Crossing the Mediterranean
One-day flash tour to Jerusalem
Hi everyone, it's me - again.
This time I have nicer stories to tell (compared to my last mail *any* story would be nicer methinks), mainly from Cyprus but also some small tales from Israel, Greece and Turkey. Yes, we made it across the Mediterranean and have now been lazy in Istanbul for the last two weeks awaiting our Iranian visa. More on that later though as I now pick up where I left off last time.
One-day flash tour to Jerusalem
As I finished my last mail we'd just got back to our cabin onboard the Salamis Star and found out that we're actually going to spend a whole day at bay in Haifa, Israel. It turns out that this is indeed a cruiseship and we've just got ourselves an exception to the rule that no one-way passengers are allowed! On the itinerary for tomorrow is a guided bus tour from Haifa to Jerusalem and we can both join for CYP £10, approx US $15, if we want to. We're a bit wary to begin with as we've been avoiding visiting Israel for now just not to get any incriminating stamps in our passports should the Iranian embassy make a fuss about it. It turns out we're not even going to be using our passports, they're being kept onboard the ship and we'll be travelling through Israel on a piece of paper. Sounds good to us and we can't really complain about the price (US $15) for a full day tour to Jerusalem incl. bus, guide and food!
Said and done. We get up early next morning (06.00) to have breakfast and then present ourselves at the information desk for our tickets at 07.30. The three customs officers that process our passports whisk me through without as much as a glance while Bettinas passport gets a more thorough examination and some questions about her Syrian stamps and the, still unused, Pakistan visa. Our bags also gets scanned, as would be expected considering the ongoing troubles we've heard of so frequently in the news.
We choose to board the bus with English speaking guide as opposed to the German speaking one since Bettinas english is far, far better than my German. This turns out to be a mistake which we correct at our first stop at the 'Elvis museum' (sic). During the first 1½ hours of the bus trip towards Jerusalem the English speaking guide gives precious little real information, instead spending most his time telling stupid jokes and asking where people come from... I guess it's called 'bonding' but we feel it's a waste of our time and money since we only have one day here! To further contrast the ineptness of the English speaking guide there's an excellent Dutch guide in the rear section of the bus (where we sit). As soon as we get on the bus he starts bombarding the Dutch group in the back (and us) with hard facts and stories about Israel. When he's been going for 30 minutes flat without even breathing (seems like) we're seriously impressed by his commitment and passion for his subject. Unfortunately we can only catch about 25-30% of what he's telling since we don't speak Dutch and since the English guide has a microphone that percentage drops even more as he comes online. But as I said, we change over to the German bus at our first stop and truthfully tells the German speaking guide (from an Israeli tour company) why we changed. The German speaking guide turns out to be far better than the English speaking one but nowhere near the Dutch guide who we'd gladly hire for a private tour whenever we come back!
Lax security at the Wailing Wall
It takes us about two hours to get to Jerusalem by bus and a further 30-45 minutes walking through the almost empty streets of central Jerusalem before we finally get to the Wailing Wall. On the way there we pass a small exhibition where a replica of the famous mosaic in Madaba, Jordan, shows a map of Jerusalem as it was in ancient times. We both thought this was a very nice touch since we'd seen the original map, which is part of a bigger mosaic, in a church in Madaba.
Due to the ongoing Hadj (muslim season of pilgrimage to Mekka) most of the muslim-owned shops were closed and as the number of tourists had decreased rapidly since the start of the intifada, the souks felt eerily deserted and empty. We were both quite thankful for this (the emptiness, not the intifada) since we didn't have to line up for any of the regular sights of Jerusalem and had space enough to stroll around without constantly bumping into people. Our guide even told us that he'd never seen the place as empty as it was now!
Arrival at the Wailing Wall was quite a disappointment since I expected it to be more... well... I don't know what I expected but it was 'just a wall' as far as I'm concerned, albeit a wall with history... The square in front of the wall was the only place on the whole tour were we had to go through some kind of security check. We had expected as much but were very surprised at how lax the check was; the first three persons of our group or so were thoroughly scanned and made go back through the MagnaScan until they were 'beep free'. After that, the security guys apparently got bored with the whole procedure and just let the whole group through while the MagnaScan was beeping like a modern mobile phone gone berserk. NOT what we expected!
After the Wailing Wall and a visit to the church where Jesus allegedly was buried (the Dutch guide showed us into the original crypt behind the new shrine, the English guide didn't bother) our time in Jerusalem had come to an end... well... an obligatory visit to a 'market' was conducted. Our guide throughout the tour repeatedly mentioned some nice souvenirs to bring home from Jerusalem and a good 'market' to buy them in. To our surprise (not really) the whole group were led into one specific souvenir shop whereafter the guide resolutely closed the door behind to keep them inside and any other salesmen outside! Only me, Bettina, a german guy and another german (who was ripped of by a postcard selling kid - 'no change, Mr.') remained outside. Bettina used the time to visit the Fransiscan church just nearby and I chatted a while with some of the other shop owners... until it was clear I didn't really want to buy anything. We were a bit sad at seeing how many of the people of the tourgroup actually followed straight into the shop without even looking around for alternatives but at the same time we were pressed for time so it might be understandable after all.
Getting back to the bus we were taken to a scenic spot with a view over the hills of Jerusalem and later to another spot from which we could make out Betlehem in the distance. Unfortunately we couldn't visit Betlehem at the time since it was closed off for tourists for security reasons. A visit to Genesaret would also take too long so for our pressed schedule so instead, we started off on our way back towards Haifa and made a [very brief] stop at the beach in Ceasaria to see the remains of an old aqueduct. Impressive engineering by the Romans I must say! After this, our time was *really* running short (according to our guide) so we only had time for ... 45 minutes in a 'Diamond Factory' (another souvenir shop) outside Haifa and a further hour driving around Haifa for a view over the city 'by night'!
All in all the tour was worth the money and time but we felt that the second half of the day was a complete waste of time as we'd easily had time to go to Genesaret if we'd skipped the 'market', Ceasaria and the 'Diamond Factory'. This just confirmed to us that we definately are not made for 'package tours' of this sort - we just *need* the flexibility and freedom that independent travel brings. (Which also has its downsides - see previous travel updates ;-)
Welcome to paradise!
Another early morning call, 06.45, on arrival at Limassols New Port in Cyprus. The passport police didn't at all seem to interested in our passports but more concerned about how much cash we were carrying into the country to sustain ourselves. We later learned that lots of people from east Europe come to Cyprus over the summer season to work so this was probably the reason for the questions.
The contrasts to Egypt (which by now felt like bad dream) couldn't be greater (maybe they could but we're talking major culture shock here!). Even before we step through customs there's a tourist information booth which turns out to have incredibly good info; good maps, hotel guides (incl. budget choices), travel guides and helpful staff. Walking outside after being whisked through customs, there's immediately a huge big sign telling us how to get into town and how much it costs. The bus stop was clearly marked and the bus arrives in less than five minutes. As we get off at the Old Port the bus driver wishes us a pleasant stay before driving on! Such small things felt like pure revelations of almost religious proportions to us, weary of having to fight our ways through almost any given situation (at least that's how we'll remember Egypt even if it wasn't like that at many of times).
The next thing we notice is how bl**dy expensive Cyprus most likely will be. We check into the cheapest place we can find (as recommended by the tourist info) and have to pay £10 ~ US $15 for a double with 'kind of bathroom' inside. Oh well, at least it's *quiet* - like a grave! Throughout our first day in Limassol we're constantly amazed at how incredibly *nice* this place is. Just walking along the corniche, sitting for an hour on the rocks (hardly any garbage at all and clear water) or sharing some bread, yoghurt & cheese in the park outside the library without being so much as looked at in a hostile manner feels incredibly relieving. We soak it up like sponges... culminating as we reach a beautiful botanical garden housing the small Zoo of Limassol. The aroma of [we later learn] citrus trees in full bloom fills the air, the park is tended, clean and lush with all kinds of flowers, trees and plants. We feel as we're on drugs - this can't be real... but it is... and we recognize the all familiar signs of a full blown culture shock. Good thing it's a positive one!
Limassol ticket woes
Nothing is ever perfect and once again its boat tickets that give us sleepless nights (not really). In the afternoon of the first day we start asking around for ships to Lebanon or straight to Turkey. Asking about crossing to the Turkish occupied side of Cyprus and possibility to go from there didn't get us anywhere - a lot of ill blood we gather. We finally got hold of company specializing in visas, work permits and such where we asked if it was at all possible to cross over to the Turkish side permanently. The answer was 'no' so we trusted that it's not possible - legally at least - and put the straight route to Turkey out of our minds.
Since our reason to go to Turkey is to get hold of an Iranian visa and continue on through Iran to Pakistan we also try to arrange for our Iranian visa on Cyprus. After calling the Iranian embassy we get to know that we can *not* get visas at the embassy, only through arrangements with a travel agency in Iran will we be issued a visa! We're given a telephone number to the Iran Airlines under the pretext that they might be able to put us in contact with a tour company in Iran. Not so. We ask in a travel agent who calls Iran Airlines for us but they refer us back to the embassy. Returning to Turkey and arranging the visa there seems to be the only sensible thing to do.
Most ticket agencies we asked in told us that there *are* ships, but not until April when the season starts. Until then the only option seemed to be to go to Athens and from there to Istanbul by bus. We even went straight to the shipping line, Salamis Tours, office and inquired there but they didn't seem to know more than the travel agents despite their brochures saying they have weekly departures Rhodos and Athens.
It's not until we've spent the second day hunting around that we feel like giving in and, as a last resort, return to Salamis Tours that we find someone who actually *knows* about the business. Sure there are boats to Rhodos on Tuesdays and of course we can get a ticket! We guess Salamis Tours must have a really bad commission rate or simply a poor information department since no travel agents we spoke to in Limassol (or Egypt, as you know) seems to know about their boats! As it turned out, the first boat to sail only had cabins availible and we wanted the cheaper deck tickets so we decided to stay an extra week on Cyprus since we already went through so much trouble and spent a fair amount of cash getting there.
Close to heaven in the Troodos mountains
No matter how relaxing and liberating Limassol feels there's no way that we'll want to spend a full two weeks there awaiting our ship and going to another big city (Pafos, Nicosia) doesn't feel right. No, we decide to get some fresh mountain air and exercise in the Troodos mountain region just 50 km north of Limassol. Getting there by public transportation (which on Cyprus is quite limited outside of urban areas - everybody has a car or rents one) isn't too easy but we can get as far as Pano Platres by share taxi. (More info from the very helpful tourist information.)
Said and done. We get a slightly less than an hour ride in a converted Mercedes limousine (or so it looks) carrying a maximum of seven passengers (today five incl. us) up to Pano Platres. No snowcapped peeks around but beautiful pine forest, clear air and a negligible amount of traffic (a car an hour or so) in the small, quiet village of Pano Platres. Asking in the tourist information (conveniently located next to the taxi stop) for cheap hotels we're pointed to the 'Village Restaurant & Hotel' where we're told it's £6 per person for accomodation or £10 for half board. When we arrive, the whole place looks way to luxurious to us and completely empty. This is definately *off* season! A major difference from Egypt strikes us once again as we try to bargain for our hotel room; the guy won't budge from his £10/pp & night, dinner included. Being used to bargaining from Egypt we press on though, explaining that we usually make breakfast ourselves and don't want food included. He then offers us a small one-room flat with a small kitchen and bathroom inside at the same rate as the room with outside toilet we're first offered. When we continue to look sceptical he even tosses in a free bottle of wine with dinner every day. We succumb to the lure of luxury and decide to spend a week recuperating in the clear mountain air.
The money turns out to be well spent; the week turns into nine days, eight nights, as we fall in love with the stunningly beautiful area where spring is well into its second phase. Long, slow mornings while waiting for the sun to chase away the night cold; quiet one-day treks through along the mountain sides where the air is heavily scented with pine; glorious dinners with excellent housewine in the evenings. Fabulous! This was exactly what we needed to get Egypt out of our system and at the end of the week we start feeling ourselves again.
Our first trek went to the easily accessible 'Kaledonia Waterfalls', just about three kilometres from our hotel. An easy trekk and also the most popular one we met several other tourists on our way there and at the falls but since the season still hasn't started it's still very, very quiet and following the clear spring stream up the mountainside is pure joy! The waterfalls themselves were not so impressive and will probably be even less so in summer when we guess they must be more or less dried out (Cyprus has a serious water shortage and transport huge amounts of fresh water in using tankers). Not content with walking back down the same way we came we continued our way up the stream only to arrive a couple kilometers short of Troodos Town. We then doubled back and found a completely isolated and empty path leading along the mountain side opposite Pano Platres. The decline through sparse pine forest was very easy and there were no man-made sounds what-so-ever... we even saw the hoof prints of mountain goats and a glimpse of one as it escaped out of our way as we approached.
Secondly, we took a walk along the 'Artemis Trail' which circumambulates the Mt. Olympos, the highest mountain in Cyprus. The path leads out from some kilometres above Troodos town, 10 km from Pano Platres, but we were lucky enough to catch a lift with a scotch couple on their way to Troodos. Before dropping us off the even took us to the top of the mountain for a view... or what used to be a view when they were there 3-4 years ago. Today the two peaks of the mountain are fenced off to tourists as they boast some huge spherical radar installations. We were a bit surprised at seeing this as Cyprus seems to be so aware of how to maximize their resources for tourism purposes but maybe the radars are for the air traffic control keeping track of the massive flight traffic in summer, what do we know? Our friends, who return to Cyprus annually, also told us that this was the first time they come off season and that the island is completely different in high season. The quiet, green landscape we were enjoying is replaced by a dry, dusty and overcrowded scene as the tourist season begins. We had already guessed as much as the small village of Pano Platres boasted several quite large hotels and numerous village inns, taverns and restaurants. We felt privileged to see it off season and anyone looking for something else than the beach would be well adviced to go there in March before low season starts (end of March). *Off* season is the way to go - except if you want easy boat tickets, perhaps ;-)
The Artemis Trail wasn't as nice as the one we found on our way back from the Kaledonia Waterfalls but at least we got some marvellous views of both sides of the island, two of the ski-slopes and the dubious pleasure of trudging through 30 cm of snow for an hour on the northern side of the mountain... Refreshing! Getting back to Pano Platres turned out to be harder than getting away. No cars stopped to pick us up, neither the numerous rental cars driven by tourists nor the locals. Darn. We spent another two hours walking all the way down again, revisiting the Kaledonia waterfall on the way back.
Our third visit was to the more impressive waterfall just two kilometres below town. There we managed to climb up a steep mountain side just to realize we had to climb down on the other side again. Go figure! The waterfall was nicer than the Kaledonia one though since there were no other visitors and the fall itself was more impressive.
Apart from waterfalls we also took two day-trips to the monasteries of the area, one of which is still active and - by the looks of it - quite wealthy. The second one, called 'Mesa Potamos', had been abandoned some time ago and was now only used for special celebrations and festivals. The walk there was nine km along a dirt track leading almost level out of Pano Platres. Not a single person was at the monastery during the hour we spent there and we marvelled at how such a beautiful spot (cherry blossoms, pine scent and mountain views) could've been abandoned. Wouldn't everyone want to live there? Apparently not.
The second monastery, Troditissa, is still in active use and unfortunately visitors are not allowed (understandable considering the amount of tourists visiting Cyprus in summer) to enter lest they disturbe the peace and tranquility of the place. It was tranquil enough, believe me, as it was located on the hillside ten kilometres from Pano Platres. Far and away from the main route to Troodos which pulls most tourists. From a distance the monastery looked like a giant hotel perched on the hillside but at close range it was an impressive complex of well maintained buildings and two churches (that I could see). Listening to the birds sing and enjoying our walk there was more than enough compensation for not being let in!
Final visit to Limassol
Reluctantly, we finally had to leave Pano Platres since I was expecting a parcel at the DHL office in Limassol. So we got up early, early in the morning to catch the only share taxi back to Limassol at 07.00. Being the only two passengers, save a young kid from the village, in the taxi we couldn't help thinking that the share taxi service would soon be suspended. Probably at the moment the current driver dies; listening to him cough over his cigarette didn't exactly create a nice ambience. Seems like its difficult to keep public transportation running in most western economies for some reason.
Back in Limassol we decided to check out a couple of alternative guesthouses since our former place, 'Hellas', was only OK and the beds were of the horrible 'U'-shape style. The only two options turned out to be the 'Luxor' which we'd heard was OK but nothing special. Instead we opted for a place called 'Ikaros', run by an old woman in what seemed to be the remains of her private house. The incredible atmosphere of the place is indescribable; the corridor along which the rooms were located was just *stuffed* with personal things such as wooden camels, porcelaine dogs, pictures of the kids and bird fountains... At the end of the corridor there was an inner courtyard which was so propped full of flowers, bushes and other plants that it was hard to make out the sitting area! Absolutely fabulous. Anyone going to Limassol on a budget - go there. At £10 for a double or £6 for single it's a steal (for being on Cyprus).
Having only two more days to spend in Limassol we didn't do very much sightseeing but managed to get to the Amathos site where an old roman settlement has been excavated. We weren't overly impressed by this site, the fantastic sites in Syria spoiled us too much, but got some interesting insight into the tourist politics of the region as a demonstration was taking place right at the entrance to Amathos. The demonstrators were demanding an end to corruption and equality before the law to everyone. Apparently the landowners around the site are bound by law not to exploit the area or build on the archeologically important site. Being a kilometer long stretch of land in the middle of the tourist area along the beach the land for sure would be extremely valuable if it could be exploited. It seems like some people have been allowed to develop their land while others have not been so lucky or have not been compensated for the land with a decent price. Some such scenario is what we could read between the lines of the pamphlet we were handed. We were quite happy that the area hadn't been 'developed' as the rest of the tourist area (main part of Limassol along the eastern coast road starting at Woolworths...). Passing through the 'tourist area' (sic) we were also relieved that we didn't try to find a cheap, heavily off-season discounted room there. Old Town was soooo much nicer!
As a final goodbye celebration to Limassol and our fabulous stay on Cyprus we decided to celebrate by having dinner at "The Cucoo's Nest", the only place we'd been able to find with decent prices and a local atmosphere. Great it was and stuffed veggies, greek salad and two glasses of wine (one on the house) couldn't have hit home better! We ended up spending another 2-3 hours chatting with an Irish/English couple at the bar. She (Irish) had repeatedly visited Cyprus since December trying to get a flat and he (English) had just retired some years earlier. Having never ever travelled before in his life he found himself taking a weekend trip to Istanbul and then coming back for a prolonged tour through the country of five months before hopping around the Greek archipelago and finally landing on Cyprus. 'No thoughts about going back' is how he described it now :-)
We could hardly have had a better 'departure party' and both woke up with a slight, but noticeable, hangover to haunt us during the final packing procedure. Having cleared our wallets of absolutely *all* Cypriot Pounds we had only enough for the bus to the port and so walked to the nearest bus stop. There we befriended a German family of three who were also on their way to the port to get on the 'Nissos Kypros' to Rhodos. It turned out that they had been on the road since September 2000, travelling more or less the same areas we've covered but with their own car! Hearing their views on the countries we had 'in common' was highly interesting (they *liked* Egypt, in case you wonder) and we spent most of the time onboard chatting with them.
Since we (Bettina and I) only had deck tickets it was back to sleeping outdoors. Thankfully the outside bar at the back of the ship was closed and so the area cleared around midnight giving us ample space and protection from the elements to set up camp in a corner (though not as literally as the Israeli couple who'd set up their tent on the top deck :-). On the whole the trip was uneventful and as we arrived in Rhodos at noon we took farewell of our friends and were first off the boat.
Rhodos ticket woes
Not intending to spend any time at all on Rhodos - pure transit would be fine by us - we were happy to see the number of ships at bay in the harbour and thought it'd be an easy thing to find a cheap and quick transport to Turkey, just visible on the eastern horizon. After an initial 15 minute wait for our passports - Salamis Tours holds them on their boats for some reason - we'd already found one boat (speedboat) heading for Marmaris, Turkey, at 15.30 the same afternoon so things were looking up. Unfortunately there was no way to buy a ticket for this boat inside the harbour so we had to leave the harbour to check around for tickets. Imagine our shock when we were told that the less than 60 minute trip to Marmaris would cost us roughly the same as we'd payed to get all the way from Cyprus to Rhodos! As if the GRD 16'000 wasn't bad enough we would also have to pay an outrageous GRD 3'000 departure tax for Greece - a place we were only transiting for a couple of hours and had they arranged ticketing offices properly we wouldn't even have entered! To add to this there was also a claimed US $10 to enter Turkey - we didn't have to pay one single cent last time we entered in November so either it's specifically for entering by sea, they just introduced it due to their currency crisis OR the shipping company rips people off. Who knows?
After an aggravating couple of hours of running around town trying to find cheaper alternatives it was quite clear to us that there were no alternatives - at least not now, off season. We grudgingly payed the bloodmoney and went to wait on the stairs of the customs building for the ship to start boarding. We still hadn't payed any port tax as the immigration officers told us (when we asked if we could be exempted since we were only transiting) we would do that at the ticket office and the ticket office told us to pay that at immigration! Since we didn't even have any GRD, didn't want to change any and couldn't pay at the ticket office we hoped to be let off the hook. Of course not. Come boarding time our ticket was not sufficient to get on the boat but we had to get a 'boarding card' from a gruffy, rude Greek guy who required the bloody departure tax whether we had GRD or not. Got change - just for this idiotic purpose - and got out of Greece. Hardly the best of impressions of this country I've had (been there twice before).
Back to square one
The boat pulled into Marmaris about an hour and a half after leaving Rhodos so it wasn't even very fast for that kind of money. Relieved we breezed through the well organized customs & passport check and set off for the bus station about two kilometres down the road. As we entered the compound we were mobbed by ticket sellers who all had a bus departing for Istanbul *right now*. Starting price of TRL 16'000'000 (abt $16) for the 12 hour trip was subsequently haggled down to 11'000'000 at the Uludag bus company after a Turkish guy and his British wife recommended them (they were going on the same bus leaving at 18.00). The beauty of the Turkish bus system never ceases to amaze me. It's really possible to get from and to anywhere at a very decent price and at any time of day. Fantastic!
As the bus rolled out of Marmaris at 18.00 sharp we chatted with our newfound friends who were on their way to Istanbul to finish the details for his British visa. They'd had two visits to the embassy prior to this one. It's not easy to get into the EU for anyone living outside but after their marriage things were looking a bit more up. The scenery around Marmaris was really astounding and I could never have guessed that Turkey would be so hilly; mountains and forests wherever we went. Have to come back some day and do a longer tour.
Rolling in at the Istanbul Otogar (bus station) at 07.00 in the morning we got straight onto the transfer bus (included in the bus ticket!) into town and our old hotel from the start of our trip, Hotel Sila in Aksaray. There we tried for our old price of TRL 8'000'000 for a double w. TV, fridge and toilet inside. Unfortunately there had been a change of ownership and the new owner wanted TRL 14'000'000 per night to compensate for the dropping TRL. Our final bid was 10'000'000 which was accepted as we turned and headed for the door. The room wasn't nearly as cosy and luxurious as we thought on our first stay at the hotel but maybe we were just missing the old management. We also felt strangely 'empty' returning to Istanbul which was our first stop after leaving München on the 3rd of November, 2000. Almost like if the past five months hadn't in fact existed.
Heading for Iran
Since we covered the 'musts' in Istanbul pretty well last time we were here we haven't done very much sightseeing for the last two weeks but concentrated on catching up (even more!) on travel logistics such as our Iranian visa application (to be picked up April 3rd), restocking, packages home, packages from home etc. We had also hoped to be able to restock on some greenbacks here but as the Turkish Lira is so incredibly unstable it jumps up and down by as much as 10% within a couple of hours! More than enough to make a simple cash withdraval a serious gamble - either win or lose 10%! Instead, we'll continue with what cash we have and hope to be able to use our D-marks and remaining dollars in Iran where AmEx traveller cheques are not valid due to American trading embargoes.
Possible departure date for Iran is April 3rd but more likely April 4th when we head for either Tabriz or straight to Teheran. All depends on what kind of a visa we get on Tuesday, hopefully a one month tourist visa but a five day transit visa might be all we get...
Next email stop will most likely be Teheran so I might be offline for a while but as always, I reply all emails I get personally so don't let this massmail deter you from writing :-)
Til' next time
PS! All previous travel updates, mine (in English) and Bettinas (in German), are now availible on our travel homepage at: <http://wegototrip.to/> DS.