A Semester Abroad in Denmark

The country that has been rated for the happiest country of the world is my new home, since two months. So far, I can tell you: Do not underestimate Denmark!

When I arrived in Kolding, I felt comfortable from the first day. Although, Kolding is not a big city, the castle, the lake and the harbour at the fjord create a cozy atmosphere – or like Danish people would say „hygge“.

The university started with an orientation week that convinced me of the Danish education system. Everyone is called by his/her first name and you get to know people from all over the world. Additionally, I really like that professors set a high value on a personal development of each student. Thus, there is a plenty of sports, party, and training events.

‘Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer’

Also, Kolding is a pretty good location to experience not only Denmark but also to visit Sweden. In general, you cannot compare Denmark’s and Germany’s population in cities (except Copenhagen). However, you can notice in Danish cities that people are full of creativity and got love for detail. Particularly in terms of fashion and furnishing, I was impressed by the Danish style.

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When I visited Sweden, I made trips to Malmö, Helsingborg and Göteborg – I can recommend each of them. What I noticed, that all cities are shaped by their old towns, the ocean, and the Swedish architecture. As a result, they offer great opportunities for city trips.


‘Tak’ means ‘Thank you’

As I expected, Denmark’s everyday life is not quite different to the one in Germany in terms of living and partying. You rather notice a few little differences over the day, but the greatest challenge is the Danish language. Even though, everyone talks English, when I listen to a conversation between two Danish people I cannot even guess what they are talking about. Consequently, “Tuk” and the other two Danish cusses in my vocabulary have to be enough for my last two months, here.

Christmas is coming

For Danish people, Christmas is a huge event. That is why they start their Christmas preparation at the beginning of November. On the first Friday in November, the “Tuborg”- Truck serves the „Christmas beer” which is followed by Christmas Markets. Therefore, I got a Christmas feeling at the beginning of November, for the first time in my life.
That is also supported by Christmas dinner invitations from our Danish friends. Here is one Danish tradition absolutely necessary: The one who finds the big almond in his/ her dessert, receives the present from the host.

Conclusion: I would do it again!

So, I’m excited what the next two months are holding for me and to what extent Danish people celebrate Christmas. After everything I experienced in Denmark, I can say: I would do it again!

Text and Images by Vivienne Kowalczuk (translated)

Turkish Discovery On The Rotterdam, Part Four: Alanya and Limassol

Text and photos: Kalle Id

This is fourth and last part of Kalle Id’s report from a ten-day cruise exploring Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline onboard Holland America Line’s 1997-built Rotterdam. This time we explore Alanya in Turkey and Limassol in Cyprus, before a return to Piraeus for the end of the cruise. Read the first three parts of the report here.

Sunday, 17 November 2013: Alanya

The eight day of our cruise found us in Alanya, Turkey. I must admit we had quite heavy preconceptions of the place, as the Finnish reality TV series Matkaoppaat (literally “The Travel Guides”) has mostly been filmed there. Intentionally or not, the series gives the impression of Alanya as typical tourist trap with little to no actual tourists attractions. Hence our primary goal was to seek out the offices of Detur, the travel company Matkaoppaat is made with. (Incidentally, the Matkaoppaat format has been invented in Finland).

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The walls of Alanya’s old town, as seen from the cruise quay.

With this preconception in mind, imagine our surprise when we were greeted by a sight of an old hilltop fortress and an old town surrounded by walls clinging to the side of the hill (there was admittedly a new tourist town next to this, but even so). In fact, Alanya has a long, fascinating history, including a period during the antiquity when it was a base for pirates. And pirates, as we all know, are always cool.

Before we could set out to the delightfully warm town, there was one more thing to be done onboard: the now-traditional “our toilet is not flushing properly” -complaint to the Front Office. This accomplished, we set out of the ship to explore the older parts of Alanya.

Instead of taking a bus or taxi, we decided to climb the hill of the old town up to the fortress on top. This proved to be rather interesting, as we lost sight of the sings pointing the right way at some point. A local child pointed us at the direction of he claimed was the castle, which never-the-less led to what was essentially a dead end. There a man, who at least appeared to be living at the house on the end of the path, agreed to guide us further to the top – literally climbing up the rock face of the hill. Some of the way up our guide decoided we could clear the rest of the way ourselves and asked for payment.

In hindsight, the whole thing was probably a set-up. The local children apparently had a little fun in misdirecting tourists (this was not the only time during this single day that we were sent to the wrong direction by them) and the local house-owner made some extra money by taking tourists way up the hill by a very non-conventional route. But we  just couldn’t be mad afterwards. The climb in itself was a brilliant experience, but it was nothing compared to when we stopped near the top to rest for a bit and at that same moment, call to mid-day prayer started from the town’s numerous mosques. Standing there, slightly our of breath, listening to sound of dozens of calls to prayer mixing and echoing around the town was simply sublime.

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The author climbing up the hill. Photo: © 2013 Maria Id.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we were not the only people who had ended up taking the unconventional way up the hill. Near the top we saw two other people climbing up, who turned out to be Olli and Liisa, the other Finnish couple onboard the Rotterdam. We made our way towards the fortress on the hilltop together, exchanging experiences of cruise ships – and being Finns, naturally discussing cruise ship saunas – before going our separate ways near the top of the hill.

After the experiences of climbing up the hill, the rest of the day was… I won’t say a disappointment, but certainly not as interesting. We walked to the fortress atop the hill, but did not go in as we were by this point suffering from a difficult museum overdose. We walked around the hilltop, finding the correct way down and made our way to the newer part of the town (this time ignoring the “advice” of the local children). We never found the local Detur office, but we we consoled by our discovery of a Finnish restaurant. Which, fortunately, was closed.

Once back onboard, we enjoyed a little lunch at the Lido (mostly salad), followed by a dip in the pool. Later on, we also tried the ship’s self-service laundry for the the first time (this was in fact the first time we tried the laundry on any ship). We even recieved a call that our toilet ad been fixed.

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Trilingual scrabble, with Finnish, English and Swedish words accepted. Finnish was particularly challenging as the English-language edition of the game is missing some key letters.

The highlight of the evening for today was the Auction for the Philippines, arranged by the crew to raise money for the Philippines resque effort after the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). On offer were such interesting items as various behind-the-scenes tours of the ship. In the end the auction raised $1500 for the resque effort. We never actually went to see it, unfortunately, having just this evening discovered that the Explorations Café on deck 5 had a bunch of board games on offer. This evening’s programme for us included a go at the US edition of Trivial Pursuit (much easier than the UK edition we played some years ago on the Thomson Destiny) and several rounds of trilingual Scrabble.

Monday, 18 November 2013: Limassol

The next day dawned with us moored at a port outside Turkey for the first time in a week, with Limassol outside our balcony. Unfortunately, here the harbour is somewhat removed from the city center. A shuttle bus was available for the rather steep price of $12. If one walked out of the cruise terminal, there was a bus running to the city with the much more sensible price of 2 €. As it turned out, the city was a c. 45 minute walk away, so we took up that option.

En-route to the city we passed a Lidl and decided to go in to buy some water and something to nibble on. Those of you who are not familiar with Lidl, it is a German supermarket chain, with shops in pretty much every country of the European Union. All Lidl stores follow the same basic concept as closely as possible, selling the same merchandise and even with the stores laid out as identically as possible. It was a more than a bit weaird experience going into a supermarket surrounded by palm tress and finding it virtually identical to our local Lidl in Helsinki.

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Limassol shopping.

In the center of Limassol we took a look at the local shopping streets. Cyprus seems to have been badly hit by the current economic downturn, as there were a lot of empty shops. On the other hand, the local stores also sold some of the best-looking clothes I have seen in a long time… but unfortunately none of these were large enough for 190cm (~6 foot 3 inches) tall man with a bit of extra padding around the waist. What we did discover was a store selling ”genuine copies” of Orthodox christian icons, one of which made a fine gift for my mother, who is – amongst other things – an amateur icon painter.

Having pretty much exhausted the few interesting shopping chances there were, we decided we just had time for a visit to the Limassol Castle before we needed to head back onboard the ship. The castle was erected by Guy de Lusignan in 1193 after he had become the King of Cyprus(having lost the crown of Jerusalem that year), although other sources claim Richard the Lionheart had married Berengaria of Navarre at the same castle already in 1191. Beneath the castle are the remains of an early christian basilica. The current form of the Castle dates, unsurprisingly, from the Ottoman era.

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Inside the Limassol Castle, with the gravestones of… some people not explained in any texts inside the museum lining the walls.

Today the Limassol Castle houses the Cyprus Medieval Museum. Though interesting in itself, the museum does suffer from the common problem of archeological museums (that I have already touched upon in previous parts of this report) in that it did not give proper explanations of why the items on display are important. The worst example of this were a collection of crusader-era gravestones, which had text in them, but no explanation in any language of whose gravestone it was, let alone what the text in the slab said.

When we got back onboard, we were surprised to discover three crewmembers in our cabin fixing out toilet – a day after we had been told by the front office it had been fixed. (Although in hindsight we maybe shouldn’t have been surprised, considering how shoddily the whole affair had been handled so far). The plumbers left, saying they had “replaced everything” and that it was now fixed. (It wasn’t).

Tonight was the second formal night of the cruise. We considered going to the main dining room, but the menu there was not particularly inspiring and the long wait for food we had experienced on the previous visits did not inspire for us to give it a try, so we once again headed to the Lido for self-service instead. We ended up dining there with one of our companions from our Istanbul visit to the main dining room, (one of the three people in our table back then named) Peter. Peter was on a longer circuit of the cruise, staying onboard for the second ten-day leg to the Holy Land that followed our Turkish discovery.

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The corridors around Explorations Café house some of the more impressive pieces of the Rotterdam’s art collection, various Chinese and Japanese historical artifacts, as well as replicas of the famous Terracotta soldiers from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Having recently seen some of the real ones in Finland, the replicas were not as interesting for us as they could have been.

After dinner we headed again to the Explorations Café for some board games, including a delightful (and very fitting) little game named Rotterdam – The Port of Europe. This was about transporting cargo to Rotterdam’s different harbours, rather than anything more cruise-like. After our game we headed to the Wajang Theatre to see Wolverine. Not a movie I was particularly interested in, but Maria wanted to see it and when could I say no her?

Returning from the movie to our cabin and ready to retire for the night, we discovered that, once again, our toilet was not working. Now I admit that at this point I rather lost my temper and stormed to the Front Office. Sadly, the approach of going there and yelling at the staff proved much more effective than our previous civilized approach and a plumber came to look at the toilet almost immediately, promising to come back the next morning for a better look.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013: At Sea

On our final full day of the cruise we woke up to the onslaught of plumbers, who did something to our toilet and afterwards it worked fine again (for the moment). This was followed by breakfast and lazing around on deck, relaxing after the intense discoveries of the previous days.

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The Queen’s Room on the Rotterdam has been transformed into a Digital Workshop for purposes of the Techspert programme. Notice Tony’s fantastic pose.

To pass the time, we decided to attend one of the Techspert Time lectures onboard. Sponsored by Microsoft, these lectures are the only free-of-charge technology programme at sea. Admittedly, most of the lectures seemed to be of the type rather lost on tech-savvy people like us, but this afternoon’s Meet Windows RT proved interesting. I still won’t buy one, but thanks to Techspert Tony my decision is much more informed than it would have been otherwise.

In the afternoon had a look at the shops, buying traditional ship mugs (two mugs for every cruise we’ve been on) but deciding to skip the rest. I do slightly regret not getting an HAL Barbie doll.

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A reminder that we are quite far north: the low sun as seen from the Lido Deck at half past three in the afternoon

The rest of the evening passed according to the established pattern. We skipped the finale of Dancing with the Stars at Sea (eww!), opting instead for more board games, followed by a dinner at the buffet and after that, the packing.

For the grand finale of the final night onboard, we headed to The Mix, where piano entertainer Les was giving a request night. He didn’t know Sparks, the favoured band of two MaritimeMatters writers (but promised to look into them). He did, however, treat us  to an absolutely splendid piano version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

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Last night’s towel animal, the… umm… err… hmm?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013: Piraeus

The final morning onboard dawned in Piraeus rather gloomy, as we were being passed by the remains of the storm that had lashed Sardinia just a few days before. Our day begun suitably to the overall theme of the cruise, with the toilet not working. At this point we decided to sod it, and leave it as the problem of the next inhabitants of the cabin (sorry, whoever was in 6179 for the next cruise).

Disembarkation went smoothly and we were soon on our way for our six-interchange trip home (okay, most of those interchanges were in the Athens Metro but even so).

So, I guess it is time for closing remarks:

Except for one thing, this would have been the best cruise I have ever been on. For the first time on a “proper” cruise ship, I felt the onboard product consistently exceeded that of the Baltic Sea ferries I have grown up with. But then there were the problems with our toilet and the way the Front Office staff handled our complaints. As said, the toilet was never fixed. We were never offered any kind of compensation, and we were at least once downright lied to, with claims that our toilet had been fixed when in fact it had not been. I can understand that something can be difficult to fix, but then for crying out loud be honest about it and don’t lie to your passengers.

If we forget the issues with the toilet and the Front Office staff, this was a superb cruise. The destinations were interesting and educational, the entertainment was very good, the food ranged from okay to great (though food hygiene, at least in the buffet, could have been better). After all the great experiences I had on the cruise, I’d love to say it was the greatest cruise I’ve ever been on. But I can’t.

Previous parts of the report:


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 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).

Turkish Discovery On The Rotterdam, Part Three: Kusadasi and Marmaris

Text and photos: Kalle Id

This is third part of Kalle Id’s report from a ten-day cruise exploring Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline onboard Holland America Line’s 1997-built Rotterdam, this time exploring Kusadasi, the ruins of Ephesus and the tourist town of Marmaris. Read the first and second part of the report here.

Friday, 15 November 2013: Kusadasi

Our sixth day onboard the Rotterdam dawned in the Turkish town of Kusadasi. You could tell that we were still in Turkey by the giant hilltop statue of Atatürk that was the first things visible from our balcony in the morning. For today, Kusadasi was to prove a short detour, as our main objective was to visit the nearby ruins of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the antiquity.

Before starting for Ephesus, there was one thing to do: complain to the front office about our toilet not working properly. This accomplished, we headed out to town.

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Morning view of Kusadasi, with a statue of Atatürk just visible at the top of the hill.

Getting to Ephesus was an interesting part of the day in itself, as we had not booked an excursion from the ship, as these were relatively expensive and offered very little time to actually spend in Ephesus (nor had we booked an excursion before-hand from anywhere else). Our original plan was to take one of the local dolmus buses, but we had no idea from where these depart, the timetables or how much they cost – none of this information is available on the internet. Resultingly, once in Kusadasi (and past a shopping mall that had been built on the harbour’s passenger exit) we headed for the local tourist information, handily located right next to the cruise port.

Almost immediately upon entering the tourist information we were hailed by a taiwanese (as I later learned) man who was asking if we wanted to share a taxi to Ephesus. Naturally we did. In the end there were seven people in our taxi: the three-person Taiwanese family, a Canadian couple and us two Finns. It also turned out that the people we were sharing with were all from the Celebrity Constellation. Despite our sharing a taxi, the driver still charged on a 20 € per person -basis – but as he was willing to take us to Ephesus and back, this was actually very good value for money, especially compared with the excursions offered onboard.

Once in Ephesus, negotiations ensured about when our driver would come to pick us up. He wanted to come back in 1½ hours, claiming that was enough to see Ephesus, and that he would take us to see the local shopping opportunities afterwards. Meanwhile, everyone in our group were more of the opinion what we’d need five hours to properly see the place. Eventually we settled on four hours.

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An overview of Ephesus, as seen from the administrative agora down the Street of Curetes, with the Celsus library in the background.

Now how to describe Ephesus? Trying to write this I’m left with a feeling that words – and even pictures – fail to capture the essence of walking through a city that was founded 3000 years ago and that was eventually abandoned 2400 years later (though the city had been in decline for the last centuries of its existance, due to harbour silting up). It has been ruled by various Greek states, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Seljuks and finally the Ottomans. It was the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis (its remains are located away from the main city and as such we did not see them). It was also a major center for early Christianity, with the apostles Paul and John both having lived in the city – tradition also holds that Virgin Mary spent the last years of her life there.

We entered the complex from the land side (east) entrance (there is an extrance/exit at both ends of the complex, so you don’t need to walk through it twice), which opens up to the administrative agora, as the name proposes this was the area where the city’s administrative buildings were centered. Going further from the administrative agora we passed through the Gate of Hercules and into the Street of Curetes, which appears to have been a residential area for the city’s well-to-do inhabitants, as well as a place for various shops along the street.

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An overview of the terrace houses. The houses appear to have been a single building, housing six separate apartments.

A further attraction along the Street of Curetes are the terrace houses, a group of restored Roman-era houses. They are contained within a separate shelter erected around the ruins. Access there costs 15 tl on top of the regular entry charge to Ephesus, but it is money well-spent as the houses are relatively well-preserved and they offer an interesting glimpse to the lives of upper-class Romans.

Across the street from the terrace houses is one of the better-known sites of Ephesus, the Temple of Hadrian (which unfortunately was being renovated during our visit). Also next to the terrace houses, at the end of the Street of Curetes, is the Library of Celsus, probably the best-known landmark of the entire complex. Originally erected 120 AD by Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, the facade of the library was reconstructed using surviving original pieces in the 1970s.

Located next to the Library of Celsus is the city’s main commercial agora. This wass out of bounds for visitors as the excavation works in the area are still ongoing – in fact, it is estimated that currently only 15% of Ephesus has been excavated!

Continuing on our way, the next major sight was the largest of them all, the theatre that could seat 24,000 people. As such, it is the largest known theatre of the ancient world. It also gives us the chance to estimate approximately how many people lived in Ephesus at its peak: in Roman cities, theatres were constructed to house approximately a tenth of the city’s population in one sitting. Hence we can extrapolate that Ephesus had around 240,000 inhabitants during the Roman era – although the accuracy of this number has been contested by modern historians, who place the city’s likely number of inhabitants at 33,000-56,000 people.

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A view from the highest (accessible) seats of the theatre towards the (now silted up) harbour, with the harbour road on the right.

By this point we actually had to start hurrying a bit, as our four hours were almost up (my advice to anyone going there is “make sure you have enough time”, four hours seems to be the absolute minimum if you want to see the place properly).  We did still take a quick detour to “The Double Church”, also known as the Church of Mary and the Church of the Councils, probably built for the Third Ecomenical Council (431).

Eventually we were out of Ephesus’s west entrance at precisely the time our taxi was supposed to pick us up – and indeed, both the taxi and the rest of our group (who we had “lost” fairly soon after entering Ephesus) were there waiting. The next part of our itinerary as proposed by the taxi driver was a visit to a local carpet-making collective for a carpet demonstration. Now to be honest, this did not interest us that much, but as Turkish carpets and carpet demonstrations had been talked about a lot onboard, we decided to give it a go.

I have to say that while the Turkish carpets are very well made (by hand of all things), I wouldn’t want one in my home. But all the hype about Turkish carpets being the best in the world and making fantastic heirlooms did come in very handy when I gave my brother a mouse mat that looks like a Turkish carpet after returning home (the joke was improved by the fact that the Finnish word for a mouse mat literally translated as “mouse carpet”).

Once back in Kusadasi, we still had a little bit of time to look around the town. The town center had a bazaar area with pushy salesmen for benefit of tourists that was, frankly, repugnant. A short walk off the more touristy area is Güvercin Adaci (lit. “pigeon island”), a peninsula housing an old fortress (of which I could find no information online). The fortress houses a museum, but that was closed so instead we had a walk around the island.

Once back onboard, the first order of business was to find out if our toilet had been fixed or not. It hadn’t been, despite a call from the front office that claimed otherwise. Toiler not working complaints number three (I think – I may have lost count at some point) accomplished, we settled in to spectate our departure until heading to La Fontaine dining room for what would turn out to be our last meal in that particular venue.

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This night, I tried duck liver paté for the first time in my life. It turns out it tastes exactly like Finnish “liver sausage” (that is not actually a sausage), one of the most low-end foods in Finnish cuisine. Understandably I’m not a bit puzzled at what buzz is all about when it comes to duck liver paté

Which is not say the food would have been bad, far from it (although I was a bit puzzled by the taste of my blueberry sorbet – until I realised it was actually blackcurrant). But on the other hand it must be said that the service was slow and – especially with us coming from the promised land of self service – the main dining room didn’t offer any kind of added value compared to the buffet. It only took more time.

For the evening’s entertainment, we decided to head to the ship’s cinema, the Wajang Theatre, which was showing the science fiction movie “The Europa Report”. As a sci-fi buff I’m a bit puzzled how this film had managed to pass me by previously – though it must be said it was not the best film of all time in its genre. After the movie it was time for bed and Marmaris that awaited tomorrow. Even our toilet had been fixed during the evening, so the day ended on a positive note.

Saturday, 16 November 2013: Marmaris

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Marmaris old town, as seen from the Marmaris Castle.

On the seventh day of the cruise we found ourselves at Marmaris in Turkey, on what was the Rotterdam’s first visit to the port. To celebrate, the sun had come out and the sky was nearly cloudless. There were some clouds in our cabin, as our toilet was – again – not working properly. By now this had become a normal part of the daily routine, so following breakfast at the Lido.

The first thing we was of Marmaris was its marina, the biggest on the Mediterranean. Past the marina is the town itself, which… to be honest was a disappointment. The city was clean and modern and almost entirely built to serve the tourism industry. According to Wikipedia, the town’s population is around 30,000 people – which grows to 400,000 if you count the tourists staying the hotels during the summer season. In other words, it’s a tourist trap of the worst kind.

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The most common archeological exhibit from the antiquity: amphoras. Although this time particularly nicely presented ones.

The only things actually of interest in Marmaris are the Marmaris Castle and the small old town surrounding it. The castle is said to be a whopping 5000 years old, though the current form of the structure dates from the 15th century, when Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificient rebuilt it to serve as a base for his assaunt of Rhodes to drive out the Knights of St. John from their base there. Today the castle houses a small but interesting archeological museum (which could have benifited from better english translations and more information about the objects though).

Having seen what little there was to see in Marmaris, we headed back onboard. Surprisingly soon after our late lunch at the Terrace Grill at the Lido (which seemed to serve the same texmex buffet every day), it was time for departure. Now even though we left at five in the afternoon, it was already dark when we departed – well, sort of. With the cloudless sky and the full moon, the moonlight actually lit up the night in a way I had never experienced before.

From departure onwards, we lingered at the Lido as this hosted the only major onboard event during the cruise that was related to the local culture of the countries we visited: a Turkish Bazaar. Now I expected this to be just local souvenirs being sold onboard at exorbitant prices – and I was not entirely wrong – but to correspond with the Bazaar, the normal run-of-the-mill pop music played at the Lido was replaced by local Turkish music.

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The Lido – or at least a part of it – morphed in to a Turkish Bazaar. A less noisy, more pleasant version with no haggling or pushy salesmen.

The rather fantastic experience was topped off by the Lido buffet serving local cuisine. Officially this was listed in the programme as a “Flavours of the Mediterranean” buffet and the space was decorated in colours of the Italian flag, but the food served was Turkish and Greek, with kebabs, couscous, falafels and the like. In other words, exactly what I had hoped this cruise would offer.

In the end I think we spent most on the evening at the Lido, listening to the Turkish music and just enjoying ourselves. We did leave, briefly, to watch the day’s show at the Showroom at Sea, with the visual comedy Yacov Noy. Now if you have not heard of Yacov Noy, I cannot blame you as, according to the man himself, he has been showbiz for thirty years and yet no-one knows who he is (even the internet is deafeningly silent). But the man was properly funny.

After Mr Noy it there was still time for enjoying more Turkish music at the lido, before heading for bed and the awaiting wonders of our last Turkish port of call tomorrow.

Previous parts of the report:


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 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).

Turkish Discovery On The Rotterdam, Part Two: Istanbul and Dikili

Text and photos: Kalle Id

This is second part of Kalle Id’s report from a ten-day cruise exploring Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline onboard Holland America Line’s 1997-built Rotterdam, this time  Istanbul and Dikili. Read the first part of the report here.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013: Istanbul

Our second day in Istanbul dawned cloudy and slightly gloomy – although still much lighter and more pleasant than Finland at this time of the year. To give us more time exploring Istanbul, we had decided the previous night to order breakfast in the cabin. This is always something of an adventure, as the names on the cabin menu – which I’m sure are perfectly self-explanatory to most American passengers – can result in a surprise for us from different cultures. For instance, V-8 juice and sausage links turned out to be quite different from what I expected. And even such mundane and supposedly self-explanatory things like ham slices turned out to be different from what we expected.

In any case, after breakfast we headed out of the ship and walked across the Galata Bridge to our destination of the day: Topkapi Palace, the former seat of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. We only stopped to buy some souvenirs to give relatives (a fez and a mouse mat made to look like a turkish carpet) and greet some local cats.

To our utter horror, the entrance courtyard of Topkapi was filled with local schoolchildren – it seemed a large portion of Istanbul’s schools had chosen this day to visit the palace. Unperturbed, we pressed on, and somehow never saw any of the dozens of children again after getting inside the palace complex.

Topkapi is not a palace in the traditional sense of the word. It is laid out like an Ottoman nomad camp, with three large courtyards flanked by low buildings housing different functions. Hence the palace was more of a series of separate buildings and pavillions in a park than a single building.

Topikapi gardens
Topkapi’s second courtyard, with the palace’s most unifying theme, gardens, prominent on display.

The first place we decided to visit once inside was the Harem, the entrance to which incurs an additional charge of 15 turkish lira (about 6 euros or 8 US dollars, the entrance to the palace having coast 25 tl). This was listed in many travel guides as the place to visit at Topkapi. In hindsight I have to say that while it was interesting, it was not all it was cracked up to be. The thing that makes the harem interesting is the exotic image we have of harems here in the west, and when you take the people and most of the furnishings out of the equation, you’re left with just walls. Prettily decorared walls, but just walls never the less.

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A display room in the harem (the only display room in fact), giving a glimpse of the harem’s eunuch servants lived

But Topkapi is so much more than the harem. There is a treasury, a display of perfectly preserved clothing of the Ottoman Emperors, and an exhibit of holy relics of Islam (many of which are also holy relics of Christianity, the religions sharing so much common roots). The latter’s main exhibit was Mohammed’s cloak – stored in a solid golden crate, so that you actually only see the crate. (The cynical atheist in me immediately wondered if there’s anything inside at all).

Unfortunately there was no photography allowed in any of the exhibits listed above. This was particularly unfortunate with the treasury, as now I have no way of showing you the intricate workmanship and downright opulence of the multitude of gold-and-jewel artifacts. These ranged from downright beautiful, exquisite things to items that had clearly been crafted just to include as much of gold and jewels as possible, without a thought given to how they are presented. The objects in the latter category reminded me of nothing so much as Louis Vuitton bags. (I’m sorry, I just don’t like Vuitton at all).

In terms of achitecture, the most interesting buildings of the Palace are at the northern corner of the complex, furthest from the entrance – which meant we almost missed them, thinking we had already seen everything there is to see. The Circumcision room (actually a separate building) and Baghdad pavillion are amongst the latest additions to the complex and also some of the last examples of traditional Ottoman achitecture added to the palace. The courtyard between these also offers splendid views across the Golden Horn.

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The Baghdad Pavillion, built in honour of Sultan Murad IV’s recapture of Baghdad from the Safavids (the then-ruling dynasty of Persia) in 1638.

In the end we had spent almost the entire day at Topkapi; by the time ewe exited the complex, we only had about 1½ hours of time left before we needed to head back onboard the ship. This left us with the dilemma of whether or not to go and see the Hagia Sophia? I was of the opinion that such a short time would simply not be enough to see the former church and mosque now turned into a museum and we would just be left with a bad feeling for not having had time to explore things properly… but Maria convinced me otherwise. And it was good she did, as it turned out we had just enough time to see the place – although we certainly could have wasted more time there.

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A view from Topkapi Palace across the Golden Horn, with the Rotterdam beautifully framed by the autumn leaves.

The Hagia Sophia… what to say about it? I’m sure all readers are familiar with the name and the building at some level (after all, it does appear in the James Bond film From Russia with Love). Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, it was the largest cathedral in the world for just shy of a thousand years (from completion in 537 until the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520). In the inside, all of original Orthodox Christian mosaics were plastered over when the building was converted into a mosque… but fortunately several of these have been at least partially restored.

Having seen the two key sites of Istanbul during the day (and convinced we’d need to return later for a longer visit), we headed back onboard the awaiting Rotterdam. After watching the departure on deck, we headed for early dinner (or late lunch, depending on your point of view) in the buffet, being far too exhausted after the day in Istanbul to entertain the idea of dressing up and heading to any of the waiter-service restaurants. While there, we were greeted by a language I wasn’t expecting to hear onboard: Finnish. It turned out we were not the only Finnish passengers onboard, as there was a second Finnish couple there – veterans of over a dozen cruises on Kristina Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Costa and HAL.

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The Ocean Bar, where The Neptunes play.

After dinner, it was time for the evening’s show at the Showroom at Sea, comedian Adrian Walsh. Never heard of him, but he was rather funny… though the show was clearly aimed at the 60+-year-olds – who did make up the vast majority of the audience – which did mean some of the jokes were lost on us 29- and 30-year-olds. Adrian Walsh was followed by sitting at the Ocean Bar (which this time had free seats) listening to the ship’s jazz trio The Neptunes before retiring to bed.

Thursday, 14 November 2013: Dikili

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The Rotterdam at Dikili roads. As you can see, the weather still didn’t quite favour us.

The fifth day of our cruise dawned while we were at anchor outside the Turkish town of Dikili. The town itself has very little to recommend it, and the reason for the Rotterdam calling here was something nearby but inland: the ruins of Pergamon, the city with the second-largest library at the antiquity, after the more famous Great Library of Alexandria. So tight was the competition between the two libraries that the Egyptians refused to sell papyrus to Pergamon. This in turn forced the people in Pergamon to invent a new material for writing on – parchment. Indeed, the word “parchment” is derived from the name Pergamon.

However, we decided not to take up the option of going to Pergamon. Having spent the two previous days rather intensely exploring Istanbul, before that walking long distances in Volos (and add to that the grueling traveling to Piraeus just days before), and knowing we would have another intensive day ahead of us tomorrow, exploring Ephesus, we decided a day of exploring Dikili would be just the ticket to gather strengtht for the next day.

Access to Dikili was by a tender and I must say that this was surprisingly slow. My previous experiences at tendering are both from ships of MSC Cruses where things went surprisingly smoothly and quickly. Even though you’d expect a Dutch ship to be more efficient than an Italian ship, the opposite turned out to be true. Then again, we weren’t in a hurry so I’ve got little reason to complain.

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The first thing that greeted us after getting off the tenders at Dikili main square was the common element of just about every Turkish town: a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Although the cult of personality around him reminds a western viewer of nothing so much as Stalin, Atatürk is remembered and revered not only as the Father of Modern Turkey (indeed, “Atatürk” means “Father of Turks”), but also as the architect of democracy and liberalism in Turkey.

As said, Dikili was a small town and quickly explored. But with the benifit of hindshight, it was a very good destination, for it was not a tourist place at all. Sure, there were hotels, but compared to the three upcoming Turkish ports, which all definately qualified as tourist traps, Dikili was very genuine. We walked around the town, looked at some shops, tried Turkish Coffee (which was surprisingly tasty… and I say this as someone who doesn’t like coffee), and made some friends with local cats (again). All in all, Dikili was a very pleasant break-day to have between the intensive ports visited.

Back onboard we had quick lunch at the Buffet (hey, we’re Finnish, we love self-service) and settled in The Crow’s Nest to watch our departure and meandering through the Greek isles (and the mention of Greece is not a typo. When sailing between the Turkish ports, we sailed through Greek territorial waters). Although it must be said that it got dark so quickly there really wasn’t that much to see outside.

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Although theoretically a single space, The Crow’s Nest is divided into three areas with different decors and ambiences. Here is the port side, decidedly the most nautical of the sections.

This evening’s entertainment was the brilliant concert pianist Jason Ridgway, who treated us with about an hour of absolutely superb solo piano. Ridgway’s performance was also the first time that anything in the onboard entertainment touched on the area were were sailing in at any way, with two very different arrangements of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (“Turkish March”).

After mr Ridgway’s performance there was a chance to buy a CD of his performances, and we jumped at the chance, deciding to buy two (one for ourselves and one for Maria’s mother). Ahead of us in the line to get Ridgway’s signature was an elderly woman named Adeline, who told Ridgway she was learning to play Liszt’s Liebensraum no. 3, a piece that appeared on Ridgway’s CD but that he had not played in  the night’s performance. Long story short, Ridgway promised to try and play it on his second performance of the night.

After Ridgway’s first performance we headed to The Mix bar to listen to a very different kind of pianist, the Rotterdam’s Piano Bar entertainer Les, who was offering a 70s and 80s hour suitably just as we were there. The man was rather skilled and as such it is no surprise the bar was packed. After a while of listening to Les it was time for Ridgway’s second performance – where he did play Liebensraum no. 3, despite not having had any time to practice it between the two performances.

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Day Five towel animal, which I presume was either a swan or a peacock.

After listening to monsieur Ridgway for a second time, it was time to head for bed and the day exploring Ephesus that was to follow.

Third part will follow soon. Read the first part of the report here.


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 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).

Turkish Discovery On The Rotterdam, Part One: Volos and Istanbul

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.

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Home sweet home – at least fot the next ten days: Vista Suite 6179

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…

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A particularly nice touch was the presence of a Location Guide onboard. Here “our” guide Brett is giving his first presentation at the Showroom at Sea.

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.

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The Retreat, aft on deck 8, is without a doubt the ship’s best outdoors area. Unfortunately it does not have a pool; the original pool was removed in the ship’s 2009 refit (presumably for stability reasons), replaced by this unusual wading pool with sun loungers – an arrangement that was not popular during our cruise at least.

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.

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A row of dilapidated steam locomotives outside the Volos railway station. Presumably these are/were a part of the collection of the Volos Railway Museum, but they appeared more or less abandoned.

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).

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The main (well, only) swimming pool of the Rotterdam.

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.

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The Hagia Sophia seen from the Bosphorus.

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.

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Historical trams meet on Istikal Caddesi.

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).