And then Mary Cioffi told us about her fabulous ride along the
Mary could not believe
how utterly beautiful this area of the world was. Mary said it was
the most beautiful ride she had ever taken.
One visit, three great choices. How does one decide? Well, in my
case, it’s easy. I do what Marla tells me to do. But not everyone
has Marla to help with these difficult decisions and they have my
On a more serious note, lately people have questioned the wisdom of
scheduling a cruise trip that will visit Israel.
In my opinion, the fighting between Gaza and Israel is tragic and
heartbreaking. There is nothing sadder than hearing about the
deaths of so many innocent civilians, yet at the same time I cannot
imagine how Israel can tolerate the tunnels, the threat of
kidnappings and suicide bombers, and constant missile attacks.
One of the great mysteries of life is the intense ferocity and
passion generated by this small corner of the world.
I don’t know much about Israel. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy
Marla’s decision to travel here. Over the years I have gotten to
learn so much about the world around us on a first-hand basis.
There is an axiom in the Travel Industry that the first thing people
do when they retire is go travel somewhere. As the Baby Boomers
quickly turn into the Sagging Bloomers, we all need something to
cheer us up. Travel is indeed an appealing option for many of us
seniors. We worked hard all our lives and now the time has arrived
for our reward… especially while the window of opportunity stays
As I read Marla’s writeup about Israel, I noted for the first time
that this country is practically all desert! Don’t get me wrong… I
knew that Israel had some dry spots and the Dead Sea and all that.
I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I was shocked to realize the
extent of the arid landscape.
This land is so devoid of natural vegetation that is hard to imagine
why so much blood has been spilled in this region. It isn’t like
there is a wealth of natural resources to fight over. The landscape
is barren, dry, and inhospitable. I accept that this sand stirs up
so much passion, but without understanding the history, it doesn’t
make any sense.
Israel is not large. Texas, for example, is 31 times larger than
Israel is about the size of Vermont. There is one difference
though… people have been fighting over the arid lands of Israel
since the dawn of time while lovely Vermont has enjoyed a nice quiet
existence for the most part.
Another difference is trees. Vermont has plenty of trees while
Israel is determined to plant trees anywhere they can. Between
planting trees, reclaiming the marshes, redirecting the Jordan River
for irrigation purposes, and cultivating as much soil as possible,
Israel seems determined to impose its will on a land that doesn’t
offer many natural resources.
So now I am in pursuit of the history of Israel. Reading Marla’s
writeup on Jerusalem, I was shocked to discover that Via Dolorosa,
the route Jesus took to the cross, goes right past the Dome of the
Rock, one of the most sacred points in the entire Islamic world.
And the place where Jesus was crucified is just a couple blocks
away. Furthermore, the Western Wall, the most sacred point in
Judaism, is at most a hundred yards or so from the Dome of the
It is unsettling to think that the three most sacred points of three
of the world’s most important religions are within a stone’s throw
of each other. That is incredible. It is such an amazing
coincidence that one begins to wonder if it isn’t a coincidence.
However, with three of the holiest spots in the major religions of
the world side by side, one quickly begins to see why so many people
travel to Jerusalem.
I am sure there are lots of people who already knew this unusual
fact, but I didn’t until now.
My point is that “Travel” opens my eyes in many ways wherever I go.
As Mark Twain is famous for saying, “Travel is fatal to Bigotry”.
In my case, I respect all three religions. I just wish people would
find a way to worship in peace. I cannot imagine a deity that
relishes the death of people whose only mistake was being born into
the wrong religion.
Naturally the recent round of brutal fighting between Israel and
Gaza has prompted several people to tell Marla that they are going
to ‘wait and see’
As for Marla scheduling a cruise trip to this controversial part of
the world in the midst of all this fighting, Marla may have
inadvertently picked the perfect time to plan our trip. Seeing as
how there are typically two to three year intervals between these
conflicts, hopefully next October’s trip will see peace return to
I might add that if a cruise ship can change its direction to avoid
a hurricane, it can also change its direction to avoid a war. There
is always risk involved in travel, but in this case I wouldn’t worry
too much. No cruise ship would dream of docking anywhere near
trouble. For example, back in 2012 when Mexico was in the midst of
a wave of violence, our cruise ship headed from Los Angeles to
Panama refused to stop in Acapulco and Cabo.
Speaking of the perils of travel, who can name the story of the most
terrifying sea journey in history? C’mon now, this one is easy.
And don’t say ‘Titanic’ either. Titanic is in second place. I’ll
tell you in a moment.
Another interesting thing about the Mediterranean Sea isn’t just the
known history, but rather the tantalizing rumors. The Mediterranean
Sea is chock full of some great myths and legends.
One of my favorites is the legend of the Great Flood. Following our
visit to Turkey in 2008, I researched a very interesting story that
suggests the legend of the Great Flood might have something to do
with the Black Sea.
Did you know the Baltic Sea was once a large inland lake? During
the Ice Age, the water pressure became so powerful that some of the
land between Sweden and Denmark burst open and the water rushed from
the North Sea into the Baltic area depression caused by the receding
Today this breakthrough area is known as the Skagerrak Strait. And
where did I learn this? On our cruise trip to Russia in 2012. If
it wasn’t for cruise trips, I wouldn’t have any education at all.
Once upon a time, the Black Sea was basically a large inland lake as
well and the same thing happened to it as the Baltic Sea.
The thinking was that as the waters of the seas rose during the
melting of the glaciers following the Ice Age, perhaps the thin wall
of land separating the Bosporus Strait from the Black Sea broke open
like a dam bursting.
Then the higher water levels of Aegean Sea flooded into lower
elevations where the Black Sea exists today. In rapid fashion, the
size of the Black Sea practically doubled.
If people in the Black Sea area lived in the low-lying areas, they
would likely have been flooded out (except for Noah who had been
warned ahead of time). This event could very easily have given rise
to the Great Flood legend.
This theory hasn’t quite been proven yet. Research continues today
for evidence of villages at the bottom of the Black Sea that might
have been victims of the sudden onrush of water.
Great Flood Story
Another fascinating legend is that the Lost Continent of Atlantis
might be sunken somewhere below the waters of the Mediterranean.
Several areas in the Aegean Sea are high on the list of
Will Atlantis ever be found? Will the Great Flood Theory be proven
Well, you never know. Since this entire area is a major cradle of
civilization, archeologists cannot get enough of this region of the
world. They just keep digging away.
For example, if someone had been born in 1850 and had asked about
the existence of Troy, the historians of that era would have shaken
their heads sadly and said that was just a myth.
Then in 1865, they discovered some very interesting ruins up in the
northwestern part of Turkey not very far from Constantinople, the
previous name for Istanbul. Today it is commonly accepted that
these ruins were indeed the Troy of the legendary Trojan War.
Thanks to that fascinating discovery, from this point on, no
archeologist would dream of saying “never” when it comes to the
myths and legends of the Mediterranean. They might say “unlikely”,
but they make sure to leave a little room for hedging.
In case you want to know more, I wrote a story
Troy as well.
One of the places we will visit on the Istanbul Cruise will be an
interesting place known as Ephesus. This area was once the
largest city in the Roman Empire outside of Rome. Today Ephesus has
an amazing array of well-preserved Roman ruins.
Ephesus is pretty interesting for another reason. When we visited
the place in 2008, my friend Iqbal Nagji told me that once upon a
time Ephesus was a port. Considering Ephesus is located five miles
inland, I was aghast. I had a hard time believing him… but before I
said so, I made sure to check when I got home. To my consternation,
sure enough, Iqbal was right.
I went back and researched this story as
well. Here’s an interesting piece of trivia. One of the reasons
Ephesus stopped being a port was due to a wandering river that kept
changing directions. This river was known as the Meander.
Yes, that’s where the phrase “meandering” comes from. I wrote a
Ephesus and the Meander River as well.
So have you figured out my question about the most terrifying ocean
journey in history? How about the Odyssey?
Our friend Odysseus was responsible for the Trojan Horse trick that
caused the fall of Troy. Apparently some of the Gods and Goddesses
who were rooting for Troy got mad at Odysseus and made sure a
violent storm threw him and his men way off course on their way
home. Then Odysseus made a big mistake… in order to escape the
Cyclops monster, he had to blind the one-eyed creature. While this
did allow his men to escape, it turns out Cyclops turned to his
powerful father – some guy named Poseidon - and asked for
vengeance. Poseidon made sure Odysseus was driven to every distant
corner of the Mediterranean as punishment. It would be 10 years
before Odysseus finally made it home.
So now another popular game the archeologists and historians like to
play is to study Homer’s Odyssey and try to guess which
Mediterranean locations might correspond to the travels of the Greek
hero Odysseus. Where was the island of the Cyclops? Where was the
island of Circe? Where did the lotus eaters reside?
The fun part of the game is that no one can be wrong.
Various websites are dedicated to this interesting exercise and here
are some of the suggestions. From what I gather, our Istanbul
cruise will pass right by some of these locations.
The island of the nymph Calypso who kept Odysseus captive for seven
years corresponds to a small island just off the coast of Malta.
The lotus eaters lived nearby on the coast of Tunisia 200 miles to
Cyclops is said to have resided in a cave in Sicily.
One spot everyone agrees on are the Straits of Messina. Here Sicily
and Italy are separated by less than 2 miles of water. This is the
legendary home of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. If a ship
sailed too much to one side to avoid one the monsters, the other
monster would nail the ship.
This gave rise to the phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis" which
meant being trapped between two dangers, choosing either of which
would bring harm. The phrase “caught between a rock and a hard
place” means essentially the same thing.
You will surely be amused to know that on Italian side of the
Messina Strait there is a city named “Scilla”. Take one guess where
it got its name. Our cruise ship will go straight through these
narrow waters when we visit Messina. Hopefully Scylla and
Charybdis will be taking a nap.
I love the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. The Sirens were naked
mermaids who lured sailors to death with their song and their
beauty. The stunning Isle of Capri near Naples is listed as
a definite possibility for this particular legend. There are all
sorts of fascinating jagged rock formations jutting out of the water
around Capri. It is easy to imagine ships crashing on rocks like
these as punishment for listening to the song of the Sirens.
You might be surprised to learn that within the past couple years
the archeologists have located yet another spot as the possible home
for the Sirens.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t report that the island of
Giglio has recently been suggested as yet another location for the
Sirens. You may vaguely remember the name of this Italian island.
It was said that a trio of beautiful naked mermaids lured the
captain of the Costa Concordia just a little too close to this
particular island and guess what happened?
The misty isle of Giglio is not the only danger we need to watch out
for on our Istanbul cruise. Yes, indeed, there are many modern
perils of travel in the Mediterranean as well.
Marla and I once fell into one of the most famous tourist traps of
Rome… the great Gelato scam.
Right near the Spanish Steps, one of the highlight locations of
Rome, there are a series of shops that sell delicious gelato, better
known as Italian ice cream. Of course the Italians claim their
gelato is the best in the world and they believe this gives them the
right to charge maybe just a little bit extra for their precious
I did some research and discovered an ice cream cone at McDonald’s
costs about a dollar. So what does an ice cream cone cost in Rome?
Well, I happen to be an expert on this subject. I can actually
answer the question “So what does a gelato cone cost in Rome?”
Back in 2008, I paid the ungodly price of $72 for three small gelato
cones at a shop named Caffetteria Antica Roma. I was fit to be
If you want a smile, you can read my original
The Great Gelato Shakedown
Recently Marla forwarded me an article she found on the Internet.
US tourists shocked over ice-cream prices at Rome café
I flashed a huge grin when my eyes crossed this line in the story:
“Last year, the price of gelatos in Rome hit a nerve with a group of
British tourists who were charged 64 euros (American $92) for four
ice-creams at the Antica Roma bar and gelateria near the
OMG, they are still at it!!
When our group visits Rome during the Istanbul trip, I intend
to lead a group through Rome and retrace the walk Marla and I took
back in 2008.
The historical part of Rome is amazingly compact. It makes for a
wonderful day-long walk… and unless you fall for the Gelato Trap,
the walk is free!!
We will see the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the
Roman Forum and of course the Colosseum. However, I know everyone
will definitely want to pass by Antica Roma and tease me endlessly
for falling victim to the worst tourist trap in Rome!
Guess what? Just like Scylla and Charybdis, there is another danger
in Rome. That’s right, the gelato trap is not the only danger in
Rome to watch out for. Beware the Gladiator Photo Scam.
As background information for the story I am about to share, I have
been to Rome twice on cruise trips. On our first trip to Rome in
2008, we spent the day walking through the streets of Rome. We
saved the amazing Roman Colosseum for last. The Colosseum was very
helpful; in a way similar to the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the
Colosseum is so enormous that we had no trouble keeping it in sight
as we wandered around Rome.
Just as we approached the outskirts of the giant structure, a very
engaging young man pulled Marla, my daughter Sam, and me aside to
offer a guided tour of the Colosseum. He said he was from Scotland
here in Rome to attend college. The young man was so friendly and
outgoing that I immediately agreed to be escorted by him... only to
find moments AFTER he took our money that he wasn't going to be our
I frowned. I had a feeling the tour guide wasn't going to be nearly
as engaging as this young man. Unfortunately I would later have my
However, this young man had my money and I didn't feel like
arguing. The young man directed us to stay in one spot under a
tree. From there we watched as he culled other people from the
I learned what his job was. He was in charge of creating a tour
group out of thin air. There are many tourists who wander over to
take a look at the Colosseum. With just a little persuasion, they
can be talked into joining a group tour.
The young man was really good at this. Over a period of 25 minutes,
he collected a group of 30 people awaiting the tour. I had to hand
it to the kid - he was a born Pied Piper.
While we were waiting, I decided to go buy a tourist book on the
Colosseum at a nearby news stand. On my way over there, a beautiful
young Italian woman dressed in a scanty white toga as a Roman
goddess stopped me in my tracks. It wasn't difficult... she was
that pretty. The toga covered one shoulder and the other shoulder
was bare. The toga was very low cut. This lady was a joy to
behold. And then she smiled at me… I was hypnotized!
Before I knew what was happening, the girl came closer and then she
wrapped her arm in mine. Suddenly a man popped out of the crowd to
take our picture. The girl promptly vanished into thin air, a copy
of the picture appeared and suddenly the photographer began
demanding money in return for the picture.
I asked him how much. Ten euros.
I was seriously cash-strapped to begin with, so I just laughed at
him and walked off. It was so crowded I don't think he dared to
pursue it further, but he followed me and cursed me out in Italian.
I could not believe how aggressive this man was. I had a mind to
confront him, but thought better of it. We had seen a gang of gypsy
thieves acting together in Barcelona just a couple days earlier, so
I decided to back off. I kept wandering till he gave up, and then
returned to where Sam, my daughter, and Marla were sitting.
My memory of this ugly incident was restored when I saw this next
story about a Gladiator shakedown gang.
ROMAN GLADIATORS ARRESTED AFTER CLASH OF SWORDS OUTSIDE COLOSSEUM
John Hooper in Rome
Thursday 11 August 2011 14.02 EDT
On a daily basis, dozens of modern-day Romans dressed as centurions
or gladiators make a living by posing for photographs alongside
tourists in return for tips. They make extra money by enticing them
onto tours in exchange for payments from the organizers.
However this practice has been plagued by complaints that some
centurions resort to threats and coercion. There are claims that
centurions have offered to pose for a picture, then turn around and
demand up to 30 euros for a posed photograph.
Another ruse involves approaching a tourist, offering to take a
photograph of the tourist with his or her own camera, and then
refusing to give it back until a substantial amount of money has
been handed over.
Nor do the gladiators appreciate competition. There are allegations
that it is a "closed shop" from which outsiders are rigorously, and
sometimes brutally, excluded.
A police operation was launched after four complaints from
legitimate tour agencies. In addition, there was a complaint from
two Italian tourists who said they had been tricked by a costumed
tout into paying for a tour of the Vatican museums that never
materialized. They were threatened by the man when they demanded
their money back.
There have long been tales of fake centurions who prey on tourists
visiting the sites of ancient Rome. Considering how vital tourism
is to Rome, Italian undercover police decided the time had come to
In a sting operation, two policemen donned similar gladiator outfits
and began soliciting business right alongside the centurions who
work the area on a regular basis.
The undercover officers wanted to provoke a scene. It didn't take
long till they got their wish.
Three fake centurions who worked this area on a regular basis were
upset to see these new men dressed in full centurion regalia appear
out of nowhere in the Piazza Venezia. When they saw the newcomers
start to solicit tourists for pictures, they grew angrier. This
was their turf! They decided to confront the new kids on the
They had no idea these new centurions were undercover police
officers sent to investigate claims of racketeering and fraud in the
shadow of the Colosseum.
The three fake centurions approached the uncover officers and began
to threaten them with violence unless they left immediately. Angry
words followed and suddenly a fight broke out.
Imagine the surprise of the three centurions when the two uncover
officers decided to fight back the old-fashioned way - they drew
their swords! The centurions were not used to people fighting
back, especially if they are outnumbered.
In a scene that surely must have contained elements of humor, as the
argument escalated, swords - albeit wooden ones - were soon cleaving
the air. Now for the first time since the Fall of the Roman Empire,
gladiator swords clashed in earnest outside the Roman Colosseum.
A huge throng of onlookers rushed to the witness the fight, assuming
this gladiator battle was being staged for their entertainment. One
woman exclaimed, "These guys are really good. They are fighting
like they are serious!"
Unbeknownst to the trio, a nearby party of street cleaners at work
was also made up of undercover police officers. Upon seeing their
colleagues being attacked, they sprang into action using a flanking
maneuver Caesar surely would have approved of.
The three shakedown gladiators were completely taken off guard.
Seeing themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered, they quickly
dropped their swords. Now to their dismay, the targets realized
they had been duped by the police.
To the amusement of the many onlooking tourists, the police clamped
handcuffs on the aggressors, confiscated their swords as evidence
and hauled them away. Instantly dozens of cameras started
flashing. Now this was a picture worth taking! And it was free!
According to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, the three men
arrested on Wednesday were accused of assault and risked additional
charges of criminal conspiracy.
They were among 30 people arrested as a result of the
investigation. Others taken in included tour guides and the owners
of tour agencies who employed the centurions to bring them
Surely the ghost of Spartacus rests easier knowing these charlatans
have been dispatched for behavior unworthy of a gladiator. I have
warned that travel can be very dangerous. This story is a good
example of the perils an unsuspecting tourist can face.
Believe it or not, a good friend of mine ran into this same
problem. This lady… call her Francis… was visiting Rome with her
husband, daughter and son. Sure enough, they were in the giant
field next to Colosseum. When her husband took off, apparently a
young Roman man dressed as a gladiator noticed his family was
Now Francis looked up because her 14 year old daughter was suddenly
crying profusely. Her daughter was accompanied by an angry Roman
gladiator demanding a king’s ransom in return for a picture taken of
him and the lady’s daughter. He had his hand around the poor girl’s
Francis gestured to the arm and ordered the man to let her daughter
go. He didn’t speak English, but he knew what Francis wanted.
Instead he put his hand out and demanded 10 euros ($25).
Francis did not have the kind of money being demanded. She said ‘no
thanks’, but the gladiator refused to stop harassing her. Things
were getting very ugly and the daughter was still crying.
Francis looked up and saw a nearby Italian policeman across the
campo. She whispered to her son to quietly go fetch the poliziotto.
The gladiator never even noticed.
Sure enough, the poliziotto was more than happy to intervene. I
think this policeman knew exactly what was going on. Only one
problem… he didn’t speak very good English. Something got switched
in translation. Francis was trying to say the man wouldn’t let go
of the girl’s arm, but the policeman understood her to mean that the
gladiator had “touched” the girl in the wrong way.
By the time Francis had finished explaining what had happened, the
policeman began accusing the gladiator of molesting Francis’
daughter. Now this was a very serious crime. A look of horror came
over the gladiator’s face and he began to beg Francis to explain his
innocence. The gladiator was so frightened, he began to cry.
The sight of this belligerent, heavily-muscled gladiator suddenly
reduced to tears and begging on his knees for her help was more than
Francis could handle. She began to laugh and put her hands up as if
to say, “Enough already. Calm down!”
To the policeman, Francis began saying everything twice, “It’s okay,
it’s okay, scusa, scusa, no problema, no problema.”
Eventually the policeman got the idea. He cuffed the gladiator on
the side of his head and walked away.
And you thought Scylla and Charydis were the only dangers you had to
Fortunately, the next time we take a cruise trip to Rome, I think I
can protect everyone from the obvious dangers. My suggestion is to
walk the streets as a gruppo. In the land of the gelato traps and
gladiator photo scams, the best protection is always safety in