Greek Cruise, October 2009

Now, this was one of those trips where everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong – and more! Usually I am a “make the best of it” type of traveller rather than someone who comes back to catalogue their “holiday from hell” in glorious Technicolor but on this occasion I was looking after my mother and she is far too old and infirm to be expected to put up with such substandard service.

Not one to mince my words, I let the Costa company have both barrels on our return. So much so that the first recipient hurriedly denied that she had even been able to open the e-mail attachment. It was obvious from her tone of voice that she not only knew what I’d been complaining about but that so did everyone else in the UK office. She quickly passed me up the line. Here is a sample of what I had written:

……………we even speculated that all the officers must have left the ship for a day’s excursion to Rome. We were sent down in the crowded lift to an even more crowded lower deck where a single member of staff who spoke nothing but Italian refused to let us off the boat. Here the crush became worse and worse as more people were sent down in the lift, shouted instructions made no sense, even to the Italian speaking passengers and, for about twenty minutes, the situation was extremely uncomfortable and becoming increasingly dangerous……….

Of course I was told that my complaint would be looked into and that I would hear back in due course. Technically this is known as fob-off: you can always identify it by the lack of any genuine concern and a reluctance on the part of an individual to be identified. Costa is an Italian company, after all, so for any escalation of confrontation I knew that my next step should be to bring in the Neapolitan brothers. Alessandro and Andrei knew how to make themselves heard at the head offices in Genoa and could be trusted to be suitably outspoken about this shabby treatment of “the English Ladies”.

Hearing nothing, I had all but forgotten about the complaint by the time we came to take our next cruise eleven months later. There must have been plenty of good points for us to risk another trip with the same company but, as it turned out, we received VIP treatment at every turn. I’ll never know for sure whether this heralded a new dawn for quality of service in respect of disabled passengers or whether the purser of our previous ship had been sent to sleep with the fishes. But I mustn’t get ahead of myself.

Despite the various reasons for complaint, and there were plenty of them, the 2009 cruise did in fact have a lot going for it; principally an itinerary that criss-crossed the Aegean affording the opportunity to brush up on Hellenic culture while adding to the fridge magnet collection. Any educational content was rendered even more of a challenge by the paucity of enthusiasm displayed by the majority of passengers, whose country of origin could often be determined by the number of visits that they made to the breakfast bar.

An end-of-season ennui infected the activities organiser whose principal task seemed to be pushing bits of paper under the cabin door to tell us that the next day’s excursion had been cancelled due to lack of interest. Whose interest was not specified. Usually I was able to negotiate our inclusion into a party with another language group or one visiting a different destination and at least one person seems to have heard me muttering “I’m bloody well going to get to see Knossos even if I have to swim ashore”. Well, either that or there were enough people aboard anxious to sample Cretan delicacies at the quayside taverna because I did eventually get my opportunity to enjoy the four thousand year old Minoan delicacies at the Heraklion Museum.

It is very difficult to write about visiting the home of Ancient Greek civilisation without veering towards the pretentious. Nearly all fashionable travel writers seem to have read classics at Oxbridge, spent a year or two bumming around the Eastern Mediterranean and then done a stint with the Sunday Colour Supplements, all leading up to a comfortable future filled with book signings at the more metropolitan branches of Waterstones. Unless they are Stephen Fry, of course. Then their mellifluous tones can be heard at prime time spouting snippets of the Odyssey from the deck of a picturesque fishing boat afloat on a wine dark sea.

For anyone with even a modest education, such cultural treasures are drip fed into our consciousness from our early childhood and we do not need to be preached to about them. They belong to us as much as they do to the professors and, as for the undereducated, well, they would much rather be up-chucking retsina at the local bouzouki establishment than listening to Stephen up-chucking Homer on their flatscreens. Mykonos’s got talent.

The Island of Mykonos managed to get some extra visitors from our ship when we made an unscheduled additional stop there. High seas had made Patmos inaccessible and, instead of simply spending the extra day at sea, the captain thoughtfully provided us with an alternative. Perhaps he was simply afraid that the ship’s bars would run out of little paper umbrellas but, whatever the reasoning, some of us got the opportunity to visit the Island of Delos.

Delos is a tiny, uninhabited island a short tender ride away from its better known neighbour. In the ancient world their importance was reversed; Delos being a great political, spiritual and commercial centre. So it is not really surprising that nowadays the whole island is a museum with World Heritage Status. I will never forget the look of happiness on the face of one elderly Frenchman, who admitted to me on the boat across that he had never thought he would have the opportunity to come here. So peaceful did we find it among the ruins that I framed a picture of my mother resting there and sent it to the surgeon who had worked such wonders with her spine.

This cultured serenity was put under threat by an even worse set of holiday horrors encountered on the journey home but fortunately Mum didn’t suffer any lasting ill effects. When she got back she thoroughly enjoyed recounting all the gruesome details to everyone who would listen but, nonetheless, it was her idea to take another cruise the following year.

For myself: I actually survived a chest infection, wee infection and a dental infection so severe that it necessitated the removal of a tooth upon my return. But I still cherish an unbelievably gorgeous collection of photographs and such idyllic memories as I can wrest from the medication induced haze.

Categories: Europe, Mediterranean

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