Well, we're back! Our three months of travel madness is over. And I have to say I'm a little relieved. It's been unbelievably awesome but also a little exhausting. So it's nice to be home with the hounds, with a sense that I have some time to catch up on the paperwork, and to craft, blog and cook to my hearts content.
Our last trip was pretty great - we went on a 12 night 'holy land' cruise. Our first stop was meant to be Egypt but, well, this was happening right when we were meant to dock so we went to Messina, Sicily and Valetta, Malta instead. In Messina we stumbled upon a giant mechanised clock, just when it was about to strike. In Valetta we visited the stunning blue grotto (see above). Not quite the great pyramids but rather pleasant all the same. Then it was on to Jerusalem, Piraeus and Naples, with a few lazy days in Rome tacked on for good measure.
Here are six things I learnt:
1. Jerusalem really is amazing
I wasn't brought up in a religious household. My Mum is most definitely not of the religious persuasion - 'spiritual' perhaps yes, but I think it's safe to say most organised religion leaves her cold. My Dad, even more so. My step-dad is Jewish, but (from my perspective, anyhow) more in a cultural sense than a religious one. I was one of the kids who had a note from their parents that meant I got to read in the library while everyone else was doing RI. So I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Jerusalem, being the place that holds some of the most sacred sites for three of the worlds big religions. I love history and I am fascinated by religion and ritual, but I just wasn't sure...but - it was amazing.
It's tricky to find the words to explain why, maybe I'm still trying to figure it out in my own head, but I'll have a go. Partly it's seeing all those places that you normally see on the news, associated with violence and unrest, in a light that is peaceful, respectful and even (in the case of the western/wailing wall) festive. It's seeing devout Muslims and Jews and Christians going about their business, worshipping at these sacred sites which are literally next door to each other, in harmony. It's hearing the locals talk - with hope - about peace. It's seeing the separation walls and driving down shiny new highways that not too long ago were border walls with barbed wire and mines.
There's also something about a place where people devote an entire day to just reading and thinking and praying, a place where people are involved and engaged in politics and the (very relevant) issues of the day. And then there's the food - falafel, hummus, shawarma oh my! It was amazing.
2. Introverts and cruises can mix
I'm a bit of an introvert. My husband is basically an introvert. The eldest step son is a card carrying inrovert. (Or possible just a moody teen. Or, perhaps more likely, both.) You'd think that being trapped on a big boat, surrounded by thousands of other people day in day out, would be a tough ask. And yet we all enjoy a good cruise.
The key for introverts is having a place to escape to, to get away from all the people, and the cabin definitely serves this purpose. But so does lying on a deck chair, staring up at the impossibly blue sky with your earphones wedged in to block out the noise of the crowd around you. And so does sitting at the bar just watching the passing parade. And so does sweating for an hour or so at the gym, iPod firmly in ears and eyes keenly scanning the horizon just in case dolphin decides to say 'hi'. Cocktail O'Clock helps a bit too...
3. You can never get tired of looking at an endless blue horizon
Please see exhibits A, B and C below.
4. There are big differences between an American and an Italian cruise boat
Our previous cruising experience has been with MSC, the cruise company that prides itself on it's 'distinctive Italian style'. For us, this meant great coffee, great food and great aperitifs. This year we went with Royal Caribbean, an American company that prides itself on good customer service. So it means the staff remember your name, and ask you questions about your day and your family. But it means the coffee sucks, the food is confused and the cocktails involve a lot of soft drink.
Guess who we'll be cruising with in the future?
5. I travel for food
Yes, yes I travel to see history and art and natural wonders. But when it comes down to it my favourite things from every trip always include at least one spectacular meal. My travel memories are always centred around the smell and taste of a region or town. And my desire to return is almost always driven by a desire to eat that thing, whatever it was, again.
This trip it was peanut butter thickshakes at Johnny Rockets (yep, the ship we were on had one on board!); the best falafel and hummus I have ever eaten (just outside Damscas Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, served by a friendly Palestinian and featuring amazing olive oil from the West Bank); the heavenly flavours of simple Italian food (risotto, prosciutto with mozzarella, garlic and oil bruschetta, pizza diavolo)...yum!
6. That security guards in the Vatican Museum are anxious around vomit
So. We're walking along the impressive gallery of maps in the Vatican Museum, weaving our way through the crowds and admiring the 16th century frescoes, when the youngest step-son says 'I'm not feeling very well'. Now, I've known this little guy long enough to know this actually means 'You've got thirty seconds to find me a vomit receptacle or else there's going to be some additional 'paint' on these historic maps'. Serendipitously my husband had just bought (yet another) travel guide, and for some reason I'd kept the plastic bag. So, there we stood, amongst the throngs of tourists heading to the Sistine Chapel, whilst the poor sick youngest step son did what he had to do...
In case you don't know, the fun part of being in the Vatican Museum is that once you're on the path to the Sistine Chapel you can't really exit, until you've seen the Sistine Chapel. And if you're carrying a bag of vomit, don't expect a warm welcome or a great deal of help from the guards scattered about the place...