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Black Tie International Travel  1
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Black Tie International:  Travel - Bob Nicolaides Destinations
The Aegean

Travelogue……       
with Bob Nicolaides

Destinations: The Aegean

 

bob nicholaides

The Aegean, the Sea of Marmara & The

Thrrills: A Cruise You Will Remember!

By Bob Nicolaides

You can’t exactly call me a ‘homebody’, which is interpreted not being one to stay home as I having had my share of traveling to many destinations over the years, and having visited the globe’s firm land, excluding the two Poles, by plane, by train by car or by cruise ship. That, I believe gives me the license to make observations on most aspects of the latter‘s business, from the passengers point of view at least. For instance I should know when a ship is top notch or fails the grade, I should be able to tell when its living cargo is a happy one, if its food quality is what is expected or when service lags.

I may not be the top authority, but I have traveled enough on cruise ships to resolve that, of all cruises I have taken in my lifetime-and that’s a lot of years-the cruise to which I would hand the award of the most meticulous staff and crew-and kitchen- and the most courteous performance ever, would be the Maltese flag ships of the Louis Cruises, a company that operates in the waters of the Aegean Sea and environs. I must say that I was almost amazed by such courtesy and such service. The company, most assuredly aims to please!

This fact is apparent from the moment you board the MV Louis Cristal, one of Louis Cruises three ships currently plying the Aegean waters. The other four ships, such as the MV Emerald, MV Coral, MV Calypso and MV Thomson Spirit ply the Mediterranean waters from end to end, with multiple ports of call in nations such as Gibraltar, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece (both Ionian and Aegean seas,) Turkey and the Arab world. From there, they sail for the island of Cyprus at its southern end port of Limassol (Lemessos.)  Currently , Cristal’s sister ships, the MV Louis Olympia, slightly larger than the Cristal does three and four night cruises, and the MV Orient Queen, a smaller ship, covers  8 day-7 night timetables, going back and forth from Cyprus to the Greek islands heretofore not included in cruise ship itineraries, islands such as Symi, Folegandros and Antiparos, to mention a few. In fact, Antiparos enjoys its day in the sun when actor-director Tom Hanks and his Greek wife Rita Wilson visit it every year to stay in the house they own there. Louis Group’s history by the way goes way back, since a year ago this fleet celebrated its diamond anniversary.  Indeed, today, Louis Cruises is the fifth largest cruise group.

The MV Cristal, lifted its anchor in its berth located at Cruise Terminal A in Piraeus at exactly 4 pm- or as Europe would have it at 16 hours-bound north east across the Greek Isles, headed for the port of Constantinoupolis as the Louis Cruise flyer indicated, the jewel of the Sea of Marmara widely known today as Istanbul, a derivative of the Greek words Is Tan Poli, indicating that one is headed towards the Cit. That’s how one would’ve referred to it up to the point that this city built by Constantine the Great and originally called New Rome, lost 99% of its Greek inhabitants in the early 20th century.

A spectacular sunset crowned the afternoon’s sailing, the deep blue sea all around us was calm and alluring. By day’s end, happy passengers gathered in the formal La Scala dining room  on Deck 8 to taste a splendid dinner prepared by executive chef Ioannis Korologos and chef de cuisine Alito. As I proceeded

Toward the entrance I was greeted by Maitre d’hotel Adrian Zamfir, a polyglot Romanian who had just overheard me say a few words in French, and said he’d seat me at a table where French was spoken. “No,” I protested, “put me at a table with English speaking passengers.”

Seated at a makeshift desk right outside the dining room, he scribbled on the layout in front of him and then gave me a little card with a number on it. “You are now a diner at table 3,” he said as he wished me “Bon Appétit.” So I proceeded to table three which was no more than three steps inside the restaurant, and tables 1 and 2 out of sight behind a curtain.(It was later that I learned they served as the hideaway for a couple on their honeymoon whom the captain had arranged for seclude dining far from the indiscreet eye.)

The formalities at my table, usually reserved at introducing one another took a twist of a different kind as each one rushed to show their knowledge of languages. At my question as to what language the man with glasses sitting by the window on the opposite side and the couple that faced him on my side of the table, the former exclaimed “what language do you want?” so I challenged him by asking if he spoke Arabic, since I thought I was proficient in it, having been born in the Middle East.  “Sure enough” he answered in perfect Arabic which surprised me enough as to ask him where was he from. “I was born in Egypt of a Greek mother and Austro-Hungarian father “Alex Kurtini specified “and I live in Australia.”

Then he went on to introduce the couple as Armenians (the wife had a Greek grandmother) both born in Egypt, but living in Boston, MA.  There was no question about the octogenarian who sat alongside Alex who appeared to be a native of Athens. He was well-dressed, spoke very little and heard even less on account of being hard of hearing despite the hearing aid he wore on his right ear. It turned out he was a retired surgeon with many stories to tell who boarded a cruise ship of the Louis line at least three times a year to the same destination and was also an avid spaghetti eater who forced everyone to try Korologos’ prize-winning pasta.

 

bob nicholaides

 

Sunrise next day found us speeding through the straits of the Dardanelles, viewing three War Memorials on the port side of the ship, the Helles Memorial on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula in Western Thrace, a 30 meter high obelisk a short distance from the first, and looking like a huge archway, is the Turkish Canakkale Martyr’s Monument of Gallipoli. All three are dedicated to fallen heroes of WWI, the 20771 names inscribed being those belonging to the allies, the obelisk is in honor of the French troops that perished there, and the third is dedicated to the Turkish fallen troops (Turkey fought that war on the side of the axis.)

With the monuments behind us, soon we entered the Sea of Marmara and sped towards the narrows of Bosporus Thracius, (as the Bosporus  or ‘Ox Fort,’ was known in antiquity) and the city, the former jewel of the Byzantine Empire and the cross-roads of the then established world, Constantinople. We did not reach its harbor until 3:30 in the afternoon, almost 24 hours after leaving the port of Piraeus.

With the disembarking formalities over, the groups of various nationalities onboard, led by their homophonous guide began descending on the old section of Istanbul located on the European part of Turkey and built, just like Rome on seven hills and in that day surrounded by a wall built by Emperor Theodosius II in 413 AD. Today, the wall is in ruins and only crumbling parts of it are still in existence. A  suspension bridge fashioned much like the Verrazano and other American bridges, built in 1973 connects the Asian mainland Turkey (Anatolia) with its European swath of land. Of its many old sections, the oldest, south and west of the Golden Horn is called Stambul on the site of the ancient Byzantium and this is where Phanar, the quarter where the remnants of the Greek population live, as well as the site of the Roumi Patrichanesi  (Greek ‘Orthodox’ Patriarchate) is located.

Northeast of Stambul and across the Golden Horn is the commercial quarter of Galata connected with the former by two floating bridges, but the historical value of Istanbul lies on the European side of the city, southeast of the Phanar. This is where Hagia Sophia, the Sixth century cathedral of Holy Wisdom is located, converted into a mosque upon the fall of the city to the Ottomans, and turned museum after global protestations, but nevertheless, still bearing the marks of its use as a Moslem place of worship. Though all the structures around it feature tall minarets, the structures  nevertheless reflect the stylistic Byzantine influences, but with extensive ornamentation in the interior.

Most passengers, whether they ventured on the nighttime excursion to the city’s most frequented night club to taste authentic delicacies, hear Turkish ‘amaneh’ and ogle beautiful belly dancers at work, signed up for the day excursion to the city’s interesting sights. This excursion included a drive through the business center across the Galata Bridge in the modern city along the Golden Horn and under the Byzantine Aqueduct of Valens. On the way, they were treated to the sites of the Sultan Suleiman Mosque, visited the Hippodrome, once the largest chariot race arenas in all of the Empire. Then on to the Sultanahmet mosque from where pilgrimages to Mecca originate, and to which the name Blue Mosque has been given because of the 21,000 blue Iznik tiles that decorate it. Hagia Sophia is adjacent to it, with massive wooden portals, leading to a tremendously large space that comprises the ancient church, complete with impressively large chandeliers, remnants of frescoes, mosaics and marble decorations, along with some attestation of its days as a mosque.

After lunch at a local eatery (or onboard the ship for others) the tour continued with a visit to Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans. It is now a museum where the Spoonmaker’s diamond, the 7th largest in the world can be viewed. Another full day tour highlights important ancient churches such as the 11th century St. Savior in Hora with its collection of 14th century frescoes and inlaid gold mosaics, the St. Sergius and Bacchus church built as a result of a vow by Justinian as he was to be executed.

One cannot miss the Grand Bazaar, in equal distance from the Cistern and from the several buildings occupied by universities. It is absolutely colorful and provides all kinds of purchases from belly dancers’ costumes to a set of backgammon. Here too there are sporadic restaurants and cafes where you can rest your feet after the long walk by the copious stores.

Before leaving the area of Hagia Sophia however, a visit to the Underground Cistern, a stone’s throw from the former cathedral is an absolute must. It is a network of waterways built the third century AD to assure passage away from the city during prolonged sieges by invaders. The flowing water contains swimming fish and the endless row of columns is a majestic sight. On the western end of the Cistern there are two slabs with the image of Medusa, but for some reason one is placed sideways and the other upside down.

My fascination was apparent as I exited the underground masterpiece which had caught my eye on one of the James Bond movies. I was supposed to find the two buddies I toured with waiting for me outside by a mini-park bench, but neither Alex nor Doctor George was there. I strolled for a while, going back and forth, sat at a café for some coffee for a while, but not finding them I decided to make it solo back to the ship. A few minutes after arriving, here they were coming aboard. Did they have an  explanation? They sure did! They swore they’ve waited for me, but don’t ask me where! 

That same day, Sunday, when most all shops are closed, (curiously, instead of Friday) I sat for a while to have a cup of Turkish coffee at the Nove Café in Beyoglu, right across the Terminal where the Cristal was docked.  As I was talking to the owner, Ugur Onur Sakarya, a procession of protesters appeared walking en masse northbound from the site of the mosques and museums we had visited. The leading line of the demonstrators held from its four edges a large canvas on which several links of a huge chain were laid out. Asking Ugur what they demanded, he told me this was a bunch of Islamists who wanted more rights. It wasn’t a bunch however, because the procession went on and on and      after the human wave had passed, columns of cars followed as part of the same demonstration, all honking their horns. It was much later that I found out the real reason for the demonstration. These Islamists were demanding the reverting of Hagia Sophia into a mosque!

bob nicholaides

 

Another batch of passengers came onboard in Istanbul along with an interpreter-tour leader by the name of Burcu (pronounced Bourdzou) Yavuz, who was to be their eyes and ears for all Turkish-speaking guests during the trip. The friendly guide, quite a Grecophile, did not only socialize with her following, but spent time at our table of Egyptian-born voyagers and sometimes dined with us-though she never sat more than three minutes without having to get up and run to complete some chore. 

At 17 hours Sunday the MV Cristal moved away from its berth and headed towards the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea, reversing the course it had followed, and now sailing south towards Izmir, the coastal Asia Minor city with a Greek past.  It was a 20-odd hour sailing, uneventful as far as the sea, but full of action on board, with Captain Stathis Goumas and his staff splashing the traditional cocktail party in the Metropolitan Showroom on Deck 8. Getting up on the stage of the spacious room divided in smaller compartments with tables and chairs for more intimacy, in his inimitable style which combined mirth and animation, he greeted the over one thousand passengers, with a hearty welcome, always emphasizing the fact that the cruise ship was Greek. “Last year” he remarked, “the crew and waiters were mostly Greek.” Then he continued. “This year it is mixed, with waiters from Egypt, Cuba, the Philippines and even Mauritius and staff from the Ukraine, Russia, Romania and Cuba. However the officers are mostly Greek,” he concluded.  Finishing his salty-but funny-remarks he introduced his staff by name as each took positions on the stage behind him. When I say all of them, I mean the officers and those with extraordinary duties. Grant you, if he had to introduce the entire crew of 372 from 20 different nations worldwide, he would’ve needed the rest of the evening, an evening which he did not have, given the fact that dinner was being served aside from the implementation of important duties that befit the master of a ship.

With the welcoming reception over, it was time for dinner, with most diners filling the La Scala restaurant, since those who sought a more casual dining, the Traviata and its sister dining area Rigoletto, both on deck 9 were available almost at all times. So was Caruso Restaurant on deck 5, though I never visited that one. You see, deck 8 had to be the most popular of all ten decks, featuring the Romeo & Juliet bar, the Rendez-Vous Lounge where you could enjoy early afternoon as well as late hour music, the Metropolitan Showroom where fabulous entertainment was the order of the night, arranged by the Social Director, an attractive Romanian multi-linguist called Florentina and her equally linguistic Romanian husband, the assistant director.

You notice that I am enthusiastic about the entertainment bill onboard the Cristal, but there’s valid reason why, which I will explain. Whatever performance the entertainment group (singers, dancers) executed, it was authentic in the sense that it was carried out in the way natives of whatever nation was being portrayed, the performers acted as being a native of that nation. For instance, the Greek skits and songs did not give away any accent or misstep though  were being performed by a cast of non-Hellenes- with every syllable in the songs and every miniscule step in the dancing appearing to be truly performed by Greek natives. Of course this is to their credit, and it shows, as they admitted, how much time it takes to reach perfection!

Then there were some of the girls that staffed the social relations department, stunning girls such as Anastasia and Olena, both Ukrainian and Maria, a native of Greece and others, all of whom doubled as dancing partners when they were not part of a group demonstrating a dance or performing other staff duties.

bob  nicholiaides

It was early afternoon, 1:30 pm to be exact, when we docked at Izmir, the city which I was seeing for the first time, a city about which I had read and heard so many stories on its past and how Hellenic it was up until the year 1923. Today, aside from the faces of some Turks who look identical to Greeks, there are no signs of the legendary Smyrna’s former make-up or signage. No sign of Greek and Armenian inhabitants in large numbers either. Just the same, it is Anatolia’s gateway to the Aegean and a link to the Neolithic Age, accounting for 8,000 years of prehistory and history.

Izmir has become Turkey’s third most populous city behind Istanbul and Ankara and only the second port after Constantinople. Between the Hittites and the Ottomans, there have been plenty of conquerors through the years, but today appears as a placid city,-except for its port-its streets lined with palm trees and gardens. Near the harbor entrance, marked clearly as ‘Limani,’ what appears to have started was work on an elevated highway, the structure coming to an abrupt end by a cluster of old tenements, perhaps stopped until their demolition takes place.

Smyrna’s Agora, built by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 178 BC has been preserved, however, around what is called ‘Agora Open Air Museum’ that features many preserved antiquities, there are as many, if not more waiting to be excavated from the bottom of relatively new buildings. Such is Smyrna’s ancient theater on the slopes of Kadifekale where St. Polycarp had martyred. At the archeology museum you discover tons of artifacts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, which they extend to Bergama (Pergamum) Iasos and Bayrakli. The museum’s lower floor is taken up by large statues of the gods Poseidon (Neptune) , Demeter, and Artemis (Diana), most brought here from the altar of Zeus (Jupiter) in the Agora and one of a river god that used to decorate a fountain in Ephesus.

The dead city of Ephesus is the most popular of excursions from Izmir and it yields unimaginable treasures of archeological value, reached by coach a little distance from where it is believed that the Virgin Mary spent her last days on Mt. Koressos. You can walk into the city that was rebuilt seven times in antiquity,  through the Magnesian Gate and you can ogle the Odeon with capacity of 12,000 seats, the Fountain of Trajan, the steam-heated baths of Scolastika, the Temple of Hadrian and the Latrines where rich residents had their slaves warm up their seats until they arrived and above which there was a house of prostitution, the two-story high Library of Celsus and the Great Theater, the capacity of which was 24,000, unheard of in the ancient world.

Of equal importance is the tour originating from the port to Pergamum, one and a half hours trip by coach. Experience Greek and Roman architecture, visit the Asklepion in honor of the god of medicine, a therapeutic and worship center, a most celebrated one in the ancient world. Using the cable car you can enjoy the panoramic view and you reach the Acropolis at a considerable height, with its many temples, palaces and other structures.

Returning to the port, my newly found friends Alex and Dr. George had to make a stop at a supermarket. Alex needed a USB of many gigabytes, to give the DJ, Damian in the Star Lounge and Disco so he could record for him some of his out of sight music. Needless to say that this spot, the Star Lounge on Deck 10 was our regular hangout from 11 pm to the wee hours every single night.

The time now was 8:30, ‘anchors aweigh’ time. Thought the next port would come into view as early as 6:30 am the next day, we would not turn in until after 2 in the morning! You guessed it: More Disco, after which returning to my cabin I found two pleasant surprises waiting in the form of invitations, the one to visit the captain on the ship’s bridge the next day around 11 am and the other to have dinner with him at the Rigoletto restaurant which doubled as an exclusive Greek Cuisine Restaurant called Thalassa, serving splendid dishes as I had heard, for an unbelievable low price not included in the cruise’s tab. Of course I was excited, but I was able to sleep comfortably what was left of the night, in my realm of this Junior Suite on Deck 6..

 

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At the crack of dawn Tuesday, I get a wake-up call and a call from Alex informing me it’s time for breakfast which is also time to go ashore at Patmos where we are due in about an hour. I ignore both calls and go back to sleep. I knew however that I had to answer Alex and Dr. George whom I stood up, them waiting for me by the Riviera Pool bar- not imbibing that early in the morning, heaven forbid-but raring to go to breakfast. By the time I got up all passengers had disembarked and were on their way from Hora, the village below the mountain, to the monastery-fort of St John at the very peak. So did Alex and Dr. George, whom I did not see again until it was time to sail away from the island. By the way, the island is the northernmost isle in the Dodecanese complex, all of which lie off the coast of Asia Minor.

A few minutes before 11 am, I was at the Reception desk on Deck 5, the pre-arranged place to meet with the security people who would take me to the bridge. It is the same floor where the Duty-free Emporium, the Shore Excursion desk, the Internet corner and the Photo Gallery are located. It didn’t take long for the security officer to arrive and guide me through some staircases that I hadn’t seen up to that moment, and through some doors we finally were on the bridge, with officers in white greeting us.

It was the first time I discovered I was not the only newsman onboard, for there was another guest at the bridge, Dr. Tassos George Valavanis, III, the president of Hellenic N-Com. There were a few listings on his card, one of which read World Affairs Organization (NG) and a New York’s Fifth Avenue address, which told me the white haired gent was a world traveler as well.

Suddenly I thought I was in the command room of Star Trek’s as I viewed the centerpiece, a chair which very much resembled that of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, ready to order Scotty to “beam him down.”  It is not that I have not seen ship’s bridges before, but this one with its sophisticated equipment and gear took me by surprise. Another surprise was how many icons of Saint Nicholas were on display here. “He is the guardian of all seafarers” he explained as if this was a well-kept secret.

“You look very much like my Cretan cousin” I said addressing Captain Stathis Goumas.”You must be from Crete.” “No” he replied with a grin. “I’m from Piraeus,” he declared after which he began extolling the virtues and goodness of Greek vacation spots. “You go to Jamaica,” he declared and everything’s great, but what good is it? You’ve got to stay at your hotel, or else” he added with a gesture that brought his hand across his throat.

After a few more niceties and an exchange with Dr. Valavanos who was to disembark on the island of Rhodes the next day, the tour of the Bridge over, we left, escorted by a female ship officer in charge of security. Before leaving, we did ask the captain to relay our esteem to Louis Cruises’ CEO Kyriakos (Kerry) Anastassiadis.

Though I did not venture out in Patmos-I had been there decades earlier-it would be amiss not to describe what one can see on this island prominent to Christianity. The view of the blue sea all around from the battlements of the fortified monastery is breathtaking, but in centuries past it was practicality that mattered, since it allowed monks to get an early warning on approaching ships. So if the ships  belonged to pirates, Saracens, Moors or anyone else posing a threat to the islanders below, they had time to alert them and get them all in the safety of the monastery. If the monastery, built by St. Christodoulos  in 1088 was given the name St John is because it is here, in a cave halfway between the fort and the village also known as Patmos that John the Evangelist wrote the book of Revelation, the only book of Christianity that deals with the future. 

How long do you need to explore the surroundings of, say, a village like Hora, the fortification at the top of the mountain as well as the grotto where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were first envisioned? True that you can spend eternity if you wished, but eternity we did not have. So Captain Goumas was ordering the lifting of the anchor at 10 o’clock sharp and heading East-Southeast towards Mykonos, perhaps the most popular of Aegean islands along with Santorini, both belonging to the Cycladic cluster.

We were docking on the arid and rugged terrain of Mykonos five and a half hours later, cognizant of the lore that the rocks strewn across its barren landscape are the solidified remains of the giants slain by Hercules. But as small as the island may be (ten miles long and seven miles wide) it is known for its vast stretches of sandy beaches, its upscale eateries and watering holes, the town of  Mykonos’ whitewashed houses in cubic form with the blue-trimmed doors and domes, not forgetting its famous windmills, its trademark. Now if you were to ask what the names Paradise and Super Paradise are assigned to, I could tell you very easily: They are the island’s two nudist beaches.

But as commercial as Mykonos may have become, its neighboring island, Delos which is reached by motorboat ride of about 35 minutes, has remained purely an archaeological sanctuary.  It was Delos in the first place responsible for the eventual influx of tourist to Mykonos from the Fifties on, who were on the way to see the antiquities that abound in Delos. In antiquity, it was revered as the birthplace of Apollo and his twin, Artemis.  Excavations have yielded grand temples and the most complete residential section surviving in the nation. Not only Delos was the spiritual focus of Hellenes’ ethnic identity, it was also a prosperous port and slave market as well. At its peak, the port had a turn-over of at least ten thousand slaves a day.

With all this wealth of things to do, my friend Alex opted to spend his time haggling over a Meander-styled necklace set for the girlfriend he wanted to impress back home. And he can haggle, trust me!

Back onboard the Cristal, it was time to get dressed up for dinner with the Captain, or so I thought. I arrived at the private dining room Thalassa, on the site of Rigoletto, to find a real transformation. Whereas the latter is very informal, the atmosphere now was one of an upscale dining establishment, with immaculately white tablecloths, matching napkins and furnishings equal in luxury. Dr. Valavanis showed up a few minutes later, with two of the ship’s officers arriving moments later. The officers were Chief Purser Stavros Amarantidis and Hotel Manager Yannakis Ioannou, who came in lieu of the captain to keep us company. Obviously the captain must’ve had good reasons for not attending, some pressing business no doubt, but the two officers did a splendid job entertaining us. Not only that, but explained all about the delightful preparations of master of the cuisine arts  Christoforos Peskias of Cyprus, a renowned chef who studied at Boston University where he developed a passion for cooking. After a series of jobs where he honed his skills he returned to the States where he worked for his first mentor, Charlie Trotter in Chicago.  With an insatiable desire for success, he left the States once again, but before returning to Greece, he took a side trip to Europe where he trained in kitchens of celebrity chefs such as Ferran Andria, Mark Meneaux and Joel Robuchon.

At Restaurant 48 where he became the executive chef on his return to Athens he received international acclaim and for two years, Restaurant Magazine (2007/2008) ranked 48 among the top 100 restaurants in the world. A year later he won the prestigious Chef of the Year award from Athinorama Magazine and in 2010 he won the same award from Status Magazine. In 2011, he was opening in the Athens suburbs what is known as Π-Box which became the talk of the town, while he also participated on the Top Chef TV show, a fact that made him an international celebrity.

Peskias’ gastronomical arrangements are at the same time current and nostalgic, but all carry his signature, such as the appetizer Orzo salad with calamari and the entrée of Grilled Salmon with warm eggplant and Teriyaki sauce. From his desserts an outstanding one is the Yogurt Pannacotta with Mastic and rose infused strawberries.

After such delights, a natural follow-up was to run over to Deck 8 to catch the extravaganza at the Metropolitan Show Room. After 11 pm, a visit to the Monte Carlo Casino (also Deck 8) was due, but with my tested luck-tested I mean in losing) I couldn’t afford to stay more than a half hour. I must say that I won one round, which let me recoup one tenth of what I had lost. Now I don’t expect the same luck to descend upon the readers, because I am only describing my kind of luck, which as the Greek saying goes,   “If you’ve got luck, sprint, but if you’ve got fate walk slow!”

I think it was more profitable for me to get up to Deck 10, to the Disco where it was sure bet to find my friend Alex consulting with Damien on the music  he’d been recording for him on the USB he bought in Izmir, as well as dancing partners Olena the slender, Anastasia the breathtaking and Burcu the challenging for a little dancing. You see, Maria would turn in early, so there was no chance doing any dancing with her, unless that involved  leading passengers on a syrtaki lesson and that was happening mostly at the bar by the pool, never at the Disco.

@@@@

We were cruising at 18 knots towards Rhodes, the capital of the Dodecanese in the early hours of Wednesday where we docked at 9:30. What surprised me there at the harbor of the city of Rhodes was the plethora of Turkish flagged ferries and catamarans making the run to the coast cities of Kusadasi and Izmir, but none with the Greek flag, an indication that all of them belonged to Turkish companies.

As you leave the southernmost harbor where we docked, you’re facing the grand fort that surrounds the old town of Rhodes, built in the early 14th Century by the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem which commanded the island from 1309 up to the   Turkish onslaught in 1522. There’s a small beach of fine sand-kind of unusual for Greek beaches- running along the coastal road which almost circumvents the castle with its many gates, some of which have been turned into commercial space. The medieval city looks much as in the time of the Commanderie of St. John, with its fort varying in thickness from 6 to 40 ft., and extends beyond the two miles. The moat between the outer and inner wall is perfectly preserved. In that space is where the remnants of the Temple of Aphrodite dating from the third century BC have been unearthed. Attractions include the Mosque of Suleiman in the Bourg (Turkish) section, the Archbishop’s palace, a and Byzantine church. In the Collachium (Knights) part, entering from the Liberty Gate you can see the outer shell of the fortified Cathedral, the Marine Gate, the Clock Tower as well as the Palace of the Grand Masters.  As you walk the streets by the borderline of the walled city you can read  signs leading to the University, the Diagoras Stadium, the Kalithea Springs, the Faliraki, a major beach for tourists and the way to Lindos and lalysos (written with a lower case ‘L’.)   

Dorians were the early inhabitants of this island which in its early history is obscured by its neighboring smaller island of Delos which thrived from the fifth century BC as the Delian League, a confederacy under the leadership of Athens broke with that leadership in 412 BC. The legend is that sculptor Chares created in the 3rd century BC the famous Colossus of Rhodes which stood over the city’s harbor with a foot on each side of the port’s mouth, which unfortunately was destroyed by an earthquake.

One thing that struck me is that, having visited the island some decades ago and having been impressed by the predominance of earthen colors in the houses’ exterior -from yellow to orange and light brown-I can say that these colors are fading away as new buildings take over the space of the old.

We remain in Rhodes through 19 hours (7:00 pm) which gives us time for several trips to the city, a stop at a café or two, one of which features some very colorful parrots. As the ship pulls anchor and sails towards the Cretan Pelago, we don our Sunday best (on Wednesday) for the Farewell Dinner that awaits us at La Scala.  The festive dinner is topped off by a parade of the waiters through the dining room, each holding a unit of the traditional Baked Alaska, of which we all will partake in a matter of minutes.

We arrive at the port of Iraklion at 6:30 in the morning, but this time I am true to my word to Alex who is waiting along with the Armenian couple at a table in the area surrounding the Riviera Pool bar. The lay-over at Iraklion is short-it only lasts through 11:30 am, so the visit to Knossos and to the burial site with the plain, wooden cross, of Greece’s top author Nikos Kazantzakis must be swift. And there’s so much to see at Knossos! The palace the Minos, the Queen’s private rooms, the room the queen bathed, and the lore of the Minotaur, residing in the Labyrinth designed by Ikarus’ father, the architect Daedalus. Knossos is just 3 miles from the center of modern Iraklion and extended to 5 sq. miles at its peak. Also is one of very few cities in antiquity not to have any defensive walls, so as to merged with the surrounding countryside.

@@@@@@

 

The cocktail of the day today is called Blue Water Pearl, combining Tequila, Triple Sec and Blue Curacao, and I’m sipping on one, sunning myself by the pool as the ship is ‘steaming’- as the action would’ve been described a few decades ago-towards Santorini, where it is scheduled to arrive at 20:30 hours or 3:30 pm if you prefer. We’ve got to make the best of it in Santorini since it is the last island we’re visiting before returning to the port of Piraeus and the end of this enchanting voyage. Soon we’re going inside to the Traviata and Rigoletto restaurants with my newfound friend Alex for an informal lunch.

The Plug’n’Play combo entertains at the Rendez-vous Lounge on Deck 8 through 2:15 and then again intermittently though midnight, but we’re set to catch the 10:00 pm Talent Show as well at the show at the Metropolitan Show Lounge where a lady and a gentleman are supposed to be crowned as the winners of the contest. Anyway, this isn’t happening until much later, in fact, after we sail away from Santorini, which has just appeared in the distance.

By 4:00 pm the Cristal began slowing down and came to a halt in the waterway created by the scorched isles that face Thira, the name originally given to the island of Santorini and which now only represents the municipality where we come ashore. The volcanic islands are called Palia (Old) and Nea (New) Kameni, the word Kameni denoting the state of the scalded peaks that form these islands with the various coloration layers from black to light gray. Two more islands lie alongside Santorini, once being part of it but now separated by water. The large one, Thirassia is inhabited, while the smaller one, Aspronissi is devoid of residents.

The process of coming ashore is in itself a ritual, having to board a motorized launch from the ship to come ashore. The ship does not come close to the land by any means since the harbor here is not able to accommodate it. Besides, the body of water near land is unusually shallow which would pose a danger to the ship’s hull.

As we were being transported towards the shore, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that below that water rested the central point of the original island which sometime in the 15th century BC disappeared under the sea as the result of a massive as well as violent volcanic eruption, leaving a void that created the bay we were traveling through. The phenomenon is called caldera, and the upsurge created Aspronissi and Thirassia, which in reality, surged to the surface many years after the eruption of the volcano below the bay, of which the isles surrounding it comprise its rim.  Historically speaking, the first recorded eruption of this volcano happened in the year 236 BC and the most recent between 1925 and 1926.

Reaching the ancient harbor and stepping on the ground, one realizes that this sheltered port is sitting on a mass of sheer cliffs which rise to a precipitous summit of a height of 1916 ft above sea level. To reach the peak from where we stood at the old port up to a quarter century ago relied solely on a mule ride up the winding and precipitous road, that gave you the feeling that any moment now, with a misstep of the animal you rode, you’ll find yourself falling off the cliff. Today things are much better thanks to the Cable car which takes you to the edge of the town of Thira in a matter of minutes.   

Having said that, I must confide that the indomitable Alex was with me on the ride to the island and now we were in line buying tickets for the ride on the Cable car. A few minutes later we were walking up the steep, road-brick-paved path in search for a vantage point from where we can shoot-photographically that is-the panorama that unfolded ahead of us. Too bad Akrotiri lies many kilometers away from where we are, or else the ruins of the late Minoan city of Akrotiri would’ve made a great subject for our picture-taking. In fact I found great similarities between the Cycladic art of this island and the Minoan remains in Knossos.

Having found the perfect spot for our picture-taking, we began descending ever so slowly, careful not to lose our balance in the process because of the steep slope. At some point I noticed that I had lost sight of my friend, so having seeing him go past me earlier, I decided to hasten my step in the hope that I would catch up with him. But it was to no avail, for it looked like he had disappeared in thin air. I backtracked, going up the hill now, hoping somehow that he had fallen behind on his trek. Once again I had no luck, so I started moving towards the cable car in the hope that I’d meet him there.

Alas, after descending a copious amount of meters, looking back towards the top, I realized that I was already past it, having come down too far, since I could see the cable car above and behind me. The ascent once again in search for the terminal was as strenuous as the descent where you had to apply restrain with every step you took, lest you slip and have a nasty fall. Finally I made it to the ticket office after having to ask where the entrance to the cable car was, but no Alex anywhere. In the hope that he had preceded me coming down by cable car, I rode it down only to realize that he had not arrived yet. It was only as I boarded the launch for the trip back to the ship that he appeared complaining about his feet. He also had missed the cable car entrance and walked all the way down to the port on that hilly and dangerous path.

It was the last evening the group was dining together. Next morning, once again at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am, suitcases packed and picked up, we were disembarking in Piraeus putting an end to the weeklong dream.


 

Joyce Brooks

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