Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heraklion

Today brought the ship to Heraklion, the capital city of Crete.


Heraklion seems nice enough, although it’s a little more hardscrabble than the wealthy cities of northern Italy or southern Spain. Stray dogs sleep in the streets, and tiny gypsy children circulate in the crowds asking for money and eyeing valuables. Even in the upmarket pedestrian malls through which tourists are channeled there’s a sense of there not being quite enough money.





We wandered the streets, absorbing the ambiance, then had a coffee and a glass of frankly sensational fresh orange juice in a cafe. We strolled along the waterfront, where the Mediterranean is so clear and sparkling that it looks like something out of a mineral water commercial.





Then, on a whim, we visited the Natural History Museum. The way the staff set upon us with glee suggested that nobody ever goes to the Natural History Museum. We had a personal guided tour of an exhibition about holograms and optical illusions, then a ride in the earthquake simulator, which taught us that earthquakes are fun when you know you’re not going to die. Then we visited the museum’s little zoo, which featured Mediterranean lizards, snakes and small mammals, as well as some exotics from further afield that had been confiscated from local collectors by Customs.














Once we left the Natural History Museum, there was just enough time to trot back to the ship before the embarkation deadline. The deadline is a fairly inflexible time limit that has already seen three passengers left behind in Katakolon, so we were careful to make it. Plus, of course, we were missing the buffet.


On leaving Heraklion, I realised that one of the things I'd noticed most about the city was the patriarchal nature of the society. From what I can see Crete has a very macho culture, all hair and ouzo and staring at women until they feel uncomfortable, if not downright violated. There is also a uniformity of male fashion. Every Cretan man dresses more or less alike.


So how does one dress like a Cretan man? I'm glad you asked.


1. Schmick hair. The hair of the typical Cretan man is naturally schmick, thanks to centuries of being in close proximity to vast amounts of olive oil, but the modern Cretan man uses product anyway, just to make sure his hair is at its schmickest.

2. A modest beard; anything from an ambitious 5 o’clock shadow to hipster plumage, but not extending into biker territory.

3. Aviators, preferably smoked, but mirrored will do, although that carries a hint of trying too hard.

4. A leather jacket or nylon windbreaker, even though it’s a cloudless warm spring day and I’m sweating in just a light cotton shirt.

5. Sweat or track pants. Even the chatty attendant in the Natural History Museum was wearing sweat pants. You can wear faded old jeans if you want to project a professional image, like the waiters at the high end café I had my coffee in. Maybe they spend so much time moussing their hair, polishing their aviators and practicing their glower that by the time they get to putting on pants they’ve run out of energy and they just go “Meh.”

6. Brightly coloured running shoes, preferably with contrasting laces.

7. A piano accordion, because apparently that’s a thing in Crete. Every street corner has some scruffy low-life with a piano accordion getting all Zorba on our asses. It’d be nice to think that this is just a spontaneous outpouring of traditional Greek spirit, but they stop halfway through a song if there’s a momentary gap in the passing tourist traffic and have a cigarette. Either that or iMessage the urchin further up the street to start playing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Katakolon

Of all the places at which the cruise ship has stopped, Katakolon is the most incongruous. It’s a tiny village with one street running along the waterfront. On the water side are fishing boats and restaurants, and on the land side are tourist shops. Beyond that are woods, small farms, semi-derelict houses and wandering flocks of sheep.





When you park an eighteen storey floating hotel in the middle of that, it tends to stand out.





The reason why Katakolon has a wharf big enough to accommodate an ocean liner, when the largest vessel in its native fleet is about the size of one of the Fantasia’s lifeboats, is Olympia. The historic birthplace of the modern Olympics is a short bus ride from Katakolon. Or rather, the ruin of said birthplace is there. Apparently there isn’t much to see other than a bunch of slightly profound rocks.


Given my lifelong antipathy towards sporting endeavour, it’s little wonder than I decided to give Olympia a miss and just enjoy a beautiful spring day in the Greek countryside. Fortunately Admiral Ackbar was right on board with that plan.


We began by traipsing up the hill that forms the spine of the promontory on which Katakolon is sited. As the sounds of whining Americans and jabbering Italians receded, we could simply relax into the sounds of the countryside; the waves brushing against the shore, birds singing in the trees, and herds of goats gently bleating as they trotted along, with their bells jangling around their necks.


I walked. Ackbar rode.

















I also came across this little slice of Greek life: a beer can, a condom wrapper and a shotgun shell





At least we know the people around here aren’t bored.


We eventually wound back down to the village, pausing only for pomegranate gelati, honey frozen youghurt and free wi-fi. Then I did some shopping in the tourist shops, buying a shirt that’s probably about as authentically Grecian as a Hyundai. Then it was down to the waterfront for a well-deserved beer and a rather insensitive lunch, given Ackbar’s ethnic heritage.











I had thought to go for a swim in the Mediterranean after lunch, but instead I just took the elevator up to Deck 14 and swam in one of the ship’s three swimming pools. It says a lot about cruise priorities that I had the whole pool to myself, but I was entirely surrounded by dozens of elderly obese Germans baking themselves into an even darker shade of melanoma.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Liquids

I’m beginning to get into the swing of these days at sea. The trick is to wake up late, linger over meals, find a good book to read, sample the special cocktail of the day (today’s is the Mai Tai!) and, if all else fails, remember that the candy store also sells Lego.





Doing some laundry also helps pass the time. And reduces the amount that you stink up the place. So win-win!

Revisiting

Today was my second visit to Genoa, as the cruise ship returns to its home port to offload one lot of awful eurobogans and take on a fresh batch. Some passengers, including me and the Admiral, are doing back-to-back cruises so it was just an ordinary shore day, apart from the presence of newbies wandering dazedly around the buffet.


Genoa is, so far, my favourite city on this tour. It has the charming cobbled streets, the walkable scale, the excellent food, the restrained demeanor, the glorious architecture, the snappy Italian fashion and the slightly bohemian air that has been erased from bigger and more popular cities. I could spend hours just wandering its ridiculously narrow streets looking in the shops and buying caffe macchiato and crème brioche in the cafes. But with only limited time, I decided to do at least one proper cultural activity.


And so I found myself at Museo Palazzo Rosso, an art museum containing more than its fair share of Albrecht Durers and Jan Wildens. The subject range was a little on the limited side – let’s just say that the Holy Family don’t need any new pics for their Christmas card this year – but it was a beautiful selection of 16th and 17th century art. Including this one, my favourite, which I’ve entitled “Here Comes Fun!”





But the Palazzo Rosso had more to offer than mere priceless artworks. We were taken up onto the roof by a friendly attendant, where there’s a tiny platform from which one has a panoramic view over Genoa’s chaotic, ramshackle rooftops. From this vantage point, we could see beautiful domed cathedrals alongside clusters of TV antennas and some guy barbecuing his lunch.











The museum also had a model on display of itself and its neighbours in the Renaissance era which was a) unattended, b) not kept behind glass and c) Ackbar scaled. And so obviously this happened:

















Genoa also proved a good opportunity for the Admiral to get out on his new scooter to experience la dolce vita and pick up loose women. Sadly the loose women of Genoa were washing their hair today, but he enjoyed himself nonetheless. And he blended in well with the local scooterati.








Saturday, March 15, 2014

Rome

Today was the ship’s visit to Rome… or rather to Civitavecchia, which is Rome’s port in much the same way that San Francisco is Los Angeles’ IT Department. It’s a drive of at least an hour and a half from Civitavecchia to downtown Rome, but since Civitavecchia is about as interesting as a colonoscopy the Admiral and I elected to take the bus into Rome and see what we could see in a few hours.


As it turned out, the Admiral and I could see quite a lot.


The bus dropped us at the Colosseum, which, despite the fact that it’s basically a giant stone doughnut, is rather impressive. Its most impressive attribute is the fact that it keeps otherwise unemployed actors off the streets, or if not actually off the streets, then at least corralled into one or two streets, where they dress in hopeless plastic centurion uniforms and annoy tourists. And if Rome taught me nothing else, it at least taught me that 99% of tourists deserve to have the living shit annoyed out of them.








From the Colosseum, we walked to a great white edifice with statues of bronze and marble, with flaming urns and gold leaf mosaics. We had no idea what, if any purpose it served, but it was fun to look at. We later discovered it was a memorial for the first king of modern Italy. Possibly.











There followed our first encounter with Roman gelati. To be specific, eight euro Roman gelati. But it was scoops of Crema and Tiramisu in a waffle cone, which drove the price up slightly. And to be fair, it was the sort of gelati they’ll serve in Heaven. Assuming any Italians get in there.


From the extortionate gelati store we walked west, to the Pantheon and the Basillica of Mary and the Martyrs, then it was just a short stroll over to the Piazza Navona with its three famous fountains and three thousand slightly less famous hawkers and assorted lowlifes selling plastic sunglasses and iPhone cases.








Whatever. For a far more reasonable three euros I bought chocolate and caramel gelati; the chocolate was so dark it was almost black, and it tasted like a frozen version of Malaga’s custardy hot chocolate.


From there, we wandered up to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are basically the Paris Hilton of Rome: they’re famous for being famous. They’re a couple of flights of steps with a smart hotel at the top and a street with all of the top fashion houses at the bottom. I’d been warned about pick pockets lurking on its broad marble steps, but as far as I could tell the greatest danger on the Spanish Steps was if you tripped at the bottom and stumbled into Prada, eventually emerging with a cutting edge suit and a new mortgage.





“Si tratta di un trappola!”


Next up was more gelati – this time amarena and pistachio – and an audience with the Trevi Fountain.








The Trevi Fountain is another Roman landmark that feels like it’s famous for being famous. At least it’s a beautiful fountain, dynamic and exciting in its design, rather than just a bunch of stairs. It sits in half of a small piazza, with the other half being a set of deep steps on which people congregate to witness the glory that is the fountain. Japanese girls snap selfies with their Samsung Galaxy Tabs, American college students show their families panning shots via Facetime on their iPhones, and elderly tourists of all nationalities block everyone else’s view with their iPads as they laboriously take a photo. It’s really a rite, not a site.


After that, however, the Admiral and I just wandered through the back street to rendezvous with our bus back at the Colosseum, and it was in many ways the best part of the day. Step a block or two away from the iconic tourist attractions, and Rome settles right down in a mixture of august ancient history and classic Italian charm. Even though we saw the same cars and scooters that we saw in Milan and Bologna, in Rome they somehow feel more archetypal.














Although I haven’t bought many souvenirs on this trip, I did lash out buy a little something for Admiral Ackbar.





As you might imagine, he’s ecstatic.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Swines

Today was our fourth “At Sea” day, and I somehow managed to ratchet down my activities still further. My greatest achievement for the day was to cut my own hair. This is not something I usually do – normally I have a boisterous Italian named Mario who does it for me – but with my usual arrangements some 18,000kms away, I had to resort to my own devices.


The result is lacking in its usual panache, but it looks better than it did, and certainly better than it would in a couple of weeks without any intervention.


Other than that I read a book, made some concessions to personal hygiene, arranged for my deck’s long suffering steward to do my laundry (at a hefty premium, but there’s only so many clothes I can scrub and rinse in my tiny bathroom sink) and battled the eurobogans in the daily buffet grind.


Speaking of my fellow passengers, I’ve noticed there’s been a polarisation in their number as the cruise has worn on. The awful ones (like the German who charged to the front of the embarkation queue and then chastised me, in both German and French, for not allowing her to jump in front of me) are still a blight on the reputations of their respective races, but I’ve started to notice more nice ones. They smile and say good morning (or buongiorno, or bonjour, or whatever) if you pass them in the corridor, they respect the authority of the queue, and they hold doors open for others. My theory is that they are horrified by the behaviour of their countrymen and are adopting a more polite and considerate manner to compensate… and to distance themselves from them. I know for myself that I’m being a lot more polite to strangers than usual. Although admittedly much of that is sarcastic, which probably doesn’t count.


But some people are so taxing that politeness doesn’t work. At the theatre this evening, an appalling Italian couple sat down next to me and the wife proceeded to discuss the operatic arias being performed with all the volume of the greatly aged, highly stupid and somewhat hammered. At one point I snapped, “Signora, shhhh!”, but she was talking at the time and didn’t hear me over the sound of her own yammering. Soon after, I just stood up and moved to another seat. And then, even halfway around the theatre, I could still hear her chatting away whenever the soprano paused to take a breath.


She was awful to the point of being grotesque. Seriously, it was if someone had liquored up an elderly sow with apricot brandy slammers, slipped it into a floral print frock and one of Dolly Parton’s wigs from her unfortunate 80s perm era, given it a deaf and doughy husband and then set it loose on an ocean liner.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Malaga

There’s a lower class, semi-industrial suburb in Perth called Malaga, but it’s pronounced MalAga, and is entirely unlike the delightful city in southern Spain, which is pronounced MALaga.


If not with gold, the streets of Old Malaga are at least paved with marble, either in plain square tiles or in patterns of stripes and chevrons, occasionally inset with brass detailing. Naturally when one is trotting around at 9.45am absolutely nothing is open, except for a few cafes specialising in the tourist trade, and thus attuned to the unreasonably early hours of Germans and other industrious people.





There wasn’t an option to wait for a more civilised hour to be wandering around Malaga, because once again the cruise line has diddled the passengers, giving us a scant five and a half hours in Malaga. But that was long enough for me to find a café with wi-fi to check my emails, visit the Picasso Museum, and indulge in some traditional Spanish churros with hot chocolate.


I started in a street café drinking what was quite possibly the worst cappuccino in the history of coffee production, in the shade of the ubiquitous orange trees that line the streets of Malaga and are currently both fruiting and blooming, making the very air smell wonderful, and no doubt ensuring that, whatever other travails the homeless may face, at least they’re getting their vitamin C.


Then it was time for the Picasso Museum. Malaga was the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, although he took off at the age of 19 and never returned. Even so, he and his family were keen for a museum of his work to be established in Malaga, and so the Museo Picasso is housed in a handsome and beautifully maintained old hacienda. Inside one can view hundreds of paintings of women with their noses on the side of their heads and pottery of various horned animals. Horned animals and strange women were two of Picasso’s passions, not necessarily in that order.


Lastly, it came time for churros and hot chocolate.Admiral Ackbar was very excited by the churros.





But he was even more excited by the traditional Spanish hot chocolate, which is so thick that it’s more like a hot chocolate custard than a drink. After much begging, I allowed him to have the last of my cup.





With predictable results.





I can’t take him anywhere.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Whipped

Today was the second “At Sea” day, and I did even less than I did on the first At Sea day. Now that we’re deep in the Atlantic, far off the North African coast, the weather has grown wilder, with the wind whipping spray off the waves and riming my balcony with a thin layer of salt. The side to side roll of the ship has become more pronounced, so that it’s harder to avoid befuddled Belgians in the buffet area – you think you’re walking around them as they stand there, stunned into immobility by the concept of two kinds of fresh melon, but then the ship lists ever so slightly and suddenly you find you’re on a collision course.


The ornamental pond in the piano bar has taken to sloshing a little, and small round objects will unexpectedly roll off tables, but the décor of the ship has been cleverly designed with as few hanging components as possible, so most of the time you can’t see anything swaying or moving. By and large the only noticeable effect of the ship’s movement is in your own body, as it declares that you are on an incline that you weren’t on a moment ago. But the glass fronted lifts still go up and down, the lucite grand piano hasn’t rolled off its dais, and the cocktail waitresses haven’t dropped any drinks, so I guess everything is okay.


I visited two new sections of the ship today. Tiring of the worthy novels on my Kindle, I found the ship’s library and borrowed a page turner about vampires. Most of the books were ordinary airport thrillers by John Grisham or Sue Grafton, but among the less expected selections were plays by Shakespeare, a French-English dictionary, some cowboy comics translated into Italian and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, which isn’t exactly what you call a light cheerful holiday read.


I also discovered that the ship’s candy shop also sells Lego. So you can guess what happened with the rest of the afternoon.


Other than that, there was the buffet, the gym, the couch and now the piano bar, where I’m drinking a luridly coloured cocktail with a little umbrella and a maraschino cherry in it while I update my blog. Just like home, really.