Part 4 (Katakolon) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

After a fairly uneventful, yet totally relaxing sea day, our first port of call was Katakolon.  Until I started planning, I was not familiar with this area at all.

Katakolon map

Of course, once I did a bit of digging and realized that this area was the site of the first Olympic Games, I knew that I needed to find a tour to Olympia.  After reading probably thousands of TripAdvisor reviews, I decided to go with The Travel Insiders – Ultimate Olympia Experience.  From first contact to the last minute, these people were a joy to work with.  I really liked the small group setting and Despina and Elana were both amazing at what they do.  If I am ever lucky enough to make it back to Katakolon, I am pretty sure I will be stalking these women, they know their stuff and I cannot imagine a better time in and around Olympia.

The tour began with Despina meeting us as we got off the ship and leading us to the very comfy minivan that was to be our transportation for the day.  After the rest of the group showed up (a total of 11 people) we set off for our first stop: a tasting of Greek specialties.

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So as you can see, we were treated to an in depth presentation of some of the more famous Greek products: olive oil, desserts, olives, honey and of course wine.  The gentleman that led the demonstration was clearly proud of what he was presenting and he had every right to be.  The honey was delicious, the olives fresh, the desserts were unique and delicious, the wine was lovely and the olive oil was some of the best I have ever tasted.  We were given some time to shop (I brought home honey and spices) and then we were off to the ruins at Olympia.

The first stop at Olympia was the Archaeological Museum.  This is where they display the artifacts that have been unearthed at the site of the ruins, which we will visit later.  The detail and craftsmanship in these artifacts is absolutely amazing.

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Nike of Paeonius (420 BC)

If you think about the fact that some of these pieces were made nearly 2500 years ago, it is really awe inspiring.

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Pediment from the Temple of Zeus (472-456 BC)

There is WAY more I could show you but we still have a few more stops before we head back to the ship so we had better move on to the ruins outside.

A short walk from the museum is the actual site of Olympia, the sanctuary and the site of the first ever Olympic Games in 776 BC.  If you have been to any other archaeological site of importance (Stonehenge, Acropolis,etc.) you have seen some pretty amazing things, albeit from a distance, behind ropes or fences.  This is not Olympia.  Here you walk among the ruins.  You can touch them, run your fingers along the same inscriptions that people touched nearly three thousand years ago.  For a Western Civilization and mythology fan like me, it was heaven on earth.

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There were, of course some places that were roped off, mostly for safety reasons I would imagine, but the size and scale of these ruins and what they stood for was nearly overwhelming to me.

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This is the entrance to the fields where the games were held. If you were caught cheating at the games, you had to have your name inscribed on one of the blocks along the walkway you were banned for life from the games.  It was a big deal.

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This is where Nero stayed when he would come for the games.  Yep, Nero. The Emperor.  He and I hung out in the same house.  It is almost beyond imagination.  And yes, for a big history buff like I am, I was totally like a pre-teen girl at a 5SOS (or whatever pre-teen girls are squealing over these days) concert the entire time .

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The Gymnasion (2nd c. BC)

This is where the athletes would train for things like javelin and discus.

Since we still have one more stop to go, it is getting close to time to meet the bus.  On our way out of Olympia, we stopped to get a couple bottles of water and ran into an impromptu Grappa tasting!!!  This was the coolest Grappa I have ever tasted, it was cinnamon!  Of course I bought a small bottle!!  Our next stop was a beach break and lunch.  Perfect timing for that, we were starving!!

We arrived at Agios Andreas.  A beach settlement situated on the site of ancient Pheia and mentioned by Homer a couple of times in the Iliad.  It’s kinda pretty…I can see why he may have thought to mention it.

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This was our view from the restaurant we stopped at for lunch.  I believe it is called Kastro.  If you eat and/or get a drink from there, the sunbeds and umbrellas are complimentary.  They also have restrooms/showers for changing.  We tried some pretty cool local dishes: fried local cheese, meatballs with tzatziki dipping sauce, a gigantic greek salad with halloumi and this:

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Octopus.  It was pretty darn good!  The tomatoes are so fresh there and really so is the octopus so how can you go wrong!

After a quick dip in the Ionian Sea, we got back in the van and headed back to port.  The entire day was one of the most amazing days of my life.  Katakolon ended up being our favorite of the Greek stops in no small part to Despina and Elana’s brilliant tour.  If you have a chance to tour with them, I suggest you do it…don’t hesitate, just do it.  You will not regret it at all.

Up next for us?  Chania, Crete.

 

Part 3 – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

We had one more full day in Venice.  And by “full day” I mean we spent 4 hours going back and forth to the airport…again!  This time…TaDa!!! They had my suitcase!! But wait, we are missing 2 suitcases, mine and TJ’s…Searching, searching, searching…Nope…no second suitcase.  Now the only option is to see if they get it before we get on the ship tomorrow.  They will deliver it to the ship if they do, however, given how things had gone so far, I don’t have very high hopes!  So we spent our last full day in Venice trying to find enough clothes for my 14 year old son to wear on an 11 night cruise through the Mediterranean.  It’s not like we can run to Walmart or Old Navy…we are in Venice, there are no cars here.  I am pretty sure that Amazon doesn’t have same day deliver here (although TBH I didn’t check).  To the rescue??? H&M!!! Yep, in Venice and open on Sunday!  So we spent several hours shopping for a kid who honestly would just as soon stay in PJ’s for days on end…but whatever!   At least he had clothes!

We grabbed some food at a restaurant that promised they had A/C (they may have, but we couldn’t tell).  This meal was probably our only disappointing meal in Venice.  And we shoulda known…it was exactly the kind of place our tour guide had said to avoid…and like the child that touches the stove after the parents warn that its hot, we didn’t listen and had to find out for ourselves…lesson learned.  But back to the apartment to rearrange suitcases with the new clothes, and then a relaxing time on our balcony with a bottle of wine to end the evening…The view over Venice from our balcony is priceless…

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And as the big cruise ships sailed in and out we could see the tops of the ships!  As we were boarding a big cruise ship the very next day, it was very cool to watch them sail past.

The next morning, we cleaned and packed up the apartment and headed to the port.  It was only about 10:00 in the morning, and I was anticipating not being able to check in, but we walked right in, handed over our luggage and walked right up to the check in desk.  Having only cruised from US ports before, I was also anticipating a delay between check-in and boarding, but nope.  Once we were checked in with our magic Set Sail cards in hand, we walked through the security gate and right on board.  We were actually on board right around 11am…before the Windjammer even opened!!  And that was even accounting for the fact that we had to stop once on board and hand over our passports (typical when the itinerary includes a Turkish port).  Speaking of itinerary, here is ours:

25 July – Venice
26 July – At Sea
27 July – Katakolon, Greece
28 July – Chania, Crete
29 July – Athens, Greece
30 July – Thessaloniki, Greece
31 July – Kusadasi, Turkey
01 August – Santorini, Greece
02 August – At Sea
03 August – Dubrovnik, Croatia
04 August – Venice, Italy
05 August – Venice, Italy
06 August – Flight home

So you see…a total Bucket List cruise!  Venice, Athens and Santorini have been on my bucket list forever so I was super excited about those three.  Dubrovnik I had added to my list more recently…I mean, who doesn’t want to go to Kings Landing!! And the rest were kind of just icing for me.  That is not exactly how they ended up!

First up, a day at sea.  How do I usually spend my sea days? Well, since the casino pays for a bunch of my cruises, I do spend some time there, but most of the day looks something like this:

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Yep! Drink in hand, watching the ocean.  BTW – That is the famous Aperol Spritz.  Don’t you love that orange color?  I do!!  This is obviously early in the cruise…they ran out of Aperol about midway thorough, totally NOT my fault (ok, maybe my fault).

Next up – Katakolon!  We have a tour scheduled to Olympia – the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

This weekend is my AWESOME brother-in-law’s birthday.  Guess what I’m bringing over?? APEROL!!! See you next week!!!

 

 

Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

After missing one entire day in Venice, and with only my carry-on luggage available, I was still super excited for our Walking Tour of Venice scheduled for today.  This was a free walking tour and since OD and I had had such a great experience on our Free London Walking Tours, I was really looking forward to this one!

I used Venice Free Walking Tour.  It was a super easy sign up process, immediate email confirmation, and plenty of tour times to choose from.  One thing to remember…you will not tour St. Mark’s Square area at all.  These tours are designed to show you the non-touristy parts of Venice, which is why I take them.  I can find the big tourist attractions on my own.  I want to find cool places that aren’t totally packed, and we did as well as got some great pizza and learned about so much history along the way.

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Our tour guide was Giada (pronounced just like the Food Network star) and she has lived her whole life in Venice.  Our tour group was fairly diverse, young couples, old couples, families…a pretty good mix.  I would say that the youngest was maybe 9 years old and I wouldn’t even venture a guess at the oldest.  I will say this: Venice is not the city to visit if you have mobility issues.  The cobblestone “streets,” bridges, stairs, etc. do not make for easy walking.  The fact that there are no cars allowed on the island makes it seem like it might be pedestrian friendly…and it is, it is just not mobility friendly.  But if you are able to take a walking tour of Venice, you absolutely should!

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We learned quite a lot about the history and legends of Venice: Marco Polo, Casanova, the Lions, the origin of Carnival and the masks and many other cool tidbits!

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We visited a cute little bookstore that had this staircase made out of books!

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We found “interesting” restaurants and shops.

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We learned that you can tell the age of the buildings by the shape of the windows.

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We learned about the Gondolas and the meaning of the ferro (it represents the six neighborhoods in Venice and is in the shape of the Doge’s hat).  How long it takes to build a gondola (about three months), and how many gondoliers there are (424 men, 1 woman).

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And we learned that Venice has its own “Leaning Tower.” in fact there are several of them around the island.  I guess that is one of the dangers of building on such little islands.

In addition, Giada gave us some tips on choosing restaurants in Venice and, in one life changing moment, introduced me to a Venice staple:  Aperol Spritz.  Look it up, really.  Or, swing by my place around 5pm…I’m sure I will be pouring one (or two…alright three!).

After the tour, I wasted several hours going back and forth to the airport to see if our baggage had arrived (no!) and we then set out to find some dinner and Gelato.

We ended up at Ristorante Terrazza Del Casin Dei Nobili.  This restaurant is right along the Bay of Venice and has an amazing view.  I ordered Sea Bass and my first ever Aperol Spritz and both were amazing!  All in all, a great day…maybe luggage tomorrow??

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Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

There are two things that are more important than anything in my world, family and travel.  With one child graduating high school and heading to college and another entering high school, I am acutely aware of time passing…and passing quickly.  This summer, I got to slow time down just a bit as we took a two week vacation to Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia.  I have been planning this trip for almost a full year and I can honestly say, it didn’t disappoint.

I wanted to sail from Venice because there is talk that large cruise ships will not be allowed to sail in/out of Venice proper very much longer, and from all accounts, it is a sail in not to be missed.  There were very few dates that would work with college, theater and soccer scheduling all to deal with, so we settled on an 11 night cruise out of Venice going to Katakolon (Greece), Chania (Crete), Athens (Greece), Thessoloniki (Greece), Ephesus (Turkey), Santorini (Greece), and Dubrovnik (Croatia).

Venice, Athens, Santorini, and Dubrovnik were all on my “Travel Bucket List,” so my excitement was pretty high for this one.  I was not too familiar with some of the other ports, but I was so happy to be going, I was sure I would love them.

The Mediterranean in July/August can be brutal, and (spoiler alert) it was.  But really no more so than the south so I was pretty used to it.  The biggest difference was the overall lack of A/C venues to escape in to every so often. BUT!  That was offset somewhat by the breeze from the ocean that followed us everywhere we went (cruising perk!).

We were spending three days in Venice prior to the cruise and I had booked an apartment on HomeAway.  We had our flights reserved, we had split into two groups in order to use miles on two different airlines so TJ and I were flying Delta, while Mom and OD flew United.  Only one of these flights would actually happen…(hint:  It wasn’t mine!).

My flight from CLT to Atlanta was delayed, so I missed my connection to Venice.  This started a chain of events that would see us re-routed to Paris, before eventually arriving in Venice much later and without our checked baggage.

Taking the AliLaguna from the airport into Venice is an amazing experience for first time visitors.  Its almost surreal how beautiful it is, and seeing it nearly the same as visitors have seen it for hundreds of years, is humbling to say the least.

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So, while I was hungry, tired, frustrated and in desperate need of a shower, I was still enchanted by my first views of this amazing island.

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Because of the long travel delays, my first day in Venice consisted of dinner and bed…okay, okay…and wine!  The apartment we were staying in was in the Dorsodoro area of Venice and we literally just went to the first open place we found…Trattoria Ai Cugnai.   The food was good hearty Italian home cooking and the wine was good so all in all, not a bad first stop.  We had a walking tour scheduled for the next day, so no late night for us!  It was gonna be a long day of walking for us!!

Enchantment of the Seas…The Yummy Part!

So one of the things that we tried on our last Freedom of the Seas cruise and fell in love with was the Chef’s Table experience.  Basically a 5-6 course tasting menu with wine pairings for a small group dining experience.  On the Freedom, the Chef’s Table was a table set aside in the WindJammer with a long table set up for about 20 people.  We started off with champagne and then moved to dinner.  It was amazing, even in the cafe instead of a proper private dining area.  It was just mom and I that time but since it was an all adult cruise this time, we convinced Michael & Peter to join us.

On the Enchantment, there is a separate room just for Chef’s Table, and it is limited to 12 guests per night.  We met in the R Bar for our champagne (since you are at the bar, you can get a different drink if you want, but who doesn’t like Champers??). One everyone has arrived, we moved as a group to the Chef’s Table room and were seated and given the evening’s menu.

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The Sommelier introduced himself and gave us a brief overview of how the evening was going to go.  Then the food started coming out.  The Amuse-bouche went perfectly with the champagne (which they were happy to refill if you accidentally drank all yours before you were seated!).  I did not get a picture of that, but it was served on one of those ceramic spoons and it was yummy.

Next was the Hearts of Palm Salad.  This had lots of avocado in it, which can be filling.  The sweeter white wine did well to cut through the fattiness of the avocado though.

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Its actually hard to see the hearts of palm in the salad, but they are there, I promise!  I really liked the champagne dressing too.

Next was the Sweet Pea Soup with a poached quail egg and bacon.

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This was really good.  Plus, not everybody liked poached eggs so I ended up with three in my soup!!  This was a really fresh tasting soup and went very well with the unoaked chardonnay.

Then…Lobster!!  Butter poached lobster in case you needed more yummy words!  Topped with caviar!!

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It looks a bit like a smiley face but that’s okay because I had a big smiley face as well with this dish!  The sauce was fantastic and it went beautifully with the delicate Chablis from Burgundy that was poured with this.

We were now getting into the “meat” of the menu (sorry!) and the pasta course was a Braised Short Rib ravioli.  Also at this point, the wines turned red, which makes me almost as happy as pasta and braised meats!!

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This dish was super yummy and I might have actually licked the bowl.  This is really the point in the meal where you start getting a little full and start to think about pacing yourself.  Word of advice…DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT on this dish!!!  I would have happily eaten everyone’s plate.  It was that good!!  The lighter red wine was a perfect accompaniment and did not overwhelm the palate like a bigger red would have.  Which brings us to…

Beef Tenderloin with Morel mushrooms!!!

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Perfectly cooked, and perfectly paired with Caymus Cabernet.  This was the pinnacle dish and it lived up to its billing.  The potatoes were light and fluffy and flavored with smoked garlic.  The beef was flavorful and the mushroom sauce was rich and meaty.  At this point I was happy that I had worn elastic waist pants!  We still had dessert to eat!

I am not a huge fan of sweets and can usually skip dessert with no problem in favor of the more savory dishes.  Our dessert was called Chocolate Sabotage and I did not get a picture of it for some reason!  I am sure it was fantastic.

So our Chef’s Table experience ended and we all left happy and fat!!  It was our favorite meal on board and worth every penny in my opinion.

As this was a short cruise and the casino was not particularly friendly to me, I did not earn any more free cruises, but I still have my 11 night Mediterranean cruise coming up!!  A bucket list cruise that I cannot wait to tell you about!