by John Fung (65)
In the two weeks during the cruise to Egypt and Aegean Sea, I traversed over 6000 years of history and witnessed the grandeur of four magnificent civilizations: Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine. These ancient societies clearly showed their culmination of wisdom, intelligence, knowledge and technology through experimentation and learning. Equally, they demonstrated human foibles and our arrogance in believing might is right, and that might transcends us to a god-like level.
In the spirit of experimentation, I travelled with my group on Metropolitana in Rome for 1 euro a ticket, on the Athens Subway in Piraeus for 3 euro a day pass, and the modern trams in Istanbul for 1.5 Turkish Lira (about US$1 at time of writing) a token. All it took was a bit of adventurous courage to learn how to buy the fare and to navigate the network of stops. Of course, having the right change helps.
Indisputably, rich dishes prepared by masters for the Chef’s Table and for the dinner at Sabatini were sophisticated as well as luxurious. Yet simple, local food made by natives was similarly enjoyable and tasty. I recall with fond memories the rigatoni and roast pork from the tavern next to Trevi Fountain in Rome, the kofta and firaakh mashwi from the garden eatery in Cairo, the various types of fish from the waterfront café in Kusadasi, the fried kibbeh filled with minced beef and şeftali kebabı from the restaurant in Istanbul, and the grilled mackerel from the family-run Old Baker’s in Piraeus.
I was fortunate to share with wonderful friends some flagship Chilean wines: Don Melchor, Don Maximiano and Sena, plus two handcrafted wines from Napa Valley: Paraduxx and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, and a top Italian wine, Modus Ruffino, which was made with Sangiovese grapes from the Chianti hills and blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany. Of course I am forever indebted to Cheung who graciously treated me to Veuve Clicquot on the eve of debarkation.
I also tried several wines not easily available outside their production sources. Lambrusco is the name of both a red wine grape and a slightly sparkling Italian wine made principally from the grape. It was sprightly and vivacious. There was this Obelisk Red from Egypt. Even though many Egyptians who enjoy the wine consider it to be a work of art in itself, unfortunately I cannot agree with their sentiment. In contrast, the Çankaya white by Kavaklidere Wines made with Narince, Emir and Sultaniye grapes carefully selected from different Anatolian vineyards was elegant, structured and refreshing. More notably was the 2006 Alpha One Tannat from a single vineyard — the Hedgehog — of Alpha Estate in Greece. The unfiltered wine was aged for 18 months in new oak. Only 4962 bottles were made and I drank #3280.
At the outset I was concerned about getting an Egyptian visa on my own ahead of the cruise because obtaining one at Alexandria could be arduous since the queue would probably be very long given the enormity of Star Princess. Happily, it turned out fine. Star Princess not only efficiently arranged the proper travel documents for her passengers travelling in Schengen countries, she saved them the cost of US$15 per Egyptian visa.
Compared to other cruise lines, Princess is weak in evening entertainment. Nevertheless, the waiter at my table, Jimsey Gutierrez, made up for it with his jokes, magic tricks and brain teasers. His assistant, Alfredo Navarro, was attentive and prompt, and brought me olive oil for my bread as well as honey, lemon and hot water for my company every dinner.
It was a pity that Star Princess did not call Khios due to strong winds. I would dearly love to visit Nea Moni Monastery and perhaps one of the mastic villages. Apart from the breathtaking scenery, remarkable architectures and historical ruins in the four countries on the itinerary, I saw baksheesh in action everywhere I turn in Cairo and Alexandria and get to appreciate the Egyptian culture. It was certainly awe-inspiring to see the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the Step Pyramid of Sakkara. Most satisfying of all, I set foot in Africa. Deo gratias.