“But, under all, my heart believes the day was not diviner over Athens, nor the west wind sweeter thro’ the Cyclades…” – Sydney Wheeler Jephcott
The cool “meltemi” winds gently swept across the deck of the Celebrity Solstice as she cut through the warm waters of the Aegean Sea on her way to the ultimate Mediterranean escape. Surrounded by azure seas and drenched in antiquity, the Cycladic and Dodecanese islands of Greece are a beguiling paradise filled with ruins of ancient civilizations, Byzantine castles and whitewashed houses.
“The islands with their drinkable blue volcanoes,” wrote poet Odysseus Elytis of the Cyclades, a beautiful Mediterranean archipelago resting on the peaks of submerged mountains. Indeed, when the island of Santorini appeared off our ship’s bow, its lava-rock cliffs rose out of the blue Aegean Sea like a lost oasis.
Sometimes called the Pompeii of the Aegean, Santorini sits on the rim of a huge caldera formed by a powerful volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC. The eruption caused one side of the volcano and its cone to sink into the sea, leaving 32-square miles of water in the crater, surrounded by a crescent-shaped wall of steep cliffs.
The Solstice anchored at the base of these cliffs near Mesa Yialos, a tiny village some 300-metres below Fira, Santorini’s capital city. Fira is literally carved out of the cliffs like a balcony, and the only way to reach it is by foot, donkey or funicular (cable car).
At the top, there are beautiful whitewashed buildings, domed churches, and quaint cafes scattered along the precipice. The view is fantastic, and the town is such a fascinating maze of winding streets and interesting shops that some people never get any further. But for those with the time, it’s well worth taking the 15-minute taxi ride to Oia, which is less commercial and even more picturesque than Fira.
The ancient ruins of Akrotiri are also worth visiting, especially since some believe they have a connection with the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.
It was dusk by the time we got back to our ship, which was now resplendently linked with a string of pretty white lights illuminating her decks from bow to stern. Under the stars near the pool bar, people were sipping aperitifs. And in the elegant French-style Murano Restaurant, the Head Waiter was serving foie gras while 50-something passengers dressed in country club casual sipped chardonnay.
As we enjoyed our evening repast, the Solstice slipped its mooring and headed for the nearby island of Mykonos, where we docked early the next morning in the picture-perfect capital of Hora. A traditional Greek fishing village, Hora is a charming combination of whitewashed houses, hundreds of little churches, and loads of small, trendy shops built in a labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys. The maze-like layout of the town is no coincidence — it was purposely built this way many centuries ago to confuse marauding pirates.
We spent most of the morning wandering through the maze and visiting some of the town’s main attractions. They include the remains of a small fortress (Venetian Kastro), the pretty Panagia Paraportiani church made up of four small chapels, the Maritime Museum of the Aegean, and the island’s trademark five stone and thatched windmills that overlook Hora.
After touring the town, we boarded a small boat for a short ferry ride across the channel to the tiny island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo, which became a great religious and trading centre in the first millennium BC. Archaeological excavations began on Delos in 1872, and ruins of temples, grand houses, statues, and a theatre now cover most of the island’s four square kilometers.
After touring Delos, we returned to Hora where we found a pretty waterfront tavern in the “Little Venice” quarter of town. This section is named for its Venetian-style houses with their multi-coloured porches and wooden balconies that are built on the edge of the water overlooking the bay. As we sat at our waterfront taverna sampling the local retsina, calamari and mezes, the bright Mediterranean sun began its slow descent into the cobalt blue waters of the Aegean Sea.
“Life doesn’t get much better than this,” we thought as we strolled along the pretty, winding streets back to our ship.
Launched in 2008, the Celebrity Solstice is literally a floating paradise with lots of fabulous features. They include a water fountain that doubles as a dance floor, 10 different restaurants including a gorgeous two-storey main dining room called Epernay, a beautiful pool area and enclosed solarium, a live glass-blowing show, and a Lawn Club on the top deck with a bocce patch, croquet course, putting green and picnic area all sitting on real grass.
After sailing an easterly course away from the Cyclades, we awoke the next morning to find ourselves on the Island of Rhodes, the largest in the Greek Dodecanese chain.
The old town of Rhodes is surrounded by a medieval wall and is dominated by the Palace of the Grand Master, a Byzantine citadel fortified by the Knights of St. John in the 14th century AD. Designated as a world heritage site by United Nations, the old town is a labyrinthine of narrow lanes and 600-year-old stone buildings filled with interesting shops, cafes and restaurants. It was also home to the legendary Colossus of Rhodes, which is believed to have stood across the entrance to the town’s Mandraki Harbour.
After a wonderful day in Rhodes, we sailed for the nearby coast of Turkey and the port of Kusadasi, which serves as the gateway to one of the best preserved classical ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. A popular holiday spot on the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea, Kusadasi was once a small fishing village and gateway to some of the most important cultures on earth. In fact, this part of Asia Minor dates back more than 10 centuries B.C., and boasts links to many civilizations including the Lelegians, Carians, Dorians, Greeks and Romans.
Named for the old fortified “Bird Island” just off its coast, Kusadasi is today a large town with a bustling bazaar and a pretty waterfront dotted with cafes. But as tempting as life in Kusadasi can be, most visitors come to see the region’s amazing history, which includes one of the best preserved classical ruins in the eastern Mediterranean just a 20-km drive from town.
The Amazons, Lydians, Greeks, and Persians all ruled Ephesus at various points, but it was the Romans who made the city into the “first and greatest metropolis of Asia” in 27 AD. At the time, the city had outdoor lights, public toilets and a population approaching 250,000.
Today, there is a wonderful museum in Ephesus with many beautiful works, including the Statue of Artemis. In addition, there are nearly 50 structures in the old city including the Library of Celsus, the Great Theatre, and the Corinthian-style Temple of Hadrian.
After passing the library, we walked along a beautiful section of street known as “The Marble Street” because it is totally covered with white marble. The street goes from Hadrian’s Gate to the Great Theatre, where St. Paul once preached to 25,000 spectators during a visit. Built into the side of a hill, the present shape of the theatre dates back to the rein of the Roman Emperor Domitian, and represents one of the finest outdoor theatres of its kind.
Our tour concluded with a show by a local theatre company that featured the types of acts that would have entertained the local citizenry some two centuries ago – dancers, jugglers, musicians and jesters.
As we watched them perform in period costumes with the Great Theatre as their backdrop, it felt for a moment like we had gone back in time. Back to the days when great civilizations thrived on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, magnificent cities were filled with great beauty, and the best way to reach them was by boat.