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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Ephesus: A Wonder for Modern Eyes

These pillars, in Ephesus, stand in near isolation, having lost their reason for being.

KUSADASI, Turkey — A half-day sightseeing trip to the mostly Roman ruins at Ephesus starts very early. Some tourists make their journey to the abandoned city from Izmir, but my group made the trip from the Aegean resort city, Kusadasi (population: 60,000), which is closer. It is about a 30-minute drive away.

I was traveling with a small number of journalists on a Greek Island cruise that included a few stops in Turkey. Our

View of apartments and hotels that look out over the water at the Kusadasi harbor in Turkey.

ship docked at Kusadasi at 7 a.m. on a sunny spring day, and we disembarked into a pleasantly chilly morning.

An early start is worth the trouble when visiting one of the world’s most extensive examples of ancient ruins. The idea here is to beat the crowds and the heat.

I also don’t want to take my photos under midday sun when early morning or evening light is better. I was happy to discover that, for Ephesus, morning light shines at good or very good angles for photos of most points of touristic interest, with one exception. The exception is the city’s large and well-preserved Roman theater, which faces northwest.

The scale of Ephesus is hard to comprehend even when on site. The Turkish tourist office says it covers three square miles, and it is large for a couple of reasons: It was a big city with a population reaching 200,000 in the Roman era, and the city relocated a few times in a long history. It was taken over by Lydians, Persians and Greeks before the Romans turned up.

The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was in Ephesus although it is a little outside the typical tourist circuit, and there is almost nothing left standing. In its final iteration, it was a Greek temple.

Ephesus also is known as the city whose citizens St. Paul addressed in the Bible’s Ephesians chapter, and St. Paul preached at the city’s large Roman theater.

Over time, much has been destroyed by war (Gothic destruction, 260s), natural catastrophes (major earthquake, 614) and man’s depredations. By the early 14th century, the harbor had silted up and the city was abandoned. Its last site is today’s town of Selcuk (population: 30,000).

Despite the ravages of man and time, what remains at ancient Ephesus is astonishing. Sometimes the ancient city has benefited from a little reconstruction, too, using original stones.

With this mind, I walked the tourist route through Ephesus with my colleagues.

The most familiar image in Ephesus, the second century Library of Celsus. It was both a library and a monumental tomb.

Our progression began with the state agora (marketplace) and, more impressively on one side, the Odeon, a 1,500-person theater that once had a roof.

We then proceeded along the relatively wide, mostly stone

Remains of a basilica at left and, at right, part of the Odeon, once a covered theater in Ephesus. In antiquity, a basilica was a place of public assembly and for a court of justice.

Curetes Street, which takes visitors to the iconic second century Library of Celsus, the most-recognized building (or partial building) at the site. Along the way, we passed the remains of temples, fountains, public baths, municipal buildings and even housing for the well to do.

A few columns on each side are all that remain of what was a sheltered arcade for walking.

We lucked out for weather on the day of this visit, and the facade of the library looked glorious. We paused here, of course, and walked inside although there is not much to see there. The library is next to another agora, dating from Greek times.

Remains of a temple built in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, on Curetes Street in Ephesus.

We returned to the main drag and turned right (there was no other way to go) onto Marble Street, named for its marble paving bricks, which were laid down in the fifth century. It, too, had been lined with a covered arcade; in fact, that was true of all three

Tourists walk Curetes Street on the approach to the most familiar image in Ephesus, the second century Library of Celsus.

streets we strolled.

Here, our guide pointed out the signage on a brothel. It involved a woman’s face carved into the stone at the entry to a house and, next to that, a life-sized foot. It is believed image of a foot indicated that this house served customers with foot fetishes.

Marble Street led to the open-air Roman theater, which accommodated up to 24,000 and is the largest theater in Turkey. It had Greek origins, but the Romans enlarged it. St. Paul is believed to have done his preaching here.

We were ushered to a fairly high point in the semicircular seating area for a sense of the structure’s size. It is 125 feet high and 518 feet from one end of the semicircular to the other.

Harbour Street in Ephesus once led to a harbor, but now leads nowhere.

At the theater, we turned left to walk the wide and pleasant Harbour Street, which leads to almost nothing. It once led to the harbor, which has long since been unusable.

We fleetingly viewed the ruins of a few more buildings, on Harbour Street, and saw what had been a cemetery for the rich, meaning there were sarcophagi sitting around that were, and in some cases, still are

Sarcophagi in a cemetery for the wealthy, seen on the grounds at Ephesus.

good looking.

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Istanbul: Entering a spectacular metropolis by sea

The Blue Mosque as seen by passengers on Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal as the ship came into port. All six minarets are visible.

 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — I have been in Istanbul several times, but this spring, for the first time, I arrived on a cruise ship, Louis Cruises’ Louis Cristal.

Istanbul’s most famous mosque, the Blue Mosque.

Turkey’s largest metropolis, but not its capital, Istanbul is fascinating. First known widely as Constantinople, it was the capital of the eastern Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. Later, the Ottoman Turks — who renamed it — made it their capital, too.

It was important for its location where Europe meets Asia and where the Aegean (via the inland Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus strait) meets the Black Sea.

A sometimes wild, and certainly varied, history has left the city with a few Roman ruins, the remains of impressive walls, Christian churches with beautiful mosaics, 575 Ottoman-era mosques and a few palaces.

And, as is often true of good strategic locations, Istanbul’s setting is spectacular.

Entry into Istanbul by ship is all about that setting. Sailing into port, passengers had nice views of the Blue Mosque, the best known of the hundreds; Topkapi Palace, the hilltop home for sultans and their harems, and Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest church.

The dock was on the European side of Istanbul, the world’s only city located on two continents. The historic sites and the business center are on the city’s older and larger European side.

The Asian side, accessible by bridge or ferry across the Bosporus, is the “sleeping side,” our guide said.

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A Short Visit to Seaside Izmir

Apartments on Ataturk Street, facing the promenade called Kordonboyu and the Gulf of Izmir.

IZMIR, Turkey — My short visit to Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, began brilliantly, with a tasty and relaxing lunch in the courtyard of a restaurant located within sight of the Aegean Sea.

The city has a spectacular location on Turkey’s west coast, sitting at the head the Bay of Izmir, a finger of the Aegean. [Read more...]

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