Travelling Hopefully

29 October

This was not quite the start of a holiday. I had agreed to be one of the leaders on the cruise on the Aegean Sea—‘The footsteps of St Paul and St John’—through Maranatha Tours. Nineteen people signed up to come with me, joining other groups on the same trip. In the end, there were around 270, mostly from the UK, drawn from a wide variety of Christian denominations.

Most of those travelling with me lived in the Midlands, so I arranged for a coach to collect us from my house in Northampton. I had told everyone that the coach would leave at 8.30am, and that they must not be late. People started to arrive at 7.50am. I managed to make tea and coffee between having my shower and getting dressed in my travelling clothes. One of my shoelaces broke, and as I was looking for a spare a mobile phone rang. One of our party was lost, and needed directions to my house! 

Only two people cut it fine, arriving at 8.29am. But we were all aboard and heading for Heathrow at 8.35am. I even had time to put in the new shoelace, so all was right with the world.

We had a group booking with the airline, so several check in desks were opened just for us. There were some of the usual casualties at security—several large bottles of suncream were confiscated. 

The flight was around four hours, and we were offered drinks and a sandwich. This kept us going as we collected our bags in Athens, and our coach took us the ninety minute drive to our hotel in Corinth. Dinner was buffet style, with a good range. I dropped into bed around 11pm.

30 October

My room was far too warm and I slept poorly. Just after 7am I stumbled out in search of caffeine and breakfast. Some of the group had arrived well before me, unaware that the clocks changed in Greece as well as in the UK. I had used my iPhone for my alarm, and of course the iPhone had automatically made the time adjustment.

Around 8.40am our coach set out. Because of the size of the overall party, my nineteen are sharing a coach with two other groups. ‘Number 4’, I told them. ‘Always aim for coach number 4.’ 

The sun was attempting to break free from the clouds as we made our first stop. There were just a few ruins of what had been the ancient port of Cenchreae, near Corinth. A small dog greeted us as we walked down to the beach, the nearby owner busy with some fishing. 

The sun continued to tease us as we drove to the Corinth canal. This modern construction was completed in 1893 and enables access from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea. Sadly, it’s too narrow at 70 feet at its base to allow modern ships to go through. It was still an impressive sight from the footbridges. The walls rise 300 feet above sea level. 

We spent nearly two hours at the ancient city of Corinth. As ever, you have to use some imagination with these sites. The remains of columns and base stones give you some orientation as to where you are. There was a small but impressive museum, and our guide took us through the marketplace and the hall of judgement. I read out the KJV of 1 Corinthians 3 whilst we stood in what would have been the main square. 

Lunch followed. Over 250 of us descended upon one restaurant. To our amazement, the food was served quickly, and was even hot. Our starter was stuffed aubergine, followed by salad. Then roast chicken with beautifully done roast potatoes. Many of us ate far more than we’d intended.

We returned to the hotel, and had the afternoon at leisure. I fought to stay awake and worked on photos.

We’d been told that there would be ‘optional’ worship at 6pm in the Conference Room. So at 5.45pm I joined around 80 other people milling around the courtyard and area near a sign which stated ‘Conference Room.’ There were surges to the right when we thought this room was down a particular corridor, then to the left when we thought it was down another way. Then someone told us, ‘You need to go back towards reception, turn left, and the place is past the outdoor pool.’ And so it was, without a single ‘Conference Room’ sign in sight!

Worship was in the recognisable order of thanksgiving, petition, reading, no sermon, and a simple Communion (the minister read the relevant section from Corinthians). With much wonderful singing. 

I decided to have a drink with dinner. But, as I hovered by the hotel bar, my fellow group leaders asked me to join them in working out the tips for the various trip sections. Most of the people in our groups had paid the recommended amounts, and Maranatha had provided a list of suggested amounts for guides and drivers for each excursion. We divided the amounts into envelopes, and each of us took responsibility for a particular section. The tips for the cruise element were given to a Maranatha representative to hand over to the ship personnel.

I went on to dinner, and had my drink afterwards, talking with various people in my group. Then back to my room to pack, ready to leave the next morning.

31 October

The alarm at 6.30am was an unwelcome sound. As per instructions, I had my check in bag packed and outside my room by 7am. I then went in search of my usual dose of caffeine.

We’d been told to be ready to board our coaches at 8am. This didn’t happen. The hotel staff were taking far longer than an hour to haul the bags of 270 people from hotel corridors to the front of the hotel. Our party, in bus 4, didn’t get our bags until 9.20am. I ended up putting on my warm coat, as it was rather cold outside. At 9.30am we loaded our bags and got on board.

‘You’ll need your passports to get onto the ship,’ one of the other leaders announced. And that’s when one of my group said, ‘I can’t find my passport.’

She and I went to her room to see if were there. ‘Actually,  I know where it is,’ she told me. ‘It’s in my handbag, which I put into my suitcase.’ ‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘when we get to the docks you can get it out of your case.’ ‘Yes, I’m sure my case is on the bus,’ said she. I pulled back to look at her. ‘Did you take your case to be loaded onto the bus?’ ‘Oh, no,’ was the response, ‘I assumed that had been done.’

Her case was waiting on its own near reception. She pulled out her passport, and then she wheeled the case over to bus to be loaded into the storage compartment. The other members of the group applauded as we climbed on board.

We were meant to have a driving tour of Athens. What did happen was a drive through various city streets. There was no local guide on board, so two of the other leaders looked through a guidebook and a map to try to tell people where we were. The bus driver tried to chip in. So we saw glimpses of Mars Hill, Parliament, and old ruins in the city centre. ‘And that’s a Greek man,’ said one leader as we passed a pedestrian. ‘How do you know?’ he was challenged. And I pointed at a pigeon. ‘Is that a Greek pigeon?’ Others picked up on the act. ‘And is that a Greek cat?’

We drove on to the local city at which the docks are based. I was given the key cards for my party. These are plastic cards which were printed with name and cabin number, and are used to swipe on and off the ship, open the cabin door, and charge shipboard purchases to one’s on board account. I handed these out, and we wheeled our check in luggage to a conveyor belt.

On into the disembarkation area. Advertising for the ship’s drink package were thrust into our hands. 22 Euros for unlimited soft drinks and (less expensive) alcohol. I declined. After all, I had a half bottle of single malt whisky in my check in bag. 

We checked in, and handed over our passports (these will be returned at the end of the voyage). Then through the equivalent of airport security. There was a small duty free shop on the other side, where I bought a bottle of Greek red wine. 

Walked out to see the immense sides of the cruise ship, the Celestyal Nefeli. The cruise ships I’ve been on before have held 132 passengers max. This ship can take up to 1000. I walked on board, and found my cabin on Deck 3. My bag was already waiting for me.

Lunch was already available in both restaurants. I decided to eat before returning to my cabin to unpack. I have a two berth cabin, both lower bunks, with two porthole windows. Plenty of room to move around. After hanging up clothes and filling drawers, I headed up and out to watch us leave port, under rather grey and gloomy skies. 

There was the option of a lecture at 5pm. This was rather interesting, about some of the places we had seen and now would see, with the appropriate biblical references. Sadly, a number of us found we were nearly nodding off, due to early starts and a warm room.

There was the option of either a buffet dinner or al a carte at a restaurant. Three of us decided to opt for the latter. The food was decent, not spectacular. I had a glass of sparkling wine to mark the start of the voyage.

The ship was rolling gently as we headed back to our cabins. (There are various musical performances until 1.45am, but we weren’t particularly interested!). I poured myself a glass of red wine and set to work on blog and photos.

1 November

The ship sailed into the port at Thessaloniki at 8am. I’d had an early breakfast, so I stood on deck to watch us make our way past ships and docks. At 9.30am we disembarked, and boarded our coach.

We had a local guide and driver. The guide was very friendly and informative, deriding the modern buildings which he thought ugly as we went through the modern part of the city. We stopped to admire the Agora, which would have been the administrative centre and marketplace for the area, and where Paul would have preached. 

Then on to the Vlatadon Monastery, with views of the city walls from the bus. We admired views over the city and the collection of peacocks (the birds had once been used as guards) before going into the church itself. The area we visited was very small, and covered with icons. 

The coach took us on a drive, just over an hour, to the city of Veria. Paul had visited here to preach. We went past fascinating looking old churches, made of wood and earth, before stopping at a memorial which has the steps on which Paul supposedly preached. A mosque stood nearby. 

Much to our surprise, after the 20 minutes there, we returned to the coach for the drive back to Thessaloniki. Well, most of us. One of my group had stopped for a loo break, and had become separated from the party. The guide and I stepped out to look for her, but thank goodness she soon appeared. 

We had a loo and coffee break at a motorway services. It was at this point that we discovered that we would be having lunch on the ship, but not until 2.30pm. And that’s what happened. Over an hour back from Veria, then back on the ship. Many of us agreed it was a bit odd to drive all that way just to look at these steps. We would have loved to have visited some of the small churches we’d passed.

I grabbed a quick salad, and then walked along the promenade of the city. We had bright blue skies all day, and by afternoon it was even warm. I admired the White Tower (which was closing just as I arrived at 3.45pm) and the statue of Alexander the Great. I even treated myself to an ice cream.

At 5pm I returned to the ship. I had an early dinner, and then changed into nice jacket, trousers, and a clerical shirt for the captain’s cocktail party. As I had neglected to pack a dog collar, I quickly fashioned one out of paper!

About half of the passengers turned up to shake the captain’s hand and to enjoy a free glass of sparkling wine. The captain and his main crew introduced themselves on the small stage in the Muses Lounge. Then we had a song and dance show. The performers went through a large number of costume changes as they put on music from a number of different countries. It was rather intriguing, and I’m pleased I saw it, but I feel no need to see another such show in the immediate future.

2 November

My throat had started to seize up last night, and this morning I realised that I had come down with a head cold. Well, I’ve not had a cold since February 2015, so it’s probably about time. I took ibuprofen to knock down the head ache, and this meant that I was in tolerable discomfort during the day.

We had an earlier start to the day, gathering in the Muses Lounge at 8am. At 8.30am we left the ship to clamber into our buses. This time, our coach had free wifi, so as the local guide told us facts about our port city (Kavala) people were logging into to check emails and Facebook. 

We drove over the local mountain ridge to visit ancient Philippi. After a loo break, we followed the guide to the theatre, and then into the area of an upper church. We had great views over the other church and the marketplace. Only a small part of the city has been excavated, and it is hoped that money can be found to dig out more. 

Our time walking around the ruins extended to over an hour. We admired evidence of every day life such as the public toilets, the shops, and another church (complete with mosaics). We walked along the road which Paul would have taken, and saw the ruts caused by chariot wheels carved into the marble. The day was bright, but rather cold, and I was glad to have brought a sweatshirt.

We finished by the prison cell which had held St Paul. Another pilgrim group was there, and we joined in with them to sing the hymn ‘And can it be,’ chosen due to the line ‘my chains fell off.’ My cold meant that I was unable to sing, which was a rather sad moment. 

The buses had been brought up, so we had a short walk to get back on board. Our next stop was the site of St Lydia’s baptism by St Paul. A mother cat and kittens were wandering through the grounds as we made our way to the river. Birds were spotted there, including a Kingfisher and a Yellow wagtail. The water flowed past a group who were having an outdoor Communion service. 

Afterwards we went into the ornate church nearby. A mosaic on the floor depicted Paul’s journeys. The dome was highly decorated, and traditional icons were illuminated by the sunlight coming in through the modern stained glass windows. 

Then it was time to head back to the ship. We arrived back at 1.15pm, and the ship was set to leave at 3pm. Not really enough time to into the town, sadly. After a quick lunch, I went up onto the top deck to take photos of the city. As we pulled away, the aqueduct came into view. It was amazing to see how it towers over the city streets.

Tea was served at 4pm. I collected a number of delicious white chocolate chip cookies and went to sit with some members of my group. We agreed that yesterday had been disappointing, but today had been excellent. 

At 5.30pm a lecture was offered on the Old Testament. I went along, hoping for something meaty. Within ten minutes I realised that I need not stay. The chap was quickly taking us through the patriarchs of the Old Testament, something which I could do myself. So I went outside to admire the sunset, and to my cabin to work on photos. 

3 November

I woke up with clear head. Hurrah! A bit of a cough, but I can live with that.

We were due to pull into port at Istanbul at 10am, and we were supposed to be at our meeting point for departures at 9.30am. So at 8.30am I was on deck with my Canon 7Dii and 70-300mm lens, prepared to take photos of the city as we approached. 

And what a view as we approached. I was briefly distracted by a small bird which landed on some ship lights (thought to be a Chiffchaff), but then the city demanded my attention. The views as we sailed in were stunning. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia towered over the city on our left, and on our right were suspension bridges and a small church on a tiny island. Seagulls and cormorants swirled in the waters and in the blue skies. I kept taking photos as the angles changed. The pilot boat rushed up to us, waves crashing over her bow. Many other ships were passing to and fro, ranging from tankers to ferries to small vessels which kept well clear of their larger sisters. At one point a few tears of happiness squeezed from my eyes. The whole setting was achingly beautiful.

At 9.20am I thought I’d better go to our meeting area. I dropped off 7Dii, collected the Canon 5Diii, and hurried over. We docked at 10am, and at 10.15 we were heading off to our bus.

Our local guide was a lovely Turkish woman, who talked to a few of us about her twin granddaughters. We headed off for our first stop, at the Blue Mosque. To reach the mosque, we walked through what had been the hippodrome. The wide open space had been used for chariot races in Roman times, and remains a large open space.

And that’s when near disaster struck. I made the mistake of looking for someone whilst still walking. So I stepped off a curb I’d hadn’t expected. My right foot went under me, and I twisted my ankle. But my camera, although clunking against the ground, suffered no injury. Whew! An ankle will heal, but a busted camera…

This did leave me limping for the rest of the day. We had to take our shoes off (and the woman cover their heads) to go inside the Blue Mosque. So I had a good opportunity to stare at the swelling on the right hand side of my foot. Actually, it was less painful walking just in socks than when I put my shoes back on at the exit.

The mosque is open to tourists in the morning, so there were very few worshippers. There was literature at the entrance, in many languages, explaining the ‘Truth of Islam.’ And free copies of the Qur’an, again in many languages.

The ceilings were beautiful. We kept coming across parties of schoolchildren, who were always eager to try out their English on us. ‘Hello,’ they would call out, and wave. Later on in the day, when waiting for others in the group to join us, some of the children told me proudly ‘I am called’ and their names. At which point I said, ‘I’m very pleased to meet you,’ and I shook their hand. This made them giggle.

We walked on to the Hagia Sophia. The building was built to be a church, then was converted to a mosque. The Muslims covered over many of the Christian imagery, but left the mosaic of Mary and Jesus untouched. Sadly there was scaffolding up one side, but we could still admire the ceiling. We were told that a small cross, carved into the floor under the central dome, marked the centre of the earth. 

I decided to make the hobble to the gallery. This was up a slope of stones, slightly slippery. The height brought one a bit closer to the various frescoes. Sadly a second balcony beyond the one on which we stood prevented a good view of the floor below. Then it was down another ramp, which thankfully offered a hand rail.

Another walk brought us to the Topkap Palace Museum. This was first constructed in 1460 and was the home of the Ottoman sultans. We went on to a restaurant set at the far end for our lunch. We had wonderful views across the Bosphorus as we ate our salad, a pastry starter, kebab chicken and lamb, and a somewhat runny dessert. 

After the palace we visited the Byzantine cistern. I debated going up and down nearly 40 steps, but I’m glad I did. The huge open space was once a water storage area. The columns are light by very dim lights, and fish swim in the clear waters. Photography was very difficult. To use a tripod (not that I had one with me) meant paying an extra fee!

We finally returned to our bus, and were taken to the Grand Bazaar. This first opened in 1461, and was lined with shops selling goods from sweets and carpets to gold and tourist tat. One shop had carved ivory pieces, including a couple of whale teeth which I’m sure came from Sperm whales. I was highly amused by one shop which sold ‘Viagra tea.’  The shopkeepers were on the verge of pushy (I’ve experienced worse) to entice you inside. 

Our last stop was meant to be the Spice Market. But we got caught in traffic. We inched our way along the seafront as the sun set. Enterprising traders walked down the middle, between the two lines of cars, and offered various food items for sale. 

Finally we reached the ship. And then the next hold up. As has been the case at most ports, we had to have our bags scanned and go through a metal detector. But the scanner was broken. So we waited, and waited. Then the security personnel opened up the scanner on the right. A surge of people moved forward. The one on the left was repaired. So the one on the right was closed! Most of us waited about 30 minutes to get through and back to the ship.

I went to the buffet restaurant to have my dinner. One of my group offered me a pressure bandage, meant to be for an arm, so I later cut it down for my foot (and it’s really helped!). She has pulled something in her back, so another member of the party offered to give her a massage. Seems he brought all the necessary oils with him. He carefully wrote down her cabin number, and we said he’d better get it right. If he knocked on the wrong cabin door, announced, ‘I’m here for your massage,’ the occupants might be startled to open the door to see a bearded man outside!

I retired to my cabin to rest my foot. 

4 November

There was nothing on the programme until a lecture at 10am, so I slept in until 7.30am. The lecture was the second of two about the archaeological sites we were visiting, and the insights these gave into biblical passages. For example, there used to be a temple at Pergamon which was called ‘the devil’s throne’ and is mentioned in Revelation. The Germans took it out and this structure is now in a museum in Berlin.

After the lecture, we group leaders had a meeting with the woman on board who is supposed to be our liaison with the cruise ship. We expressed our concerns that we hadn’t always been kept fully informed about what was happening. Sounds like some additional briefings will be planned in the morning.

We had an early lunch and left the ship around 12.30pm. Our coach took us to the remains of the Asklepion, which had been a centre of healing from around the 4th century BC to Christians times. We walked along the stone road, admired the long tunnel which led to chambers for dreaming, and the theatre. Water still flows from the sacred spring, and I asked a member of our group to fill my water bottle for me. Can’t say it tasted much different from any other water.

The day, which had been grey, grew duller as our bus took us up steep streets to the foot of a nearby hill. We took a lift and then a cable car to visit the Acropolis. Our local guide told us about the items from the site which are now in Germany, and it amused me that he pronounced ‘Berlin’ as a German would. 

We were on the top platform, looking down at the remains of the temple for Zeus, when the clouds decided that they had held back long enough. The rain started light, but then became quite heavy. I had a waterproof coat with me, and various items to protect my cameras. I found some shelter, and stayed there as the group walked up steps to the top of the hill. When the rain finally passed, I’d lost sight of them. So I took a few photos, and made my way down.

A good number of the group were visiting the shops set up by the cable car station. I found a few things as presents, and had a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Then back down to the coach.

We had been promised ‘a snack’ before returning to this ship. The ‘snack’ turned to be a buffet, more of a meal than a snack. I took a few of the small ‘cheese rolls with cheese’ and otherwise ignored the food. However, I did buy a bottle of the local beer, a rather flavoursome lager.  I followed this up with a small cup of Turkish coffee, remembering in time not to try to drink the dregs.

None of last night’s hassles to return to the ship. The port authorities didn’t even bother to scan our bags. I confirmed dinner arrangements, and returned to my cabin to spread things out to dry.

5 November

An early rise. We left the ship around 8am for the drive to Ephesus. Actually, our group plus half of the population of Turkey, it seemed. We queued for the loos before we made our way past the multiple shops, and joined the throngs who had come early to see one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. I was able to put more weight on my foot, but what was bothering me more was a persistent cough.

I haven’t mentioned the clever ‘whisper’ devices which we’ve been wearing at each locale. We have small black receivers, hanging around our necks from a cord. Into one ear goes an earbud, and the other end plugs into the jack. The guide speaks into a small microphone at his/her normal speaking volume, and the words are broadcast to our receivers and carried into our ears. The broadcast is good for around 30 feet, which means you can wander away from the guide yet still hear. Plus this means that your guide isn’t competing verbally with the other guides, whose parties are receiving on a different channel.

It was good to have bright sun after yesterday’s damp day. Actually, as the day went on, we actually become quite warm! The stones of the site gleamed as we started at the top end and made our way down, passing many cats along the way. Seems the early archaeologists brought cats to keep down the mice, and the cats stayed. The site workers now keep them fed. 

As ever, these sites require a good guide and some imagination. However, other parts have been restored, albeit sometimes clumsily and limited by the knowledge of the day. The sheer amount to walk through gave an impression of the size of the city. The theatre can hold 24,000 people, for example. 

One of the highlights was visiting the men’s latrines (I don’t know what the women were meant to do). Seems that the men of the time sat down to urinate, hence the long opening at the front of the seat.

We saw the shops, admired various temples, and then stood in awe of the Library of Celsius. This has been reconstructed from the fragments found on the site. It towered above us into the blue sky. A free lance photographer had accompanied our group throughout the site (at times becoming a nuisance as he tried to take photos of us at various areas), and he took a group shot of us squinting into the sun, the Library behind us.

After around two hours, we left the site at the bottom exit. More shops met us, and shop keepers keen to entice us inside. I bought a few small items as presents. The photos taken by our nuisance were on display near our bus, and I paid the 3 Euros for a copy. Other people purchased photos of themselves, so I think the photographer did okay for the morning.

Our lunch was at a carpet weaving workshop. We had a lovely buffet outside, with free local wine (the red was very tasty). Afterwards we were shown how silk is removed from the cocoons (I always feel sorry for the caterpillars) and how the carpets were woven. We were taken into a showroom, and offered more drinks (another glass of wine!) whilst carpets were unrolled and people were invited to walk upon them. 

Afterwards I wandered through the area, and wondered whether the lunch was provided free in exchange for bringing coach loads of tourists to the workshop. Three carpets were purchased by people in our group. The carpets will be shipped to them in the UK. I asked said purchasers whether they will have to pay VAT when the carpets enter into the UK, as Turkey is not part of the EU, and it seems that this was something which the carpet salesmen hadn’t mentioned. From what I’ve since read on-line, I think they could face a Customs and VAT bill of 28% of the value of the carpet. Unless the exporter lies about the value on the shipping label.

We drove for an hour through agricultural land to the theatre at Miletus. Both Ephesus and Miletus had been port cities, but over the centuries the river has brought down sediment and the area has silted up. The ruins are now several miles away from the sea (which is another reason why they have fallen into ruin; they were also abandoned). The theatre was an amazing structure. We walked inside to admire it, and our group sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ My cold still won’t allow me to sing, sadly.

Back to the port city of Kusadasi. The bus dropped us off in one of streets near the docks. After passport control, there were a whole series of shops, and shop keepers determined to sell. I bought a few small things before limping on to the ship. 

6 November

We left Turkey for Greece, which meant yet another change to our clocks. We put them back an hour, which was just as well, as we had a very early start. At 6.45am we left the ship to visit the island of Patmos.

Our coach chugged up the steep roads to take us near to the monastery of St John the Divine. We had a long walk up a sloping road to get to the entrance of the church. Although it was Sunday, shops were opening with the hope of some last sales. Seems ours will be the last cruise ship for the season, and the new trips won’t start until March 2017.

The views over the island and the sea were lovely. We also had plenty of time to admire the three windmills, and to sing a hymn, whilst we waited for the monks to finish their service. Then we entered the courtyard and admired the frescoes.

Strictly no photography in the small, ornate church. The walls were covered with icons, and there was a sweet hint of incense in the air. A large fresco of Christ filled the dome. 

We only had time for a quick walk through the museum. Manuscripts dating back 500 years were on display, along with gold and silver religious artefacts. I pondered several sets of chasubles, but all of them were too large for me. 

Down the slope and back to the bus, various people peeling off to visit shops along the way. We dropped down to the Cave of the Apocalypse, which by tradition is where St John the Divine had the visions which he recorded in Revelation. We handed over tickets for entry, and were encouraged to walk through the cave, although this meant going past people attending Sunday worship. A number of us were left feeling very uncomfortable about this.

The coach returned us to the port, where we had an hour to wander around, visit the shops, and have a coffee. I found some more gift items. 

Lunch was back on the ship. We set sail for Syros, another island, over the course of the afternoon. I assisted at the worship service, distributing bread at Communion whilst one of the members of my party handled a chalice. 

We sailed on to the island of Syros, reaching the port after night fall. Unsurprisingly, as it was Sunday and out of season, very few shops were open. The cafes, though, were ready for thirsty visitors. I joined another group for a beer. I also amused some fellow travellers when I knelt by a bollard at the quay side to take some timed photos of the island at night with my compact camera. 

Unfortunately, I’d neglected to make any dinner arrangements, so I ate by myself in the buffet restaurant. Then I cheered myself up by sitting on an outside deck, sipping from a glass of sparkling wine as I admired the warmth of the evening and the lights of the town. 

7 November

We sailed back across the Aegean overnight to reach the port outside of Athens. The boat rocked a bit a one point, despite all the modern stabilisers. This made me think of what refugees face, trying to make the same trip from Turkey to Greece in far more flimsy vessels.

Our check-in bags had to be outside our cabins by midnight, which led to some interesting decisions. We had to vacate our cabins by 7am, and at 7.30am we reported one last time to our meeting lounge. A short time later we left the ship for the last time.

The flight for our group wasn’t until 6.30pm, so we had a day tour of Athens to keep us busy. Our first stop was at the rebuilt athletics stadium, which is still used for various events including the final stretch of the marathon. For a small fee (3 Euros) you could pose next to a man in Greek costume whilst holding a fake Olympic torch. It was good fun.

We drove on to the Acropolis. Mars Hill was already busy, despite the early hour. After a reading and a hymn, we walked up to admire views over Athens, and to look up at the Temples towering above us. I felt my ankle twinge at the thought of walking up all that way, but I also knew that I would regret not seeing the crowning glory of Athens for myself.

The route up was on a slope. We stopped for quite some time to listen to our guide explain the history of the site. As we trudged upwards, even what was left of the many ancient structures was amazing. The Odeon (still used for concerts today), the pillars lining the last steps, then the temples themselves. The Parthenon, sadly, is undergoing repair. What was also evident was the destruction caused by the removal of the marbles which had once graced the building. I have seen the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’ in the British Museum, but hadn’t appreciated what their removal had done to the monuments.

We had some free time on the mount. I walked to a viewing platform to admire the Plaka and the Temple of Zeus far below. There was also a good view of the Parthenon. 

As some readers may know, I travel with a small dachshund called Günther. He has been photographed at sites all over the world, and I’ve never encountered any problems. Until today. I propped him onto a wall and took a couple of photos with the Parthenon in the background.

And the two guards at the viewing platform shouted at me. ‘Stop. That is not permitted! You must delete those photos immediately!’ At first I thought they must be joking. Then I realised that they were serious. I couldn’t quite work out what I’d done wrong, but I showed them the two images on the back screen of my camera and deleted them both. What the guards didn’t realise is that my camera has dual card slots. I only erased the photos from one memory card, not the other.

Our guide explained to me afterwards that the government of Greece tries to prevent anyone from using the Parthenon for advertising purposes. They must have thought that Günther was planning to feature in some ad campaign. Well, Günther doesn’t currently have any sponsorship deals, but he’s open to offers!

We had a couple of hours of free time in the Plaka, which is an old neighbourhood in Athens. A number of us had lunch in the restaurants. I then walked over to admire Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus.

Then it was a drive to the airport. We arrived at 3.30pm, and had to wait until 4pm to check in and drop off our bags. Then it was a pretty painless flight back to London. Our coach was waiting for us at the airport. At 11pm we were back in Northampton, where we wished each other farewell.

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