Author: Phillip F.
Date of Trip: July 2010
Sevastopol is a major port and anchorage of the Black Sea Fleet. It is a city that was reduced to rubble during the Crimean War (1853 – 6) and again during World War 2. The 7.5 km harbour is mostly filled with naval vessels (both Ukrainian and Russian) but has a majesty about it for that reason. Our tour guide was waiting for us at 9.00 am as arranged just outside the disembarkation gate at Counts’ Quay and we set off with her and her driver in the direction of Bakhchysaray — the capital of the Crimean Khanate from the 15th to the 18th Centuries. The road intersections between Sevastopol and the airport (15 minutes of driving) were heavily guarded with police. The explanation of our guide, Anna, was that President Putin and other dignitaries were arriving this evening to celebrate an annual military day of importance which occurs on the last Sunday of July each year. Unfortunately, we would be departing the port at 6.00 pm so a celebratory glass of vodka with the President could not be arranged. We pass the battlefields of great conflicts and soon arrive at Hansaray, the only existing palace of the Crimean Khans. Now a museum, in this gorgeous (by Ukraine standards) complex, one can see the Khan’s palace and suites, the state council and courtroom, the harem, mosques and mausoleum. An interesting feature was the ‘Fountain of Tears’, which served as the inspiration for Alexander Pushkin’s poem: ‘The Fountain of Bakhchysaray’. A little way south east of the palace is the 8th century Uspensky Cathedral, which is a part of the Uspensky Cave Monastery. This ancient cave church hewn out of rock is fascinating and has been in continuous use for over a thousand years. Returning to Sevastopol we have time to visit the Panorama Museum. It is sited on an old fortified hill and contains a huge (massive in fact) circular painting on canvas that gives an impressive view of the famous siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean war. In front of this 360° painting is a 14 foot wide circle of land that displays in 3D a continuation of the painting using props depicting the era. The entire circular building has no lighting other than natural light that comes in via large windows hidden by a canopy which reflects the light onto the scene as if you were outdoors. Very different indeed. We are dropped back to the quay in good time for lunch, and we bid Anna farewell until tomorrow, when she will meet us in Yalta — the next port of call, but only 80 kms from Sevastopol. Gail has been complaining of a slight medical ailment so I am sent on a mission of mercy (heaven help me!) into the main shopping district of Sevastopol while Gail returns to the (safety of the) ship for lunch. My mission is to find a chemist and buy some over the counter remedy. Sounds fairly simple, so I set off. I follow the general direction, through a park with a magnificent fountain, past many young males that look like they belong to gangs, but would be part of the Russian or Ukraine navies. I overtake two slow walking young females in high heel shoes whose see through clothing don’t leave much to the imagination (I didn’t look!) and pass the only building with English (other than McDonalds) written on it — Best Western Hotel Sevastopol. I search for any shop that even remotely looks like a chemist but to no avail. I enter various shops for help in locating one and get the same greeting — Niet Englis or words to that effect. The fact that the shops names are not in English is one thing but to be written in an alphabet I cannot decipher is even worse as I cannot even come close to sounding out a name that resembles chemist/pharmacy/apocathary etc. I head for my last option — Best Western. I approach the girl at the reception and ask in my best broken English — “Please, you can tell me where chem…mist, er phar..ma..cy is?” “Certainly, sir!” she retorts as if I am stupid, “You turn right from the hotel entrance and walk up the street to the bus stop and you will find it!”. Just to be sure, I ask in perfect English this time if she wouldn’t mind writing down the letters that spell out the name so I can match up the letters to be sure. She writes ?????? and I continue my quest. ‘Wow, it’s next to McDonalds’, I wonder to myself at the fact that I missed it. I enter the shop and stand in a queue that leads to a lady, in a white nurse type uniform, standing behind a glass petition. She listens to each person’s request before turning around to a wall of little boxes and bottles and locating the item for which she was asked (I presume). The customer would then place some monopoly money onto a plate and the ‘nurse ‘would take it off the plate and replace it with the item and usually a few coins change. I only had Euro on me and I knew you must pay in Hryvnia, but I had a plan. First I would establish that I could buy the necessary product; then I would establish the price; next I would change the nearest denomination of Euro into Hryvnia (because monopoly money is only good for playing Monopoly in Australia); then I would return to buy the product. At last! It was my turn. I looked at the ‘nurse ‘and asked “Do you speak English?” She just looked at me and said “Niet”. I looked back at the line and asked “Does anyone speak English?” I didn’t even get a response. Actually, they were looking at me with an expression of ‘hurry up or get out of the line!’ I was defeated. I had no plan B. I returned to the ship to report my failed mission. Gail will just have to wait until 4.30 pm to see the doctor. I walk out to the Patio Cafe/Bar (now on our level) to get some nourishment and liquids and returned to the balcony of our cabin to stay with Gail as I consumed my lunch and watched the harbour activity. The rest of the afternoon passed slowly and by 7.00 pm the antibiotics the doctor had given Gail were taking effect. We ordered room service for dinner and a table was set up on our balcony. The meal came just as the sun was setting and we sat and enjoyed the meal (entree: Crab & grapefruit salad, avocado coulis, pancetta and orange vinaigrette; Seared beef Carpaccio with pesto, marinated tomatoes and parmesan shavings. Mains: 2 x Crisp seared sea bream, olive oil laced potatoes and vegetables, beurre blanc. For dessert I just went out to the Patio Cafe and got 2 buckets of Caramel with walnut, and Strawberry Ice cream. Yummo! Early night — selected a movie from the in-cabin library and stayed in for a socialising-free evening.
The sun is trying to seep through our Blockout curtains covering the veranda windows. We open our eyes and peer at the clock on the wall and it reads 7.05 am. Anna will be waiting for us on the dock at 9.00 am so it is time to get a wriggle on. Gail opens the blinds and the sunlight gleefully fills our cabin. The shore is in view and we can see the environs of Yalta with the main city some kilometre or two off in the forward distance. There are beaches opposite our veranda on the shore and what appears to be movement. I grab the binoculars and look shoreward to see a swathe of activity of bathers in the water and many more sunning on deckchairs or shading their bodies under large circular umbrellas. Momentarily I fear we have slept in and missed our tour appointment, however this is not possible as the ship is still moving and will not dock until 8.00 am. I guess it just a case of supply and demand, with the early risers securing their patch of sand for the day and the latecomers missing out. Anna is waiting patiently as we exit the ship and step onto the gang plank. Her car and driver are not 10 metres from the end of the gang plank and we literally step off and into the car before being whisked away to start our tour of the highlights of Yalta. We pass by Lenin Square whose monument of the same fame quite ironically faces McDonalds. Stopping at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral we admire the fascinating Byzantine-style building which is a typical example of Russian architecture with its onion shaped domes. We only glance at the beautiful frescoes and the 18th century iconostasis inside, as there is quite a crowd gathered for the Sunday morning service. From here we proceed directly west from Yalta to Alupka Palace to beat the bus tours which follow the same ant trail but in a different sequence. As an outstanding architectural monument and art museum, Alupka Palace is located under the towering slopes of the 1,233 metre Ai-Petri, and was initially built as a summer mansion for Count Vorontsov and more recently was the residence of Winston Churchill and the British delegates during the 1945 Yalta Conference. After walking through the gardens and down the grand staircase called ‘The Terrace of the Lions’, we left in an easterly direction back towards Yalta, for Livadia Palace. Along the way we stop at a vantage point near Cape Ai-Todor, where we can view the fairytale medieval castle (actually built in 1911) perched high on a cliff above the sea. Of course at this viewing platform there is the usual array of tourist stalls and Gail spies a small set of Christmas decorations which are typically Ukrainian. The sales lady tells me in broken English that they are handmade at a Ukrainian art school and are very authentic. Driving along toward Livadia Palace I have this terrible thought that I have just purchased some tat that is made in China. I show the decorations to our tour guide, but she assures me they are not made in China. Russia probably, Ukraine doubtful, but definitely not China. They look nice anyway! We come to the town of Livadia and make our way to Livadia Palace. It was once the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II and also played a part during the Yalta Conference when it served as the venue for the historic meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Various rooms visited included the restored meeting room, Roosevelt’s headquarters and the Tsar’s study. Driving closer to Yalta we divert up a steep hill to visit the newest church in Ukraine. It is the 2 year old St Michael’s Church which is small but very pretty. Driving back down the hill and on the outskirts of Yalta we visit Anton Chekhov’s Memorial House where the great Russian author wrote his classic plays ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and ‘The Three Sisters’. Whilst we still had time for more attractions, we had had enough (close to 5 hours) of sightseeing and after paying Anna and bidding her farewell, we boarded the ship for lunch and a long cool drink (or two). The rest of the afternoon was spent lolling about and drinking. Actually I think it was a case of lolling after drinking, as when the waiter by the pool was asked if he could recommend a good cocktail he returned with ‘the best’ one called a Long Island iced tea — vodka, gin, white rum, tequila, pineapple juice and a dash of coke — over ice and served in a tall glass. Time blurred until 8.30 pm when the pangs of hunger overrode a happy haze. We thought an hour and a half would be ample time for dining as the 10.00 pm show featuring the best of Burt Bacharach was recommended as well worth seeing (by one of the male vocalists, Connor). At 9.45 pm we were ready to order dessert, but Gail had seen a special order of Salzburg Knuckle being served to another table two nights ago, and not being one to miss out, had ordered one for tonight for our ‘special occasion'(her 50th Birthday). When the Italian waiter brought the dessert menu Gail mentioned that we had a special order and that he should check up on it. “Of course, yes, here it is, it should only be 5 minutes”, he replied after referring to his note pad. Of course, we couldn’t just leave at 10.00 pm when the chef was still crazily trying to whip up this forgotten special dish, and worse was when it finally came it was enough to feed a table of 6. Gail ate as much as she could (with the rest hidden under her dessert spoon), I didn’t like it from the beginning (had a lemon flavour) and got a bowl of chocolate rocky road ice cream instead, and the nearby table of four Peruvians (the ones that always eat late) thanked us profusely for such a wonderful dessert to be sharing. We got to see the last 25 minutes of the show.
Today is our last snooze and cruise day at sea. Actually, the activity programme is jam packed with choice — from games to lectures, quizzes and debates, dance and bridge classes, book exchanges and the usual raft of tea times, coffee chats and even AA meetings if that is what you need (mind you I cannot imagine why anyone who has a drinking problem would book a cruise where all and as much alcoholic beverage as you want is included in the price). Of special interest to most is the Galley Brunch — starting at 12.30 pm it is a culinary feast which begins with appetizers of little pancakes and breads which you laden with grated eggs, onions, creams and Beluga caviar, which is all washed down with vodka shots; a full cold smorgasbord (as opposed to the smaller classification of buffet) of meats, fishes, sushi’s, salads, sauces, breads, shellfish, etc; then a tour of the Galley where there is a selection of fondues, vol au vents, and then all manner of foods being freshly cooked as you pass which denote most of the popular delights from the five continents. If that wasn’t enough then surely the selection of desserts would satisfy any further need for consumption. Of course, drinks were plentiful and free flowing. Despite being super picky about only trying new and unusual foods, and even then only morsels to taste, we both felt a sense of overeating after the event. After the Feast, Gail joined Glenys, her bridge partner, for more games whilst I headed for the quiet, calm and solitude of the lounge chair on our balcony to watch the world drift by. Whilst the world drifted by I drifted off, lulled to sleep by the symphonic sounds of swishing sea tones. Tonight was ‘Chef’s Choice’ in the Restaurant but first we had been invited to the Captain’s Cocktail Party at 6.45 pm. The party was for all Seabourn Club members and whilst we could not remember joining, who were we to refuse an invitation by the Captain. We were careful to not spoil our appetite (we had trouble finding it after today’s Galley Brunch) for dinner, so only accepted one glass of champagne (French of course) each and declined the canapes. It was during the Captain’s speech of appreciation for us and fellow club members that we figured it was probably the fact that we had done the one week Istanbul to Athens cruise then the two week Aegean/Black sea cruise (2 cruises) that gave us automatic membership to the Club. We arrived at dinner by 7.45 pm and joined our new Canadian friend’s table for the 6 course Chef’s extravaganza. The only course we had to choose was the Main — Beef Tournedos or Turbot Fish. Gail chose the fish because one of the garnishes was Sunfire — a vegetation that grows near the seaside on a rocky coast and Gail helped the Chef, Rob, to select it on the market tour in Kusadasi. As usual, by the end of the evening (and meal) the conversation had drifted to food intakes and weight issues.
Today the ship will berth in Odessa, Ukraine at 8.00 am and will not depart until 10.30 pm. This gives us a lot of time for a sleep in, gym, leisurely breakfast and slow self tour around the town. The time is 7.50 am and the phone rings. I must be dreaming — do we even have a phone? The phone rings again! I feel around the top of the bedside table and locate a handset. “Hello?’ I say in my best ‘I’m not asleep, and I’ve been awake for hours’ voice. ‘Hello Phillip’ says the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s Alan here, and Shirley is not feeling well, and we have a private tour booked at 9.30 am with my Cousin and his family, and I shall not leave Shirley alone, and I do not want my tour tickets to go to waste, and I was wondering if you and Gail would like to go — courtesy of Shirley and I”. “Gail, Gail” I sputter as I am simultaneously shaking her to wake. “We have an hour and a half to get up, go to gym, shower, have breakfast and get to our tour at 9.30!”. We meet the others at the bottom of the gang plank at 9.30 am and locate the tour guide for the 4 hour city tour of Odessa. As the people mover pulls out of the port area, our tour guide asks if there is any special places we want to see. I had originally (before the cruise) wanted to visit the Catacombs in Odessa, but for one reason or another had not arranged a definite plan to see them. I mentioned it quietly to the guide (as we were only guests along for the ride) but she said it was too far and should be left for another tour. The first sight we came to were some buildings that housed students for accommodation. They had a derelict appearance and when this was pointed out, the guide answered that it was vacation time. Next, was a palace (of some description) but it was closed and in fact had scaffolding and mesh over it so you could not really make out anything of the shape, grandeur etc. We stopped at a square with a statue of Catherine the Great and our guide gave a short description and then she told us that we would walk along the Primorsky Boulevard past the Potemkin Steps and on to the Opera House. It took nearly one hour to advance 200 metres and when our guide wanted to describe the intricacies of stone bollards that were used as hitching posts for horses I knew we were in trouble. The promise of the Opera House as being a highlight fizzled when our forlorn guide came back from the entry point stating it was ‘closed today’. By now it was obvious that we had seen most of what was to be seen and despite her efforts to stretch it out, it was going to be a very painful next 2 3/4 hours. I really did not want to push my barrow but it was obvious our fellow tourers were becoming bored at best and agitated at worst. I mentioned again, this time to everyone, that a journey to the Catacombs, should be considered. I explained why I thought it may be of interest, but also that I did not want to be seen as trying to influence everyone. The guide repeated that it wasn’t possible, however, the others having realised that continuation of the city tour was a lost cause, insisted that it was what the group wanted and she should accede to what was wanted. The final objection was overcome when the guide, who thought a Catacomb guide couldn’t be gotten on such short notice, made a phone call to the site and was told one was available. The Catacombs are the tunnels created from where limestone was quarried in the early 19th century. They thread for 2000 kilometres beneath the city and surrounding villages and served as hideouts for the Resistance in World War II. There is only one official entry point where guides are available to take visitors to see one of the underground camps that existed during the war. Hundreds of other entry points have been closed/blocked and hundreds more are thought to exist, however because of the dangers of getting lost once inside (many have entered never to be seen again) it is virtually impossible as a tourist to see any part of the tunnels other than through the official entry point. Whilst Ukraine as a country is not one you would put on your bucket list, the visit to the Catacombs certainly was worth doing and is a must if you have a connection to eastern Europe and the impact of WWII. At the end of the tour we were returned to the ship (at precisely 1.30 pm) and the rest of the day was spent lunching, relaxing and sunning. When evening fell we remained on the main pool deck and dined casually under the stars and full moon at the Patio Grill. Gail had Nigerian Prawns (like small lobsters) whilst I ordered a simple 10oz eye fillet (which only needed a butter knife to cut). The rest of the evening was spent on the rear deck of level 5, sipping Long Island Ice Teas and watching Odessa Port fade into the distant horizon under a bright silver full moon.
Constanta Romania is the 4th largest port in Europe. It traces its history back some 2500 years and was originally called Tomis. Legend has it that Jason landed here with the Argonauts after finding the Golden Fleece. After the usual morning ritual we departed in a shuttle bus bound for the city. Driving along the docks the scenery was fairly ordinary, as docklands tend to be, however we thought this would change once we arrived in town. It didn’t. The only saving grace of the sightseeing was the Archaeological Museum which was located in Ovidiu’s Square, where a large statue of the famous poet Ovidius Puplius Nasos stands. The museum is housed in a 3 storey grand municipal building which is slightly more than 100 years old but looks 300 years old with never having being maintained. The diversity of the museum is fascinating and if one finds themselves unfortunately in Constanta, they may lift their spirits with a visit to this museum. Whilst we did not pay for entry (somehow we got mixed up with a large tour group when entering and besides, we did not have any local currency on us) it certainly would be worth paying whatever the fee for entry is charged. Our ship was only in port for 7 hours and this was more than enough for everyone to get a taste of Romanian life. It was obvious to all, and confirmed by a Romanian Army General who was invited on board to give a short talk (with Q & A’s at the end) on life in his country, that poverty and corruption was rife with no foreseeable solution. The feeling of absolute freedom and appreciation for a privileged life is never so great as when: one leaves a place of chaos, and where its people appear resigned to a menial existence with no solution for escape; simply by flashing a passport at a person sitting in a box next to a path through a barrier, which is protected by brown uniformed men with large guns, and walking on to a vessel which beholds a stark contrast to that which was just left. Tomorrow we visit the first of 2 ports in the final country of our cruise – Bulgaria.
We leave the arms of Morpheus. The Bulgarian port of Varna is coming into view as our Captain negotiates the entry channel into the harbour. As with all the ports we have seen so far on the Black sea, there is a contingent of Navy war ships, and sometimes submarines, sitting at berth in readiness for whatever future fate beckons them forth. By now we would be feeling quite fit and slender by our regularity of gym attendance but alas these cruise ships have a way of counteracting all good intentions by providing temptations of pleasurable taste sensations. There is no rush today as the ship has docked at 8.00 am with departure scheduled for 6.00 pm, and we have no tours booked. A stroll around town is all we intend to do and the shuttle bus will take us into the main square. On the way to the square, from the bus window I look at a large park. The grass has not been recently mowed and I think back to all the gardens and parks of the holiday so far. It suddenly strikes me that whilst some people measure the wealth of a country by the cost of its real estate, the range and diversity of motor vehicles or even the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac, it can be done much more simply by looking at the grass in public parks. i.e.: the length of grass in a public park is inversely proportional to the wealth of the city/town in which it grows. We alight the bus at Place Mitropolit Simeon where the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is situated. Immediately we are touted by a torrent of taxi-drivers who seem to be oblivious to the fact we have just stepped off a bus. They even looked remarkably similar to the taxi-drivers that were touting us as we boarded the bus at the port. The Cathedral is one of the largest and most beautiful in Bulgaria. It was built in 1886 and modelled after features of the churches of St. Petersburg. Other monuments and museums in the city held little interest for us so we proceeded to walk slowly back towards the port, firstly through a marketplace then along the main shopping malls. Since the grass was only half as long as that in Romania, the stores here were better but certainly no match to those of England or Scotland. Reaching the Primorski Boulevard (another one but ending in i) which runs along the beach to the port, we chose to walk along the water’s edge as it was cooler. Whilst there were no shops to look at (as were along the Boulevard) there were certainly many other things to see — mostly of many shapes, sizes and tones of brown from very light to very dark! For the last 100 metres we walked along the entry road to the port. It was lined with old Bulgarian women (they looked old anyway) who each had little areas of the footpath where they displayed their hand crocheted and laced tablecloths and other paraphernalia. Some of the pieces were quite beautiful and very reasonably priced. Back on board it was just more sunning, funning, and eating (not necessarily in that order) and at 6.00 pm we attended a Captain’s farewell speech (we were leaving, not him) — a sort of reality check that this floating oasis does have a final destination. From there, it was up to the observation deck for pre-dinner drinks with Gail’s bridge partner & co, and from there down to The Restaurant where a table of 8 had been pre-booked for dinner. Gail had organised another special dessert — this time Crepe Suzette, which the Maitre D’ cooked himself at our table. It was delicious! Again, we caught only the last 25 minutes of the show in the Grand Salon and while Morpheus was calling me back to her arms, Gail diverted down to the Club on level 5 to revel into the wee hours.
Late nights and early gym sessions don’t mix. I do some in-cabin stretches and isotonic exercises whilst Gail has a sleep in to restore her equilibrium. Nessebur, Bulgaria is a museum town listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Condensed into an area of 24 hectares, the maze of narrow, twisting cobblestone streets, is delightful for leisurely wandering, beneath the balconies of its old wood and stone houses typical of the 19th century National Renaissance style. The many, many churches (40+) on this little island (joined to the mainland at Sunny Beach by a man made causeway) are now mostly museums, art galleries or just in various states of dereliction or ruin. The throngs of souvenir-sellers mar the beauty of this tiny peninsula and the touters snap at your heels as you pass. Maybe my cynicism is magnified by the fact that I thought I was getting a bargain when I purchased 3 items for the what I thought was a hard bargained €20, but after travelling some little way further came across another shop selling the same for the equivalent of €2!! Back on board another lazy afternoon passes and sadly as the sun is setting it is with the realisation that this will be our last sunset viewed from the decks of this magnificent ship (until the next cruise). We sit for our last supper in The Restaurant and consume the bottle of red wine we received during the noisy cabin fiasco. We finish our meal and visit some new friends sitting at other tables and exchange contact information for future rendezvous in faraway lands. We arrive back to our cabin. Our empty cases have been placed on a thick plastic sheet covering our bed, ready to be filled by us in preparation for our departure. The bags are to be left outside our cabin door by midnight so all we will take off the ship ourselves will be our carry-on luggage. The phone rings and it is the chief purser. “We have processed your credit card and there is an outstanding amount that has been declined” he states matter of factly. “You will need to settle the balance in cash!”. I explained to him as I had earlier explained to the receptionist at Guest Services earlier in the day, that my credit card was cancelled more than a week ago and that the Guest Services Manager, Jo, was well aware of this. I added that I was fully prepared to settle the account with my new credit card as I had all the details necessary: the card number, expiry date, security number and pin number, however I was not in physical possession of the card as it had been sent to my home address in Australia. Also, I explained (as I had to the receptionist earlier) that I was aware that it had been explained to me by the receptionist that she did not have a keypad on the card swipe machine to enable an entry of details manually, however I did explain to her that it would be a simple matter of just phoning MasterCard for authorisation on the amount for a guaranteed payment which could then be put through by their head office in Miami — just as had been done when taking payment for the cruise at the outset. I began to yawn when he proceeded to tell me it was too hard to do a payment this way and that I must pay the balance in cash. “Have you been listening to me” I replied. “You will just have to do it that way, or you can send me an account if you like and I will settle it when I return home. I do not have any cash to pay you the balance of the bill!”. (I did have cash for the Dubai component of our trip, but there was no way I was going to short change myself by giving him any of it because of his intransigence.) “Well, I noticed you have made a purchase in the Perfumery today” he continued unabated. “I will need that purchase back and you will still have a balance remaining that will have to be settled in cash”. ‘Am I speaking to a moron?’ I thought. “I would be happy to return the bottle of aftershave I purchased” I retorted. “Unfortunately, I have opened it, thrown away the packaging and used it already, however if it makes you happy, I will return it for a full refund and as for the cash — well I DO NOT HAVE ANY FOR YOU. You will have to accept one of my other 2 offers!”. He muttered under his breath something about contacting Miami and contacting me in the morning, and he hung up.
We awoke early and opened the blinds. The ship was docked at the Istanbul ship terminal together with 2 much larger cruise ships and a smaller cruise yacht which I would imagine sails to the islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The procedure this morning is to vacate rooms by 8.00 am and disembark by 9.30 am at the latest. We shower and proceed to breakfast so as we can return to the cabin around 8.00 am to collect our hand luggage. At breakfast we exchange more email addresses and phone numbers with new found friends and do the usual kisses hugs and handshakes. By 9.30 am we finally make our way to The Square on level 7 to collect our passports and find out what the Chief Purser has decided (as we have, as expected, heard nothing). The Guest Services representative (same girl as previously involved) states that the account is partially paid and the balance must be paid in cash. Am I dreaming? Have I crossed over into the twilight zone? Did I travel to a different planet overnight? I look incredulously at the girl and in a slow and controlled voice ask “May I speak with the Chief Purser, please?”. The receptionist picks up the phone and after a minute of whispered talk and furtive glances in my direction, the receptionist smiles and states “everything is in order Mr …(Intentionally deleted). I will just transfer the balance to a fresh account and you can pay it by credit card. All I will need is the card number and the expiry date.” Whilst I was reaching into my pocket for the card details I had written on a piece of paper, another young smiling attendant appeared with our passports and the Guest Services Manager, Jo was spotted hovering in the background. Maybe coincidently, a minute later as a receipt was being issued, the Captain walked passed as if overseeing the whole circus. By the time we proceed down the gang plank for the last time, I am sure we are about the last passengers to leave. Sure enough, when we enter the Customs Hall our luggage is waiting with only a few other bags. When we walk forward to retrieve them, eager porters squabble amongst themselves as to who will put them onto a trolley to take them to a dishevelled line of yellow taxis. Despite my protests the bags are taken to a vehicle with a driver only too eager to load them into an open boot. I protest “I want to know the fare to the airport before you load them”. ’40 euro’s” is the reply. Don’t be ridiculous” I splutter. “OK — 35 euro’s” is the counter offer. I spin to another cab looking like he has been waiting in vain and shout “How much to the airport?” He shouts back “30 euro’s”. I turn to the first driver and pronounce “he will take us for 30 euro’s”. “OK — 30 euro’s” he growls whilst quickly loading the luggage in the boot. Gail is saying “OK”, the first driver is beckoning us to get in and the second driver is protesting that he will do it for 25 euro. The porter meanwhile is pleading for his tip, Gail is agreeing “give him some coins” and I am feeling outflanked on all sides. I give the porter 1 euro despite his howls of “it’s not enough!”, I tell Gail to get in the cab as our bags are now loaded and the boot has been shut with a thud that declares ‘they are in and won’t be released until the airport’, I tell the second cabbie he had his chance in the negotiations (mind you I was still prepared to fight the good battle but I had others to consider) and I jump in the front seat next to the driver and instruct him to turn on the meter instead. He looks at me with the same look as the Ukrainians in the Chemist shop and accelerates away from the fray in the direction of the airport. In true Turkish taxi style, the driver is imagining he is on a grand prix track with many other competitors he needs to pass. After a minute of hair-raising manoeuvres, and amidst Gail’s protests to slow down, I issue him an ultimatum to put a lid on it or he won’t have us as passengers. The freeway is in sight, so the reduction in speed is welcome until the legal limit is raised to the level to which this driver is accustomed. At the airport, the driver unloads all the luggage and asks me to check that there is nothing remaining. I agree and hand over 2 x 20 euro notes. He returns a 5 euro note as change with a grin on his face. I look at him and say “5 more please!’. He looks pleadingly and asks “tip?” to which I tersely reply “you have to be joking. You should consider yourself lucky you got the job in the first place!”. Without further protest he hands over another 5 euro and disappears into the stream of traffic. Gail and I make our way into the terminal. We only have 6 hours before our flight leaves. We go first to customs to get our duty free refund stamps. It is hidden in a little room after you find the shop where you access the room at the rear. I hand the controller the 3 documents to be stamped. He doesn’t ask to see the merchandise (lucky as I did not have them at hand as I figured if they are as efficient as with all other things then it’s just a job to use a stamp rather than regulating outgoing duty free goods.) Two papers are stamped, the 3rd (and most expensive item with the most duty to be refunded) is handed back as the item was bought in England and Turkey is not an EU country. (Live and learn!). The check-in gate opens at 1.30 pm. There are already many people waiting to check in with trolley loads of baggage. We start to head for the queue when Gail notices a counter next to 1st Class that says ‘on-line check-in’. We don’t know what that means but we did buy our tickets on line. Gail goes to investigate and we still do not know what it means, but the man behind the counter was not doing much anyway so he processed our check in without any ado. We then passed the rest of the waiting time away using the free internet zone until boarding. Arriving at Dubai airport 9.45 pm we head for the baggage carousel. We pass immigration quickly and continue along great halls of marble and stainless steel and eventually we reach carousel 13 where we collect the bags and look for the green line. Until now the air temperature has been reasonably cool however once we exit the terminal it feels as if we are walking into an oven, and it is now 10.30 pm. The temperature is hovering around 40° Celsius. There are plenty of taxis and we quickly get into one whilst the driver loads the bags. What a difference to Turkey. The driver is polite, courteous, is well dressed and speaks perfect English. His meter is large and centred and is activated as soon as he pulls away from the kerb. The drive to our hotel in Deira Creek is short and at a comfortable speed and the tariff asked is exactly what the meter is showing. We check in to the hotel and make our way to our room. It is now reasonably late so we prepare to retire in anticipation of a full day touring this modern city in the morning.
We are on the home run. Dubai is our last city before returning home. The forecast for the next 2 days is 42° Celsius and that’s in the shade. After getting our map from the Concierge desk we head out of the hotel which is 100 metres from the Union station of the new Metro railway in Dubai. The blast of heat as the hotel doors open hit us like a furnace. We stride quickly to the Metro where the temperature drops with each step we take inside the entrance. After a quick lesson from the ticket seller on how to use this transport system we take the escalator down to the platform where the next train will take us to The Mall of the Emirates. This is a gigantic shopping mall that has the indoor snow ski run and park within it, including ski lift chairs. The mall is linked to the Metro via an air conditioned tunnel and of course the complete metro system is air conditioned so it is quite enjoyable travelling and shopping this way (so far!). The metro trains are fully automated and have no drivers. They run on a regular timetable and each station is sealed from the tracks by automatic doors that only open when the train is stationary and correctly positioned with its doors in line with the station’s doors. The carriages have ‘ladies only’ sections, which some may consider sexist however it allows women to seat themselves comfortably without competing with the men. The main ‘red’ line travels fairly parallel with coastline and the artery road: Sheikh Zayed. From the train you get a great view of the amazing array of architectural structures, from single storey dwellings to mega multi storey hotels and office blocks — including the Burj Khalifa (a modern day Tower of Babel). After many hours spent at the Mall of the Emirates, we get back on the Metro and head for the Dubai Mall (what else in this heat). Unfortunately and despite the station being named after this Mall, there is no linking air conditioned tunnel. There is however a feeder bus just a little way outside the entrance to the station. We exit the station and head for the waiting bus. The driver opens the door (shut to hot air out) and we alight and scan our train ticket. The machine blinks red!. We have to go back to the station to load up the bus fare. (Ticket seller omitted to give us this information). As we turn back toward the station we see the Burj Khalifa (BK) — all 2717 feet of it, which makes it the tallest man-made structure ever built. We can see the Mall within walking distance to the left and the BK is to the right of that and also within walking distance. We decide, despite the heat, to walk first to the BK and see if we can go up it and then we will walk to the Mall. Bad idea!. By the time we get to the BK (now we know about mirages and how close they seem to be) we are 5 kilos lighter through fluid loss. Then as we are heading toward what appears to be an entrance via the Armani Hotel, we are cut off the pass by a couple of security guards wanting to know if we are guests. Of course we are, but when they want to see our room key we confess our true intention and they politely tell us that we will need to enter the building via the tunnel after the ticket box access in the Dubai Mall. We retreat and head for the Mall (another mirage) to the left of the BK. Whilst Mall of the Emirates claims it has more shops, the Dubai Mall and its 1200 shops seemed to go on forever. Maybe it was the size of the 2 storey ‘walk underwater’ aquarium which had such massive glass walls it looked like the world’s biggest fish tank, or the Galleries Lafayette department store that boasted being the biggest in Dubai, that gave it the sense of infinity. Anyhow, time was getting on and we did not want to miss the view from the BK before sunset so after a quick scout around at some of the stores we started toward the ticket box for the BK. The activity around the ticket counter (not a box) was substantial and when approaching it we saw a large sign that had ‘sold out’ written next to 1/2 hourly time slots up until about 10.30 pm. Since we were not interested in seeing a whole bunch of lights at a distance at a cost of 200 Dirhams we canned that idea and went in search of a good local restaurant. Wafi Gourmet sounded like a good middle eastern name and we sat at a table overlooking a water feature that had a Fountain Show to music every half hour. A slightly better view could be had outside but it was still close to 40°C and most tables were in the smoking section — not your cigarette type smoking but the Shisha type (flavoured water pipes or similar).
Today we met with our friends who are living in Dubai. We see the sights: Atlantis, The Palms, Jumeira Beach, the Burj Al Arab (sail hotel), Al Karan (genuine fake labels) and lots more. We eat like locals at hidden gem eateries and watch the world go by from the 29th floor of a (low) high rise. It’s early to bed to rise early for our flight home.
As I write this final chapter August 3 is tomorrow. Of course, if we do not hear our alarm clock in the morning, there will be another chapter to be read!