Monthly Archives: August 2012

Greek Glory Cruise – 4th Stop: Mykonos

After a long day walking around Ephesus and Kusadasi the day before, I think we were all looking forward to getting some beach time in Mykonos on the 4th day of our cruise. 

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Tom, Kate and I had heard about how wonderful the town of Mykonos itself was, but also heard rave reviews about the beaches outside of town.  For that reason, we decided that we would first head out to the beach in the morning, come back to the ship for lunch and then walk around the town for our afternoon activity.

The beach was beautiful, white sand (and some rocks too) and bright blue water.

While there are small beaches in the center of the town of Mykonos, we opted to take a bus to a bigger and more popular beach located about 25 minutes away. 

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The beach was actually not that far from town, but given the long winding roads through the mountains, it takes a while to get around.  The bus ride cost approximately 2 euro per person.  We thought it was money well spent to be able to experience some wonderful beach time and swimming in the warm Mediterranean sea. 

After about an hour at the beach, we decided to head back to town and then to the boat to each lunch – which, per usual, was delicious.  When we returned back to the town in the afternoon, we wandered around the streets of Mykonos that are full of white painted homes with blue doors and shutters.  This is the style of Mykonos and while we occasionally ran into a red or green door, for the most part, every house and building was white and blue.

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Mykonos is an easy place to get lost in because the streets all look very similar and all seem to wind around with no rhyme or reason.  This is particularly off putting to us Chicagoans who are used to living in a city built on a grid!  We actually learned that Mykonos’ streets were designed to be confusing because the winding streets confused pirates that may have wanted to invade the city.  All the locals would know how to get up to the mountain top and get away from danger but the pirates would continually find themselves going around in circles.  Today – they just serve to confuse us tourists!

Despite the confusion, we had a great day walking the streets, looking at the merchandise from local vendors and getting to see all the beautiful architecture and ocean views!

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Doesn’t Kate’s dress go perfectly with all the colors of Mykonos ?!

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After our long day walking in the sun, we were more than ready to relax by the pool for the remainder of the afternoon.  We also made it our mission to see the sunset during sail away which was breathtaking.

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After we enjoyed the sunset, we went to dinner in the main dining room – our favorite time of day!

To start, we got some amazing appetizers including a seared sesame tuna dish served over a quinoa salad, a mushroom crostata with truffle, beef consommé soup and bitter green salad with polenta croutons and served with a creamy buttermilk dressing.

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I had tastes of everything and they were all amazing.  The crust on the crostata was buttery and the mushrooms were perfectly seasoned.  The tuna was fresh and paired nicely with the chilled quinoa salad.  The consommé was a regular on the menu and someone in the family ordered it every night because it was so rich and delicious tasting.  Finally, the salad had all the elements that I love in salads – crunch, slight bitterness, acidity (from the dressed) and a special treat that makes eating a salad more enjoyable – which in this case were the polenta croutons.

For our entrees, my Dad and I both got the sautéed sea bass  that was served with potato and cheese filled piquillo peppers and a thick carrot flavored sauce

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The fish was, as usual, perfectly cooked with crispy skin and tender meat on the inside.  I also love piquillo peppers and anything stuffed with potatoes and cheese!

Kate and Tom both got veal loin that was seasoned with Indian flavors (cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, etc.) and perfectly cooked.  Served alongside the loin were sweet potato gnocchi that were so flavorful and the perfect texture.  Kate and Tommy both agreed that this was one of the best dishes they ate on the entire trip.

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My Mom opted for a more traditional dish that she hadn’t had in years – Chicken Kiev.

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Chicken Kiev is chicken breast that has been rolled and stuffed with herby butter, breaded and then fried until cooked.  When you cut into the chicken, the butter comes melting out and not only becomes part of the sauce because also serves to keep the chicken breast moist throughout the cooking process.  My mom was happy she got this and I think it may have inspired her to make it again in her own kitchen!

After all this, we still (shockingly) had room for some dessert.  Among the desserts we ordered was a crepe suzette, apple crumble and chocolate ganache cake.

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Even though we were all pretty full at this point, we shared all bites of these delicious desserts.  My favorite was probably the ganache cake which was rich and very chocolately.  I can’t say I could eat this type of dessert every day, given the richness, but it is always nice every once and awhile.

Overall, another wonderful day in the books! Up next – Athens!

Greek Glory Cruise – 3nd Stop: Kusadasi

The stop at Kusadasi was one of my favorites of this trip.  Although we did love Kusadasi, on its own, this Turkish port city does not have a ton of historical or cultural significance.  It is pretty much a small Mediterranean town that sits on the sea and serves a good amount of tourists that come in, mostly by cruise ship.

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Although we did enjoy roaming the streets of Kusadasi, the real reasons that so many cruise ships dock here is because of its proximity to one of the most interesting ancient Roman cities that has been discovered, restored and preserved to date.  That city is Ephesus.

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Ephesus has a place in both Greek and Roman history, but it was the Romans that made the city a major hub in the world during the Roman empire and created many of the structures that are either still standing or have been restored today.  My Mom and Dad had been to Ephesus before and thought that there was so much to see and so much historical context to understand that it would be beneficial to have a private guide take us through the ancient city.  We not only loved our guide, but also thought that this was a critical element of being able to appreciate the history of this amazing place.

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Canan (who is pictured above between me and Tommy) also worked in the Tourism Department for the Turkish Government.  Based on our two experiences with guides from the Tourism Department, I could not recommend them more.  Both of the guides were extremely knowledgeable, spoke perfect English and catered the tour to what our group’s individual interests were.

While I could go on and on about our visit to Ephesus, I think that the best way to summarize it is to discuss the two main features – the city of Ephesus and the homes of its inhabitants.  Access to the public buildings (e.g. library, amphitheater, etc.) in Ephesus has been around for a long time.  The marble lined streets have been untouched since the the 4th century AD when they were originally placed.  Many of the buildings that line the city streets were brought down by earthquakes, but have since been recreated.  One such example is the library.

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This building included many of the original marble statues as well as inscriptions on the walls.

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In addition to the original statues, it appears that some were also added in the modern era.

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Despite not being “authentic,” I thought these statues were quite beautiful!

In addition to the library, Ephesus also had a spectacular theater that is still used today for special concerts and performances.

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This is unlike many of the Roman coliseums that you find and is much more in the Greek style.  This is because the people of Ephesus appreciated the theater more than they did Gladiator fights.  I can see why this was and is used as an amphitheater because it had some amazing acoustics.  From the top of the theater you could hear conversations on the stage.

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In addition to the sights that remain in the streets of Ephesus, the other extremely interesting part of the trip was viewing the houses that have been discovered around the city.

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This archeological find is considered the most significant of the 21st century and is only beginning to be uncovered.  Canan, our guide, told us that if the archeologists continued to support a high level of workers on the site, it would still take them nearly 50 years to complete the excavation of all the homes around Ephesus.  I would love for them to continue to do this, because seeing how people lived nearly 2000 years ago is so amazing.  Additionally, these homes have been extremely well preserved and we were able to see distinct rooms that were used and unique styles in each room.

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Formal Room with Beautifully Painted Stucco Walls

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Formal Room with Beautiful Mosaic Floor Detail

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Kitchen Walls (it is known that this room was used as a kitchen because of stucco paintings of fowl and fish!)

If you are ever in Ephesus, please pay the extra money to see the houses that are being excavated.  This places was one of the coolest things I saw all trip and I recommend it highly.  After we saw this, we made a quick trip over to the Temple of Artemis, which is now just a single column.

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This temple was actually built twice.  It was originally built and destroyed by fire and later it was destroyed by Christians who did not want any temples dedicated to Greek mythology gods or goddesses.  Still, it was nice to use our imagination and think about how large and impressive this temple would have been.

After our long morning in the hot Ephesus sun, we spent the afternoon enjoying lunch on the ship, walking around the port city of Kusadasi, going for a swim in the ocean, and doing some shopping.

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Tommy and I also enjoyed the 4PM tea that the ship offered.  This included tea sandwiches, champagne and about 15 different tea varieties.  We really enjoyed  tea time and Tommy and I came on many other occeasions throughtout the cruise.

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The sandwiches changed daily and all were delicious and fresh and always had the crusts cut off!

This kept us full for a few hours and by the time dinner rolled around, we were more than happy to dine at another one of the ship’s specialty restaurants – Red Ginger.

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Red Ginger is a modern Asian restaurant with Chinese, Japanese and Thai offerings.  This restaurant was also very different than all the others on the ship.  It was quite dark and decorated in a very contemporary fashion.  We liked it a lot, but did miss the big windows that displayed beautiful ocean views as well.

As for the food, I think we were all very happy with the taste and quality and thought that having Asian food was a good mix from the traditional Italian, French and American flavors we had been eating for the past few days.  To start, Red Ginger brought over some edamame that had been steamed in the shelled and topped with sea salt.

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The next part of the dining experience included choosing which type of chopsticks we wanted to eat with.

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Red Ginger had beautifully decorated chopsticks that also came in different materials (metal, bamboo, etc.)  It was fun to choose! In addition to getting to pick out our chopsticks, Red Ginger also offered a number of teas that we could choose from to accompany our meal.  Tommy especially loved this because, as I mentioned, he is a big tea lover.

I ordered the white ginger pear tea and it was so good I requested a second pot!

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After we finished selecting our chopsticks and tea, it was onto the food.  To start we ordered Thai spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, noodles and vegetables (me), spicy kung pao shrimp (Kate and Mom), fried calamari with a sweet and sour dipping sauce (Tommy) and sashimi (Dad). Sorry in advance for the dark photos! As I mentioned, the restaurant had zero natural light!

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I actually didn’t taste my Dad’s sashimi, but had bites of everyone else’s and thought that everything was really good.  The spring rolls that I got were full of perfectly cooked rock shrimp and was served alongside a spicy mustard sauce.  Tommy’s calamari was lightly fried and had such a tasty dipping sauce.  Finally, the shrimp that my Mom and Kate got were huge and very spicy! Typically when I ask restaurants to up the spice level on my food, it never gets to the point I want it – these shrimp came pretty close.

For the soup and salad course, I opted for the miso soup and Tommy got a watermelon salad with crispy duck, cashews and greens in a soy based dressing

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Aside from Kate, who got a seaweed salad, everyone else got the miso soup which was pretty standard but very delicious.

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Both the salads that were ordered were quite good and unique.  Kate’s seaweed salad had a twist from the traditional by the inclusion of a creamy spicy peanut sauce.  Tommy’s watermelon salad was full of fresh and sweet watermelon that was well balanced with the salty dressing and rich duck pieces.

After the appetizer and salad/soup course, we received our entrees.  I ordered the sea bass that was steamed in a banana leaf and served with a soy ginger sauce.

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This fish was so good.  It was perfectly cooked and tender and the flavor was amazing.  A squeeze of lime added acidity and tang and made this dish even better.  I also got some steamed asparagus that was topped with lemon aioli. 

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The portion was small, but the asparagus was very tasty!  Pretty much everyone else at the table got this fish except for Kate who ordered the Mongolian Beef served with roti bread and she shared with my Mom, who got the fish as well.

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Kate quite enjoyed this dish which had some Indian flavors and seasonings in it.  Plus, pretty much anything served with roti (a dough pancake-like bread) is bound to be delicious.

After dinner, it was time to enjoy some drinks outside on the deck and some dancing at the Riviera lounge.

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This was another fun filled day on the ship and during our trip to Ephesus.  Up next – the beautiful island of Mykonos!

Greek Glory Cruise – 2nd Stop: Mytilini

Mytilini is located on the island of Lesbos in Greece.  It was a great first port city to visit because it was exactly as I imagined Greece would be – coastal with perfectly blue water and a wonderfully hot, but dry, climate. 

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Mytilini is a small city and does not have the dock capacity to host as big of a ship as ours was.  Therefore, we had to anchor off shore and tender into town.  Tendering is just the process of getting from the ship to shore.  The small(er) lifeboats, called tenders, double as the vessels to take passengers to shore.

The tender trip took about 10 minutes and allowed us to see some more coastal views while we were in transit.

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The three passengers down below!

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Me and Tom up above!

We didn’t have much of an itinerary for our day in Mytilini but we figured we would play it by ear and seek out any interesting spots.  These included: a Greek Orthodox Church in the center of town, an old fortress city that we explored and the beach!

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The church we visted was beautiful and it was interesting to observe some of the differences between the Catholic churches we are so used to seeing in Europe and an Orthodox church.

After we finished looking at the church, we took a long, and uphill trip up to an old city fortress.  Tommy and I were the only ones who were interesting in looking around, but I am glad we did because we got to see some pretty spectacular ocean views and were able to do some exploring around a very old fortress.

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This was quite large and very uphill as you can see.   Below this fortress was ocean as far as the eye could see.

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I sort of regretted wearing flip flops on this particular day because the grass was quite rough and overgrown and we did some pretty intense climbing on all the city walls.

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In these pictures, we are about 20 feet above the ground level of the city, which was about 200 feet above the sea level!

Tommy and I also enjoyed seeing and playing with the old cannons that were just sitting out and not protected.

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In this scene – Tommy shoots me dead with the cannon.

All in all, I wouldn’t say we learned a lot of facts about the people who used to live in this city fortress, but we definitely used our imaginations and had a lot of fun!  After all of this fun, it was time to cool down with a dip in the water, which was warm and jam packed with people.

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The two people in the background with their hands up are Tommy and me.

Before we retired back to the ship for lunch, there was one other part of our visit to Mytilini that I have to mention.  As were were walking back to the dock to catch the tender, a nice, middle-aged man stopped us and struck up a conversation.  While we didn’t know it when he initially approached us, the conversation would end up taking about 20 minutes.  I think this is worth mentioning because this guy was truly a reflection of the kind, welcoming and conversational Greek people that we encountered on our trip.  Within two minutes of the conversation starting, the guy essentially told us that he wish we knew that we were coming into Mytilini because he would have invited us to his house for moussaka!

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This is us talking to him under the hot Mytilini sun!

We felt really lucky to meet this guy because now we will have a story to tell for years to come about the wonderful man from Mytilini!

We spent the next few hours eating lunch and relaxing by the pool.

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We even played a little miniature golf on the ship’s 18 hole putt putt course!  By the time 7 PM rolled around we decided it was time to start getting ready for our first dinner in the main dining room of the ship.  I think we were a little nervous that the main dining room wouldn’t have the same caliber as food as the specialty Toscana restaurant, but man, were we wrong!

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To start, I ordered the caviar, which was served traditionally with blini pancakes, lemon, crème fraiche, parsley and chopped egg.

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Tommy ordered another timbale because he thought the one that I had ordered the night before was so delicious.  He was nice enough to share a few bites with me despite me not sharing any of my caviar with him (he isn’t a big fan). 

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The fried celery leaves were especially delicious and again provided wonderful texture contrast.  Additionally, they were salty and had great celery flavor.

For our main entrees, we were all tempted by something different.  I thought that the vegetarian entrée looked particularly interesting.  It included a savory waffle served with wilted spinach and a creamy mushroom sauce.

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In addition to the waffle, this dish also had steamed asparagus, a roasted tomato and a lemony hollandaise sauce.  I not only liked this dish because it wasn’t the standard vegetarian dish, but the flavors were unique and it was the perfect portion size.

As for the rest of the group, Kate and my dad ordered the steak frites which were a constant on the main dining’s room menu.

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While the menu at the main dining room changed nightly, there were a few dishes on the menu that you could get any night and this was one of them.  The fries that were served alongside this big steak were crispy, salty and everything you would want!  Tommy also felt like steak and ordered the prime rib.

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In addition to being perfectly cooked, Tommy thought this price rib was full of flavor and was very happy that he got it.  Finally, my mom ordered a lobster dish that was served over risotto.

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This dish’s presentation was a knockout, but unfortunately it didn’t have a ton of flavor.  The lobster seemed to suffer from the same issues mine had the night before and had a slightly “off” texture.  The risotto was well cooked, but again did not have a ton of flavor.  After my mom failed to send it back that night, we all made a pact (that we actually never had to use) to commit to always sending back food if we weren’t thrilled about it.  The ship had too many delicious options to be only “satisfied” with the meal.

After our meal, we enjoyed a show downstairs in the main theater and then some of us (read: Kate) went to gamble the night away at the casino! Next up – the port of Kusadasi and a visit to Ephesus.

Greek Glory Cruise – 1st Stop: Istanbul (Day 3) + First Day on the Ship!

The embarkation time for the cruise was at 1 PM on Friday which left us with just enough time to do some walking around Istanbul and get to visit one of the places that was high on my priority list – the Spice Bazaar.

Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar:

This Bazaar isn’t nearly as big as the Grand Bazaar  and mostly has tea, fruit, nut and spice vendors.  Although there are other types of vendors – clothes, sunglasses, etc., you come to the spice market to sample and buy unique Ottoman spices.

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One of the things I wasn’t crazy about in this market or about Istanbul in general is that people are constantly trying to sell to you.  They are immediately in your face if you stop to look at something, are soliciting your business from 20 feet away, etc.  While I can appreciate that people need to sell their goods to make a living, it made me feel very claustrophobic and overwhelmed.  So much so that when I got into the Spice Bazaar, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to buy anything.  That was until I stopped at one stand, started looking around, wasn’t bothered, but was kindly asked if I needed help by a nice man who was the owner of the storefront.

This guy was extremely knowledgeable (as he should be I supposed) about all the spices in the store (which interested me) and all the teas they offered (which interested Tommy who loves tea).

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He had us touch, taste and smell everything we were interested in and gave us in depth descriptions about everything.

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as you can see we are all VERY interested

By the end of our discussion, Tommy and I were delighted by our purchases and knew that likely we would never be able to find this exact kind of spice in the states.  We declared our visit to the Spice Bazaar a success!

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Cruise Embarkation:

The cruise embarkation was surprisingly painless.

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It was quick and before we knew it, we were boarding the ship and sitting down to a lovely lunch on a terrace that looked over all of Istanbul.

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While I don’t plan to bore you with the exact details of each and every lunch I ate while I was on the ship, I think that these are good representatives of the offerings.

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On this particular day, I ordered grilled tuna, had a stuffed herby tomato along side a salad and various roasted vegetables.  This was common for me (I also ate copious amounts of cheese from the ship’s ever changing and always delicious cheese board).

In addition to salads and grilled meats and veggies, lunch often consisted of a sandwich option, smoked meats, a carving station, pasta, pizza and premade salads.  I really enjoyed everything I ate during lunch time, even if my waistline didn’t!

After lunch, it was time to unpack, do some safety training and relax before dinner.

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Safety Training is serious business – good thing these two were so excited about it!

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Relaxing on our balcony while looking out onto the new part of Istanbul.

First Dinner on the Cruise:

As I mention in this post, the cruise ship has four specialty restaurants that included an Italian restaurant, a modern Asian place, a very traditional French restaurant and finally a steak/chop house.  Depending on what kind of cruise package you had, you were able to visit each of these restaurants at least once during your stay.  Reservations can be hard to come by, but luckily my dad was able to get us in to all four at decent times.  If you aren’t eating at a specialty place, you have the option for a casual buffet on the terrace or the main dining room, which are both great alternatives.

Prior to our first dinner, we spent some time out on one of the upper decks of the ship admiring the views and taking some pictures.

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I didn’t know it before this cruise, but there is nothing quite like enjoying the views before or after sail off and around sunset.  You get to see so many perspectives all while sailing away to sea and going toward your next wonderful destination.

After our photo shoot, we went to our first specialty restaurant of the trip, which was Toscana – the Italian restaurant on board.  This was a great first experience, everything from the service to the food was top notch (this is true for all but my dad’s lamb chop that was tough and chewy and was not at all reflective of the food that we had on the cruise).

To start, Toscana gave us a lovely bread basket with roasted garlic and our choice of about 10 olive oils and 5 vinegars to accompany the bread.

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I opted to get the red pepper infused (and very spicy!) extra virgin olive oil and probably tried a bite of every piece of bread.  I thought that Toscana’s homemade focaccia went best with the olive oil but my absolute favorite in the bread basket were the thin, crispy and flavorful crackers.  The roasted garlic was also good enough to eat on its own!

To start, the table all ordered something different and vowed to share bites with everyone.  For me, the artichoke timbale in a creamy truffle sauce sounded perfect.

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A timbale is a pudding of sorts.  Although I have never made one, I would imagine that it would be cooked slowly in a water bath in a low temperature oven.  The texture is somewhat spongy, but very delicate.  This particular timbale was packed with flavor which was only enhanced by the rich truffle cream sauce.  I also loved the crispy fried artichoke pieces that were served on top of the timbale which offered a nice contrast in texture.

My dad, Tommy, Kate and my mom ordered caprese, gnocchi and risotto (x2) respectively.

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As you can see, the gnocchi was served tableside out of a copper pot.  Although this obviously didn’t do anything to enhance the flavor (the flavor was so good it didn’t need to be enhanced), it sure was an impressive presentation, which really added to the experience. All of these were fabulous – the tomato in the caprese was extremely fresh and full of flavor, the gnocchi was light and fluffy as it should be, and the risotto was packed with fava beans (a family favorite as you know) and shaved black truffle.

All of these were pretty heavy but we all saved room and were looking forward to the next course.  The lobster with homemade tagliatelle in a spicy (made extra spicy per my request) tomato sauce is what caught my eye.

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This dish came to me with a big dome over it and I patiently waited while the rest of the table was served – big points for presentation again!  When it was revealed, the meal looked like a masterpiece!

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The pasta and the sauce in this dish was wonderful and the restaurant actually achieved the “extra spicy” flavor I was going for.  The lobster however, was just okay.  I thought the flavor was good, but the texture was slightly off like it wasn’t fresh and may have been previously frozen? I didn’t eat all of the lobster, but did think that the pieces that I did eat worked well with the pasta and the sauce.

The other entrees on the table included: veal scaloppini in a lemon sauce (mom), a veal chop with a mushroom sauce and roasted potatoes (dad), roasted sea bass with roasted vegetables (Kate) and filet mignon topped with gorgonzola cheese and served with grilled polenta (Tommy). In order:

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Generally, everyone loved their dish.  I think Tommy and Kate actually thought that this may have been one of the best, if not the best, meal they ate on the cruise.  The only complaint other than my strange lobster was that my dad’s meat was very tough and overcooked.  Although this should never have been served, my dad also should have spoken up, because they gladly would have gotten him something else.  He wasn’t too upset however, because he was able to leave room for his all time favorite dessert, which is not a traditional dessert.  CHEESE!

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His cheese plate included a creamy gorgonzola, a rich and strong camembert and a traditional cheddar.  He was a big fan of them all.  Tommy and I split a chocolate mousse cake and Kate and my mom shared the Cinque Plate which included five mini versions of Toscana best desserts.

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My cake was wonderful, but I think Kate’s dessert got the highest mark.  Highlights included the mini crème brulee, the sweet version of minestrone soup (chopped up fruit served in a passion fruit broth and topped with some passion fruit sorbet) as well as the mini cannoli.  We were extremely full after this dinner so opted to walk around the deck and enjoy some of the vast ocean and full moon views ( you can see it in the background of this picture). IMG_4934

The first day on the cruise exceeded my expectations and at this point, I couldn’t wait to see what other adventures we would take and other food experiences we would enjoy!

Up next – the island of Lesbos and the town of Mytilini!

Greek Glory Cruise – 1st Stop:Istanbul (Day 2)

As I mentioned previously, Istanbul is a big city (we were told there at 16 million inhabitants!) with lots of sights to see and enjoy.  As such, we made plans to stay there for two days.  The second day of our trip featured a full day tour around all of Istanbul’s main attractions.

My dad hired a tour guide named Sibel, who works for the Turkish Government’s Tourist Office.  We thought she was extremely knowledgeable, had nearly perfect English and made the day fun and informative.

To start, Sibel met us at our hotel and sat with us as we ate breakfast (which was included in the price of our hotel.  FYI – if you are interested in staying at a nice hotel right near the old part of Istanbul, I would recommend Basileus Hotel.  The manager was extremely friendly and the accommodations were nice).  A quick note about Turkish breakfast, there are some elements that are similar to American breakfasts – notably, they did offer to make us omelets if we so desired and also had yogurt and cereals available.  In addition to these items, they also offered things that aren’t very traditional to the American breakfast.

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As you can see, they offered various meats, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, crepes, vegetables and fruit.

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They also had sweet pastry, dried fruit, olives and various jams and sauces.  I wouldn’t say that eating the Turkish breakfast was my favorite culinary aspect of the trip, but I am glad that I got to see what it consists of.

Topkapi Palace:

After we finished with breakfast, it was off to the Topkapi Palace, which for centuries, housed the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. 

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Here is the front entrance of the palace.  Not the best picture but thought it was worthwhile to highlight the guards with heavy duty machine guns in case anyone gets out of line!

A couple of notes about the Palace.  1) I thought it was in excellent condition.  I have seen many palaces on various visits to Europe and many of them are in poor or restored condition because of wars that destroyed many buildings.  This Palace did not have very much physical damage at all and the tiles, paintings and mosaics were extremely well preserved (some dating back to the 13th century).

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Another point of interest is that the Palace, not surprisingly had the best views in all of Istanbul.  At the outer edges of the Palace, you could see the sea, mountains and much of Istanbul.

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Our tour guide did a good mix of telling us about the rich history of this Palace and its inhabitants and let us wonder around ourselves and take more time to see the places that really interested us.

One of the best pictures of the day is the five of us in front of this exquisite tile wall.  While this wall is currently being protected under glass, it conceivably has been exposed to the elements for centuries and is in near perfect condition.

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Hagia Sofia:

The next stop on our tour was to Hagia Sofia, which is now a national museum, but historically was used as both a church and mosque.  This is an extremely important piece of art history and I felt lucky to be able to visit something I studied so much about in school.

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Aside from the sheer size of Hagia Sofia (which trust me, you have to be there to fully appreciate just how massive it is), the other amazing part of it is being able to witness important Christian and Muslim elements all in one place.  For instance, you can see the large circles that have Arabic writing on them, yet in between them you see a mosaic of Christ – there are not many places in the world you will witness that!

Another interesting thing – Muslims do not have faces (in the form of stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, statutes, etc.) in places that they worship.  Instead you will often see beautiful geometric designs that adorn the walls of mosques.  Despite this, when Hagia Sofia was converted from a church to a mosque, the new worshipers did not destroy or remove any Christian works of art that may have contained faces, instead they covered them with wooden panels so they could not be seen, preserving them so that they can be enjoyed today!

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Lunch at a Local Restaurant:

After spending close to four hours visiting the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia, we were all positively starving for lunch.  Sibel, our guide, suggested that we go to a local place she knew that offered kepabs as well as various mixed vegetables, rice dishes, potato dishes and assured us there would be something for everyone.  Enter Baron Ottomon Kitchen which looked like it offered delicious food to the local people.

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Most of our group got Kepab and then I ordered a plate (which was WAY too much food) full of veggies and shared it with everyone.

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This plate included marinated mushrooms, a whipped and baked potato dish, a stewed cabbage dish that included water cress, cabbage and a local Turkish vegetable that I can’t remember the name of.

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The kepab plate was prepared simply allowing the meat to be the star of the show.  There was pita, tomatoes, lettuce and french fries and it was all served with Cacik, which is mentioned in my last post, is similar to tzatziki – a strained greek yogurt sauce.  Finally, after we had finished our meal, the waiters brought over some fresh watermelon on the house, which we all gladly ate up!

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Grand Bazaar, Turkish Coffee, Cistern, and the Blue Mosque:

After lunch, we spent the afternoon visiting the other main attractions in the old part of Istanbul.  The fist stop was the Grand Bazaar, which is an enormous market filled with vendors selling everything from trinkets, to extremely precious jewels to leather jackets, and everything in between.

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Prior to arriving at the Grand Bazaar, Sibel gave us the low down on prices, negotiating, where the best shops were, etc.

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I actually found the Grand Bazaar to be extremely daunting and overwhelming.

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It is very crowded and it is just so big that you can only visit a very small portion of it.  In fact, after about 15 minutes of browsing, I determined that I couldn’t take it anymore, and despite being a big shopper, wanted to move on to the next thing.   I am glad that I visited it because it is absolutely unique and a big part of the Istanbul culture, but I could probably skip it next time I came into town.

After the Grand Bazaar, Sibel sensed we were all starting to feel a bit tired and suggested stopping in to try Turkish coffee as an afternoon pick me up.  Turkish coffee is definitely famous (I wasn’t sure for what until I tried it), so I was up for stopping in an giving it a try.

My mom, Kate and I all ordered one, which came with a piece of chocolate as well (bonus!).

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After the first sip, we all agreed that it was very tasty and strong coffee, which is something we all enjoy.  The cup is small, like espresso, so we figured that we would have a few more sips and be done with it.  While after about the second sip, we started to realize why Turkish coffee is unique . . . it comes with the grinds inside the coffee!

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This makes for a strong and good cup of coffee, but isn’t great if you, like Kate, opt to take a big sip of coffee and end up with a mouth full of grounds.  I actually tasted the grounds myself. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to and figured I would give it a shot.  As it turns out, the answer was no, you are not supposed to try it, so it was all for naught!

After we were sufficiently buzzed off of our grounds coffee, it was time for the next stop: the Basilica Cistern.  The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul.  A cistern, for those of you who do not know, is essentially an underground cavern that once held much of Istanbul’s water supply.  It is obviously not filled with water now and tourists are allowed to go underground and view the massive set of rooms that now just contain about 3 feet of water, but when you are down there, you can truly imagine what it must have been like filled to the top.

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Our guide, Sibel, told us that you will not find the same column throughout the cistern because as it was being built (in roughly the 6th century AD), the city of Constantinople (the historic Roman Capital that is now modern day Istanbul) took columns from all over the empire – some from Egypt, some from Greece, and some from Rome.

One striking element of the cistern are the two huge heads of Medusa that sit in odd positions (one upside down and one sideways).  There are various myths about why the heads aren’t upright, but our guide believe the most logical was that they were simply too heavy to be picky about the way they sat.  Wherever they were first laid, is where they remained.

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After we left the cistern, it was on to the famous Blue Mosque – which by the way is not its formal name, Sutlan Ahmed Mosque is.  Also, many mistakenly believe (those who have not seen it undoubtedly) that  it is called the Blue Mosque because it is blue from the outside, which is not true.  Instead, people refer to it as the Blue Mosque because of all the blue tiling that lines the walls of the mosque.

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The pictures can’t really do this place justice.  Inside, it is blue as far as the eye can see because of the handmade completely unique tiles on the wall.  Not to be outdone by the inside, the outside of this mosque is amazing, both at night and during the day.

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Also, unlike Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque is very much an active place of worship for Muslims in Istanbul.  We visited right before one of the Call to Prayers, but as we were leaving, again saw many people rushing in.  Additionally, during our visit, there were many people within the mosque praying or sitting quietly as you can see in the background of this picture. 

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At the end of visiting the Blue Mosque, we sat down with Sibel while she told us a little bit more about modern Turkish and Istanbul culture as well the role of Islam in Turkey today. 

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I found this part very informative and walked away with the reaffirmed feeling that although Turkey is obviously a Muslim country (something like 90% of the population is Muslim), it is secular in every sense of the word.  All religions are allowed to be practiced freely and Islam plays no role in the Turkish government.

By the time, all of this was over, it was practically 6 pm (we started at 8 AM!) and we had to get ready for dinner.  We did have a slight problem getting a late reservation because Ramadan was going on while we were there and those who observe can’t eat until after sundown.  Therefore, we rushed back to the hotel, changed and got ready for dinner at a place that Sibel recommended called Hamdi Restaurant.

Dinner and Hookah:

Dinner at Hamdi Restaurant was, overall, a great experience despite having to eat early.

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They offered a good amount of Meze as well as many grilled meat dishes.  Additionally, the views over the water and over to the new part of Istanbul were fabulous.

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As for the food, to start we ordered hummus, cacik (both served with pita), kefta (essentially deep fried meat patties with many spices and herbs) and a Turkish style pizza that we all shared.

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After the Meze, we moved on to our main dishes which included kepabs with meat and vegetables.

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My kepab (note I am not spelling it wrong, this is how the Turkish say/spell kebab) was eggplant, cooked beef, grilled tomatoes and peppers, raw onions and pita.  The waiter removed the skin from the eggplant for me and instructed me to eat everything together with a pita.

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The combination of tastes and texture in this dish was awesome and I think it would be a great “Restaurant Recreation” on a night when I wanted something slightly exotic and totally healthy.  I will have to play around with the spices, do some research and talk to my local spice shop experts about what is common in Turkey, but I am up for the challenge because this dish was so good!

The other dishes that were ordered included different types of grilled meets with similar grilled veggies and sides.

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After we finished our dishes (and actually ordered one more round of Kefta because it was so good), we finished our wine and contemplated the next stop. Oh, and of course asked the waiter to get a group picture.

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Please excuse the paleness, it does go away after a few days in the sun!

The next stop we decided on was a bar that had Hookah and was located near our hotel.  Kate loves hookah and demanded that she actually get to try some while in Turkey.  Here are some of the best shots of us trying the apple scented hookah.

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I wouldn’t say I am the biggest hookah fan, but as they say – while in Rome, do as the Romans.  After a few puffs, we all headed to bed in our last night in Istanbul.  Up Next – a trip to the Spice Bazaar and our first night on Oceania’s Riveria ship!

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