Cruisin' the Mediterranean

... see the Pyramids along the Nile

by Jim Tierney

“See the Pyramids along the Nile…watch the sunrise on a tropic isle...just remember, darling, all the while, you belong to me”

We celebrated our FIFTIETH wedding anniversary by going to “see the Pyramids along the Nile” and someday, maybe we’ll get to see the “marketplace in old Algiers”. These are words from “our” song; “You Belong To Me," written over 50 years ago when you COULD see the Pyramids along the Nile but now the high rises block the view. However, we DID see the Pyramids and we DID cruise the Nile River, very moving experiences for us. Listening to that nostalgic song over the years, the words were so distant they had little meaning for us until this trip. We are so very happy we decided to go.

We thought we cruised the “Big Three” in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal but we now have to include the Mediterranean and call it the “Big Four”. Unless you’ve done it you can’t imagine what’s it’s like, zigzagging the Mediterranean from Italy to Tunisia to the Greek Islands to Egypt and then back to Sicily and Naples. Each port stop along the way brought our history books back in focus with names like Phoenicians, Byzantines, Carthaginians, Athenians, Turks, Spartans, Themistocles, Romans, Punic Wars, etc. We, here in the US, talk in terms of a few hundred years of history while they talk in the thousands. For example, the Sphinx was built in 2600 BC which together with 2000 AD adds up to 4600 years.  Mostly everyone in Europe is multilingual which seems to be required in order to communicate with so many different “foreigners” within any European country.

Our ship was the Allegra of the Costa Cruise Line and had 900 passengers, only 58 of whom were American. We understood beforehand that the ratio on European cruises were just the opposite of American cruises, two thirds European and one third American. We were clearly in the minority and felt it, especially when we arrived in Tripoli, Libya and only Americans were not allowed to go ashore. The ships daily newsletter featured “Navigational Highlights” jogging our memories with terms like Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Torrid Zone, Temperate Zone, and Equator. Do you know where YOU are according to Longitude and Latitude? The cruise began in Savona, Italy, the Genoa port, and after a day at sea we arrived in Gabes, Tunisia, North Africa. By the end of the cruise, we will have traveled 3629 nautical miles.

GABES, pronounced Gar bez is the beginning of the Sahara Desert with camels and oasis. We thought we spotted a film crew with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, making another road picture. The City of Gabes, situated in the south of Tunisia, has long been a welcoming destination for travelers weary from crossing the Sahara. We rode in Gigs (horse and carriage) through the oasis that surrounds Gabes, with greenery and 400,000 palm trees all around us. It is a true oasis with the desert a short distance away and a hillside network of caves up to 10 feet deep dug out of rocks creating subterranean homes that provide shelter from the heat during the day and from the desert frost at night. These homes are not visible from the road. We entered one that looked like the Flintstones home with several “rock rooms” with meager furnishings and sustenance, but with a TV and VCR. The area around Gabes has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as proven by several archaeological excavations.

On to TRIPOLI, Libya, at least we thought. Unfortunately, Americans were not allowed to go ashore and were confined to the ship. Apparently, the Libyan government relented later lifting the ban, but of the 53 Americans who originally signed up only 15 went ashore. Most of us decided that if they didn’t want us in the first place, we didn’t want them. It was probably associated with the Lockerbie, Scotland air disaster for which Libya was accused, and our bombing of Gadaffi’s palace. Those that DID go ashore were impressed with the cleanliness of Tripoli, the capital of Libya, known as the ancient “white bride of the Mediterranean”. The city is a mixture of ancient mosques and futuristic skyscrapers and palaces.

Tripoli was for a long time the hideout of pirates feared by Western seamen, so much so that in 1804 American warships were sent to fight them. Thus, the words in the US Marine Hymn “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." After a day at sea, we arrived in ATHENS, the cradle of Greek civilization, a bustling, frenetic, modern city with six million inhabitants, one third of the total population of Greece. According to Greek mythology, the establishment of Athens was the result of a dispute between the goddess Athena and her fellow gods. Athens was named for Athena as the prize for the most useful gift. Poseidon, god of sea, struck the “Rock of Acropolis” with his trident and a splendid steed sprang forth, symbol of manly qualities. However, Athena produced an olive tree, the symbol of peace and prosperity.  Between 400BC and 1400BC, Athens had been raided, sacked, and burnt at least 30 times. Invasions, attacks and “hostile” takeovers were common in Europe at the time. Gradually, Athens was rebuilt and by the end of the 19th century its fortunes were greatly improved, culminating in the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, a site we also visited.  

The historical attractions of Athens are world-renowned. The majestic Acropolis (high city), overlooking the city of Athens, is a dominating monument of ancient Greece, the site of the first temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. The stunning Parthenon in all its magnificence and perfect architecture has the image of the most famous temple in the world. There was lots of walking and climbing, visiting these attractions but it was well worth it. We associate the word NIKE to the sneaker but its origin is from ancient Greece. When the Athenians defeated the Persians, Philippides ran 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens and was able to say only one word, NIKE (Victory) before he died on the spot.

SANTARINI, Greece, one of the Cyclades Islands, a spectacular jewel of the Aegean Sea, was born out of a volcanic eruption in approximately 1500BC. It is a magnificent mixture of dramatic cliffside villages, glorious black sand beaches, and ancient treasures, with steep cliffs plunging into a crystalline sea. Leaving the ship by motor boat to the port, we drove up the steep cliffs by bus and came back down by cable car. One of the prettiest spots up there is the village of Oia, a network of narrow marble-paved alleys, lined with yellow and blue domed houses and extraordinary views out to the sea. It is completely surrounded by tropical rocky cliffs with spectacular views of the islands and the now extinct famous volcano.  Twice daily a mist rises up from the volcano in the sea and falls on the top of the island, requiring NO normal watering for irrigation of the grass, plants and flowers. What a nice way to save on water and labor.  Some researchers believe this is the site of the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

The Greek Island of MYKONOS is one of the most picturesque and popular of the Cyclades Archipelago. During the peak tourist season, the island’s population of 5000 swells to 50,000 to 100,000. We were treated to a tour of the island and a fabulous Greek dinner in one of the most popular hotels by a friend of a friend. The picture-postcard main town of Mykonos is a maze of narrow streets lined with pretty white-washed houses and shops. Nearby are several beautiful beaches. Below the picturesque hillside Kastro area is a quaint section called Venice, named because the houses are seemingly built on the sea. According to
tradition, if a woman drinks from three different fountains located in the square, she will marry within a year. Grilled fish is a highly recommended specialty in Mykonos, as is Mousakki and Slovlauki, as well as baklava dessert.

Greek Island RHODES' history is full of legends and myths. According to mythology, the Rhodes coast is the wedding present left to men by Helios who fell in love with the nymph Rhoda and dedicated the island and its beauty to her. As with the other islands, Rhodes was invaded by the Turks and Arabs, and occupied by the Knights of Malta in 1300 for two centuries. The Turks reigned for a long time until the Italians settled there, occupying it up until the end of World War II and, as recent as 1948, Rhodes has belonged to Greece. In Rhodes' medieval city, passing through the Amboise Gate onto the steep and narrow old Knights road with its cobbled surface, are the Knights Hospital, Seven Language “Hostels” (Knights of the Order living quarters were separated by nationality and language), the Great Masters Palace, and a copy of the Pope’s Palace which was destroyed by the Turks and reconstructed by the Italians. There is a lesser known Acropolis on a village hill with the remains of the sanctuary of Athena Linda Temple, and the remains of Propilei Colonnade and Dionysius Temple. There was an Acropolis is every major city in Europe back then but the only one remaining is in Athens, except for this small one in Rhodes.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt is one of the most important cities in the history of the Mediterranean. The cradle of civilization, history and culture, it was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 and named after him because of the pride he felt for this beautiful land. We were up close and personal with names of the past like Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, Pharaohs, Colossus of Ramses II, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Nile River. Cairo, the busy Egyptian capital and Africa’s largest city, with it’s multitude of activities and high population density, features the Pyramids (seventh wonder of the ancient world) and the mysterious Sphinx (lion body and human face), memorable backgrounds for our photos. We also cruised down the River Nile, as Cleopatra did many moons ago, fulfilling our wish of “seeing the pyramids along the Nile”. We were a little apprehensive of the obvious police presence, including patrol boats along side our Riverboat and not sure whether they were protecting us or “watching” us. We were also taken aback when the police at the Pyramids wanted payment/tips for picture taking and/or getting up close to the pyramids. It suddenly occurred to us that we traveled beyond where we should have, with Israel, Syria, Gaza Strip, and Iraq not that far away.

The houses in Cairo are unique, with no roofs, resembling a bombed out area. When building houses, they leave off the final roof after one, two, etc. levels are built to avoid taxes which are only assessed on “finished” houses. Our stops included watching a Papyrus demonstration, the art of making paper from the reed of the Papyrus plant, which replaced stone carvings method of communicating. We stopped bringing tee shirt souvenirs home to the kids years ago until this trip, thinking that having their name on them in hieroglyphics would be a cool conversation piece for them. We also visited the Alabaster Mosque of Mohammad Ali (not the boxer). We did, however, pass on riding a camel.

After another day at sea, we docked in CATANIA, Sicily, a city described as “touched by the sea, kissed by the sun, and blessed by the gods”. Mount Etna, the highest (over 3000 meters) active European volcano is feared and, perhaps, the real master of the city and surrounding valleys. Mount Etna’s intense eruption activity dominates the city but has not prevented the creation of many villages at the foot of the volcano and as high as almost 2000 meters. During a tour of this fantastic baroque city, we visited the Duomo (Cathedral), Roman Amphitheatre (resembles Rome’s Coliseum), Ursine Castle, the Benedictine Monastery and operatic maestro Bellini’s monument. Catania offers a great variety of specialties like the Sicilian granita (crushed ice with syrup) that locals have for breakfast. It comes in several flavors with a drop of coffee in the bottom of the glass.

The origins of NAPLES are very ancient, founded in 600BC (2600 years ago). It is mind boggling hearing the age of some of the places we visited. Naples, the third largest city in Italy after Rome and Milan, is an extraordinary historical and cultural centre, with cuisine and musical traditions successfully exported all over the world. Dean Martin singing “s’cuse ame, can’t you see, back in old Napoli, that’s amor’e” comes to mind when visiting Naples. As with many European cities, Naples had its share of invasions, conquered by the Romans and dominated in
succession by the Barbarians, Byzantinians, Normans, Angevins, Aragons, Austrians, Spanish, and Bourbons. Naples finally obtained its freedom when it was annexed to Italy in 1860.

We drove along picturesque Reviera de Chiaia heading to Posillipo, the scenic hill of Naples that provides spectacular views of the city, the Gulf of Naples, Sorrento, and Capri. Mount Vesuvius, also quite visible with its plume of smoke seen from any corner in the city, destroyed the town of Pompeii in 79AD. As in many other countries in Europe, there were portable signal lights at construction sites requiring no police detail and they also have central parking stations that dispense parking slips for the dashboard rather than having individual meters.

Why can’t we have efficiencies like this? On the other hand they STILL have trolleys on tracks with overhead wires. We were pleased to stop at Naples, the only major city not visited on previous visits to Italy.

The cruise was much better than our expectations, except for our bad experience in Tripoli. However, we WERE disappointed with the image of the USA abroad; no matter how much we help other nations. Even the dollar is devalued at less than 75 cents to the Euro. Many seem to think we have ulterior motives, like politics and oil, in our efforts to help our fellow man. Sometimes, I think we may be better off keeping to OURselves, and let the rest of the world fend for THEMselves. Maybe our image would improve being out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. This, of course, will not happen and we will always be there to help wherever needed, taking our lumps as usual along the way. After reflecting on this trip, and others before it, we always look forward to coming back home to the good old USA and count our blessings that we are American.

January 6, 2006























































































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