Friday, May 30, 2008

Cooking for a Crowd

Can you imagine being in charge of 12,000 servings of food a day? Of supervising 80 chefs and 40 clean-up people? That’s the job of Andrew Cartwright, the Executive Chef on our cruiseship.

I have been most intrigued with the food on this cruise. It’s plentiful, varied, and of extremely high quality. I wondered just how they managed to consistently pull this off. So I wrote a letter to Mr. Cartwright asking for a tour of the kitchen. We were somewhat surprised when he personally called and arranged a time to brief us.

Multiple industrial-size coffee urns supply the ship’s needs.

They talk about recipes in multiples of 100. The cooking containers for each of the day’s 5 soups have about the same volume as a bathtub.

Polenta is turned out of the pan cut into hundreds of pieces.

The desserts are plated to match these pictures.

The wine cellar, which is about the size of a garage, is kept locked. Our half bottle of wine from last night’s dinner sits in there somewhere with our name on it and will miraculously appear at our table tonight.

As we finished our tour at 5:00, staff were already getting the dining room ready for the first seating of 700 at 6:30, followed by a seating of 1100 at 9:00.

Mr. Cartwright appeared calm and collected, but he let us know this is just the calm before the storm.

I now know that steak and shrimp cocktail are on the menu for tonight, but the remaining choices will wait for 6:30.

Tomorrow we leave our floating home to hop on a train and head south to the Amalfi Coast, where we will live in a rental house in Praiano for the last 2 weeks of the trip. I’m rather looking forward to staying put for a while.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Corfu: Final Port of Call

It was a hot day to be doing much besides sitting at the pool with a cool drink and a good book. That would definitely have been the more relaxing thing to do. But instead we felt compelled to spend hours walking around Corfu, our final port of call.

Since we didn’t take an excursion, we were limited to what we could see on foot. The walk from the dock was not one of the more picturesque parts of town. But finally we reached the town center and things improved. We couldn’t resist following a sign that said “Jewish quarter”, which led us to this bakery where the owner claims not to use butter, milk, or sugar. I find it hard to believe she can turn out such a variety of pastries without these key ingredients. We ended up with 5 Euros worth of sweet stuff that we didn’t really want or need just because the woman was so nice.

Clothes and jewelry seem to be the hot items for sale. It would seem Italian fashion is everyone’s ideal.

We ran into our traveling companions who had hiked up to an old fort and we all sat at an outdoor cafe for a cool drink.

When we wandered over to the water, I spied the boat on which I wish I had spent the afternoon.

The Corfu pigeons were feeling especially amorous despite the heat.

As we walked back to our ship, the Splendor of the Seas, I once again realized just how big it is. You can see the bus pulling away as we make our final boarding. Those little boats hanging on the side are how we would survive if it went down, something hard to imagine. The people who paid the big bucks have the balconies on decks 7 and 8.

Tomorrow is a day at sea and then we arrive back at Venice on Saturday morning. In many ways it will be nice not to have all the constant food temptations the cruise offers. We can once again eat a big salad for dinner instead of a three-course meal if we choose.

But until then we continue to live in this floating city that provides all the comforts of home and more.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Day on Santorini

Who would have ever thought that one of my most vivid memories of Santorini would be the smell of donkey dung? We had a day to wander all over this lovely island, taking in the sights, sounds, and indeed the smells.

After our last fiasco taking tenders to shore, my friend and I offered to get in line at the crack of dawn to get a tender number. She drank coffee while I yawned and we waited to find out what boat we would be taking. Tender 3 proved a lot better than tender 12!

Upon reaching Santorini we found 3 options for getting up to the town of Thira: a cable car with a 45-minute wait, 580 steps up, or a donkey that stunk to high heaven. While our friends scampered up like mountain goats, we opted for the cable car. No one wanted to get near the donkeys.
At the top it was another experience of wall-to-wall tourists from the 3 cruise ships docked offshore. We quickly found a bus for 2.80 Euros and headed off to Oia (pronounced ee-ah). Not that there were not tourists in Oia, but there were not as many and the views were exceptional.

We had tentatively agreed to meet our friends at a town midway between Thira and Oia, so I flagged down a bus and we hopped back on at no charge. Go figure!

The Cafe Galini offered a wonderful view of the harbor while we ate traditional Greek food and drank iced coffee that was to die for! There is nothing better on a hot day like this one.

We decided to brave it and take the 580 steps to get back down to where we picked up the tender. The trip down was shared with more donkeys than I could count. Although they never stepped on me, I gasped a couple of times as I almost got pinned between a donkey and the wall.

Santorini would be a paradise if it weren’t for all the cruiseships that dock there. I’m sure those who live there sometimes wish for a break from all the tourists who are constantly invading their beautiful island.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Taste of Turkey

I am quickly concluding that it is entirely unfair to judge a place by what you see in a few hours ashore. You walk off the ship with SUCKER written on your forehead and there is no end to the people who try to sell you something.

Today we docked at Kusadasi, Turkey, where we spent the day on a bus tour to the final home of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus, and a Turkish carpet demonstration and shopping in this small port town.

Having studied Ephesians in my former religious life, it was extremely interesting to see the remains of ancient Ephesus, a town whose hayday was in the early centuries CE.

We had a really knowledgeable guide who made the heat bearable, but I can truly say the highlights of my day were buying a pair of clip-on sunglasses for 7 Euros (bargained down from 10) and a Turkish coffee for 1.50 Euros.

I passed up a beautiful $1,800 rug and a wall full of D&G and Prada leather purses. I passed up pashminas of every possible color. I passed up so many other shopping opportunities by people who were hungry to sell something to Americans.

I am safely BOB (back on the boat) ready to move on to Santorini tomorrow. This whole cruise thing is a little surreal.

Cruise Casting

A cruise has this way of demarcating two populations of people: those who serve and those who receive. I had forgotten just how clear that dividing line is.

There are approximately 2,500 passengers on this Royal Caribbean cruise. To serve them are 700 staff members from 62 countries. They live on the underwater decks of the ship in the equivalent of their own little town, never being allowed to use the facilities used by the guests. They are allowed a few hours off each day, but for much of the time they are working hard.

Their constant goal is to make the passengers happy and thereby maximize their tips. This means cleaning up after the teenagers who leave dirty dishes next to their lounge chairs. It means snapping photos for guests. It means putting up with loud, obnoxious passengers who have had way too much to drink. It even means making cute animals out of towels and leaving chocolates when they come into our cabins in the evenings when we are at dinner.

This idea of being waited on is never more obvious than at mealtimes. I barely sit down to dinner when our waiter Sandro puts my napkin in my lap. He cheerfully reels off the “entries” as he calls them with a big smile on his face and goes through the motions of serving a 3-course meal each evening, knowing full well he has to start all over for the 9:00 pm seating.

I’m sure many of these people from the 62 countries had never been out of their native country before signing on with Royal Caribbean. Even though they probably aren’t paid extremely well, relying to a great degree on tips, they are undoubtedly making more money than they ever before did and sending a lot of it home to family.

But it’s this caste system that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. I like to think of all people being equal and this is definitely not the case. I suppose I was just not cut out to be royalty.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Going Ashore

There are many good things to be said about a cruise, but the difficulties of moving people off and back on the ship when you come to a port are somewhat overwhelming.

We spent the day in Dubrovnik -- that would be more like we spent 2 hours in Dubrovnik after we took a tender (lifeboat) to a bus to the old walled city, where we walked the wall, and then reversed the process. Each leg of this journey required waiting in a line, which some people respected more than others. We figure about 2,000 people from our ship went ashore. This was all complicated further by the fact that there were something like 4 cruiseships doing the same thing.

There were spectacular views of the sea from the 11th century wall around the city. The red tile roofs, the blue-green water, and the rocky shoreline all provided excellent photo ops. Brave souls were diving into the sparkling water from the rocks above us, while others were loading the cannons in our defense.

(Note the bodies in mid-air!)

But without a doubt, those who stayed on the ship poolside or enjoyed spa services found the relaxation we were missing as we made our first trip ashore.

Tomorrow is a full day at sea as we travel on to Turkey. My treat for the day will be a Swedish massage mid-afternoon. Much needed after hauling my suitcase around for a week!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

At Sea

I find it somewhat amazing that we an sit here in the middle of the Adriatic on a moving cruiseship logged onto the Internet. We tore ourselves away from pretty Venice to begin a week-long trip that will ultimately take us to Dubrovnik, Santorini, Corfu, and Ephesus.

Our last morning in Venice saw the sun shining brightly as we rejoined our traveling companions to explore the Rialto markets in search of Murano beads. We found every color and shape of bead imaginable and marveled at the other window displays of beautiful yarns, leather gloves, and amazing fashion.

Then it came time to cram everything back in my way-too-heavy suitcase. As I looked for pounds to shed, I decided Rick Steves’ Venice 2008 would be a nice gift to someone just arriving in Venice.

So a random act of kindness put it in the hands of a beautiful young woman, who then helped me hoist my suitcase off the vaporetto.

At the high cost of wi-fi on this ship, I may never get to post another photo.

I’ve got to get some sleep to be up early for the gym and a yoga class before we dock in Dubrovnik. I may need the last two weeks to rest up from the demanding schedule of this cruise. But meanwhile I’m succumbing to the temptation of way too much good food and way too little time to take advantage of a smorgasbord of activities.

Let the sun keep shining!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Pretty Venice

Venice in sunshine quickly surpassed memories of Rome in rain. And the glisten of water, water everywhere reminded my of why I had liked Venice so much all those years ago.

It was an afternoon without a plan, without relying on Rick Steves' recommendations. We wandered aimlessly through the small streets and over the bridges of Venice, taking in the sights and smells, buying little besides nourishment, and taking lots of pictures. It would seem that just about anywhere you look is a photo op.

We quickly got used to the fact that these people are well-meaning, but not very precise, when it comes to directions. It seems that everything is about a 10-minute walk, which is usually quite wrong.

Our last stop on our walking tour was St. Marks square, a beautiful piazza dating back to the 11th century. From there we caught a water taxi, which slowly took us back to our hotel.

We met lots of nice people on our travels today. A couple from Venice taught me a trick for corraling my suitcase on the train. A couple from Miami on the water taxi traded stories of travel in Italy with us. Tonight as we ate in a kosher Italian restaurant, we struck up a conversation with a German couple from Hamburg.

A little sun and a lot of walking in this most unique city rendered me a fit traveling companion once again.

However, I'm preparing myself for another 70% rain day tomorrow. Hopefully we will find interesting things to do indoors.

(the next day) The rain turned out to be a few sprinkles. We spent the day exploring non-touristy areas of Venice and re-joining the throngs of tourists to visit the glass factories on Murano, an island off of Venice. It was fascinating to watch these artists continue a trade that has been most of their families for generations.

I'm in love with Venice, just as we prepare to leave tomorrow on a cruiseship. Maybe someday when I can use our computer on the Internet my photos can catch up with my words on this Blog!

A Moment of Panic

I think I was having sort of a panic attack as I sat there next to track 3 in the train station in Rome. I had no passport, no Eurail pass, not a single Euro.

We had gotten on a train intended for Venice when I decided to check with a Trenitalia guy about the validity of our tickets.

It turns out we needed a reservation for that train AND would need to have our Eurail pass validated before using it for the first time (or pay 100 Euros).

So we hauled all our stuff off that train and I opted to wait with it while my husband sought out the ticket office and tried to get us legitimately on the next train.

As I watched the ideal train to Venice pull away, I suddenly felt all alone, Euroless, and undocumented.

As the minutes ticked away and he didn't return and I realized we were in jeopardy of missing the next train to Venice, I started to feel panicky.

What if he had gotten mugged? What if he had had a medical emergency? What if he had just disappeared (sometimes the theme of European thrillers)? More likely, what if he had forgotten where I was sitting?

My feelings were alternating between fear and anger at being abandoned when he finally appeared. We're now leaving from track 8, he said.

So we schlepped all our stuff over to track 8, car 12 (which seemed to be about a mile down the track), and went through the task of finding our seats and space for our luggage.

We're finally under way as I look out to see the sun shining on the Italian countryside. I now feel legitimate once again as I touch my passport. My panic has been replaced by a feeling of regret that we're inside a train for 4 hours on the first nice day of the trip.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Reality of Rainy Rome

This our only full day in Rome evoked a lot of “if only’s”. But it definitely improved as time passed.

(Pictures to be added when technical difficulties are resolved.)

Upon finding the rain to have stopped this morning, we opted to see the antiquities starting with the Colosseum. (Our traveling companions went for the Vatican and its accompanying museum just to play it safe.)

We had just signed ourselves up for a guided tour of the Colosseum when it started to rain. The guide was actually issued a microphone so he could be heard above the rain. I learned a lot of things I had never known about the Colosseum, but the visibility was poor and we were all literally dripping wet.

The rain let up just about the time the tour ended, so we walked from there to the old Jewish ghetto, taking in all the antiquities along the way (despite the fact that the Romans seldom see to put up a sign telling you what you are looking at.) We had to try hard to avoid all the puddles.

Lunch was way-too-salty anchovy pizza that failed to live up to my pizza standards.

The Jewish museum and synagogue tour was informative. We learned that Jews have been in Rome continuously since the 2nd century BCE. Instead of Yiddish they speak a language that combines Italian and Hebrew. There are currently only about 15,000 Jews living in Rome.

We wandered around the former ghetto area, waiting in a long line to buy the greatest Jewish cheesecake I have ever eaten.

Dinner was significantly better than lunch. My friend Kris had paper thin pizza topped with mushrooms and bacon that was undoubtedly the best choice.

Once again the highlights of my trip seem to revolve about food. But I figure if eating takes my mind off the rain, it’s just fine.

Tomorrow as the sun comes out here, we’re headed to Venice for more good food, a gondola ride, and perhaps some Murano glass.

Getting Reacquainted with Rome

It was sunny above the clouds, but as we landed in Rome the sun gave way to rain and the weather prognosticator was vindicated.

(Pictures to be added when technical difficulties are resolved.)

The first stop in any foreign country for us seems to always be a phone store. The cheap phone we had bought in Germany, which was guaranteed to work in other countries with the change of a SIM card, did in fact not work. So now we are the proud owners of a Nokia phone that at least works in Italy.

Mouse -- The same store had a variety of Rowena irons.

While I waited for the phone transaction to conclude, I snapped pictures of rush hour traffic in Rome and umbrellaed Romans.

Walking back to our hotel, I noted that Romans were no better than Berliners at scooping their dog poop and the owner of this pile must be the size of a small horse.

After our traveling companions arrived, we headed off in the rain to the Spanish Steps in search of a restaurant someone had told them not to miss: Otello a la Concordia. This kitchen scene and the smell boded well.

Here rain-soaked travelers wait for a table.

The fettuccine with bacon and truffles was to die for.

I’m resigned to the fact that it will be a while before we see the sun.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

En Route -- CDG

Let’s face it -- air travel is just plain stressful. Every step of the line involves yet another line. Shoes come off; shoes go on.

But so far the best surprise was the meal on Air France, which was announced with a “postcard” menu: couscous with salmon appetizer, succulent beef tips with vegetables, chocolate pudding, Camembert, and an assortment of alcoholic beverages. I usually stick to seltzer, but in the interest of falling asleep I went with a delicious Viognier and Pear Williams liqueur.

It’s a good thing we slept because we needed all the energy we could muster to stand in yet more lines in Paris en route to Rome: immigration, security, money exchange.

For the weary traveler, there was an island of calm. It was tempting, but we decided to spend our money on a croissant, a cafe au lait, and a Vittel.

The sun is shining in Paris. Could it be that the weather prediction for Rome was wrong? Hope springs eternal!