Our Athens tour guide has the right idea, though we don't know that until later. Head straight for the Acropolis, she tells the bus driver, and once there she pushes us to climb quickly to the Parthenon, the temple at the top. If we can reach it before 8:30 a.m., we'll beat the advancing crowd and perhaps some of the late-summer heat.
The brochure claims that this eight-hour shore excursion begins with a scenic drive and a brief orientation of the Greek capital. But tour guide Eleni knows better. She understands that he who hesitates may not be lost at the Acropolis, but he will find the ancient temple an unpleasant place, thanks to tourists crawling every which way. Oh, and the authorities close the gates when the landmark reaches human capacity. No one stops the mongrel dogs that roam freely.
It's not the easiest of hikes, thanks to unpredictable stone paths, uneven stairs with varying risers and a lack of handrails. (Note to self: Pack a collapsible walking stick next time.) Cranes flank the temple, always in a state of repair, the enduring symbol of Greece. It's a pinch-yourself moment, of which there are many on this 12-night Mediterranean cruise. From our hilltop vantage Athens sprawls 360 degrees, a modern city with serious problems. We are gazing at history all around, some ancient, some still playing out.
I make note of the missing sculptures at the top of the temple, having seen the detail work from the Parthenon at the British Museum in London some years ago. Shame that they aren't here, but politics and pride may forever prevent them from being reunited. I sit on a bulbous rock assessing the Parthenon and nearby Temple of Wingless Victory, though my eyes are continually drawn to the line of people snaking up from below.
At the appointed time, I start my descent. I do not want to miss the bus to the Plaka district and the other stops. There are souvenirs to buy, plus a citywide taxi strike would seriously curtail my ability to get back to the port at Piraeus and my cozy bunk on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas.
Another lesson about traveling in troubled times, even while following an expert with a brightly colored umbrella.
Navigating the bumps
Sometimes the most organized of vacations can go off the rails, but a rigidly structured cruise is the one you least expect to get wobbly. There are certainly degrees of difficulty, and we experienced just a few bumps on our September Mediterranean cruise that reminded us the world does not run like clockwork. Our slight travails, though memorable, were not as serious as a norovirus lockdown, major engine malfunction or the deadly Costa Concordia disaster in Italy in January.
In Nice, France, large swells prevented the tenders from taking most of us to shore. We watched from one of the lower decks as the transport boats slapped the water, bucking the waves and attempting to get close enough to the ship to allow us to hop across. Eventually, it was a no-go unless you'd been lucky enough to get to shore early or wanted to go in the last hour before departure.
In Florence, Italy, protesters moved in organized packs through the streets that wound around the Piazza della Signoria. A truck with an awesome sound system led them, Bob Marley's Get Up, Stand Up blaring from the speakers. Our group waited politely on the curb, but others mingled with the protesters, not in a cocktail party way, but in an attempt to cross the road. The tourists were on a schedule, and the ships waited for no one.
And then there was the taxi strike in Athens, which didn't bother us, though a few stranded cruisers from another ship ended up on our bus back to Piraeus. The protests and strikes were related to economic troubles; call them Europe's version of the Occupy movement. In the time since we were there, Greece and Italy have experienced more unrest and economic turmoil, but that hasn't stopped the cruise lines from planning stops in those countries when the Mediterranean trips resume in April.
I liked the real-life experience, an element that's often missing from a highly orchestrated cruise schedule. Ironically, we had wanted to go on a Holy Lands cruise, but when Cairo erupted in early 2011, most cruise lines canceled that stop. By September, Cairo was back on the itineraries, and the worry now was that riots in Athens would disrupt cruises. We received regular updates on board the ship.
For veteran American cruisers, particularly those that have stayed closer to home, a big difference on a European voyage is the diversity of the passengers. Our cruise, which started Sept. 4, included many Europeans, especially people from Spain and the United Kingdom. Our dinner companions hailed from Scotland, London and interior Spain, and we had some lively conversations about politics and travel. They chided us for getting up so early to embark on the longest of the shore excursions. They were sleeping in and then lounging poolside before quick onshore trips.
They had visited many of the continent's major cities already, but we had come too far to not cram in every bit of sightseeing.
There was a bit of that "If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium" feeling. But the advantages that are true of all cruises were true of this one. We only unpacked once and slept in the same bed every night, we saw more places for less money than we ever could have had we been traveling on our own, and we met interesting people. The service was excellent and the food plentiful, even if lounge chair availability wasn't on sea days.
And so what if I could never catch a break at bingo or in the casino? I ate patatas bravas and gazpacho in Barcelona, where the cruise began and ended. I saw a smoking volcano near Sicily from the pool deck, and gazed at the deep blue sea from a restaurant perch in Santorini, Greece.
In Italy, I sipped a latte in Capri and saw unfortunate petrified souls in Pompeii, then I sat in the place were Paul preached in Ephesus, Turkey.
And I fell in love in Rome. With a tour guide named Fabrizio.
A most welcome guide
I think of our quick eight stops — nine if you count Barcelona — as a Mediterranean sampler, not unlike a box of chocolates. A couple of places were like cream-filled bonbons; they were okay but I prefer something more chewy. Some cities I hope to taste again one day, and Rome is on that list. Fabrizio, our exuberant tour guide, had everything to do with that.
He was funny, efficient and, well, very Italian (translation: super charming), plus he knew his stuff. He had the guards at the Vatican eating out of his hand as he moved us to the front of every line. When people cut in front of us, he shooed them to the back. When women in our group were talking while he was, he calmly, but firmly, said, "Mama, Mama, I am talking now." Imagine Saturday Night Live's Father Guido Sarducci when you read that quote.
On the day we are in Rome, we miss the pope by just a few hours. We are disappointed but Fabrizio reminds us that the crowds would be even thicker if they thought there would be a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI. By the time we get into the Sistine Chapel and can see the famous work of Michelangelo, we are elbow to elbow with the whole world. No photos are allowed, but that rule is not stopping anyone. The person next to me is making a video with his iPad. I watch the scene on the tiny screen, which weirdly is easier to take in.
One couple on our tour has a small child in a stroller. Fabrizio dubs him "the King" and makes sure he's got a good view everywhere we stop. During lunch at a swanky hotel restaurant, Fabrizio carries "the King" from table to table.
The women swoon.
I have the opposite reaction at a Turkish rug bazaar near Ephesus. I am enchanted by the ancient ruins and inspired at the outdoor service at the Church of the Virgin Mary, built on the grounds where she is said to have spent the last years of her life. We stop at a restaurant for a meal constructed from biblical foods, eating fig cake, grilled Aegean fish with a pomegranate-honey glaze and a soup of barley with mustard seeds and dried mint.
At the end of the trip, we are dumped into the rug store and sweet-talked with tea and spirits. Then comes the hard sell. Some of us go outside to escape the aggressive salesmen, and that experience seems strange, given that the tour we signed on for is called "Biblical Ephesus." The selling of lovely handmade rugs, some upward of $10,000, doesn't seem to fit the theme.
The tower of babble, maybe?
The best of both
I hesitate to use the hyperbolic phrase "trip of a lifetime," but the sheer volume of sights, including the iconic whitewashed architecture with brilliant blue accents in Santorini and a walk across the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River in Florence, puts a Mediterranean cruise toward the top of my favorite travel experiences. Sure, a week in each spot wandering the backstreets would tell me so much more about people and place, but that might also take nine years. Since I am past my college backpacking days, an extended jaunt anywhere is unlikely.
The pace of this cruise was reasonable, and I am thankful that I brought good walking shoes. I would disagree with the game plan of my dinner mates, brilliant though they were, about lazing away the mornings in bed.
You can always sleep in, but climbing the Acropolis won't wait.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.