Mediterranean on the Cheap (sort of)

Norwegian Jade, docked at Katakolon, Greece

GREECE-ING THE WHEELS FOR EGYPT

When I saw the Norwegian Cruise Lines 10-night Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Greece, Turkey and Egypt for $499 I had to go. Of course that was for the cheapest inside cabin with no window or porthole, and of course the airfare to Rome was nearly $1,000. Ever since majoring in art in college and spending lots of time on Egypt I’ve wanted to go there. Turns out most of the other people on the ship were there for the same reason — mystical, alluring, magnificent Egypt! Having visited Istanbul, Ephesus and Athens on a previous cruise I was pleased that our itinerary included some different ports: Izmir (formerly called Smyrna, one of Turkey’s oldest and largest cities and a major shipping port). Besides Athens we’d stop in Katakolon near the site of Olympia and the original Olympic games.

Ionic columns

Our tiny cheapo cabin was fine — well designed with  shelves in every available space and lots of mirrors to make it seem larger. Two single beds could be converted into a queen and there were even pull-down bunks that would accommodate two more people — although four adults in this cabin was unimaginable, but two adults and two children would work. A TV channel tuned to the ship’s bow web cam provided a window on the weather and daylight. The bathroom was adequate with a roomy enough shower. Large people would probably not be happy in this economy cabin, but if budget is a consideration it was perfectly acceptable — a new experience for me, after staying only in suites or cabins with balconies.

KATAKOLON

A small, pleasant village of only two main streets, Katakolon is a tourist shopping town offering access to Olympia about 30 minutes away by bus or train. At Olympia visitors will see sections of the original 2,000-year-old Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns and the Olympic stadium — mainly a grassy field reached through an arched entryway. Wild cyclamen were blooming in the fallen leaves.

Wild cyclamen

Our Greek guide, Apollo Ono look-alike

Our guide was a rotund, elderly Greek guy sporting a little chin stripe of a beard like Apollo Ono. Although he was a font of historical knowledge, his monotonous, droning voice put us all in a stupor. The nearby contemporary village of Olympia looked quite charming, but instead of staying in this appealing town, we whizzed through it and headed back for our “lunch in a local rustic cafe” in tourist-clogged Katakolon. Greeting us in a charmless upstairs room, no doubt designed for handling large cruise ship tours, was a cold lunch of felafels, feta cheese, pita bread, sausages and salad. The highlight was traditional Greek dancing by some local women drably dressed in ordinary black street clothes. The other highlight was a large bottle of ouzo on each lunch table — the only free alcohol we’d see on the entire cruise. So, I filled my water bottle with the leftover ouzo, since drinks on the ship were overpriced and watered down.

RECOMMENDATION

Instead of the $99 ship’s tour with a boring, droning guide to the almost equally underwhelming site of Olympia, the smart ticket here would have been to take the local train or bus to Olympia, wander around on your own, view the ruins, then lunch in that lovely little village versus the tourist trap of Katakolon. Some other passengers did this and told us about it.

Greek hats

Shopping, however, was good in this tourist trap of Katakolon with reasonably priced Greek icons, jewelry, clothing and intricately painted ceramics.

GETTING SMART IN ATHENS

After such a dud of a tour, my Canadian shipmate Kaitlyn and I took the local city tour bus when we docked in Athens. For 21 Euros (dollar was around $1.37 to one Euro) you got an all-day tour of Athens on a “hop-on, hop-off” double-decker, open-topped bus. We decided to take the whole route to see what was what, then on the second loop, get out where we wanted. This wasthe smart ticket. Ship’s tours, of course, included the Parthenon,

Acropolis and Parthenon

the Plaka (historic district and shopping area), and city sites — a must for first-time visitors and probably worth it. I’d already been, so this time enjoyed the long view of the Acropolis and Parthenon, which was wreathed in scaffolding anyway. Kaitlyn and I found a local flea market and enjoyed wandering around with the locals out on a Saturday, and having a baklava and cappuccino at a little cafe.

IZMIR

Izmir central square

Izmir is a lovely, clean, Turkish city with the ruins of an ancient Agora (market place) being excavated. Most of my shipmates took a tour to Ephesus — well worth seeing — but I’d been there. So, again, I got off the ship and took the local city tour bus for 10 Euros. As in Athens I did the full route first to get the lay of the land. These inexpensive city tours

Izmir clock tower and local folks

Exotic fruits in Izmir

Lovely Turkish outfits

 are wonderful. They give you a map of the city with its attractions and include ear buds and a recorded tour commentary in various languages. I decided to hop off at a local bazaar (souk) or ordinary marketplace. It was filled with shopping Turkish women in headscarves. I bought a cheap, pretty scarf and donned it, looking like one of the locals. I buried my camera beneath my clothes and was basically invisible. Instead of vendors hassling me as a tourist and hawking their goods, they thought I was a local and spoke to me in Turkish. I loved it.
  Turkey is scarf central since about 99.9 percent of the women wear head scarves, and I picked up some lovely, inexpensive ones. It was the day after a big national holiday and the whole city was decked out in the national flag and photos of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey — even over the bathrooms in the park. Unlike many cities with industrial ports, Izmir has an elegant waterfront “corniche” lined with sidewalk cafes and a view of the sea.
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