads, how there was a small group of men in a prayer group at the front - but I was working with a word limit, and some stuff had to get edited out. I honestly could've written an entire piece about standing in the Hagia Sophia.


@Chills There was a lot of interesting variation in women's dress in Istanbul, from micro shorts to full burqas! One woman we saw at Topkapi was wearing a head scarf, but also a low-cut top and short shorts.


@Bittersweet Some Turkish women do wear long black gowns which cover the hair and are sometimes pinned over the lower part of the face, called charshaf, but most of the women you see wearing what you call burqas are actually Arab women who are tourists in Istanbul. Arabs have started to buy a lot of property in Istanbul that they use as vacation homes.


@darklingplain it's more about the way the Orthodox control the site and set up their own standards for how other Jews should act.

This bothers me so much as a Jew (and I have never even been to Israel).


@Eatbigsea After having visited Oman and UAE (and Turkey 10+ years ago), I was actually surprised when in Turkey to be allowed into mosques without covering my hair or exposed skin. Even in Lebanon this summer, I was given an abaya and headscarf to visit a mosque in Beirut.

The staring in more rural areas has also dropped significantly - a sign of the influx and normalization of tourists since my first visit, I suppose.


@zeytin Thanks for the info - very interesting. I did see a lot of burqa-type clothing in the tourist-heavy areas of Istanbul, not so much in the "regular" streets. Not surprised that people would buy vacation property in and around Istanbul - it's a beautiful city!


I'm not 100% sure I'm a cruise kind of person, but this definitely confirms that I am a "spend a week in the Greek Islands" kind of person.


@Ophelia I was very ambivalent about the cruise part of the trip, but it turned out to be mostly enjoyable. One of the best things about it was that we got to visit a lot of places without lugging suitcases around all over the Eastern Mediterranean, which was especially great with a 9-person group.

I'd go back and spend a week on Patmos or Mykonos in a minute. Just gorgeous.


@Bittersweet I'm going on a real vacation for the first time in AGES in October (to a tiny island in Tahiti!!), and the part I think I like best is that we get to stay in one place the whole time, and also not lug stuff around. I've done a lot of adventure-y travelling, and I'm psyched to just hunker down, you know?

That said, the unlimited drinks package didn't sound too bad either ;-)


@Ophelia Packing your days full of excursions and visiting lots of places are not usually my idea of the perfect vacation either, but it was the best set-up for a large family trip to a place no one had been, where everyone wanted to see as much as possible. Have fun in Tahiti! I'm jealous - that's on my "someday" travel list too.


This is why I have never liked cruises for tourism... I spent just over a week in Istanbul and Athens not on a cruise boat, and it was wonderful.


@rosaline jealoussss. Yeah, I am not a cruise/tour person really either. Well, I'll do like a day tour to take in all the main sites, because it's more cost/time effective, but most of the time I just like to wander around and do my own thing.


@Megano! Exactly. You definitely cover a lot more ground on a cruise boat--they win that hands-down--but I personally enjoy places much more at my own pace, without being shepherded. The moments of gloriousness from the author's cruise sounded like the times when they skipped the scheduled activities and did their own thing, on or off the boat.

(And yes, it was SO GREAT.)

polka dots vs stripes

Aside from the cruise ship part (although the idea of not lugging around luggage (heh) sounds fabulous), this entire travelogue is on my travel bucket list.

Well really the whole world is. But the Mediterranean is top 5, easily. More travelogues, please!


I have taken a similar trip to Greece, the Islands and Turkey. I spent more days on mainland Greece though exploring Athens and the countryside. It was fantastic and I loved it. I don't care for cruising, but it obviously had it benefits with being able to visit more than one island per vacation.


@Gracexo Where else did you go? I think Meteora is one of the coolest places in the world.


Ahh, I liked this. I feel lots of privilege anxiety about traveling to places with good tourism but destitute locals, but then wonder if that anxiety itself is offensive, and then blah blah blah I may never leave California again.


@frigwiggin I know what you mean! But then I think that I'm supporting the local economy, and that's something. The situation in Rhodes with the young girls and puppies was really difficult and uncomfortable.


My friend just got engaged in santorini, and i am very excited about it! I am mainly very jealous, not because of the engagement but because i desperately wanna go to Santorini it just sounds fab!

Big Rig and Jesse

@Chills Santorini is where my mom and I are going to go on our first vacation since she took me to Disneyworld when I was seven. It just seems incredibly beautiful and strange and the right exciting/relaxing mix. I was so mad at myself that I wasn't already rich and established enough to do it for her 50th birthday, but there's always 55 (...and 60, probably.)

Rachel Aronson@twitter

For a "personal travelogue," this is not very personal at all. I am disappointed!


i was very fortunate to have the opportunity to sail around the greek islands when i was in high school. amazing amazing place. santorini has long been just, my favourite place in the entire world. we stayed in this awesome hotel there where all the rooms were in that whitewashed hut style so they were totally separate from each other and the view was amazing and the FOOD oh my god the food.

now i'm craving feta!


If anyone is contemplating a cruise in the Mediterranean with a party this size, a crewed charter is the way to go. It works out to about the same price as a 1,000-person cruise but is 1,000 times more fun, because you're the only people the crew needs to attend to. A Turkish Gulet-style boat can accommodate nine guests, no sweat. And it can take you to the tiny deserted ports that the cruise ships can't visit.


@mainesqueeze That sounds more like my idea of a vacation. Great tip!


@mainesqueeze This is a great idea, and we considered it, but realized that, as much as my extended family loves each other, we didn't want to spend 10 days together 24-7 in close quarters.

Wow, I realize I'm getting defensive about my writing and my trip and I will stop now. I had an amazing time, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed the cruise ship part of our trip. Everyone has their own ways of doing things and their own travel preferences, which is terrific!


Oh god Turkey. Turkey is, at this point, my favorite place on earth (the food! the people! the history! the amazing physical beauty and diversity of the country!) and I am continually arguing with myself about whether I go visit new places, or go back to Turkey and see what I know I love and explore more of the country (I really want to get into the western half, and Kurdistan).


Bookmarking this for when the Greeks get kicked out of the Euro!


This was one of the most uninspiring travelogues I have ever read. Greece is one of my dream locations to visit and the writer seemed bored and almost ungrateful to be in such a wonderful place. Hey Hairpin, the day I go to Greece let me submit a travelogue that can replace this, to use the writer's word -LACKLUSTER- one.

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