There”s no doubt that my sister Annie is over the moon being here on a Greek island.
The thought of escaping for a few weeks to a sleepy little Greek island with no cars and little activity was both compelling and inviting.
Tucked away in the old Sea Captain’s 150 year-old house, ‘Spiti Charlie’ up a crooked, shady lane overlooking the sea, I live the dream.Irini, the housekeeper has even moved the bed in the downstairs bedroom and placed a painted white table right under the window for me to write without missing a moment of the sea view with Greek fishing boats gliding through the expanse of aqua green returning to the old port with seagulls trailing behind.
Go out along the garden path of little black and white stones in Spetses motifs, dodge the flowering vines and pass pots of colour, and out through the front gate to a world somewhat more modern than desired. Noisy, small motorbikes weave along all the little streets and have me scurrying to avoid a collision. The locals are excellent drivers, often with mama riding side-saddle or baby propped up on dad’s lap, but visitors on bikes are a menace.
The construction on the island is unbelievable. Tourist numbers are down as with everywhere in these recessionary times, but people here a building new homes and renovating others. We take morning coffee and spinach pie sometimes down at the new harbour and see so many of the tradespeople working on the renovation of an imposingly grand old hotel befitting the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The concrete and sand is coming in on ships docked nearby and the streets around the harbour are as busy and dusty as in any capital.
Then there’s the battles with nature – mosquitoes and sea urchins. We were all bitten alive by mosquitoes in the first days and we all sport so many tiny red spots on our bodies. While the sea roiled and the wind roared outside, mosquito nets blew off while we were sleeping. Zappers in the wall didn’t do the trick. One of us was even seen standing on the mattress in the middle of the night killing the little blighters that had gathered in the top with a towel. What a bloody mess for the maids! We just lay there waiting for the terrifying bzzz bzzz sound of the dive-bombing, but like the brave Spetsian of old, with cannon at the ready, I purchased three blue spray cans of Baygon and peaceful night’s sleep returned.
The water is crystal clear and so inviting. The colour of green changes with the sun. The Turners are early starters but Edmundo and I go later and in the early evening. I lightly brushed my foot on what I thought was a rock yesterday but on getting out I felt what I imagined was a little splinter. I’d brushed a sea urchin, and unlike the English lady yesterday who told me of the baby octopus that attached itself to her foot and swam away, Edmundo and Pam had to ‘do surgery’ with a hot bucket of salty water and a hot needle. I live to tell the tale and none of the black dye and wounding that can come with a more serious sea urchin injury.
Anne and Trevor arrive today. We’ll have the horse and carriage at the dock to meet them after the long flight on Air Asia X from the Gold Coast. Then 2 more weeks!
Ahhh! I can take it.
“Spiti Charlie” is a grand house built at the turn of the 20th century in the old-style right on the sea on the Greek Island of Spetses.
To go to sleep with the sound of the waves beneath my window and to wake to a blue sky and green sea through the white shutters at the end of my bed is a little bit of heaven. Add some breezes and the scent of heavily laden pink oleander and it gets even better.
Entering the front gate from the shady lane, a bell disturbs the feeling of sleepy decadence as you walk up the path to the vine-covered front door. The somewhat formal garden of magnolia and pomegranate trees with striking flashes of red in the prolific overhanging hibiscus adding an energy, and pots of canna and geranium. One side fence is a wall of blue plumbago and the other has a vine covered-terrace with a marble table that is wonderful for breakfast. At the end of a hot day, the scent of stephanotis and gardenia knocks you out.
The house is painted throughout with traditional Venetian stencilling, incorporating unusual art deco details on the ceilings and walls. The wooden floors are beautifully finished in a high gloss which is characteristic of Greek island homes.
Edmundo and I drive out to Lake Bled today, leaving our travelling companions, the Turners, to have a ‘rest day’.
We row to the island in the middle of a tranquil lake of aquamarine and climb 99 stairs to reach the 17th Century Church of Mary the Queen to ring the bell in the middle of the church. “Those who pull the rope to ring the bell and make a wish will be answered.”
Our Lady of Fatima fixed my back a couple of weeks ago when I was in Portugal, so you have to wonder what it was that I asked Mary the Queen to do for me this time.
Back in Ljubljana, what was to be a short walk before dinner finds Edmundo and me in the Plaza in front of the Franciscan Church watching a ballet troupe stretching and doing bar work on a stage erected outside the church.
Edmundo leaves me photographing the ballerinas while he goes off to Zara for a new T-shirt. An hour later, I’m still standing there in the plaza like a shag on a rock! I make my way through ‘Father Steve’ people with their bottles, and up the steps into the church for a minute to pass the time.
Exciting trumpets, tubas, and other wind instruments in ‘konzert’ captivate me – “Edmundo, where are you? You’re missing it all”, I swear to myself as I sneak back outside trying not to make noise, and cool my heels waiting for him. Damn! The shopaholic that he is, I know full well he’ll just saunter back in his good time thinking nothing of how long he’s left me waiting.
When he finally appears with shopping bag/s, the plaza has filled with locals and the most wonderful Tchaikovsky Ballet music. Now, our practice trouple are fully costumed and on stage ‘in full flight’. It’s now well past time for dinner, (and we have to be up at 4 am for the flights to Greece). So we cross the bridge and choose a restaurant under an umbrella on the opposite bank where we can still enjoy the wonderful ballet music and see the stage across the river – right through to the curtain calls and sustained applause.
It’s great to see how many of the people peeling away past our table, after the performance, are young.
Slovenia has an excellent Tourism slogan . . . . . “I FEEL sLOVEnia”. And I have to agree!
Driving into Slovenia from Italy, I’m still trying to get my head around what Slovenia’s part was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ended after World War I. There’s a definite ‘Austrian’ feel to the countryside as we approach Ljubljana through tidy pine forests and little farms.
Walking around the little streets and along the river that cuts through Ljubljana, there’s only minor indication of post-war communism. So much is already immaculate and tidy with brightly coloured buildings in a very green setting. Streets parallel the river and are lined with old merchants’ houses that give the area a feeling of old Salzburg.
The old castle overlooks the town. In the lounge of our hotel, conservatively dressed older ladies ‘take Tea’ wearing hats. Maybe it’s a ‘Sunday’ thing?
Lunch by the river has a mix of Italian and Austrian offerings, pasta and dumpling, but also fillet of baby foal which I decide to try for the first time. The meat is tender enough, without as much flavour as beef but the vinegar reduction is pretty strong.
In the evening, street musicians perform on the many bridges that cross the river while along the banks and in many of the quaint side streets, music comes from cafes and bars overflowing with young people.
Travelling with Edmundo, who has worked for so long in Mexico as well as in Europe, has finally brought the story of one of many of the inter-marrying European Royal households to life. What is more annoying for me, is that Ken Turner knows as much, or more than Edmundo! What a dummy I feel.
In Trieste, we went to visit the Miramare, a wonderful 19th Century palace on a promontory overlooking the sea. It was designed and built by Austrian Arch Duke Maximillian who was given the areas of Lombardy and Veneto by his brother Emperor Franz Josef of Austria to rule. He married Charlotte of Belgium, a beautiful woman, but it is said that the marriage was never consummated. (She later went mad. Wouldn’t you?)
Later, through Napoleon III, he was approached by Mexican Monarchists to become Emperor of Mexico. He and Charlotte sailed for Vera Cruz, were throned, lived like kings in a palace at one end of the Paseo de la Reforma, but Maximilian was subsequently shot by firing squad by Mexican Republican Creoles, and Charlotte returned to Europe.
We left through industrial sections of Trieste past dockyards and chimneys of old factories, through tunnels and emerged in such beautiful green countryside. Silhouettes of tall pines reaching for an impossibly blue sky on one side, while a ‘South Pacific’ blue/green sea, dotted with sailing boats, sparkled on the other.
We headed for the little fishing village of Piran, a gem from Venetian times with a small fisherman’s harbour jutting into the main square. Fishing nets and working boats remind us that not much has changed for some. Restaurants line the seafront while bare bodies sizzle in the hot sunshine.
A wonderful aroma of fish being grilled wafts out to tempt the senses. And seagulls squawk.
A cold beer is called for with a little seafood antipasti . We made short work of the huge hot tray of baby black mussels, clams and scallops drenched in sun-ripened lemon juice, before enjoying a whole Rombo, a white-fleshed local fish that looks like a meatier flounder . SO fresh, you could taste the sea in it!
The Crystal Serenity sailed right up to the edge of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, the main piazza in Trieste. We went ashore and simply walked to our hotel the Duchi D’Aosta across the street. Amazing!
The piazza is larger than St Mark’s in Venice and surrounded on three sides by beautifully restored Venetian, Austrian and Palladian buildings. The other side ends with steps right into the sea.
It’s Friday lunchtime and a business day but so few people. This is what I imagine Venice to be 50 years ago.
At lunch time, I washed down my favourite Seafood Salad in olive oil and lemon with a local Sauvignon from Friuli region sitting with Pam, Ken and Edmundo marvelling at the scene from our table under an awning at Harry’s Grill.
Only one day to go, and I haven’t stopped to sit and listen to the sea, even for one moment on this cruise!
This morning I’m on my balcony in gown having a trimmed down breakfast of one boiled egg and a slice of brown toast with my coffee with Dubrovnik glistening over there in the morning sunlight. I’ll go ashore with Pam and Ken for a couple of hours later but then it’s the awful job of packing before we disembark in Trieste tomorrow. The excesses of shipboard life have finally caught up with me; I’m pounds heavier and ready to return to a more active regime.
This morning I let my boiled egg get cold while generously giving of my worldly wisdom (and time) to Heather, the South African cabin stewardess, who is leaving her boyfriend on the ship and returning permanently to Durban from Venice in a couple of days. Of course, her heart is breaking, but I convinced that her brain knows best! The boyfriend hasn’t even discussed a future together. So move on!
There’s something mystical and exciting about gliding silently between fjords into a strange, new land as the sun comes up.
It”s so quiet and I can hear the birds on shore. They are as excited with the new day as I am to be sailing into perhaps my most anticipated port of the whole voyage – Kotor, Montenegro.
Ken marvelled only yesterday at cocktail time how the Adriatic shone like a million diamonds in the sun, and I had been out photographing from the promenade deck trying to capture the colour of the sea.
Now we sail into what could be Norway or Milford Sound with an early morning eeriness and an expectation of what a sunny day and a mysterious port can bring.
You can “hear the silence” in these cloisters. We”ve had a lovely sunny day in Taormina. I talked my way into the very private San Domenico Palace Hotel, an old Convent that is closed to all but guests. How wonderful it would be to sit in the cloisters – it gives new meaning to ‘peace and quiet’ – the only sound was the rustle of the vines in a cooling breeze, and twittering (not Edmundo) of the birds. Orange cumquats and red hibiscus vied for supremacy of colour with the trailing purple bougainvillea.
Oh, to take tea there.
Why has John Denver reared his head this morning?
I suppose that sunshine and clear skies for the first time in six days at sea is reason enough to start singing.
Italy! – And it’s my obligatory plate of Spaghetti Vongole in a local restaurant.
Sorrento, with three liners moored in the bay, is such a tourist town, but I had an eye out for a friendly local to find out where we should go for Sunday lunch. While Ken was looking for ‘The Economist’, I was asking the newsagent lady where she’d go to eat.
We traipsed off . . . second on the left past the Ospedale and then first on the right . . . and the baby clams with parsley and sweet olive oil were waiting . . . almost winking at me.
A bigger than expected treat!
These are not blue sky days. What’s happened to the weather in the Mediterranean?
It doesn’t really matter. We’ve become ‘evening’ people and enjoy our cocktails sitting on stools with Maria from Patagonia and Jirga from Prague at the same bar each evening. On consecutive evenings, Pam, Ken, Edmundo and I grace the staff with our presence in the Main Dining Room, and in the excellent Japanese and Italian Restaurants on Crystal Serenity.
Why did I bring so many changes of clothes? Much to clothes-horse Edmundo’s disdain, my million-dollar, black, micro-fibre Armani T-shirt does the job night after night – an irreplacable male version of the ‘little black dress’.
We had our first ‘disagreement’ of the cruise at dinner tonight. There I was waiting for the Filipino minstrels going table to table with violin, flute and guitar to come so I could request ‘Send in the Clowns’, and as they approached us, Edmundo gave them one of his ‘looks’ and sent them away – with full approval of the Turners! Is it any wonder I came straight to bed and let them go shopping together?
My sinusitis and sore throat from all the pollen in Portugal might be more the reason that I’m a little slow in the day and cranky in the evening.
The entertainment on board on another evening is well worth waiting up for.
Our visit to the Cistercian medieval Alcobaça Monastery near Fatima was heightened by an informal performance by contratenor Luís Peças and Joao Santos on keyboard.
The Monastery was founded by the first Portuguese King Alfonso Henriques in 1153 and maintained a close association with the Kings of Portugal throughout its history.
(More to come)
While most priests look after the poor and needy, we found one in Casa Alta, a chateau-like house in the walls of the Castle of Ourém who believes the rich and powerful also need to be looked after.
Father Mariani, a character bigger than life, with a long list of honours and titles – including that of Royal Chaplain to the Dukes of Braganza, Pretenders to the Portuguese Crown, received us in true splendour.
At first we couldn’t understand how our intended pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin in Fatima had landed us in a house full of silver, works of art, and portraits of grand benefactors. In attendance were a Ukrainian butler and a devoted housekeeper, and a beautiful white Samoid dog, called Prince. But soon we met the real Prince, Father Mariani, who had the demeanour of a 19th Century bishop. He greeted us with a flourish at the front door dressed in a voluminous black soutane and monogrammed black velvet slippers. After stepping into his library for minimal formalities, we couldn’t count the amount of titles and Orders of Merit bestowed on the worldly Californian priest.
After being shown to our rooms by Igor and Valentina, either one of whom could have been KGB plants, we emerged into a garden and pool area of magnificent flowers overlooking the valley of Ourém and Fatima. Father had planned pastels with walls of hydrangea in full bloom, but Valentina’s wish for a spot of colour had red polyanthus roses climbing the thick trunk of a Canary Island Palm, and now with Father’s begrudged approval.. To our delight, cocktails and dinner proceeded in three different ‘stage-settings’ in the garden.
Adding a touch of the magnificent, Father Mariani appears in full regalia with some of the minor decorations around his neck. What an engaging individual!
The Candlelight procession following the statue of Our Lady moved some cogs for me but it was the midday Mass celebrated by a blind English priest in a small chapel in the basement of a non-descript hotel that was more touching.
We were hosted royally by an ophthalmologist turned wine grower, whose family has owned twenty four hectares of vines up and down the mountain in the Douro for three centuries.
Previously I had known only the Mateus Rose, which also comes from around this region.
More to come