Text and photos: Kalle Id
Kalle Id reports from a ten-day cruise exploring Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline onboard Holland America Line’s 1997-built Rotterdam, beginning with Piraeus, Volos (Greece) and Istanbul.
Sunday, 10 November 2013: Piraeus
The morning of 10th November found me and my lovely wife at a hotel room in Piraeus, the harbour town of Athens. The previous day had mostly consisted of a gruelling trek from Helsinki to Piraeus. The flight time between the two cities is only about five hours, but the lack of direct flights meant we had had to wake up at 3 AM in Helsinki to be in Piraeus 14 hours later. Hence our experience of Athens was limited to a metro ride from the airport to Piraeus and a quick hunt for food between an evening nap and the full night’s sleep. While this did deprive us from wider enjoyment of Athens, it did mean that – against all odds – we woke up well-rested for boarding the Rotterdam awaiting us at the harbour.The embarkation process was surprisingly smooth, thanks to in large part to the friendly HAL staff. One thing that was immediately apparent in the terminal however was the fact that we were probably the youngest passengers onboard by some margin – apart from the staff, we were the only people in the terminal without grey hairs.
Once onboard, we made our way to our cabin, Vista Suite 6179. Normally you would not find me booking a suite – usually on cruises you spend so little time in the cabin that I don’t see the sense of putting money in a larger one – but this time around we were offered a cheap upgrade just a few days before departure and naturally took it.
One thing that impressed me about the Rotterdam’s interiors was how stylishly the company brought up its Dutch roots and its history as a Transatlantic liner operator. Whereas many of the other former liner operators turned cruise lines come across today almost as parodies of themselves and their histories, HAL manages to give a much more genuine impression. Of course the truth behind this impression can be questioned, when the company is headquartered in Seattle…
Another nice feature on the Rotterdam is a presence of a location guide to give information about the ports visited and how to get around in them. This is an exceedingly nice touch for those of us who are not interested in booking excursions but rather want to tour by ourselves. In the middle of our tour of the ship’s interiors, we were fortunate enough to catch a part of location guide Brett’s presentation on our first two ports of call, Volos in Greece and Istanbul in Turkey.
Although Greece is much warmer than Finland this time of the year, one thing did remind from the winter: the sun set fairly early, and very soon after departure it was dark outside. This had been preceeded by a rather spectacular sunset, which – if old Finnish proverb are to be believed – is a sign of bad weather the next day. As we shall see, the proverb was not wrong.
After departure we proceeded to the main dining room – La Fontaine – for our first meal onboard. Thanks to the magic of HAL’s As You Wish Dining, we could choose the time when we wanted to dine. The company do also offer the alternative of fixed seatings to those who want them (although I don’t understand why anyone would). The dinner was not bad by any means, but many of the ingredient combinations were more than a little bit odd and did not – in my opinion anyway – present a harmonious taste experience.
Following dinner, we visisted the Explorer’s Lounge on deck 5 to listen to the ship’s classical piano & violin duo Adagio, before proceeding to the main showlounge, Showroom at Sea, for a show titeled “Listen to the Music”, that introduced the onboard entertainers. This was not as impressive as it should have been, particularly as some of the music “played” by the ship’s live bands clearly came from a tape, giving a cheap impression to performers who were genuinely good musicians (as we were later to discover). Another thing that somewhat disappointed me was the fact that the traffic area did not seem to feature in the entertainment in any way.
Monday, 11 November 2013: Volos
The second day of our cruise found us at Volos, the capital city of the Thessaly Region of Greece. Unfortunately we discovered a problem with our cabin as pretty much the first thing in the morning – our toilet would not flush properly. Not perturbed, we simply reported the problem to the front office and continued on our way. Unfortunately – although we did not know it at the time – our toilet would continue to be plagued with problems for the entire duration of the cruise.
Before setting out to the city, we breakfasted at the Lido buffet. To cut down the chance of norovirus and other possible contagions from spreading, the ship had suspended self-service in the buffet for the first 48 hours, which led to the somewhat unusual case of being served by waiters in the buffet, which is never very practical. What we did find impressive was the large selections of dishes and the use of fresh ingredients.
Volos itself turned out to be a fairly small city that largely lacks the historical element that characterized almost every other port of call during the cruise – the city was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1955 and most buildings date from after this. It is notable however as the home town of the composer-musician Vangelis.
The old Finnish proverb proved true and it rained for most of our visit to Volos – and having not brought umbrellas with us, we spent a portion of our stay hunting for new ones. Other places visited were the Volos railway station, which also houses the Thessaly Railway Museum (closed), a replica of the ARGO from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts (or more properly a replica of an Archaic period galley which might or might not be similar to the ARGO), and a nearby national park that was pleasantly provided with pictoresque path and ruins, but provided very little information on what the ruins actually were.
Once back onboard it was time for the first of two formal nights of the cruise and – naturally – the captain’s welcoming party. Prior to the party we thought we’d visit the Ocean Bar on deck 5 off the atrium to listen to the ship’s jazz trio The Neptunes. Unfortunately we were not the only ones with this idea and the bar was fully packed – whether this was because the passengers like jazz or the bar was convenimently close to the showroom and the upcoming Captain’s welcoming coctail I cannot say. For our part, we settled on seats in the atrium that still allowed us to hear the music.
The Rotterdam’s Captain Marco Carsjens turned out to be a rather delightful man, who knew how to take his audience. Both he and the rest of the crew introduced seemed to be enjoying themselves and each other, which is certainly always a good sign.
We planned to go for dinner after the welcoming cocktail, as the night’s show (with a Broadway musical theme) did not particularly interest either of us. Unfortunately we were not the only ones with such a plan and the main dining room was packed with people with the exact same idea. Hence we decided to check out the other dining options.
I was rather keen to try out the Pinnacle Grill, HAL’s signature fine(r) dining option, which at 25$/per person extra charge is quite acceptable (in my opinion), but could not get Maria interested in the menu offered. Instead, we chose to dine at the italian-style Canaletto restaurant on deck 8, next to the Lido buffet. Canaletto’s offerings were very tasty indeed – particularly the dessert tiramisu – although it must be said that while elsewhere on the ship the foods were a bit shyly spiced, here the case was the opposite. Certainly my cheese tortellini could have done with a little less pepper in them.
We ended our evening at the Crow’s Nest on deck 9, listening to The Beatles night and sipping (non-alcoholic) piña coladas before retiring for the night.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013: At Sea/Istanbul
Day three of our cruise dawned while the ship was sailing through the Dardanelles – although at that point we were still fast asleep. The passage was particularly poignant as the previous day had been the anniversary of the end of World War I and Gallipoli in the Dardanelles had been one of the major theatres of The Great War. In a manner of speaking this was a day at sea, as we arrived at Istanbul at around 16.00 (4 PM).
As sea days tend to be, this was a lazy day in our part, with most of the day spent on deck enjoying the sunshine. We did attend the second presentation by location guide Brett, who introduced the next three ports of call after Istanbul, Dikili, Kusadasi and Marmaris. This – like the first presentation – spent a lot of time discussing Turkish carpets. While these are certainly interesting, I’m sure something more interesting could have been included in the presentation instead.
Lunch offering for this day at the Lido was a showcase of HAL’s Dutch roots in form of Rijsttafel, ”rice table”, a tradition started by Dutch plantation owners in Indonesia of serving selected samples of Indonesian cuisine. As far as dining goes, this was definately one of the highlights of the entire trip and a pleasant departure from standard cruise ship fare. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have taken a single photo of what was being offered, being too enchanted with the foods.
Arrival in Istanbul was an almost magical affair, with the huge city spreading on two different continents slowly emerging from the mist (which remained despite the fact it was quite windy) and landmarks such as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia slowly becoming visible. The magic was further enhanced by spotting dolphins – surprisingly close to the city, the busy ferry traffic of which must certainly pose something of a danger to dolphins.
Once we were docked, it was time for our first day (or rather, only evening) of exploring Istanbul. Taking the advice of location guide Brett were decided to visit the Galata Tower near the quay where we docked. The tower was originally built in 1348 as a part of the Genoese colony in Istanbul and it was at the time the building in the city. Today, it hosts a restaurant and an observation deck offering fantastic views over the oldest parts of Istanbul.
The Galata Tower is also the starting point of Istikal Caddesi (”Independence Avenue”), a pedestrian street leading to the Taksim Square that most readers will undoubtedly remember from the news earlier this year. As Taksim is without a doubt one of the most important locations of present-day Turkish history, we decided to promenade there.
It did occur to me, standing after dark at Taksim, that visiting it might not have been the smartest idea of all time – but all was quiet, with a steady flow of people at the Taksim Square and a more intimate atmosphere at the Taksim Park, with lovers cuddling at the benches in the dark. Taksim Park’s popularity amongst lovers is probably the reason behind the unrest relating to the park earlier that year, as Turkey’s ruling conservative party AK (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, lit. ”Justice and Development Party”) is very much opposed to pre-marital relationships of any kind between people – indeed, just before our departure on this cruise the news was that AK planned to make it illegal for unmarried couples to live together. Even though Turkey’s unrest seemed to be sleeping at the moment, the divide between the conservative and liberal elements in the country is exceptionally deep and is – I fear – likely to flare up again.
For our return trip to the ship, we decided to take one of the neat little historical trams traveling along Istikal Caddesi. Although essentially museum units in appearance and operation, these neat little read trams – that date from Istanbul’s first tram system, operated between 1871 and 1966 – form a part of the city’s everyday public transport system, linking the transport hub of Taksim to the Tünel subway.
Back onboard, we would have wanted nothing so much as a quick dinner at the buffet and then retire to bed for the evening. Unfortunately this was not an option, as the buffet had already closed at 20.00 and hence the only dining options were the waiter-service restaurants. This bumble in scheduling was compounded with the fact that rather many passengers were only now returning onboard and hence made the dining room – again – rather crowded. This did have the fortunate side-effect of us ending up sharing a table with six other passengers – including three men named Peter! While the food was (again) good, the evening didn’t go quite as planned and we spent over two hours in the dining room. And although the company was good, this stay was not because of the company but simply because of the fact it simply took so long for us to get our food.
Following dinner, we retired for the night, eagerly awaiting what our second day in Istanbul would bring…
The second part of the trip report will follow soon.
This report is originally published in MaritimeMatters.com.
Finnish version of this trip report is published in Finnish maritime magazine Ulkomatala.
About the author
Kalle Id is a Finnish maritime historian, photographer and journalist, with a Master’s Degree in history from the University of Helsinki. He is a regular contributor for Cruise Business Review and Ulkomatala. In addition, he has contributed to magazines such as Ships Monthly, MaritimeMatters.com, Ferry & Cruise, and Laiva. He also is an author of two books on maritime history: Silja Line from De Samseglande to Tallink (Ferry Publications 2014) and Tallink – The First 25 Years (Ferry Publications 2015).