Port of Piraeus, Greece: Athens

On the Acropolis: The Erechtheion and its beautiful caryatids

After transiting the Suez Canal, our first port in Europe was Piraeus, Greece, the nearest port to Athens. I’d been to Athens a couple of times before, but it had been awhile and I’d never been with David, so we were both really looking forward the day. We wanted to do Athens on our own, though, and planned to take advantage of the Metro system. Not only did the Metro offer freedom of movement, but it is also very cost-effective, particularly when compared with exorbitant cruise line excursions.

Celebrity “Constellation” docked at Terminal C, Gate E12 of the Port of Piraeus

Our ship docked at Cruise Terminal C “Alkimos” of the massive Piraeus port. Our Gate was E12, although the gate itself referenced Terminal B “Themistocles” which I think was the terminal building just next to ours where another Celebrity ship was docked. In any event, cruise ships dock at Gates E11 and E12; Gates E1-E10 are docks for the many ferries that service Greece’s scattered islands. The Piraeus Metro station is near Gate E6, a walk we made in about 30-35 minutes. There are buses that run between the far gates and the Metro Station and nearby train station, but we had too little information regarding buses at that point to be sure which one to choose (although we could have asked a driver or waiting passengers) and we were curious to at least see a little of Piraeus before we headed into Athens for the main show.

We started walking down this road from Gate E12 towards the Metro and train stations. The water is on the left here. To catch a bus going to the stations, we would have had to wait at a stop on the opposite side of the road from the bus approaching in the photo.

We walked on a wide sidewalk with the water of the port on our left. The Metro station was eventually on our right, across a broad street. There is usually a pedestrian bridge over the road to the Metro station and nearby train station, but it was closed due to construction along that stretch of the road. Still, between Google Maps (thanks to our T-Mobile international data plans) and following the crowds of people moving with the purposefulness of commuters, it was easy to find the crossing to the station. Just inside the station, we split up with me heading to a bank of ticket machines to the left of the main doors and David getting in line for a live teller to the right. I was easily the “winner” and flagged him away from his slow-moving line as soon as I had our 5-ride passes in hand.

Live tellers to the right as we entered the Piraeus Metro Station
Ticket machines to the left of the Piraeus Metro Station doors as we entered

Since Piraeus is the terminus of the Green Line 1 of the Athens Metro system, there was nothing to picking the right train. Metro Line 1 that runs between Piraeus and Athens is the descendent of a steam railway opened between the two cities in 1869. It’s the only one of the three Athens Metro lines that runs primarily above ground. The cars are nice and modern, although on our return to Piraeus in the late afternoon our car lacked adequate air conditioning and I was too warm until I could move into a seat where a breeze through a high, open blew directly on me.

All departing Metro trains in Piraeus are going to Athens

Hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we wanted to check the Acropolis off our list first. We rode the Green Line 1 eight stops to Omonia and changed there for the Red Line to ride three stops to the Akropoli Metro station. We just followed signs and found navigating the Athens Metro to be easy.

Athens Metro signs are easy to follow

The escalator from the Metro station opened onto a cobblestoned, mostly-pedestrian street. A short walk straight ahead in the direction we exited the Metro and a turn to the left found us at the entrance to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, a not insubstantial line was already formed. Given the docking time of our ship, the 8am opening time at the Acropolis, and the travel time to Athens (which was not appreciably longer by Metro than it would have been by bus or car through traffic), we knew there was no way to beat the crowds, but this was daunting.

Line for tickets to the Acropolis

The hold-up appeared to be only two tellers and an inefficient charging system. Guides hawked tours, promising to the ability to cut the line, and we considered it, although we didn’t want a guide, just the cut. A nearby sign tantalized with the information that online tickets to the Acropolis will be available soon. Oh well, we just waited. It actually wasn’t too bad and we through the line in about twenty minutes. (It did get warm in the sun, though, even in early May. An umbrella/parasol wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you find yourself at the Acropolis in the summer.)  Although a €20 ticket for just the Acropolis and its slopes is available, we opted for the €30 package ticket that includes the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and more.

Crowds were spread out across the expansive slopes and walkways leading up to the Acropolis, so we could view the approach, theater/odeon, etc. relatively comfortably. But, crowds were funneled back together at the main stairs.

Southwestern slopes leading to the Acropolis
Odeon of Herodes Atticus

This is one of the frustrating facts of visiting someplace on a cruise or when a cruise ship or ships are in port: hordes of people wanting to visit a major site all at once. Having visited on much less crowded occasions, I regretted that this was David’s first glimpse of the famous ruins.

Hordes on the main stairs to the Acropolis

Moreover, extensive work is being done on the Parthenon and other structures, so large areas are cordoned off and work-in-progress is visible from nearly every part of the Acropolis. Despite the drawbacks, it is still one of the great wonders of the ancient world and it was good to be back.

Parthenon
Parthenon

Descending from the Acropolis, we headed north this time, following signs to the Roman Agora. We wandered this small rectangle of ruins, admiring its unique octagonal Horlogion or Tower of the Winds which once housed a 2nd century BC water clock.

Inside the Roman Agora with the octagonal Horologion of Andronikos of Kyrrhos a/k/a Tower of the Winds in the background

Leaving the Roman Agora, we walked down a street bordering a fenced off area containing the ruins of the Library of Pantainos, then turned right down a street (Vriskaiou) drowning in graffiti towards the ancient Plaka district and the much larger grounds of the Ancient Agora.

Acropolis beyond the ruins of the Library of Pantainos
Vriskaiou Street

Like the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora was included in the combination ticket we’d bought at the Acropolis. Highlights of the Ancient Agora area include the massive Temple of Hesphaestus and the beautifully rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a many-pillared, 2-story building with long open porticos and which houses a small museum.

Temple of Hesphaestus
Looking over the Ancient Agora with the Stoa of Attalos to the left and the Acropolis in the distance
Lower portico of the Stoa of Attalos (The museum is inside to the left.)

The grounds are also lovely with paths wandering through flowering plants. There’s also a small Byzantine church on the site dating back to the 11th century, The Church of the Holy Apostles, with stunning wall paintings once hidden beneath plaster.

Frescoes inside the Church of the Holy Apostles

Hungry after our busy morning and ready for a break from the heat, we chose a restaurant, To Uovli, just outside the entrance gate to the Ancient Agora. Their lunch special offered “homemade” fare, including great bread, a hearty Greek salad for 2, moussaka and chicken gyros plus two glasses of beer for €28. Sitting outside in the shade and overlooking the Ancient Agora, it was a near-perfect break, marred only a tiny bit by the too-dry gyros.

Happiness is a great Greek salad and ice cold beer in the shade on a beautiful day in Athens

Sated, cool and happy, we headed off after lunch to explore the rabbit warren of shops in the Plaka a we made our way to the Athens Flea Market.

Old mosque near the flea market

Syntagma Square and the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building was my ultimate destination. There was no way I would let David miss that unique ceremony!

We arrived at the front of the Parliament right on schedule and staked out a spot at the front of a growing group of people. The ceremony was everything I’d remembered from previous visits, the unusual uniforms, over-sized pom-pom-bedecked shoes, and almost-absurdly-stylized steps a unique mix of solemn and almost funny. I couldn’t shake images of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks no matter how hard I tried to focus on the somber symbolism of the ceremony and the eternal flame in front of the tomb of an unknown World War II soldier.

After the ceremony, we ducked into the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne to admire the beautiful lobby before taking an elevator upstairs to admire the view over Syntagma Square from the top-floor bar. (We also availed ourselves of very nice bathroom facilities. An early lesson I taught my sons when traveling with them: You can often skip unpleasant–and often for-pay–public bathrooms by dressing neatly and walking confidently into a high end hotel. I’ve never been stopped.)

View from the Hotel Grande Bretagne’s rooftop bar: Parliament, Syntagma Square, and the Acropolis

Happy with our day and ready to head back to the ship, we got on the Metro at the Syntagma station, rode two stops to Omonia and changed to Green Line 1 for Piraeus. Scanning a bus schedule at the Piraeus Station, we saw we had several options for buses back to the ship. We walked back to the main road on the waterfront to a nearby bus stop and caught bus 843 which dropped us off in less than 10 minutes right at Gate E12 and our ship.

Piraeus bus to Gate E12; enough English to get us there

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Practical info: The Athens Metro/Tram/Bus tickets cost €1.40/ride and are sold on a non-personalized ticket for €7 for 5 rides in 24 hours and €14 for 10 rides in 3 days. You can reload the cards at machines in every Metro station. I had no trouble paying at the machine in Piraeus with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.

The Acropolis is open 8am-8pm with the last entrance at 7:30pm. Tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 and the combination tickets are 30 and include 1. Acropolis and its slopes, 2. Ancient Agora and the museum at the Stoa of Attalos, 3. Roman Agora, 4. Hadrian’s Library, 5. Olympieion, 6. Kerameikos (Archaeological Site and Museum), and 7. Aristotle’s Lykeion. Pay in cash or card and the entrance to the Acropolis. Hopefully, TICKETS SHOULD AVAILABLE ONLINE SOON to avoid the long queues.

By way of comparison, Celebrity offered a 6h45m excursion which included motor coach transportation, entry to the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum (which we decided to skip in favor of the Agoras and Syntagma, but which does look excellent), a souvlaki lunch and free time in Plaka for $179/adult and $159/child. We spent €102 (about $119) in total for our day (Metro/bus tickets, Acropolis combination tickets and lunch).

Transiting the Suez Canal

A highlight for me of taking a ship from Singapore to Europe was getting to go through the Suez Canal, one of the manmade wonders of the world. The canal opened in 1869 and has been expanded several times over the years, most recently by a 22-mile expansion opened in 2015. Our journey through the Suez Canal turned out to be a fascinating, nearly 11-hour transit (just over twice the length of the Panama Canal).

Ships gathered pre-dawn, waiting to enter the Suez Canal

We arrived at the south entrance to the canal in the wee hours of the morning and joined a group of ships waiting to enter the canal. Because stretches of the canal are too narrow for ships to pass, vessels must join a convoy and go through with others headed their way. We ended up joining a convoy of thirty ships headed north. One of the largest container ships in the world was just ahead of us.

Barren banks near the southern entrance to the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is much more than a simple waterway. We entered the canal at a narrow stretch of tan and nearly barren banks with glimpses of towns, minarets and palm trees beyond. Less than halfway through our passage, the canal entered the Great Bitter Lake and we passed lovely lakeside homes and hotels. Great Bitter Lake is a saltwater lake since there are no locks in the Suez Canal and water flows freely through the lake between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

On Great Bitter Lake

North of Great Bitter Lake, the canal separates into parallel waterways, the eastern canal with northbound traffic and the western canal supporting southbound vessels. We could see other ships heading south in the distance beyond the sandy expanse between us. It was an odd effect with the other ships seeming to glide across the sand. We could also see the towers of the city of Ismail in the distance although only the west portion of the canal runs directly past that city.

A container ship passing in the southbound lane at a spot where the two lanes are particularly close to each other
Looking off the stern along the northbound lane of the Suez canal with southbound traffic visible to the right

We did not sail right past Ismail because our south-to-north journey put us on the new portion of the canal opened in 2015. We passed monuments standing at the mouth of the smaller new canal that connects the north- and southbound “lanes” of the Suez Canal at the level of Ismail. This new canal was opened in 2015 to free ships from the necessity of joining convoys, at least for a portion of the canal.

Monumental statuary on either side of the smaller new canal connecting the two larger canals
Smaller new canal with Ismail in the distance

One of the monuments is a pharonic-style winged figure of Isis positioned in front of an obelisk and flanked by small sphinxes. Another statue celebrates the workers who built the canal. A large sign in front of a ferry dock proclaimed this the “Suez Canal,” lest we had any doubts.

Statue honoring workers who built the Suez Canal

All along the east bank of our “lane” of the canal near Ismail, new building stretched as far as the eye could see. It seemed a sea of apartments and/or hotels. Despite the mind-boggling expanse of new buildings, on-going construction was everywhere. It made me think of the movie tagline: “If you build it, they will come.”

New apartments and/or resorts along the new portion of the canal as far as the eye can see

With such a long transit, we had time to vary our viewing positions between our own port-side balcony and the upper decks and dining areas. The effect on the upper decks was strange as we seemed to sail through sand rather than water.

On upper decks at a narrow stretch, the ship seems to glide through sand

We dropped in for a portion of a lecture on the history and engineering of the canal, made all the more interesting as we were able to continue watching our passage through the surrounding windows of a forward lounge. The Suez Canal was designed and built under the direction of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who obtained a concession from Sa’id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. The canal opened under French control. It was interesting to learn that British prime minister Disraeli originally opposed the canal, objecting to forced labor and sending agents to stir up revolt among workers, but possibly more motivated by the threat to British naval dominance for the long ship journey around Africa. In 1875, when the Egyptian government faced financial difficulties require the sale of shares in the Suez Canal, Disraeli bought up shares conveying 44% ownership of the canal to Britain.

Crossing under the suspension bridge at El-Qantara el-Sharqîya; viewed from a dining area on our ship
El-Qantara el-Sharqîya

Just past halfway through the canal, we crossed under the impressive suspension bridge that connects the two sides of the city of El-Qantara el-Sharqîya. We had fun sitting on our balcony, binoculars in hand, observing snatches of local life. I was intrigued by large conical structures punctured with patterns of holes. I soon realized they were dovecotes. An internet search (thanks to T-Mobile’s international data coverage) revealed that pigeons are a popular in the diet of many Egyptians and the mud pigeon houses are iconic in certain regions. Bird droppings are also a valuable fertilizer source.

Ferry dock with the El-Qantara el-Sharqîya suspension bridge in the distance
From time to tme, local boat traffic mixed with the ships moving through the canal

There was less to see as we neared the exit of the canal into the Mediterranean Sea near Port Said. All along our transit through the canal, we would see people come out to wave. So it was nice as we neared the end to see a small, well-worn boat with “Electrician” printed in English on the wheelhouse pull alongside and the captain and his mate step out to wave farewell.

Waving goodbye

With such a long transit, I can’t say that every single minute is riveting, but overall, cruising through the Suez Canal is a fascinating and unique experience.

Pirate Drills and Snipers: Cruising the Gulf of Aden

Cruising from the Middle East to Europe via the Suez Canal means going through the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, that also means passing through waters plagued by Somali pirates. After a relatively peaceful period, pirates have increased their activity in the area again. I knew this before we booked our cruise and knew there would be blackouts imposed for the nights we crossed, but still, it was strange to return from a day in Muscat, Oman, to find a letter in our cabin from the captain describing mandatory upcoming “pirate drills.”

Sure enough, the  speakers soon blared, “Safe Haven, Safe Haven, Safe Haven…” and we exited our balcony cabin to join our outward-facing neighbors in the hall. For several nights, we made sure our curtains were drawn tight and the balcony light extinguished. Other than that and darkened, roped-off upper decks, there was not much to the pirate precautions.

The letter also warned that we might need to take evasive action if a smaller vessel pulled too close. We’d seen the same thing with Indian fishing vessels in the Laccadive Sea that came right along side our ship, shouting greetings, waving and taking photos while passengers on our ship did the same. Our captain hadn’t worried about those boats, but he’d have to be more wary in the Gulf of Aden. As it turned out, no vessels approached ours and we had an uneventful passage through the gulf… save for spotting whales breaching off the coast of Oman, an unexpected treat.

Fishermen in the Laccadive Sea; they came right along side our ship then drifted behind us. The zigzag wake of our ship shows how the captain tried to avoid them and discourage them from coming too close.

Our favorite guest relations officer had also told us there would be snipers brought on board during our time in the Gulf of Aden. Sure enough, we ended up on an elevator with one of these guys, a heavily-muscled man with buzz cut and skull tattoo wearing a black polo with the name of a security outfit stitched on his shoulder. Other than that, the snipers stayed out of sight until the day they left.

We came up on deck several days into this period to see people gathered at the port rails. Joining them, we saw an inflatable heading towards a small ship floating not far away. At first, we wondered whether this was security checking out out a suspicious boat, but that seemed improbable. Why get down there on the level of such a small vessel that we could easily outrun and avoid? It turned out, this was our some of our security taking the guns off the cruise ship to the smaller vessel which would then run the weapons back to another passenger ship about to begin its voyage across the Gulf of Aden. It was a neat way to avoid taking weapons through customs of the ports on either side of the gulf.

It was interesting to see how the cruise lines view and handle the pirate situation. We never really considered ourselves in any danger, but it was good to be out of the Gulf of Aden nonetheless. Next up, the Suez Canal!

 

Port of Aqaba, Jordan: Petra!

The Treasury at Petra

I’d been longing to visit Petra for many years and at last we made it! Not wanting either a big group or to pay the cruise line’s exorbitant prices, I booked a private tour with Go Jordan, a company highly recommended on Tripadvisor. Using our Cruise Critic roll call message board, I found 4 other people to share the trip with us – another couple from Canada an a mother-daughter pair from Australia – which dropped the price from $185 to $149 per person. Not bad at all since the price included entry to Petra which costs 50 Jordanian dinar ($70.41) per person. [More practical info follows this post.]

Things got off a little slowly when Go Jordan was not among the many tour operators holding up signs when we debarked the ship at the port of Aqaba. They showed up within fifteen minutes, though, so it wasn’t a huge deal, just not ideal. The drive to Petra from the port is about 2 hours, and we sped along nice roads through desolate countryside much like we’d seen in Oman but with less imposing mountains in the background.

Pretty bleak en route to Petra from Aqaba, but the roads are nice

Around mid-way, we stopped at a shop with a terrace overlooking a magnificent canyon. I was tempted by the ornate knives on display, but put off by the triple digit prices for pocket knives, etc. Before getting back in the van, I asked our driver, Aladdin, about water since none of us had brought any in reliance on Go Jordan’s promise to supply it. He went back into to buy bottled water without complaint, but I was surprised to find it wasn’t already stocked.

We drove through Wadi Musa, the town closest to Petra and Aladdin’s hometown. Our Australian companions had been to Petra nine years earlier and they noted that much had been built since then. Our guide asked us how long we wanted to spend in Petra asking if we wanted 3, 2, only 1 hour, maybe more? I expected more guidance from him and had no idea how long we might want. The Australian ladies were vague as well, possibly because neither of them was in good physical condition for much walking. In the end, we opted for 3 hours a choice I came to regret as we could have spent another hour or two and still gotten back to the ship in plenty of time.

Entrance to Petra

Parking near the entrance, Aladdin walked us into the Petra welcome center, an open complex surrounded by shops, a small shaded amphitheater, a museum and public toilets. The Australians remarked that all of this was new, there having been only a small, remote hut when they last visited. Our driver confirmed that the welcome center had just opened last year.

New welcome area just inside the main gate to Petra

Our driver went inside the visitor’s center to get us a guide and returned with Saleh, someone he apparently knew as both are locals. Saleh’s English was OK, but I wish we’d had another guide… or none at all!

Saleh talking. Of course. (While not nearly as hot as we feared, his choice of a down vest was downright mystifying.)

Strike one for Saleh came when he informed us that horses haltered near the entrance were free and included with our ticket to Petra. “Just tip them a dollar or two.” While being led on a horse a few hundred yards wasn’t particularly enticing, David and I decided to go for it as part of the experience. The ride was OK, but at the end we were beset by demands for much more than a dollar or two and we had to find Saleh to deal with the angry horse handlers. Saleh’s “solution” was to just pay them a couple of dollars and ignore them, but that really wouldn’t satisfy and we doubled that just to get away. Not exactly breaking the bank, but definitely not pleasant.

Just past the welcome area, heading into ancient Petra with horses waiting to the left and walkway on the right.
Only the locals get to ride on their own. Sitting atop a horse while some guy leads it by a halter is not riding…unless you’re 3-years old. (I’m from Texas, for crying out loud.) And then there’s the demand for a “tip.” Skip this one!

Strike two – a big one – came when Saleh stopped our little group next to a trashcan by an ancient drainage tunnel just outside the enticing canyon walls of Petra to talk interminably about history, drainage, what we would see and on and on as our time slipped away. When we finally moved on, he quickly stopped us again to talk and talk.

Caleche and pedestrians in the early Petra canyons

While we did appreciate him pointing out some nearly invisible remains of large wall carvings, we found much of what he had to say superfluous, repetitive or of questionable scientific/historic accuracy. After a couple of more such long-winded stops, we called strike three and decided to leave the group. We left money for a tip just so the others wouldn’t feel obligated to make up our share and strode off to finally see the famous Treasury and explore the rest of Petra while we had time. Excellent decision. If only we’d done it from the start!

The crowd thickens at the first exciting glimpse of the Treasury
The size of the Treasury is hard to convey.

Petra itself is incredible. It bustled with people both local and western tourists like us. Horse-drawn caleches clattered along the stone pathway through the canyon. A camel lounged among a throng near the Treasury. Young locals hawked jewelry and other momentos. I couldn’t resist an exotic young woman dressed all in black with head scarf and eyes thickly lined with kohl. Ten US dollars bought me three necklaces, one she claimed was made of camel bone. Maybe. It didn’t really matter; the necklaces are pretty and will always remind me of Petra. A young boy among a flock of vendors that had gathered took heart when he saw my purchase and followed me for some time. I finally bought 3 “silver” bracelets from him for $5. Despite the steep entry fee to Petra, a little cash goes a very long way among most of the locals.

David and I took the canyon-like walkway to the right as you look at the Treasury, peeking into ancient doorways to find cave-like spaces offering no glimpse of their former function, now serving as dark makeshift stables, reeking of camel urine.

The walkway opened up into a wide space with a coliseum on the far side and ancient tombs carved into the steep hill to our right. We wandered, climbed and explored, passing a fascinating mix of people, camels and caleches.

Coliseum

Trinkets for sale on long tables; there were small cafés as well. We saw so much more ahead and were frustrated to know we had to turn back soon, to meet up with the others at our three hour deadline. Sadly, I had no way to contact them or our driver to beg for more time. Petra is one place I’d love to return to.

The ride back to Aqaba and the ship was uneventful save for one more stop at a tourist trap souvenir store of the spacious, “People’s Store” variety. We milled around browsing the wildly over-priced souvenirs while Aladdin had a leisurely coffee, then were off.

Overpriced tourist store; typical waste of time hazard of so many tours

We turned down an offer (for a price) to do a jeep tour through Wadi Rum at sunset. (We had that much time.) None of us were interested, thanks in no small part to a growing sandstorm in that direction visible from the road.

Roadside camels
Beginnings of a sandstorm

Back at the ship, we found our T-Mobile phones, while not yet offering service in Jordan, did allow us to connect to via Israel, a short distance across the harbor. (Jordan is now covered by T-Mobile. We’re super happy with our new T-Mobile plans and how well and easily service picked up from one country to another. I’ll write more about that later.)

Looking across at Israel from the port of Aqaba, close enough for cell phone service

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Practical info: I wish I’d made note of the Celebrity excursion price for Petra, but it was considerably more expensive than Go Jordan Tours. Other Cruise Critic members booked larger buses which were cheaper than the cruise, but more expensive than what we paid. I booked Go Jordan via their website which has a page just for cruise excursions and found them to be quick to respond to my emails. My contacts were Haneen Al Helali and Fidaa Hlalat who both responded to info@gojordantours.com. (Also, Tel: +962-3-215-5551| Fax: +962-3-215-9400)

I assured Go Jordan that I wanted this tour whether I found others to go with us or not. They required no prepayment. The pricing, inclusions and exclusions sent to me was:
“Rate per persons:
2 persons 3 persons 4 persons 5 persons 6 persons 7 persons
185 USD PP 155 USD PP 149 USD PP 135 USD PP 128 USD PP 123 USD PP

Price includes:
– Meet and assist upon arrival at the port in Aqaba
– Transfer in modern air-conditioned vehicle
– Entrance fee to Petra
– Local tour guide in Petra for 3h
– Mineral water in vehicle

Price excludes:
– Tips
– Personal expenses
– any optional tours
– Lunch”