Mrs F&W and I flew from Edinburgh to Amsterdam airport where we met up with Mrs F&W's mother who had flown in from the US. I was last at Schiphol almost a year ago and once again see why it's the connecting point of choice for many travelling from British provincial (sic) airports. The place is very well organised and having just one very large, curved terminal beats poor old Heathrow hands down.
Ninety minutes after arrival we were on our way to Venice in the day's second KLM Boeing 737. The snack was fine and I washed it down with a nice South African white wine.
We took a taxi from Venice (Marco Polo) over the causeway to the Piazzale Roma, which is the point at which taxis and buses congregate. Here's a question. The bus to Edinburgh airport costs three pounds and a taxi sixteen. The Venice bus is three euros and a taxi thirty-five. Why the difference? Our hotel was only a few hundred yards away from the Piazzale but having to cart suitcases over three canal bridges isn't fun.
The next morning I went out with Mrs F&W for an early morning trip down the length of the Grand Canal to San Marco. 7am is the ideal time to avoid the tourist hordes and has perfect light for photography.
After a later walk round the area near the hotel we took a water taxi to the dock where we joined the Veendam for our cruise. The "driver" of the water taxi cried out "Mamma Mia" as he lifted Mrs F&W's heavy suitcase into his little boat...
On Holland America ships there is a distinct national line up among the crew. The captain and officers tend to be Dutch or British. Captain Albert has a blog. The Cruise Director (in charge of on-board activities) is usually American, as are most passengers. The housekeeping, kitchen and waiting staff are Filipino and Indonesian. Filipinos also man the Front Desk. The bar staff address me as "Sir David" - perhaps it's the British accent or my knowing that Laphroaig shouldn’t be served with ice.
The next morning we arrived at Dubrovnik - my first visit to the former Yugoslavia. The town extends out a long way beyond the old walled-city and looked very similar to plenty of places in Italy. The old town is pedestrianised and has lots of Edinburgh-style closes. The essential word is "pivo" (beer) and we spent four euros on a pivo and a Coke in one of the back street cafes.
Two days later we reached Santorini. I'd been there almost twenty years ago and the tour guide confirmed my impression that there had been lots of new housing built in the countryside. As we left, Captain Albert mentioned the recent sinking of a Greek liner at Santorini.
The next day we reached Rhodes. A bus took us through the notorious resort of Faliraki (bars, cafes, hotels and tattoo parlours) although it was far too early in the day to see any visiting chavs. We spent a while at the pleasant little village of Lindos before returning to Rhodes town via a pottery - a big business here. I was disappointed in the town itself. The main streets are packed with tacky tourist shops and you are pounced upon by the owners if you make eye contact or even slow down to take a photo. The back streets were far more interesting and in one of them I enjoyed a quick pivo. (Oops, wrong country!)
Then we went to Turkey. Again, I'd been before quite a while ago and had visited Ephesus back then. On this trip there was more time to visit the site and its surrounding attractions. We dined at an interesting steam railway museum. A note for gentlemen - when you visit the toilet at the Virgin Mary House near Ephesus you will stand, doing your business, and look out through an open window directly towards Greece. Surely not a deliberate design feature?
On balconies of the apartment blocks there were numerous Turkish flags. According to the guide they were in support of the secular politicians.
Inevitably there was a visit to a carpet outlet. Despite the high-pressure technique of a cockney - "I've often played at St Andrews" - salesman, we didn't buy. Anyway, he was unable to demonstrate any flying models. For that I suppose I'd need to go to Iran, but I'm not in the Navy and don't have an iPod as a trade-in.
Then we were back in Greece. Arriving at Piraeus I couldn't help thinking of earlier Persian encounters as we passed Salamis. We took a bus into Athens passing several Olympic sites and endless streets of tightly parked cars. A pleasant morning was spent walking through the Plaka old town.
The next day we arrived at the tiny port of Katakolon, the gateway for Olympia, home of the original games. The Olympic site was more interesting than I'd expected, the museum was excellent and the guide informative. Don't tell Ken Livingstone - the female athletes ran in short skirts but the men were naked except for a covering of oil.
During the afternoon I took far more photos at Katakolon than I'd expected.
Two days later after sailing up the Adriatic we entered the harbour at Koper, which is in Slovenia but just a few miles south of the Italian port of Trieste. While Mrs F&W and her mother visited one of the country's well known caves, I took a bus into Ljubljana. Usefully, the Slovenian word is also "pivo" and I enjoyed a large one for under two euros in a non-touristy bar. Slovenia looks a bit like parts of Austria and one can indeed see the Alps from here. The statues of naked people on the front of the Slovenian parliament are apparently meant to demonstrate that we are all "equal". According to our guide, they show us after taxes have been extracted...
Later that day we were back in Venice, sailing past San Marco on one of the most photogenic city approaches imaginable.
I had noticed that Internet cafes in Venice all had a sign in the window along these lines: "In the interests of security all users must produce a passport or driving licence for photocopying." Being a law-abiding Brit I produced my driving licence to the little old lady in charge. She waved it aside with a laugh as if I were the first person to pay any attention to the notice. Thus does the over-regulated Italian economy ignore the rules and generate prosperity.
I returned home the next day and the others two days later. The KLM 737 took off to the north and then performed a complete banking turn over Venice before heading for Amsterdam. I had a very clear view of Antwerp and Rotterdam on the way in and couldn't help thinking of my father's time down there back in 1944/45.