EUROPEAN VACATION – WEEK 7
We’ve had a couple of sea days this week, sailing between Crete and Cyprus, and between Haifa and Antalya, Turkey. Sea days give us time to relax a bit, do laundry, take in some entertainment, and read. I’ve read more books in the past eight weeks than in the past two years; a dozen at least. Most of them were forgettable, but I do remember In One Person by John Irving, Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat, and The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark.
Newmark’s novel is set in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century, and most of the action takes place in and around the Doge’s Palace. It reminded me of our visit there and gave context to what we saw on our museum tours. As for the works of Irving and Mowat, I just like both authors, and they seldom disappoint. Probably for the same reason I like Coen Brothers movies: you know what you’re going to get; you either like it or you don’t.
Television on board ship is limited to CNN International and BBC World News, both of which are pretty good, and ESPN2 and Fox News, both of which are terrible. I do miss watching a few of my favorite programs, and the weekly NASCAR race, but you can’t have everything.
Our week started off on the Greek Island of Crete. Our ship docked in Iraklion, and we boarded a municipal bus with John Cox and Cheryl Stead of Charlottetown, bound for the impressive ruins of the Palace of Knossos, principal centre of the Minoan Empire. Our guide told us the story of the Minoan civilization which flourished in the area from 2,600 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. This is where the mythical Minotaur, half man and half bull, resided.
Next, it was off to Limassol, the principal port city of the Republic of Cyprus. Cyprus is a divided island, the southern 60% being an independent country, and the other 40% under the iron rule of Turkey. The island has been divided since 1973, and the disputed border is patrolled by United Nations Forces.
Our tour guide explained that many Cypriots in the north fled from the Turks in 1973, with nothing but what they could carry in one suitcase. The same applied to Turks living in the south: they were rounded up and sent to live in the north under Turkish rule. On our way into the divided capital city of Nicosia, we drove past an area that housed many thousands of refugees in the early 1970s who had to live in tents for one year before rudimentary housing was built for them.
In Nicosia, we walked to the dividing line: barbed wire on both sides, with a no-man’s-land patrolled by the UN in the middle. Very strange! Canadian soldiers were the first UN contingent to patrol the border when hostilities ceased after the 1973 war.
We also visited a Neolithic archaeological site, Khirokitia, the remains of a village about 7,000 years old. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes three reconstructed houses and their contents. They reminded us of igloos.
Elva and I spent a couple of hours walking around Limassol. The old part of the city is nothing to write home about, but construction is underway on an impressive seaside promenade, including beautiful parks and beaches. Cyprus is relatively cheap and enjoys a very nice climate during the winter months; maybe a place to come back to?
This leg of our cruise is called the “Holy Land Sojourn” and included two days in Israel. Many people opted for an overnight whirlwind tour of all the religious sites in the country, at $800 a head! Those of you who may have read my blog entry “Religion for Atheists” will not be surprised that I was not among this number. Besides, Elva had done her own Holy Land tour four years ago with a group from the Maritimes led by Father Albin.
I did, however, sign up for a tour to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Falling as I do somewhere between atheist and agnostic, I didn’t have great expectations for the visit to Jerusalem. I realize this divided city is considered to be a holy place by three of the world’s major religious groups, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and I respect that.
We stopped first at Gethsemane, site of the olive garden where Jesus spent time before he was crucified, as well as the Church of All Nations. I looked forward to a moment of quiet contemplation in the church. But as soon as we got off the bus, we were bombarded by hordes of people and a thunderous cacophony of blaring horns as impatient drivers crawled along the congested street in front of the church.
People pushed their way through the narrow entrance of the lovely church and scrambled to the front to take pictures of the altar while a poor, haggard-looking priest whispered “Silence”, “Silencio”, “Silence”, “Please!”; alas, to no avail. I proudly observed the section of the church ceiling that acknowledges Canadians’ financial contributions, and got the Hell out.
Next, it was on to the walled section of old Jerusalem, where our guide pointed out the Wailing Wall and gave us a description of the four main quarters of the Old City: Muslim, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Jewish. I tried to get into the spirit, but the large plaza leading to the Wailing Wall failed to impress, bringing to mind rather the parking lot next to the Claddagh Room! But, who am I to argue. I understand the significance of the Wall to the Jews in the same way that I understand the significance of Grand-Pré to Acadians. So I stood before the Wall and watched as men prayed; I was moved by the emotion that poured out of them.
Since non-Muslims are not allowed to visit the Dome of the Rock, we rushed through the narrow alleys of the Muslim Quarter to the Via Dolorosa, beginning at the fifth Station of the Cross. I reminded myself: Jesus Christ, one of the most important humans to have walked the face of the Earth carried a cross uphill on this path. And what does it look like today? A rabbit warren, lined with shops and barkers selling all manner of crap, roofed over so that it never sees the light of day. Failing to find inspiration and trying to see the humour in it, I thought: “What a great place to play hide-and-seek!”
Finally, we got to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and, by then, I knew what to expect. I entered and watched as devotees pushed and shoved for their chance to kneel before and to touch or kiss the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified. And then, as I had at Gethsemane, I got out of there as quickly as my little feet could carry me! Soon, we were walking through the narrow streets again, headed toward the Jaffa Gate and our waiting bus. Along the way, more shops, more people trying to sell us cheap goods, and, just like in the Bible: real, live money changers.
So, how much do I hate myself? Not enough to go back to Jerusalem: too many people, too many guns, too much simmering conflict, and too much noise! Gawkers and fanatics may find some meaning there, but it’s no place for the spiritual or the contemplative.
We left Jerusalem, driving east toward the Dead Sea. Just outside the Holy City, we entered the Judean Desert and saw the ramshackle homesteads of Arab Bedouins. Although these people live in Israel, in the most primitive conditions possible, they are citizens of neighbouring Jordan: yet another example of the oddity that is the Jewish State.
Our guide told us that the area around the Dead Sea is the lowest place on land, almost 400 metres below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. It is ten times saltier than the ocean and, because of this, nothing can live in it. She told us not to put our faces in the water, not to swallow any, and to avoid getting it in our eyes.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that floating in the Dead Sea was on my Bucket List, but I was excited at the prospect, and it didn’t disappoint. You’re like a cork! Your feet and shoulders literally pop out of the water, and you have to struggle to touch bottom. It’s the weirdest feeling! As for the saltiness, the water is so salty that it stings your tongue! And I have a confession to make: I peed in the Dead Sea. I figured that, since nothing lives there, what harm could it do?
Surrounded by a group of Sri Lankans dressed in their finest, I watched as they went into the water, slathering themselves in the green mud that’s purported to have healing properties. Frolicking like a bunch of kids, they filled bottles with the murky water and plastic bags with balls of mud to take home. Good luck with airport security! As the women came out of the water, fully clothed in their beautiful multi-coloured sarongs, I witnessed my first Sri-Lankan wet T-shirt contest!
Our next port of call was Haifa. Elva and I decided to explore the city on foot, and we’re glad we did. Once again, warmed by a cloudless 25-degree day, we made our way to the lower entrance to the Baha’i Gardens, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site on our journey. The Gardens, one of Baha’I faithful’s holiest sites, drapes the west-facing slope of Mount Carmel. The terraced gardens are spectacular, the finest we’ve ever set eyes on. Unfortunately, we happened to be there on one of only two days in the year when the site is closed to visitors. We climbed through the streets to the top of Mount Carmel to see the Gardens from above, and they took our breath away. The contrast between the beauty and peacefulness of this holy site and what I saw in Jerusalem is striking.
I won’t be going back to Israel. I can identify with the Jewish people, and I understand why they feel so threatened by almost every country that shares a border with them, and even by countries like Iraq and Iran that are within striking distance. They face an internal threat from the more radical Palestinian element. But for me, a mere visitor, were it not for the attraction of the Holy Land and the Dead Sea, I’d have no more reason to want to go there than to North Korea.
Our next port of call was Antalaya, Turkey, a modern city of 1.2 million which is a major tourist centre. The beaches are beautiful. We took a guided tour to the ruins of Aspendos and visited a Roman theatre that is still in use today and seats over 20,000 people! Next, it was on to Perge, another major Roman centre in the region. The ruins of this city are more complete, and the site has been restored to the point where we could get a sense of where things were located and how people lived almost 2,000 years ago. Rather well, actually; at least the ruling class.
On our last day before reaching Athens, we visited the island of Rhodes, and the main town of the same name. Elva and I were among the first to set foot in the old city, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, home base for the Crusader Knights of the Order of St. John for a couple of hundred years until they were driven out by the Ottoman Turks in 1523. The shops and restaurants were not yet open when we walked through the narrow streets. It’s a charming place and on my ‘top three’ list of the places we’ve visited thus far.
We walked along the sea wall past the mouth of the old harbour where the statue known as “The Colossus of Rhodes” is said to have stood around 300 B.C. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Continuing along the shorefront, we arrived at the beautiful beach which stretches at least two kilometres. I couldn’t resist taking a dip, and Elva snapped this picture of me in the water, showing a huge diving platform in the background.
Had we not decided to buy an extra ten days, tomorrow would be our last day on the MS Rotterdam. We’re not ready to get off! It’s too much fun!