Cruising the Aegean Sea

The Louis Cristal awaits the return of passengers at Kusadasi in Turkey.

ATHENS, Greece — I sailed on a regularly scheduled cruise out of Athens that took me to several Greek islands.

Independent travelers have the alternative of traveling to the islands by ferry, but the structured cruise has the advantage of allowing the first-time island-hopper to sample several choices in a fairly short time.

I had seen Athens a few times, but never the islands. So I agreed to sail with a small press group aboard the 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal, operated by the Cyprus-based Louis Cruises.

The Louis Cristal awaits the return of passengers at Kusadasi in Turkey.

The weeklong trip in the Aegean also included three port calls in Turkey, which were not new to me, but I especially love revisiting Istanbul.

Ours was a well-rounded itinerary of the type that is typically available each year in the cruising season, which generally runs from mid-March to early November.

We boarded the ship at Piraeus, the Athens port, in the morning. This process involved a security check much like that for getting on an aircraft. Also, the cruise line held our passports for the duration of the journey, which I found a little unsettling.

Our embarkation day offered quite a bit of time for getting to know the ship. I first became acquainted with the spa by having an hourlong massage and then, as if determined to undo the relaxing benefits of that, I carried my laptop to the only Wi-Fi

The quieter section of the Rendez Vous Lounge on the Louis Cristal.

hotspot known to me, in the Rendez Vous Lounge, an activity and entertainment hub.

Aboard the Louis Cristal, the Rendez Vous Lounge, setting for live entertainment, trivia quizzes and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

I checked e-mail against the background of singers who offered their “dancing and listening melodies.” On another occasion, I checked e-mails with a trivia quiz in the background, resisting the temptation to shout an occasional answer.

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Crete: Where Minoans Roamed

An open courtyard in the center of the Knossos Palace site.

HERAKLION, Greece — The most famous site on the Greek island of Crete is Knossos Palace with remains that date from about 2000 B.C. to 1380 B.C., in the Bronze Age. Now, even as a huge ruin (“enhanced” by a few examples of controversial reconstructions), it is amazing.

A fountain in the center of Heraklion, the capital of Crete.

But, first comes Heraklion, the island’s capital and the port city where cruisers first see Crete. Our ship, Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal, docked there early one spring morning, affording us a quick look at old fortifications, mountains in the background and not much else, as we drove straight on to the Knossos site with the idea of beating the crowds.

In summer, that would be a good idea, too, for beating the heat, but during our March visit, temperature was not an issue.

En route, our guide advised that Crete, a fertile island, is the largest in Greece (3,189 square miles; 160 miles long) and the third largest in the Mediterranean. Its population is 600,000, and 160,000 of those residents are in the capital.

A fort in the harbor at Heraklion, built by the Venetians who they controlled the island between the 13th and 17th centuries.

We could see snow-capped mountains even before leaving the ship. The mountaintops are white from December through May; the tallest, Mount Ida, is a bit more than 8,000 feet above sea level.

The island, also known for seismic activity, moves a few centimeters each year and, our guide said, its west side is 23 feet higher now than it was in the Bronze Age, whereas the east side has sunk.

We had come to visit a site associated with the Minoans, a people whose modern name was taken from a legendary king, King Minos. The word might actually have been the title for any king, our guide advised, rather than a specific ruler.

We entered the grounds of what had been a huge palace with 1,300 rooms and covering 8-1/2 square miles. I wonder how archaeologists can figure that out, especially the room count.

In any case, the archaeologists see evidence of three palaces, each of which was destroyed by earthquake or fire. After the third catastrophe, the palace was not rebuilt and the Minoan culture did not recover.

Our guide said this palace had Europe’s first paved road, dating from about 1800 B.C. to 1700 B.C., and that the road led to another palace, which had “only 90 rooms,” and so it is called Little Knossos.

The most photographed reconstruction at Knossos Palace on Crete. The structure is called the West Bastion, one of two such porches that flanked the palace’s north entrance. The fresco/bas-relief shows a red bull, an important animal in the Minoan religion.

Indeed, what is really remarkable is that Crete had more palaces than just Knossos and Little Knossos. These were administrative and religious centers as well as royal residences.

It also seems remarkable that the Minoans did not see a need to fortify these establishments.

The palace complex was really like a town. It boasted the oldest theater made from stone, our guide said, dating from about 1900 B.C. to 1800 B.C.

And from at least 1700 B.C., it featured indoor toilets with running water, meaning water was piped into and out of

A king’s hall at the Knossos Palace, called the Hall of the Double Axe.

the toilets systematically. We were shown an example of one toilet and the pipes in the ground. In addition, there were lots of open spaces in the palace complex.

The Throne Room in the Knossos Palace on Crete.

For our tour, we followed a set path that took us up and down among about three levels to see the central court, the Throne Room, the Queen’s Hall and an adjacent king’s space called the Hall of the Double Axe.

According to Greek mythology, this was the site of the fabled labyrinth that was built to accommodate the awful Minotaur.

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Santorini: A Sliver of Its Former Self

Houses in Fira and other Santorini towns are like frosting atop the crater wall that frames the island’s ancient volcanic caldera. The switchback road that takes visitors from water level to Fira is visible at right.

FIRA, Greece — Only 3,000 people live in Fira, the capital of the Greek island of Santorini. For that matter, the population of the entire island is only 15,000.

Santorini is a small place, but its 29 square miles are a fraction of what the island was, say, 4,000 years ago.

Estimated dates vary, but sometime around 1620 B.C., the Santorini volcano blew off its top big time, wiping out the greater part of a larger roughly circular island, creating the crescent-shaped island we see today with near-vertical walls that encircle part of the world’s largest water-filled caldera.

The volcano remains active and, since the big blowup, has produced a few small new islands that dot the caldera.

This spring, I traveled with a small press group aboard Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal. To visit Santorini, we sailed right into the caldera, where the ship remained at anchor during our few hours ashore. Our tour guide assured us the volcano is not expected to stage another big one anytime soon.

The approach itself was impressive, to put it mildly. The island’s communities of mostly white houses look like

Tourists sailing into Santorini’s volcanic crater can easily see the switchback road (at left) that takes them from water level to Fira, the island’s capital, well above the sea. A pleasure boat idles in the foreground.

frosting on top of the striated rocks that remained standing after the historic eruption so many centuries ago. This cliff rises 700 to as much as 1,000 feet straight out of the water.

Once our ship dropped anchor, passengers traveled to and from a Santorini dock on tenders, meaning enclosed motorized boats that held dozens of passengers each.

There are three ways to travel up the caldera wall to the towns that sit at the island’s highest points. We rode buses up the side of that wall, on switchback roads, a route one would not want to study too closely.

Another option is a cable car, which we enjoyed for its expediency when returning to the ship. Donkeys are the third option, but they never would have been my choice!

A city view that makes clear where Fira, Santorini’s capital, is situated — at the top of a steep bluff overlooking the water-filled caldera left by a colossal volcanic eruption more than 3,600 years ago.

Once on top of Santorini, our small group headed immediately out of Fira, north and then west, to Oia, the village at the farthest tip of the island. We drove fairly close to the inside of the curve of the crescent-shaped island, and hence the highest part.

At its narrowest, the island is only one mile across. On one side, we could see agricultural activity. There is no such activity down the sheer cliff that faces the ancient volcanic caldera. Both Fira and Oia overlook that precipice.

Our guide described how a building is typically built here to deal with Mother Nature’s foibles. Vaulted roofs are meant to provide some resilience in the event of quakes in this quake-prone area. And, due to a

shortage of fresh water, other roofs are flat, to collect water that drains into cisterns.

Almost all houses have been white since the late 1930s, when locals were instructed to disinfect houses with whitewash. People now use real paint, and, conveniently, the white makes for cooler houses, as well.

Before the 1930s, buildings were the color of the rocks (dark, volcanic) to be less visible to approaching pirates. In fact, some homes were, and are, in caves, which would be cool and

certainly less visible to any pirates.

One of the more than 400 churches on the island of Santorini, this one in the town of Oia.

There are more than 400 churches on the island, but many are quite small.

It is very windy on Santorini, too. Hence, we saw a smattering of windmills, of the type

Two windmills amid houses, churches and shops on the side of the hill at Oia, at the tip of the crescent-shaped Santorini.

we had seen previously on other Greek islands. Also, because of the wind, at least some winegrowers have coaxed their vines to grow in circles close to the ground, thus producing a kind of basket to protect the grapes.

You can’t make this up. We saw such grapevine baskets.

It would seem Mother Nature is always going to extremes here. In 1956, a mighty earthquake wiped out the majority of buildings so the towns have been basically rebuilt in the last 50 years or so.

Once in Oia, we were turned loose to walk up and down the narrow lanes that passed for streets, to photograph the white houses (and residents’ backyards) that stream down the side of the Santorini cliff.

From a ruined Venetian fort on a spit of land, I got my best photos of a stunning collection of houses, restaurants, churches and windmills. It was a photographer’s paradise, and I felt I was shooting photos for tourist posters.

One of the businesses, often shops or galleries, seen during a stroll through Fira, Santorini’s capital.

There was not a lot of time for any of this — we were off the ship less than four hours — so we soon returned to Fira for a very short walk along what were, again, narrow pedestrian streets and onto restaurant terraces with sometimes startling views down into the caldera.

It was windy in Fira, and as the sun was setting, it became chilly, too. I guess that was our clue that it was time to leave.

There is always something to come back for in places like this. In Santorini’s case, that would be the ruins of a Minoan city called Akrotiri, described by boosters as “beating anything on Crete.” I don’t know if Akrotiri beats the Knossos Palace and would like to find out some day.

But I was interested to learn that when archaeologists excavated this city, which predated the volcanic eruption of more than 3,600 years ago, they found no bodies. Apparently, before the Santorini volcano did its worst, it had given enough warning that Akrotiri residents realized they should seek refuge elsewhere.

A souvenir shop located near the cable car in Fira, Santorini’s capital.

Other ports of call included Istanbul, Izmir and Kusadasi for Ephesus in Turkey and Mykonos, Patmos, Rhodes, Athens, and Crete, in Greece.

The article and photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

 

Rhodes: Medieval Walls and 21st Century Shopping

View of the town of Lindos from the acropolis.

 

The Grand Master

RHODES, Greece — I was up early for breakfast and was nearly knocked over at the sight of the medieval walls surrounding the Rhodes Old Town. It was a living postcard, under early morning light, outside the cruise ship where I was sitting.

I gulped breakfast and grabbed my camera for shots of the walls plus the Grand Master’s Palace, built when the

Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (meaning the crusaders) occupied the island (1309-1522).

The views here also included a

Fort St. Nicholas — actually a lighthouse — on a spit of land that juts out from Rhodes city.

building identified at the Governor’s Palace, which looked Venetian, and a small Fort St. Nicholas (a lighthouse) on a

The Governor’s Palace and other buildings visible from a docked cruise ship at the city of Rhodes.

spit of land that helps define the port area.

I was a passenger along with a number of other travel journalists on Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal, which stopped at several Greek islands. Rhodes is part of the Dodecanese island group, and it is the largest at 540 square miles.

The Rhodes port also was the site of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed in an earthquake before the time of Christ.

Fortifications at the Lindos acropolis on Rhodes. The visitors in the photo are ready to descend stone steps to a plaza below. Their figures indicate something of the scale of this structure.

The medieval Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that would be the centerpiece of our visit, but first we headed to the Lindos archaeological site about 40 minutes away by van (34 miles).

The central attraction at Lindos is the acropolis dating from the fourth century B.C. and the Temple of Athena Lindia, dating from the same century.

There are medieval fortifications, as well. The crusaders fortified everything!

We walked up to the hilltop setting. There was another way to get there, by donkey. No thanks.

Walking took at least half an hour and involved steps of various sizes and conditions as well as broad paved walkways with an upward incline.

The last leg of this climb, for entry into the walled pinnacle, involved steps, some with walls at the side for support (and comfort), but the top set of steps had nothing on the sides. The wind was whipping us and a little daunting.

The ancients, the Byzantines, the crusaders and the Ottomans all used the Lindos acropolis as a fortress. The

Ottomans pushed the crusaders out in 1522.

On top of the Lindos acropolis, pillars that date from antiquity and, behind them, the Byzantine church of Ayios Ioannis.

The most impressive parts, for their size and state of repair, were the fortifications, mostly reflecting the work of the crusaders. We also viewed a Byzantine church dating from the Middle Ages.

Remains of the Temple of Athena Lindia, which dates from the fourth century B.C. It is at the highest level atop the Lindos acropolis.

There is not too much left from antiquity, but we walked over the oldest (and highest) part of the site anyway, very carefully on sloping rocks. The remains — a few pillars — of the Temple of Athena Lindia were dramatic in their isolation.

Views out over the Aegean and a rugged Rhodes coastline — and views of the town of Lindos below — were dramatic, too.

The white houses of Lindos cascade prettily down the side of the hilltop fortification. While walking up and back, we passed among them, many of which are shops with goods meant for tourists. Lindos is a beach area, too.

On cruise excursions, things can happen early in the day. By 10:45, we were leaving Lindos. En route to Rhodes city,

A hand-painted scene on a plate at the Dakas M Keramik factory in Faliraki on Rhodes.

we stopped at one of the area’s many ceramic factories. One journalist among us had a compelling need to buy.

Our particular destination was the Dakas M Keramik factory in Faliraki. We watched skilled workers paint some pieces by hand. It was not clear how many pieces in the factory’s seemingly vast inventory could have been painted one at a time. Some plates were truly artwork with one-of-a-kind scenes painted on them.

Farther along, Faliraki, a coastal town, turned into a strip mall of clubs and restaurants which were not open during our March visit, but they would be open for summer tourists. This is part of the island’s broad selection of beach areas, with big hotels and the works.

Once back at Rhodes city and specifically its medieval Old Town, our escort led us through one of the gates, and I counted three moats en route. This took us straight

to our first up-close viewing of the crusaders’ palace, the Palace of the Grand Masters.

One of numerous streets for shops and outdoor eateries in the walled Old Town of Rhodes.

The Old Town is divided into two sections, one the city of the knights with a name that I found spelled two ways, Collachium or Collachio. The rest of it, the Bourg or Burgo, is the lower town, the former Turkish quarter.

The Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent in the part of the Rhodes Old Town that was the Turkish quarter when the Ottomans held sway over the island.

The latter quarter includes the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent and an awfully lot of shops. In fact, the former Turkish quarter is loaded with shopping streets and must be incredibly packed in high season, which argues for a visit early in the year when streets can be — as they were for us — wonderfully free of crowds.

We were afforded what I regard as an invaluable opportunity wherever I travel, the chance to wander around a new area solo, looking into nooks

and crannies or shopping at my leisure.

Gyros, a Greek specialty, as well as crepes and waffles are offered at this outdoor cafe in the walled Old Town of Rhodes.

Lunch came in the middle of that, too. This was at a small, nearly deserted restaurant called Alexis. It was a lovely place, and we had a feast of really nice Greek food.

When I asked our escort about the lack of customers at lunch, he said this

was what restaurants looked like in the off-season and at a weekday lunchtime while locals are at work. He said locals would be at Alexis by nighttime.

The light was lovely all day, so I revisited some parts of the Old Town that I had loved the first time around. This was not hard to do as the walled city is not overly large.

Eventually, I walked out via a gate that opens right onto the port with our ship a short walk away.

The article and photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Patmos and a Story of Biblical Proportions

Windmills are a means to capture wind power on many Greek islands, including Patmos where these windmills are seen.

PATMOS ISLAND, Greece — Patmos is a very small place, only 13 square miles. Even New York City’s Manhattan is larger at 22 square miles.

So, maybe it is not so surprising that this was one of the places where the 1,200-passenger ship I was sailing on — Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal — did not sail up to a dock but anchored in the waters nearby.

A tender carries passengers to Louis Cruises’ ship, the Louis Cristal, which is anchored here off Patmos in the Aegean.

We traveled into and out of Patmos on tenders. These were enclosed motorboats that held dozens of passengers and moved people back and forth fairly quickly.

We were allotted around four hours on the island late in a spring day, so sightseeing came first, while the sun was out. [Read more…]

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Shore Excursion to Picturesque Mykonos

Shops and restaurants in Mykonos Town are alight for the night’s business.

MYKONOS, Greece — I had been in Athens a couple of times but had had no real experience of the Greek islands until I stepped off a cruise ship at Mykonos in late March 2012.

View of Mykonos’ hillside houses, all painted white.

The ship was the Louis Cristal, one of a fleet operated by Cyprus-based Louis Cruises. Sailing into the Mykonos port in the late-afternoon sun, we got a good look at the island’s oft-photographed brightly trimmed white houses. The island’s iconic windmills were not that easy to spot from a distance, but they came into view later.

Just the same, Mykonos looked like the travel posters — a very satisfying discovery, I might add. The island, part of Greece’s Cyclades group of islands, measures only 30 square miles and is home to about 10,000 people.

Typically for a cruiser’s shore excursion, we were allotted four and a half hours at the destination. The cruise line provided shuttle buses for the short rides between our dock and Mykonos Town. [Read more…]

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