The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament).
Although Bagan and its 2000 stupas was the ultimate destination of our river cruise on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer, the first time we saw the city was from across a wide spot in the river and only a few days into our week aboard the steamer. We stopped overnight at Tant Kyi village, so we could visit the hilltop Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda with its sweeping view of the Irrawaddy and Bagan in the distance. Also, being there in the morning allowed us to see the many boats full of locals arrive at sunrise to visit Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda before heading back across the river to Bagan. The point of this early pilgrimage was to try to visit four special pagodas in one day, Tant Kyi Taung and three in Bagan. Yen explained that doing this is said to bring about the granting of a prayer, but the only way to visit all three is to begin in at dawn.
Another fun stop on our river steamer cruise down the Irrawaddy was at the large town of Pakkoku (population of about 100,000). As always, we moored at a rough bank of the river, no pier in sight. This time, we hiked up a steep flight of narrow stairs to find ourselves at a single-file footpath along the side of a field. As soon as we made the top of the river bank, we found women waiting to sell us the ubiquitous souvenirs: longyi (the local tube skirts worn by nearly everyone), jewelry, scarves and the like. One woman latched onto me immediately and we went through the now-familiar “you like?/maybe later?” routine. Although they can be persistent, we’ve found the Burmese to be much less pushy than other Asian vendors. Burmese are generally a friendly, cheerful group; the people on the street tend not to make overtures to us first, but they beam back when we smile at them and wave, or greet us with a bright “Mingalaba!,” the local greeting that is sort of a combination of “hello” and “auspiciousness to you.” Vendors do approach or call to us, of course, but they’re not overly aggressive, just hopeful. There was something particularly charming about my new friend, and I found myself considering that “maybe later” as she followed along the footpath with me. At the far end of the field, three larger, truck-style tuk tuks awaited our group. Climbing aboard, we were off on a dirt road through fields and past ox carts until we came to the intersection with a major paved road.
One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.
We’re just back from a short 4-night cruise, the highlight and point of which for us was to finally visit Havana, Cuba. We actually booked the same Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise last summer, trying to beat the new Trump-imposed regulations on travel to Cuba, but were thwarted when Hurricane Irma canceled the cruise. This time, all went beautifully and we found our day in Havana to be fascinating and the travel easy and hassle-free. [Note: Find more practical info and links at the bottom of this post.]
I had lots of questions and some concerns about the new regulations, pre-trip, and learned a lot by researching online. Still, I had questions to which I could find no answers, so this post will have plenty of practical info and details that I wish I’d known in advance.
Choosing a Category of Travel Under New Restrictions: We settled on making our first visit to Cuba by cruise ship simply because it was easy and the most sure-fire way to travel there without worrying about U.S. restrictions on travel. These reasons seemed even more relevant after the new regulations went into effect, doing away with individual “People-to-People” travel which had previously been the main way for Americans to do a general visit to Cuba. “People-to-People” is just one of many so-called “licenses” that Americans much choose in order to travel legally to Cuba. This is a U.S. requirement and means nothing to Cuban authorities.
Group “People-to-People” is still allowed and that is the category under which most cruise-line-sponsored shore excursions fall. Given the ridiculously high prices and large-group/motor-coach nature of those ship-sponsored excursions, I wanted to book a private tour. Under the new regulations, the preferred license category for individual travel is now “Support for the Cuban People.” We checked that box on the form supplied by NCL used by them to obtain our visas, and in addition, checked “Journalism” as we both freelance from time to time in addition to writing this blog. Since we specifically wanted to visit and write about breweries and beer in addition to travel and that would comprise a part of our itinerary in addition to the basic “Support for the Cuban People,” we wanted to be sure we covered all our bases.
Private Tour with Havana Journeys: After doing my initial research, I chose Havana Journeys for our tour. At $120/100CUC for a 6-hour private tour (not including lunch which we paid for separately), it was one of the best prices I found, had solid reviews, included a vintage car for the driving portion of our tour, and offered to provide a written “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary. We paid a deposit of 20CUC online (which resulted in a modest extra processing fee) with the 80CUC balance due on arrival in Havana. Havana Journeys were very professional in the lead up to our trip, replying promptly to questions, sending a photo of our guide, Katiusca, and telling us where to meet her (“by the Chopin statue” in Plaza de San Franciso, just across the road from the pier). Our ship was scheduled to dock at 10am and we were concerned that formalities and money exchange (Cuba is a cash-only destination) would take time, so we agreed to meet Katiusca at 11am.
Tour Disaster Averted. The only issue that came up with Havana Journeys–and it could have been a huge one–was an unexplained change in the date of our tour. We were arriving on Wednesday the 12th. I initially requested that date and they confirmed the date, but somehow on the final itinerary document sent by Havana Journeys shortly before our departure, the date was changed to Tuesday the 11th. I totally missed the change, so bear some responsibility, but I simply never imagined such a change, this being a port stop set by the cruise line and fixed from the time we purchased the cruise months prior. We spent 11am-2pm Tuesday the 11th on NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, so had no Internet access although I’d bought ship wi-fi (something I had not intended to do) due to a last-minute situation at home that required my availability. Thank God I did! When we returned to the ship Tuesday, I found I’d missed several WhatsApp calls and messages. Havana Journeys was trying desperately to reach me: The guide was waiting for us. Where were we? Katiusca would wait 1h45m for us before giving up…and that time was passed by the time I got the WhatsApp messages. What to do?? I quickly tried to call back, but got no answer. I emailed every address I had for Havana Journeys, wondering what we’d do if I couldn’t reach them…and very thankful I at least had the notice I did. If we’d just showed up the next day, ignorant of the situation, we’d have waited in the heat, wasting our precious time in Havana, and eventually going off in search of some way to reach Havana Journeys. I had contact numbers for them in the U.S. and mobile and land line numbers for the contact in Cuba, but not a number for the guide since we would not have phone service in Cuba or on the ship. Internet is scarce in Cuba, so we’d have had some problem finding wi-fi before I could even begin to try to contact someone. Thankfully, I did finally reach Havana Journeys by WhatsApp call. While I waited on the line, they rescheduled Katiusca for the original, correct date and we were back on. Whew! Moral of this Story (which I knew and didn’t do): CHECK AND RE-CHECK DATES.
Docking in Havana. Although scheduled to dock at 10am, we actually docked earlier, sailing past iconic landmarks I’d only see in photographs and video: El Morro fortress, the Hotel Nacional…It was thrilling. The cruise terminal in Havana is wonderfully convenient. We pulled up to the pier, “parking” like some mammoth car, just across the street from lovely Plaza de San Francisco. We joined other passengers on the bow of our ship smiling and waving at the people just below and the vintage American cars gliding by. I could even spot the head of the bronze Chopin statue were we were to meet our guide. Cruise ports don’t get much more conveniently located.
Group tickets assigning debarkation times were to be handed out starting at 8:30am, but they started early and David was only able to get us in Group 4. This turned out to be a non-issue as they started calling groups before 10am, called Group 2 about 10 minutes after Group 1, then called Groups 3 and 4 together. We stepped off the ship at 10:02am. Despite our concerns, we breezed through customs, security and money changing and were out on the street 20 minutes after we exited the ship. At the customs booth, the agent took the paper tourist visa we’d been given by the ship, snapped a photo, stamped our passports and we were off. Security is just a standard airport-style x-ray machine. Money exchange is at the far end of the rectangular terminal building. Many people were on duty there and there was virtually no wait. The man we dealt with was friendly and spoke good English, and was very patient as we exchanged both the last of our euros and U.S. dollars. (There’s a 10% penalty for changing dollars due to the chilly relations between our countries, so the exchange rate is better for euros.) Despite being warned repeatedly that foreigners must change money to the local closed tourist currency, the CUC, we found out later that many individuals and places apparently do take foreign money. I wish we had known. Havana Journeys did, however, require us to pay the balance of the tour (80CUC) to Katiusca in CUC.
With nearly 40 minutes before we were scheduled to meet our guide, we opted to visit the 16th century basilica and the monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) on Plaza de San Francisco. The building is undergoing renovation, but much is still open including the sanctuary, and two floors of the monastery surrounding an open central courtyard; it’s a lovely spot. A small orchestra playing in the main sanctuary added to the experience and the guides scattered throughout were helpful and friendly, even encouraging me to climb up on the wall of an upper floor terrace to take photos and a video of the lovely square below where I could see the bronze Chopin statue where we were to meet our guide.
Our Tour Begins. Although our plan was to meet Katiusca by the Chopin statue, it was hot and humid and Chopin sits on his bench unprotected from the sun, so we waited on the steps of a nearby building in the shade along with other ship passengers looking for their guides. The photo Havana Journeys sent me showed a platinum blonde woman, so there was a little hesitation on my part when I first spotted a brunette that looked plausible. Sure enough, we’d made our connection and were off. She began by taking us to a free open-air art gallery just across from the basilica of San Francisco. The gallery boasts a beautiful and enormous wall sculpture composed of a number of 3-D clay tiles as well as other quirky works of art. Katiusca described the central role of art in Havana and the privileged life of some artists who are allowed to travel more than average citizens. She got side-tracked, though, when she realized that David and I are attorneys. She is an intellectual property attorney and we spent much time talking about Cuba’s legal system, the proposed new Cuban constitution and her hopes or lack thereof for any positive results. I finally suggested we walk while we talked, and we moved on to walk the remarkably clean streets of Old Havana from Plaza de San Francisco to Plaza Vieja.
Beer! Or not. “It’s Cuba.” One of the three small breweries we’d asked to visit, Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja, occupies one of many elegant colonial buildings on Plaza Vieja. We didn’t expect a lot from Cuban breweries based on what little we’d been able to find in our pre-trip research, but we were looking forward to trying the closest thing to local “craft” beer and talking with local brewers. This was something new for Katiusca, so she was intrigued, too.
Although just opening, Katiusca was able to get brewer Nivaldo to talk with us and we got a private visit to the working area of the brewery. Nivaldo explained basic brewing with which we’re familiar, but was also able toa answer some of our questions about ingredients used in their three beers, uninspiringly labeled simply Clara, Oscura and Negra (light, medium and dark). Local yeast is provided by a Havana “Center of Research”and Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja uses local cane sugar, but that’s where any semblance of intriguing local ingredients ends. They use Austrian hops imported via Panama and there’s absolutely no attempt and innovation of flavors and techniques. Part of this is due to the sheer difficulty in obtaining supplies of all types given the U.S.-led embargo; part is due to government control and lack of vision. When we urged the use of rum barrels to age dark beer, local fruits for flavoring, brewery-collected wild yeast and the like, Nivaldo just shook his head. Katiusca, both translating for Nivaldo and adding her own input, tried to explain how completely stifled enterprise and innovation is in Cuba. We asked about maybe home brewing creative beers and they both said it would be impossible and illegal.
So, while not expecting much, we were ready to try Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja’s beers. Not so fast. Nivaldo informed us that the equipment had been broken for seven days and they had none of their own beer. Maybe a local bar had some of their beer? No. And it would be 3 weeks before they could get the equipement fixed. Wow. We were disappointed, but Katiusca just shrugged, “It’s Cuba.” So, we’d have to visit one of the other breweries on our list that was nearby. Nivaldo informed us the equipment at that other brewery was broken, too, and that it broke at the same time and would be fixed around the same time. Maybe we misunderstood and it was the supply chain that was “broken.” No, it was the equipment. We were incredulous. How could that be? Another shrug. “It’s Cuba.” Hmm. This was turning into a beer story that wasn’t exactly about beer. We thanked Nivaldo for his time, slipped him a little compensation for his time and continued our explore of Old Havana.
Old Havana is beautiful, parts of it are derelict, most of it is very clean. Lots of restoration has happened since Old Havana was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a whole lot more needs to be done. Some of the old colonial buildings look to be in great shape; others are literally falling down, and people live in both. The renovation is mandatory, so people are moved in and out as deemed necessary by the government. We passed or wandered briefly through hotels, art galleries, museums. There was so much more to see than we had time for and I was already thinking about coming back.
We met our driver, Danni, around 1pm and climbed into our big, gorgeous warm-brown-and-white 1955 Ford Fairlane. Havana Journeys offered us a convertible for an extra fee not understanding that I would have paid extra for an enclosed car. I know all about hot and humid and I wanted air conditioning. Boy, were we happy with our choice! We enjoyed watching other people in convertibles, but they can have them. Everyone we met who opted for a convertible was hot and sunburned. No thanks!
After rolling along the famed Malecón seawall, past the Hotel Nacional and Mafia-spawned hotels from the 40’s and 50’s, we drove down “5th Avenue” viewing mansions in the exclusive Miramar neighborhood before arriving at Buenaventura, a paladar (privately-owned restaurant) in the residential neighborhood of Marianao. Eating at this sort of restaurant was part of our “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary and the family-owned outdoor restaurant turned out to be nicer than expected. Prices are geared towards foreigners and are undoubtedly much, much higher than the average Cuban could afford. We paid 59.40CUC ($68.30) for lunch. Not cheap, but then again, we ate and drank well: a shared ajiaco appetizer (a thick soup made of pork, pumpkin, sweet potato, malanga and plantain), rum-glazed lobster/langosta tail for David, pork ropa vieja for me, 2 mojitos and 2 piña coladas. At the end of the meal, we were comped 2 cigars and our choice of a small glass of coffee, chocolate or pineapple liqueur…while we enjoyed an impromptu music and dance performance by the owner and cooking staff. Good fun!
Santería. Our tour took an unexpected but fascinating turn after lunch when we made a stop at lush Parque Almendares on the Almendares River. Katiusca wanted us to see yet another side of Cuban culture; she told us some people hesitate to visit the park because of its popularity with practitioners of Santeria, a voodoo-like religion with roots in Africa and mingled with Catholicism. As she talked, two men on the waterfront held two for-the-moment-live chickens by their legs, moving back and forth between dipping the chickens towards bowls placed on the riverbank and wading into the flowing water. The squawking of the chickens was disturbing, and as we walked and Katiusca gestured, we realized the ground around us was literally covered with feathers and chicken bones. Grim. Katiusca said that Santería had bloomed after Russia pulled back from Cuba and, although the government had driven practitioners from the seafront, their numbers had grown. They met regularly at Parque Almendares and their children sported amulets and “protective” bracelets, despite laws prohibiting the wearing of religious iconography at schools.
Later in the afternoon, we visited Plaza de la Revolución a vast expanse of pavement bracketed by government buildings sporting giant metal portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and the immense memorial to José Martí, the revered Cuban poet, author, national hero and inspiration of Fidel Castro and so many others.
Still No Beer. A stop at another small brewery at Antigua Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco on our list confirmed that the equipment there was broken just as at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja and none of their beer was available. “It’s Cuba.”
Katiusca encouraged us to buy tickets for a night of dancing at a “social club” claiming it was more authentic than elaborate shows at the Tropicana and the like. We swung by to look at the place, but decided against it not wanting to tie ourselves to one place on our only night in Havana. Located on the top floor of a 3-story building surrounding an open courtyard, the club shared the building with a girls’ school and an old theater. The middle floor was absolutely derelict, an unpleasant smell wafting up from the rubble and old theater chairs.
Life in Cuba. We discussed Cuban life with Katiusca and asked about the nearly empty shelves we’d seen through pharmacy windows. She explained the ramifications of the U.S.-led embargo and how many things were hard to get. I told her I wish I’d had a way to contact her before we came; we’d have been happy to bring hard-to-get items. Before our trip, I searched online regarding things to bring, having brought school supplies and the like on other trips to countries in need. I told Katiusca that some of what I read indicated that offering items might give offense, implying some sort of inferiority. Her response: “Cubans don’t take offense,” need trumping pride. At one point, I asked Katiusca if she thought things would get better for people in Cuba if relations with the U.S. normalized. “It would have to be better,” she answered. “It couldn’t be worse.”
Katiusca and Danni dropped us off back at the ship at 5pm, sweaty and tired. We opted to reboard to shower and eat before heading back out to wander Havana. Katiusca assured us Old Havana was safe to explore on our own and that the buildings looked beautiful lit up at night.
On Our Own: Havana at Night. With the general idea of heading toward’s Hemingway-favorite El Floridita Bar and walking the wide Prado boulevard, both of which we’d passed with Katiusca, we left the ship and walked to Plaza Vieja. As promised, the elegant buildings looked pretty at night and cafés with outdoor seating boasted bands and couples dancing to Latin rhythms.
Pausing to watch the dancers at a restaurant just down from Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja, we found ourselves in an extended conversation with Alejandro, a 28-year old who’d initially just been trying to lure us into the Italian-owned café. More than eager to talk, he vented his frustration at opportunities in Cuba. Despite his IT Engineering degree, he found the pay much better at the café. He confirmed what Nivaldo and Katiusca told us about the impossibility of starting a business like the craft brewing we’d imagined (then added that the beers at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja were “very, very, very bad”). He expected no improvement whatsoever from the new Cuban constitution being developed and thought nothing would change for the better going forward. He said his mother had felt the same way when she was his age…and now here he was. Nothing changes. He wanted to emigrate to the U.S. (His brother was in Florida.), Canada, Europe, Australia, anywhere.
Finally bidding Alejandro goodnight, we decided to walk down Teniente Rey towards the Capitol. Katiusca had indicated that was the way to walk towards the social club, so we figured it would be a nice stroll. Teniente Rey between Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja was clean and beautifully restored; we expected the same continuing on the street on the other side of Plaza Vieja. Boy, were we wrong. With each block, the road got seedier and the lack of street lights made it more uninviting. People were scattered about, clumped in small groups; occasionally, children joined the mix. For blocks, there were no open restaurants, clubs or shops. At one intersection, we looked up to see the second floor of a building completely collapsed…and fresh laundry hanging on lines amongst the rubble. I’d have loved to have photographed the area, but felt it wiser to keep striding along. People called out to us from time to time, offering taxis, usually, but we just said “No, gracias,” and no one hassled us. Beyond a small, public wi-fi-equipped square crowded with people looking at their phones, we finally reached the Capitol and shortly thereafter a livelier area and Floridita.
El Floridita, self-proclaimed birthplace of the daquiri, exceeded expectations. It’s a pretty period bar with bartenders inverting two rum bottles at a time into perpetually busy blenders. Decorated in red, beige and black with a long dark wood bar, the place was full, but not unpleasantly packed, and a great little band by the front door added to the experience.
We staked out a spot at the bar and ordered a couple of the famous daquiris, striking up a conversation with another couple from the ship. We had to step aside every so often to let people pass who wanted to pose with the bronze statue of Hemingway propped against the far edge of the bar. When a woman singer began to belt out classic Spanish songs in a clear, strong voice, we ordered another round. Floridita may be a tourist staple, but the old lady has class and we had fun.
Leaving El Floridita, passed the Hotel Inglaterra and the ornate Gran Teatro de la Havana. Strolling down the wide, paved median of the boulevard Prado, I found myself pulled into an impromptu street dance with a man whose dark features blended with the night. Scattered along the median people sat and talked, danced and drank. A group of young people did tricks on skateboards.
People in once-elegant buildings in various stages of repair along the way looked out of windows and rooftops or chatted with neighbors across balconies. When the Prado reached the water of the Canal de Entrada, we turned right to stroll the seawall towards the port, passing a Spanish fortress and small fishing boats anchored and bobbing with the huge statue of Christ of Havana lit brightly and shining on the far bank. We reached the Cruise Terminal at midnight to find it well-lit and security and immigration waiting to pass us quickly back to the ship.
More Practical Info:
Katiusca would like to book tours independently. She can be reached by email at email@example.com and I’ve found her quick to reply. I can highly recommend her as a guide. In addition to being an attorney, she’s the mother of two teenage daughters and needs the guide work to support her family. Her English is excellent and she’s very knowledgeable about Cuban history and culture.
Despite the date mix-up, I’m happy with Havana Journeys and recommend them as well for those more comfortable with a go-between.
Click here for a fascinating and not-so-clear list of examples of what does and does not qualify as “Support for the Cuban People.”
Click here for a list Cuban government- and or military-owned entities and subentities with which Americans are forbidden to have direct financial transactions. Note: “Entities or subentities owned or controlled by another entity or subentity on this list are not treated as restricted unless also specified by name on the list.” Many bars, restaurants and shops are thus not covered by this restriction.
We did everything we could to qualify under the “Support for the Cuban People” category of “license,” and I feel comfortable we met the somewhat nebulous requirements. Still, I see very little chance of anyone questioning tour qualifications for the “Support for the Cuban People” category. Simply check that category on the cruise line affidavit that arrives well before departure, the cruise line will then obtain a tourist visa which says absolutely nothing about why you’re in Cuba. Local Cuban authorities only look to see that there is a visa. Upon returning to the U.S. (the only country that cares about the “Support for the Cuban People” and other “license” requirements), we were just one of hundreds getting off a cruise ship from Cuba. We went through passport control in Miami without question. We are, of course, keeping all our records for 5 years as required, but it seems like a pointless exercise. I’d like to return to Cuba for a longer stay someday and feel comfortable about doing so, even under the new regulations.
Our month cruise from Singapore to Italy was better than we could have hoped for, but now it was time to be back on our own and we were looking forward to it. Civitavecchia is the nearest port to Rome and most information about the port assumes people are going to Rome either to stay or to fly out of the airport. We’d used a driver in the past to get from the port to Rome, but this time we were skipping the Italian capital and heading north. I wanted to rent a car for the 2+ weeks we planned to tool around Umbria and Tuscany, but I had trouble finding clear info online. I knew the port was too big to walk out of and that passengers not wanting to rely on expensive cruise ship excursions and transfers needed to get out of the main port gate to get to other modes of transport–taxi, train, rent cars–but the info was vague. This short post is just to clarify transport options and the lay of the land at the Port of Civitavecchia.
The ship offered a free motor coach shuttle to an area just outside the port gates where other transportation is offered. Buses for the train station pick up here for €2 per person. Rent car pick up is just across the street. I’d booked us a Hertz rent car and emailed with them from the previous port. When we left the ship, I called them (Hooray again for T-Mobile international!) and a van arrived to pick us up shortly after we got off the ship’s shuttle. Another 5-minute drive and we were at the Hertz office in a nearby strip center where we did paperwork and were on our way in short order.
Katakolon, Greece, is an easy port for cruise passengers. Although Ancient Olympia is the main draw, the quaint waterfront town of Katakolon sits just at the end of the cruise pier. I’d visited Katakolon and Ancient Olympia years ago with my sons. We’d taken an excursion to Ancient Olympia then, but I wanted more freedom on this visit so I’d arranged a Sixt rent car for the day.
In doing my pre-trip research, I found Sixt to offer the best price as well as port-side car drop off. Sure enough, a nice young woman was waiting with a car when we walked off the pier. Some paperwork and a quick inspection of the car to make sure there were no dings or malfunctions that might later be attributed to us and we were off.
I’d downloaded driving directions to Olympia and the Mercouri Estate winery pre-trip and added them to my calendar. Coordinates and addresses at the ready made it easy to program in our destinations and T-Mobile had us connected in Greece and data-ready so Google Maps had us covered. The roads in the area nice and well-signed and it was an easy 30-40-minute drive to Ancient Olympia. Our only slight snag was when Google Maps took us to the tour bus parking. A few questions and a little luck put us in a free parking lot right by the Ambrosia Garden Restaurant and a wide paved footpath that lead across a small creek to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. (The path is wide with white stone lines laid across concrete and regular intervals. If Ambrosia is on your left, the museum is ahead. The path is visible on Google satellite view of the area.)
We paid €12 apiece for a ticket that granted entrance to the archaeological site and three associated museums: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia. We decided to save the museum for later and went straight to the archaeological site where we spent a couple of hours wandering the many ruins.
The Archaeological Museum was a great ending to our site visit. Although not large, the collection is impressive and well laid out. The building is modern and well lit and there are clean modern toilets available in an area accessible downstairs and to the left of the main doors as you exit into the outside courtyard. We opted to forego the other two museums.
Walking back along the footpath to our car, we decided that Ambrosia offered a too-easy and appealing place to stop for lunch. We ate outside under a vine-covered lattice and thoroughly enjoyed our Greek lunch.
Back in the car, we drove about 30 minutes straight to Mercouri Winery only to slip through their wide gate just before closing time. I’d downloaded their brochure, but completely forgot that they close at 3pm, Monday through Saturday. Our hostess was a little less than welcoming, but all turned out well. She sold us a tasting of wine and left us to wander on our own, just asking that we avoid a cruise ship tour that was on the property. We preferred to be on our own anyway, so that was no problem…if a little less-than-flattering in her delivery. Oh well.
We explored the gorgeous grounds, sipping our wine and charmed by the peacocks we found, especially the male in full display, slowly rotating at the top of a split stairway leading to the slightly-crumbling original estate house.
A marble marker proclaimed a self-rooted vineyard to have been planted in 1870. Oranges and flowers, antique wine-making equipment and an old well decorated the winery while the sea sparkled in the distance. It was all achingly picturesque.
From Mercouri, it’s a less than 10-minute drive back to Katakolon. With plenty of time until we had to be back aboard ship (and the car rented for 24-hours), we decided to check out a local beach before heading back to town. We found long, sweeping beaches near town lined with houses and totally deserted but with tire tracks showing that these were, as in my native Texas, drive-on beaches. When you have a wealth of beach, it’s a thing.
We dropped off the car in the same spot we’d left it, rendezvousing with the same nice young woman. In our remaining time, we explored the quaint, touristy streets and waterfront of Katakolon. We sampled local food and drink set out in the many shops, finally buying a bottle of honey wine before heading back to the ship.
I rented our little 4-door Volkswagen hatchback online from Sixt for €38.49 including all taxes and fees. (There were lots of taxis waiting at the port as well as cars and vans available for on-the-spot rental. There is also a €10/person train that runs from near the port to Ancient Olympia, but if you miss it coming back, you’re on your own.)
Entry to Ancient Olympia and its museums was €12/person.
Mercouri Winery usually charges €10/person for a tour and tasting. We were charged something less, but I forget what.
By way of comparison, the ship offered a 5h30min. excursion to Olympia and the Mercouri Winery for $179/adult and $159/child. A 5h15min. excursion including a tour of Ancient Olympia, the Archaeological Museum and free time cost $119/adult and $99/child. Neither excursion appeared to include lunch.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.