"Adventures Abroad with Abbamonte"

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A Day in Thessaloniki, Greece

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A day in Thessaloniki, Greece is a great introduction to Greece’s Second City. Often overlooked by tourists for Athens and the islands, Thessaloniki has quietly been developing its own identity and with a massive young population, it is progressing nicely. Lonely Planet named Thessaloniki as one of the top five party cities in the world. Walking around Thessaloniki, you get a sense of the energy and vibe of the city. It’s a really cool town. It’s not a beautiful place by any means but it has that cool Greenwich Village type edge to it and it’s a great place to stroll around.

 Thessaloniki 1

My day in Thessaloniki started at sunrise when the Azamara Quest pulled into port to a gorgeous sunrise. I had heard bad things about Thessaloniki beforehand. I had heard that it was pretty rundown and ugly and that it got really hammered by the recent economic downturn that crushed Greece.

When you leave the port, it really isn’t that pretty but as you walk along more and head back into the windy back streets, you feel the vibe and see the incredible café culture. It reminded of Melbourne, Australia in that way.

Thessaloniki 4

There are more cafes and bars in Thessaloniki than any city I can think of off the top of my head for a small city-even though a million people live in the metro area. Needless to say, it’s a great place for a coffee and of course a gyro…or two!

Thessaloniki 2 

Thessaloniki 3

The city looks very standard European on the surface but as you walk along more, it feels and looks a bit like Paris in some areas. There are some really cool looking apartment buildings in town.

 Thessaloniki 5

The other thing Thessaloniki has is a ton of little churches. I was really taken aback by how many small little churches there were seemingly built into residential buildings. 

Thessaloniki 6

This is in addition to some of the cool bigger churches and buildings they have around town. I loved the Rotunda in the center of town. Although the inside was under construction, it certainly looked cool from the outside.

Thessaloniki 7

In town, there are old ruins and modern buildings side by side all over the place. As you move back toward the waterfront promenade, you will undoubtedly come across the White Tower.

Thessaloniki 8 

The White Tower is the most famous site in Thessaloniki. It’s nothing amazing but worth a look. From port you have to walk the whole waterfront to get there so you get to see quite a bit. You can go up for a small fee. I didn’t go as the line was too long.

Thessaloniki 9

I really liked Thessaloniki and was pleasantly surprised. I feel like it’s the type of city that’s cool to live in or spend a week living in an apartment. However, a day in Thessaloniki is plenty to whet your appetite and give you a taste of what Thessaloniki is all about. I would definitely return.

Meteora is Otherworldly

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I’ve wanted to go to Meteora, Greece before I even knew where it was. I remember watching the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’ as a kid and thinking, “Wow that place looks cool”. Fast forward some 25 years later and there I was in Meteora and it was just as cool as I wanted it to be! Meteora is absolutely breathtaking. Meteora is otherworldly!

Meteora 1

When I first decided to do this cruise with Azamara Club Cruises on the Azamara Quest, there was one destination that stood out to me and that was Meteora. The port town is Volos. I admittedly had never heard of Volos and not many people have for sure. But it’s about a two-hour drive or so to Meteora and well worth the trip!

Meteora 2

I had been so looking forward to this excursion but when we arrived in Volos, the weather was not good. It has been raining for the last few days on and off and it was very cloudy. The clouds were low which meant that at the elevation of Meteora there was a chance we’d see nothing at all. I was concerned but stayed positive.

Meteora 3

 When we arrived in Meteora, you could barely see your hands in front of your face. The clouds were so low that we were in them. You couldn’t see any of the six famous Monasteries that dot the sandstone pillars. I was feeling down but was optimistic that the clouds would rise.

Meteora 4

 The first Monastery we visited was the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen. When we arrived the weather was terrible and there were no views at all. Inside the Monastery, it was beautiful, of course. The only issue I had was that there were way too many tourists in a small space so after touring the inside of the Monastery; I headed outside hoping for a break in the clouds. Ironically, I ran into two people I knew at the Monastery.

Meteora 5

After leaving Saint Stephen and heading to the Holy Monastery of Varlaam, the clouds started to rise and you could see the famous rocks and also the Monasteries. I was so happy I can’t even tell you. The views were phenomenal.

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Varlaam is a bit of a walk up and there is some construction going on at current but it doesn’t get in your way. When you get up to the Monastery, the views are spectacular. You can see the Holy Monastery of Rousanou and the rocks behind it. Truly fantastic.

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If you exit Varlaam and head back toward where the busses are parked there is a rock where you can go out on and take even better pictures of Rousanou and also of Varlaam itself.

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Not to mention the unreal landscapes below and the crazy rock formations that will make you gape in awe. I am serious, Meteora is otherworldly!

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You can climb out pretty far onto the rocks but you have to be careful as it is pretty slippery and there is a lot of moss on the rocks. But if you are determined enough to get out there, you can get a cool picture like this!

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 As we left Varlaam, the driver took us past the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. This is the most famous of the Monasteries because it was immortalized in the James Bond movie. The famous last scene where Roger Moore climbs up and saves the world again!

Meteora James Bond Monastery

That may be fiction, but what is not is how amazing it looks in person. It’s hard to express in words and the pictures don’t do it justice. Meteora should be on everyone’s bucket list and I am a guy who hates bucket lists!

Meteora is otherworldly, Meteora is spectacular, Meteora is (fill in an adjective here)…the point is you must go because it is that cool. It takes a lot to get me excited and in the past week I’ve had both Abu Simbel and now Meteora to really blow my socks off. Pergamon and Ephesus weren’t too bad either!

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 The Aegean Sea area is a great part of the world and is a must for any intrepid explorer. A big thanks to Azamara for making stops at awesome ports!

Azamara Club Cruises will revisit Volos (Meteora) in July 2015. Don’t miss out!

 

The Ancient City of Pergamon

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The Ancient city of Pergamon or Pergamum is one of the coolest preserved ancient cities I’ve seen – and I’ve seen many of them! Pergamon is located high above the modern day Turkish city of Bergama and about 30 minutes from the port town of Dikili; where I embarked from the Azamara Quest cruise ship. The trip was well worth it and Pergamon didn’t disappoint.

Pergamon 1

 You can either take a cable car or a taxi up to the gate of Pergamon and from there you explore on your own. The top site in Pergamon is the Hellenistic Amphitheater. It is said to be the steepest and deepest amphitheater in the ancient world. Standing on the top step, I can say that I would have to agree with that assessment. It was a lot different than what I had seen in Ephesus yesterday.

amphitheater 1

amphitheater 2

The side views are also pretty awesome especially with the city of Bergama below. I really enjoyed looking at this theater and walking down to exit, you can really see how steep it is. This would not be for people with vertigo or who have issues walking, as it’s quite steep and tough on your knees.

Pergamon

 The rest of Pergamon is like a labyrinth of well-preserved old ruins. The Temple of Trajan is pretty much visible from everywhere in Pergamon and it is quite a site to behold. It is beautiful and resembles ruins you’d see in Athens or Rome.

Pergamon 2

Different angles produce different photos in different light. I really enjoyed walking around these impressive ruins. The other great thing about Pergamon is the views of Bergama below and the valley behind. It really gives you perspective and helps you realize why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Back down in Bergama, you can visit the Red Basilica or the Red Hall. You can enter for a fee payable in only Turkish Lira or you can take some photos for free of the Hall and the North Rotunda as seen here. The rest of Bergama is pretty standard and not so much worth visiting.

Bergama

 Back in Dikili, it is a pretty pleasant place to walk around for a short time with a small main square near the port. There are a ton of kebab restaurants too if you’re looking for some local food but Dikili itself doesn’t have much to offer a visitor. Although the view from the ship isn’t too bad!

View From The Ship

 Pergamon, along with Ephesus are my two favorites ancient cities that I’ve visited in Turkey. Pergamon is definitely worth the trouble getting there and you won’t be disappointed.

Azamara Club Cruises has two voyages in 2015 that visit Pergamon.

 

An AzAmazing Adventure in Ephesus

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The second stop on my cruise on the Azamara Quest was at Kusadasi, Turkey; which is also the gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus. It was much different than the previous days stop at Patmos, Greece and much busier. We docked at Kusadasi, went exploring in Ephesus and then went back for an AzAmazing Evening.

Kusadasi is a bustling port town that has been built on the cruise ship industry and its relative proximity to Ephesus. Kusadasi itself is OK. It looks nice from afar, from the ship, and around the edges-especially looking at gorgeous Pigeon Island.

azamara quest in kusadasi

However, once you get past all the port shops trying to sell you jewelry and clothes; you enter the old city and bazaar. There are literally thousands of peddlers selling everything imaginable-even genuine fake watches!!! So if you’re a shopper, which I am not, you might love Kusadasi, but Kusadasi’s purpose is to get you to Ephesus and that’s exactly what I did!

ephesus 2

Ephesus is, in a word, awesome. I was previously there in March 2001 during my first trip to Turkey. I have since been ten (ish) times but this was first time back at Ephesus and I have to say it was much more awesome than I remembered. Perhaps it’s that I’ve grown up (a little) and can appreciate places like Ephesus more and put it into proper historical perspective.

ephesus 1

The weather wasn’t very cooperative with us on this day but that didn’t stop a thorough day of exploring the site. The Terrace Houses, the Library and the Amphitheater were easily my favorite sites and I was able to get some nice pictures.

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The one thing I didn’t remember at all from my prior visit was how many cats are all over Ephesus. There are literally thousands of them. The cats aren’t really a nuisance but there are just so many of them that you certainly are aware of them. Some tourists loved them and some loathed them. I was indifferent but enjoyed watching others interact with the cats!

epehsus cat

After Ephesus, it was back to the ship to relax a little before the AzAmazing Evening. It was originally supposed to take place at the Odeon Amphitheater outdoors in Ephesus itself but the rain and cold weather made that a no-go.

So luckily they moved it to a very cool venue in the nearby town of Selcuk. They have a 1/10th replica of the original Temple of Artemis; which was one of the original 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was pretty cool to see and to experience the AzAmazing Evening of classical music inside from a renowned Turkish orchestra.

azamazing evening

 I enjoy classical music and what’s great about the AzAmazing Evening in Ephesus and the previous one I experienced in Livorno, Italy in an opera house was they play songs you know or have at least heard before. This way, even if you’re not a huge classical or opera music fan; which I admittedly am not-you can still enjoy it!

So, it was a great day from Kusadasi to Ephesus to the AzAmazing Evening of classical music. I can’t wait to continue the cruise tomorrow!

Insider Access to Patmos, Greece

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Patmos is a northern Greek Island in the Dodecanese chain and I confess that I had never heard of it before I decided to take another cruise with Azamara Club Cruises. That’s just one thing I love about Azamara; they teach me things about geography! That said, Patmos was a true pleasure to visit and Patmos is a hidden gem in the Greek Islands where there aren’t many secrets left to keep!

I should’ve known that Patmos would be awesome when I awoke to this unbelievable sunrise as viewed from my stateroom on the Azamara Quest cruise ship.

Sunrise approaching Patmos (Lee)

 

After being tendered into Skala, the main commercial port, I embarked on a special ‘Insider Access’ tour of the Evangelismos Monastery. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this exclusive tour that was only 4 people. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about nuns or monasteries but that’s exactly why it was interesting.

While I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the nuns or inside the monastery or church itself, I was able to get some great shots of the tranquil outside yard, fruit fields and great views down to the sea below.

Patmos (lee)

 

We also got to watch the nuns go about their daily business and saw how they lived. While I won’t be joining a convent anytime soon, it was really fascinating. Not to mentioned they provided some unreal Greek Delight (like Turkish Delight but Greek – you get it).

After the monastery we headed to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the historic center of Chora. Chora is the town you expect to see in the Greek Islands. Little, picturesque streets that are more like alleyways with cats, dogs and Vespa’s scooting through. They make for great pictures.

Chora - Cat (lee)

We were also fortunate to be able to actually visit a mansion in the old town. An 8th generation 90-year-old woman who I wouldn’t mess with on my best day owns it! She was a firecracker and a real pleasure to visit. Aside from speaking several languages, she is also quite the artist and I am grateful for being allowed into her house.

Patmos mansion (Lee)

There’s a reason why in 2009, Forbes named Patmos the most idyllic place to live in Europe. They said, “Patmos has evolved over the centuries but has not lost its air of quiet tranquility, which is one reason why people that know it return again and again.”

I couldn’t agree more, I would definitely return. Apparently the likes of Richard Gere and Bono from the band U2, who was on the island vacationing with his family a month ago, agree too!

Patmos 2 (Lee)

Aside from the historic center of Chora, Patmos also has two other World Heritage Sites including the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse; where it’s said that John the Apostle received his revelation. So biblical pilgrims make their way to Patmos as well…not a bad place for a pilgrimage!

Obviously, I really enjoyed my time on Patmos, as it’s a great example of the Greek Islands that people don’t normally visit. Don’t get me wrong, Mykonos, Santorini, Corfu, Rhodes and Crete are great as well but Patmos and islands like it are worth visiting too and to be honest via cruise is the best way to visit the island. The other transportation options are long and complicated. Check out Patmos next time you’re in the neighborhood; I’m pretty sure you’ll like it!