Winter officially arrived December 21st, and ever since, merciless storms blasting arctic winds dumped tons of snow on the embattled Midwest and Canada. But here in the sunny Mediterranean, Ovid’s Halcyon myth seems all too real. The phrase “Halcyon Days” comes from the ancient Greek belief that fourteen days of calm, radiant weather arrive sometime around the winter solstice – that was when the magical bird halcyon calmed the surface of the sea for her nest. What a perfect time to explore the ancient world.
Our fifth cruise this year, we chose to celebrate the holidays on the Norwegian Jade (formerly known as Pride of Hawaii). Our good friend and travel agent colleague Leslie Darga always speaks highly of NCL, citing a solid reputation for selecting itineraries with interesting ports of call. The feature that sold us on the holiday sailing aboard the Jade was a hopping 14-day itinerary that included both Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, one which entirely fit between university semesters. As both an instructor and grad student, timing was crucial.
But worries about Pride of Hawaii faring well in the winter Mediterranean were legitimate and amply posted on the Internet. After all, this ship was originally built as a vessel sailing tropical Hawaiian waters, not as a double-hulled icebreaker, like the legendary Marco Polo, flagship of NCL’s erstwhile sister company Orient Lines. Indeed, changing the name to Jade is not the same thing as fitting the ship with a retractable glass roof over the pool or making other upper-latitude modifications.
We arrived in Barcelona on EasyJet, one of the many discount airlines departing Milan. Along with Ryan Air, these airlines are popular carriers with sale fares as low as one cent. “Cheap, cheap, cheap” chirped the halcyon – our Christmas tariff was only 21 euro each way.
Barcelona El Prat airport is about 20 minutes away from Puerto Muelle Adosado, where the Jade was docked. Port Terminal B was new, clean, and efficient. Although our taxi’s meter read 21.50 euros, by the time the driver added surcharges for luggage, airport access, port access, and possibly an arbitrary “I smell a sucker tourist” fee, the total came to an even 37 euros.
Check-in was a snap, and early-arriving guests were invited to enjoy the public areas of the ship until the cabins were ready. We strolled through the Garden Café buffet and were delighted to see an adorable kiddie buffet with miniature tables for the wee ones. The buffet area is perhaps the smallest most confined we have ever seen on any mass-marketed ship, but was well stocked and had an ample variety of dishes to please the American palate.
Cabin 5608, a basic ocean-view stateroom, was clean, conveniently located mid-ship, and had a wonderfully comfy queen-sized bed. The bathroom was squeaky clean, with a large shower stall enclosed by privacy glass. The teeny toilet area could cause problems for claustrophobics when its glass door is closed. Spearmint scented the Elemis sharp shower gel, and the liquid hand soap – an oh-so-heavenly lavender – perfumed our cabin with a subtle fragrance as if the pale purple flower fields growing wild in the Yorkshire Dales were within a stone’s throw.
Despite its original deployment, Pride of Hawaii works quite well as the winter-seafaring Norwegian Jade. The ship designers engineered significant amounts of climate control into the ship, so what was originally intended to keep the heat out, also works beautifully to keep the heat in.
True, there is no retractable dome over the pool, but that didn’t stop the vigorous youngsters from spending hours on the water slide. The pool area doesn’t constitute a large percentage of the public area anyway, perhaps because the designers knew there would be greater interest in leisuring on the idyllic Hawaiian beaches than around a less-than-pristine piscine. (Pardon my French.)
Personally, I’d rather not stroll through a glass-roofed chlorine-saturated sauna on my way to the buffet. A breath of fresh air for a moment or two rarely hurts anyone. Some passengers expressed disdain for the Hawaiian motif ubiquitously protruding from every niche (ukuleles, Aloha shirts, coconut palms, hibiscus and Polynesian polloi adorn most every wall), and the aforementioned complainants felt NCL was somehow obliged to change the theme aboard the ship to complement the new name. What they failed to realize is that no company can revise interiors every time it repositions a ship. Even more importantly, as common courtesy, an invited guest should never slam her host’s taste in décor.
The Jade’s hotel director Dwen Binns said “The Jade is essentially the same ship as the Jewel, Gem, Pearl, Dawn, and Star, and can cruise all over the world.” He added, “The Pearl and Gem have bowling alleys where the other ships have located their gift shops.”
Our shore excursion to Rome and The Vatican began in the seaside port of Civitavecchia, some 50 miles northwest of The Eternal City. At $259 per person, this was our most expensive tour, and I’m still recovering from sticker shock; but it’s well known that few things in Italy run cheap. Our tour of the Vatican Museum revealed thousands of papal treasures, including Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Saint Jerome, several paintings by Caravaggio, and a massive collection of works by the master Raphael. The shining star of the collection is the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s famous panels ranging from “Creation of Adam” to “The Final Judgment” adorn the ceiling and walls. A few feet from the museum exit stands the Basilica of Saint Peter, the world’s largest church. The holy door, which is opened only once per 25 years, was cemented shut, after its last use during the millennial celebrations. Inside the holy walls, The Pietà glows warmly under soft lights, safely behind bullet-proof glass, beyond the reach of crazy fanatics wielding hammers. The grave of St. Peter lies beneath the high altar. Our guide, Mario, pointed out the apartments where Pope Benedictus XVI resides, and the balcony from which Sua Santità delivers Christmas midnight mass. Workers were assembling the spectacular nativity structure under veil of thick tarps until the special yuletide celebration began.
After our Vatican tour, we re-entered Italy to witness the iconic crown of Imperial Rome: the Flavian Amphitheatre, colloquially known as the Colosseum. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum a sacred site, whereas early Christians had been martyred within its walls. Peddlers of all manner of memorabilia were on hand to enhance the landmark’s appeal, while actors wearing Roman centurion costumes cheerfully lingered in the midst for photo ops.
Our second port of call, beautiful Napoli, was abuzz with Christmas Eve shoppers selecting festive items for the Christmas feast. In Italy, Christmas is a religious celebration, and children wait until January 6 to receive their bonanza of toys. Via San Gregorio Armeno, a narrow lane laden with Christmas shops, displayed thousands of nativity sets ranging from humble to the sublime. Father Diamund, in preparation for the ship’s midnight mass, sought religious miniatures from these shopkeepers to offer children attending the celebration. After discovering he was a priest, the Napolitan vendor donated 500 Baby Jesus figurines to the reverend, who joyfully shared them with everyone attending mass (I am told nearly 500 were present). Not one to miss my beauty rest, I attended St. Mattress of The Springs that night.
The centuries-old tradition of the Napolitan nativity dates back a thousand years. We visited the nativity exhibition in the Complesso Monumentale di San Severo al Pendino on Via Duomo, presented by the Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio, whose collection showcases the cultural and historical oeuvres d’art crafted by celebrated Italian sculptors. According to the Associazione, a document speaks of a nativity in the church of Santa Maria del Presepe in 1025. In 1340, Sancia di Maiorca (queen consort of Robert d’Anjou) begifted a nativity to the Order of Clarisse nuns upon opening their new church. The statue of the Virgin Mary (Vergine Puerperal) from that Angevin nativity is now preserved in the Certosa di San Martino Monastery.
Christmas Day was celebrated at sea, aboard the spectacularly decorated Norwegian Jade. With scores of sparkly Christmas trees, thousands of Christmas lights, and a million twinkles in the eyes of excited children visiting with the Jolly Old Elf, our floating resort became a holiday haven. Christmas dinner was fantastically festive and effusively filling, with lavish dishes of delicious fare. A unique holiday extravaganza in the Stardust Theatre featured tunes both old and new, performed by a young and energetic cast of talented singers and dancers, whose uplifting messages of joy spread cheer and hope among the ship’s guests, numbering some 2300 and hailing from 63 different nations. It was our chance to wear our new Charlie Brown and Snoopy silk ties, and pose at one of the numerous photography sets to capture the magical evening.
Our third port of call, Alexandria, presented the opportunity to visit the magnificent pyramids of Giza. The two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Cairo, organized by Nasco Tours, was guided by an erudite and regal Egyptian beauty named Randa. As a university graduate in tourism, Randa was well versed in hieroglyphics, wonders of the ancient world, and Egyptian culture through the millennia. She spoke English like an Arabian princess, and wore classy couture from Miuccia Prada. During our 13-hour excursion, she graciously broke the official schedule twice, so distressed passengers could make emergency visits to local pharmacies.
The front seat of the coach was reserved for the armed guard who accompanies the group from start to finish. On this day, however, he failed to show up for work. Upon arrival in Giza, there was no shortage of machine-gun-equipped tourist police at every monument of antiquity. Unexpectedly, two of the uniformed police approached us while we were posing in front of the pyramids, asked for our camera, and took photos of us. After the brief encounter, they told us they wanted money for their “baksheesh” (tip). Not ones to argue with anyone carrying machine-guns, Marco gave them each a euro. Then they said it wasn’t enough and wanted at least two euros each, so he gave them another couple of euros and we quickly moved on.
Randa stressed the importance of avoiding the con artists at the pyramids. She told about a frequent scam of inviting an unsuspecting tourist for a free camel ride, taking pictures for the tourists while seated upon the 8-feet tall animal, only to announce later the fee to get off the camel was $100.
As I headed toward the coach after visiting the pyramids, the same machine-gun-equipped tourist police came up to me, wanting more baksheesh. I pointed to Marco and said, “We already gave you four Euros, don’t you remember?” His answer was “Marco gave baksheesh, but you didn’t.”
Feeling annoyed and insulted, I answered back “I don’t carry any money,” then I headed for the coach in defiance, being careful not to look back.
Ron and Lisa Leininger, currently living at a NATO base in Brussels, Belgium, visited the pyramids and said: “Wow, they really built something significant 4,000 years ago. We were overwhelmed with the sense of history in one location.”
After visiting the pyramids, Nasco Tours transported us to a magnificent palace with opulent chandeliers and silk carpets. Four enormous buffets offered a myriad of dishes; hot entrées, beers, wines, and sodas were definitely prepared for American palates, but the rich desserts were unfamiliar, exotic and irresistibly alluring.
Some groups chose the “Pyramids and Nile in Style” tour, meaning their lunch was served aboard a ship, floating down the Nile. The last time I was in Cairo, I was repulsed by the stench emanating from the filthy waters of the Nile. I just couldn’t brave the thought of eating lunch while floating on sewage water.
Debra Iantkow, a travel agent from Calgary, Alberta was far more adventurous than I, so she and her family took the popular Nile voyage. “It wasn’t smelly at all,” she said: “but it definitely was murky – we saw people throwing refuse into the water. On the way to the cruise we passed miles and miles of offshoot canals from the Nile, totally trashed with garbage bags, litter, and, at one point, there was so much flotsam it completely covered the canal from bank to bank, and you couldn’t even see the water beneath.”
“I thought Tijuana was bad until I saw this place,” said Christopher, a hospital worker from Boerney, Texas, “but this is the filthiest place I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Leininger said of the Nile cruise “It gave guests a good sense of Egyptian food and dance. A man wearing a colorful tutu twirled like a top for 15 minutes. A beautiful young lady belly-danced to authentic live Egyptian music, produced from bongo drums and a keyboard synthesizer.”
Based on Leininger’s description, I interpret there was no recognizable tune or meter in the music, but rather more like a cacophony of exotic sounds. “It was painful,” he said, “I’m glad it didn’t last too long.”
Miles away, my “de-Nile” tour routed us to ancient Memphis and Saqqara, where we entered the 4600-year-old tomb of an ancient minister, and admired the colossal limestone statue of Ramses II at the Mit Rahina Museum. The archaeological significance of these sites have captured anthropological interest for decades.
Since the Norwegian Jade ported overnight in Alexandria, the second day afforded the flexible opportunity to visit additional sites according to individual interests.
In keeping with our Holy Family theme, we visited Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, also known as Abu Serga, in Coptic Cairo. The church is dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who were gay lovers / soldiers martyred during the fourth century in Syria by the Roman Emperor Maximian. This exalted site marks where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus are said to have lived during their escape to Egypt.
Let’s talk Turkey. The ancient lands of Anatolia were the greatest surprise of our 14-day Mediterranean odyssey. Our shore excursion, operated by Tura Turizm, exceeded all expectations. Leyla Öner, the tour organizer, came aboard the coach and introduced herself, wishing us all a bon voyage to Ephesus, leaving a goodie bag for each guest filled with a dozen souvenirs. One of the generous souvenirs was “The Holy Water Pot,” which came with the instructions “This handmade pot, made from organic soil, is specially manufactured for you to fill with the holy water from the fountain in The Virgin Mary’s House. The material used in this art craft aims to reflect the pottery used by Ephesians in the first century, AD. We hope you enjoy this souvenir as a memory from the holy land of Mother Mary!”
Our senior guide for the day, Ercan Gürel, was a scholar and a gentleman. Certainly one of the best tour guides to ever escort us on a shore excursion, Ercan (John) was a walking encyclopedia of ancient history. One of his claims to fame was that he actually worked at some of the archaeological digs at Ephesus, before scientists knew exactly what lay beneath the centuries of earthen cover.
Unlike Egypt, the Turkish coast was spotless, and the port of Izmir a true pearl of the Adriatic. Everywhere we went, local commentators differentiated their predominantly Muslim nation: “We are not Arabs. Many Turks have blond hair, blue eyes and fair complexion. Our country is located partially on the European continent, and we are a secular nation.”
The fertile valley leading to the ancient city of Ephesus is a Garden of Eden of peaches, apricots, figs, oranges, olives and endless fields of crisp leafy vegetables.
At the crown of the mount Koressos (Bülbül Daği) stands The House of the Virgin Mary, a brick structure attributed as the home where Mother Mary spent her last years. Archaeologists have carbon-dated the base of the structure to the first century, and three popes visited the site, venerating its religious heritage.
Inside the House of Mary, a friendly nun gave us silver medals as mementos of our long pilgrimage. Toward the front of the home, a meandering walkway lead to fountains believed to contain miraculous waters. Not one to pass up a free miracle, I sprinkled myself a few times, just for ethereal insurance.
After a hearty buffet lunch, we visited a carpet school. Here, apprentices spend months hand-tying silk strands on massive looms to create magnificent works of art, selling in the wooden-planked showroom for seven to twenty thousand Euro. Less expensive carpets made from wool or cotton were displayed, with simple nomadic design rugs starting at around euro300. My jaws dropped to the floor when Ercan Gürel handed me a beautiful, large hand-woven carpet, with certificate of authenticity, and revealed it was a gift from him and the carpet school.
The next day, still in shock from the generous Turkish carpet, we arrived in uplifted spirits on the shores of Greece. If there had been enough time, our first choice would have been to visit the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. According to athonite tradition, Mary stopped here on her way to visit Lazarus. She walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the majestic and pristine beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. [If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.] From that moment, the mountain was consecrated as “The Garden of the Mother of God” and has been out of bounds to all other women ever since.
Oh, well, Athens was a good “plan B”. It was the day before New Year’s, and as is customary for Italians, we sought to purchase a new item of red clothing to wear on New Year’s Day. A red t-shirt with gold embroidery of the Acropolis filled the bill. Athens was bustling in activity, and the tour buses were quite ingenious in their routing to avoid evidence of chaotic looting or riotous destruction. When asking the tour guides about the riots, they consistently feigned ignorance; the well-rehearsed antiphon was always “I know nothing about it.”
Improbable as that may be, stranger lapses in memory have been noted. One evening, Norwegian Jade’s Cruise Director, Jason Bowen, MC’d the “Not-So-Newlywed Game” in the Spinnaker Lounge. The signature question “Where was the most unusual place you ever made whoopee” elicited not-so-unique responses, but after a long-time husband stated it was in the upper bunk of an orange camper, his wife gasped “Oh, was that you I was with?”
Unforgettable, in many ways, were the new friends we met on this cruise. Folks from Cruise Critic organized two meet-and-greets for fans of the board. We met Brian Ferguson and Tony Spinosa of Paris, France, who were celebrating Brian’s early retirement from Air France. We met Robbie Keir and her beau, Jonathan Mayers, who were on holiday from Aberdeen, Scotland. Coincidentally, Jonathan turned out to be the bairn of Gerry Mayers, our destination lecturer, who explained the ancient histories of Egypt, Turkey, and Greece.
One of the VIPs on board was LLoyd Hara, retired Lt. Colonel, and current Vice President of the Port Commission in Seattle. LLoyd and Lizzie said the highlight of their cruise was their tour of The Palace Armoury in Malta, one of the world’s greatest arms collections housed in their original buildings, ranking among the most valuable historic monuments of European culture. Established by Knights of St John, fierce and formidable warrior monks, the Amoury remains one of the most salient and tangible symbols of the past glories of the Sovereign Hospitaller Military Order of Malta.
I prefer my monks just a little on the cute and chubby side, sitting around fratini tables, sharing their curds and whey, washing them down by carafes of Asti Spumante. One such a charming ambiance is re-created aboard Jade’s premium restaurant, Papa’s Italian Kitchen, beautifully decorated as a traditional Tuscan trattoria, with fratini tables and mattoni a vista brickwork. The menu features traditional dishes from a variety of regions of Italy, with a few interpretations of what Americans think Italians eat, like alfredo sauce, spaghetti used in combination with chicken parmigiana (rather than as a primo piatto), Caesar salad, and pepperoni pizza.
We were genuinely impressed with the food served on the Jade. We loved the Tex-Mex fajitas and quesadillas in Paniolo’s. Alizar’s restaurant (formerly known as Ali Baba’s on the Pride of Hawaii) offered the same menu as the Grand Pacific, but offered much faster service. The Blue Lagoon, a 24-hour short-order restaurant offered tasty comfort food, like chuck meatloaf, basil-cream-tomato soup, strawberry shortcake, and cheesecake dripping with blueberries and sweet gel. Italian gelato and other delectable delicacies were only a phone call away, delivered promptly by free room service, just like magic!
The onboard gift of the Magi was our concierge, Ruth Hagger, an effervescent Tyrolean fräulein whose youthful, cheerful disposition came right out of a Heidi storybook. Hailing from the world-cup ski racing hamlet of Kitzbühel, her charming Austrian accent sounded just like the wholesome, warm-hearted folk immortalized in “The Sound of Music.” She was no doubt the only person on the ship who could tackle the Tyrolean tongue-twister “Der Pfårrer vu Bschlåbs hat z’Pfingschte ‘s Speckbsteck z’spat bstellt.” Ruth seemed to know somebody who knows somebody who can get reservations anywhere on land or sea. Whether it be a Jeep in Malta, or access to the executive officers, Ruth is an awesome Austrian with a “can-do” attitude. Ever so amazingly, on the first day of the cruise she walked up to us, greeted us by name, and introduced herself. Not only had she memorized our names and faces from the ship’s security system, she knew where we were from and what some of our interests are (possibly from our previously booked excursions?) I’ve never experienced any level of service like that on any ship before, and it came as an astonishingly delightful surprise.
Our port of debarkation, Barcelona, was lively and astir with merchants selling last-minute gifts for the big day, Epifania, January 6. The (s)catalans celebrate the season with two poo-related traditions. The first is Caganer, a little porcelain gnome-like figure with his pants down, defecating somewhere in the nativity scene. Like a little drummer boy, Caganer has been offering his unique gifts to the nativity scene since the middle of the 18th century. Pa rum pum pum pum.
Caga Tió (tió means log in Catalan) is Yule log, painted with a smiley face and cared for from after El Dia de Inmaculada (December 8). Then, at Christmas, children beat the log and sing songs inciting it to “$h!t some presents.”
We spent the night a little hole in the wall pensione, the Continental Hotel, located on The Ramblas at Plaça Catalunya – the Barçalon equivalent of Avenue des Champs-Élysées meets Times Square. This hotel is not for everyone, especially those in wheelchairs, or the discerning guest seeking luxury accommodations. But as a convenient place to crash for a night, our 78.50 euros room came with a host of free amenities, like unlimited red and white wine, ice cream, soft drinks, orange juice, a little salad bar, six hot dishes like roasted potatoes and rice pilaf, cereals, breads, cashews, peanuts and walnuts. Also free was an Internet computer and very strong wi-fi. Our guest room was small, but very clean, and had a private bathroom with tub and strong shower flow bringing plenty of hot water in the morning. The wallpaper had a sort of fairy-tale design, was starting to peel, and obviously aged. It matched the unabashedly pink and very fu-fu bedspread and lacy lampshades, something akin to the spare bedroom at grandma’s house where she kept her china dolls.
We spent most of our day touring the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, a palatial Roman Catholic church still under construction (since 1882). Designed by Antoni Gaudí, the final project is expected to be complete by 2026 (a good reason to return to Barcelona). The east façade features a lavish nativity sculpted in stone, a tribute to the temple’s name “Holy Family.” In the crypt are the burial tombs of Spanish royalty, including Queen Constance of Sicily, Marie de Lusignan (third wife of King James II), and that of my 24th great-grandmother, Queen Petronila of Aragon.
Our flight back home to Milano was only an hour and fifteen minutes’ long. We arrived to find snow blanketing the city, which is only 30 miles from the Swiss border. Here in northern Italy, our Christmas presents are received on January 6. According to tradition, the gifts are brought by a witch called Befana. (Of course, as an American, I get to double-dip and receive presents from Santa Claus in December too!) Befana is depicted as a nasty-looking old hag, certainly the Wicked Witch of the West kind of shrew. It feels more like Halloween when I see her, but I’ll take all the gifts anyone wants to give me.
It’s not over until the fat woman sings. Italians love their opera, and I love the free events at Teatro alla Scala. “Prima delle Prime” is a regular event free to the public showcasing an upcoming opera or ballet. The event includes lectures, videos, live samples, and of course, the opportunity to enter La Scala’s hallowed walls, gratis. I can’t get on the plane to America until I hear at least one aria of something, like O mio babbino caro, or Amami Alfredo. It’s not good-bye, but arrivederci Italia for now.
For selected photos of our trip, please see http://thejade.weebly.com