I REMEMBER it as a blisteringly hot July as I stood by the Temple of Zeus, the Athenian skyline encroaching upon its magnificence. I wandered past its pillars, which reached like tentacles to the blue skies, and crossed a busy road to start the long walk up the Acropolis.
As I reached the Parthenon, two people had already passed out on the stone steps due to the heat, steps worn smooth like glass due to the countless footprints that had passed this way over millennia. The Parthenon was a site to behold, with restoration underway and several areas swaddled by scaffolding.
Athens is a magnificent, sprawling city surrounded by mountains; its buildings caked in graffiti and housing five million inhabitants, with countless architectural treasures jostling for position against a sea of modernity.
I am happy to find myself back here once again, literally a first port of call as I am joining Celestyal Cruises’ ship Olympia on its three-day ‘Iconic Aegean’ cruise, taking in four Greek islands and Kusadasi in Turkey. One of the core values of Celestyal Cruises is based on the Greek word ‘Filoxenia‘, meaning hospitality. So I am looking forward to an authentic Greek experience on one of the company’s series of unique themed cruises. And as it transpires, I am not to be disappointed.
I overnight in Athens at the Metropolitan Hotel (www.chadris.gr) and take dinner at the One Michelin-starred Varoulko Seaside Restaurant, by Piraeus Harbour. It is a delightful setting overlooking the water, where pleasure boats lay tied at anchor, their masts reflecting off the calm waters as dusk settles in. The roof is open on this balmy evening as I enjoy a delightful fish-based menu designed by chef Lefteris Lazarou, a former judge on the Greek version of the television show Masterchef. ‘Designed’ would be an appropriate word in this case, as each course is a finely sculpted work of art.
The menu comprises Greek salad with marinated cherry tomatoes, feta cheese mousse, cucumber jelly and carob rusk powder, accompanied with sea bass carpaccio with seaweeds. This is followed by fried small fish on thin slices of sourdough bread with green pea cream, smoked eggplant mousse and a tomato and carrot jam. Orzo cooked with prawns, wine from Limnos and dried hot red pepper eye flakes is next up, followed by gilt-head bream fillet with wild greens, and a finale of a variety of desserts.
The next morning I transfer to the port and board the Celesytal Olympia. The ship caters for 1664 passengers in 724 cabins, 418 outside and 306 inside. My comfortable outside twin is on Deck 6 (Venus), and comprises a shower, WC, air conditioning, telephone, television, hairdryer, and safe. All decks have appropriate Greek names, such as Apollo, Dionyssus and Poseidon.
The Olympia has two lounges, five bars, three restaurants, a fully equipped gym, Sana Beauty Centre, the Travel Value and Experiential Shopping Centres, a library and Kids’ Club. I look forward to experiencing two main dining areas, the Aegean Restaurant on Deck 4 and, on Deck 9, Leda, which is for more relaxed dining.
Meals include a variety of traditional Greek dishes, prepared daily with local ingredients, enjoyed with a selection of Greek wines, and all this followed by nights of live Greek music and theatre.
At 11.30am we depart for our first port of call, Mykonos. It is late afternoon when we disembark at this beautiful island, famed for its windmills, once used to grind wheat, but today standing abandoned and aloof on a rocky summit overlooking the Aegean.
The main drag arcs around sun-kissed sands, backdropped by cafés, restaurants and tourist shops selling typical, and some traditional, wares.
Behind this frontage is a labyrinth of narrow alleys with their cobbled pavements of blues and hues, exterior stone stairways and coloured doors, some of the higgledy-piggledy alleys so narrow that the houses could almost embrace each other, with neighbours shaking hands through open windows; such cohabitation reinforcing a sense of community that is so easily perceived.
I make my way to the outer flanks of the town where the picture-postcard windmills strike their pose, stark white against a dazzling blue sky, their sails long gone, the skeletal remains, a fiery red, scorched by the incessant sun that pounds this idyll. As I walk back along the seafront, my timing could not have been better as the sun begins to chart its slow descent on the horizon.
As she sets the Aegean ablaze with yellows and reds, the enthralled townsfolk clap, a nightly occurrence, I am told. The last time I witnessed such a sunset was in Key West, where people gather on the promenade, and musicians play joyous tunes.
I make my way to the old port where I find Roca Restaurant (84600 Mykonos, Kikladhes), and sit by the windows which are open to the sea. Large, private yachts lay at anchor, their lights shimmying off the silent waters. This is a sublime, if not surreal, setting. ‘Everything flows, nothing stands still’ stated Heraclitus. And so it is that I make my way back to the Olympia, vouching to return to see more of Mykonos.
The Olympia sets sail for Kusadasi at 2300 hours. This Turkish port is the gateway to the ancient kingdom of Ephesus, which lies 18km away. I arrive early at the Upper Gate in order to avoid the selfie brigade that pours through here on a daily basis.
When I reach the men-only public toilet area once frequented by the Romans, my guide Ilkay Candar sits himself down and explains that, cheek to cheek and with ablutions completed, the men would clean themselves with a piece of wood. I am not sure whether the next part of the story is apocryphal or not, but I like it anyway. Ilkay tells me that the saying, ‘Don’t get hold of the wrong end of the stick’ originated from this practice. It makes sense. It was Pythagoras who was to state: ‘Friends share all things.‘ Well, perhaps not a stick used by your seated neighbour on the john.
It is extraordinary to think that with so much to witness of this former port city, which is 2,300 years old, only around 15 per cent has actually been excavated. Abandoned after the 14th century, Ephesus settled back to allow nature to take its course.
Once past the magnificent theatre which could house an audience of ten thousand, the route leads past an avenue of pine trees to the covered bazaar where you will no doubt be hassled by the stall holders who urge you to buy ‘authentic fake watches’. Wonderful.
Bartering, by the way, is all part of the tradition, and you can expect to knock at least 30 per cent off any original asking price for goods. Do not be afraid to walk away, because the hawkers will not be far behind with another price in mind, closer to your way of thinking. It is the same back in Kusadasi, or possibly worse, and you may find yourself seeking refuge on the Olympia if it all gets a bit much.
Back on board, I enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Aegean Restaurant. As the ship makes headway for the island of Patmos, one of the main centres of religious importance in Greece, I make for the spa, where I am booked in for a back and shoulder massage. I am sold on the idea of being treated with myrtle and rose oils, and emerging feeling like a modern Aphrodite. Mmm. I actually end up doubled over, such is the state of my back muscles which, apparently, are like a brick. A lot more unknotting to do yet, then.
History buffs will enjoy a trip to St John’s Monastery and Grotto of Apocalypse, as many believe that St John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelations in the mountainside grotto. Atop Patmos’ highest peak stands the monastery, founded in his honour in 1088. It is well worth an amble around the small port, a million miles from the bedlam of Mykonos, as it proves a wonderfully calming experience to sit and relax over a coffee and let the world slowly drift by.
‘The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space, everything else is merely thought to exist.’ Well, I can assure Democritus that Knossos does exist, because I have been there and seen the evidence. I am here in Heraklion, Crete, our next port of call, and take a short drive to the archaeological site of Knossos, 5km southeast of the city.
It is here on the ruins of the Neolithic settlement that the first Minoan palace was built, and where the dynasty of Minos ruled. Destroyed in 1700BC, a new multi-storeyed palace was built in its place, covering an area of 22,000sq.m. The actual site was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, and excavations in Knossos were begun in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
The Great Palace is the largest of the preserved Minoan palatial centres. Four wings are arranged around a central courtyard, containing the royal quarters, workshops, shrines, storerooms, repositories, the throne room and banquet halls. This is, indeed, a fascinating place in which to understand more about the Minoan civilisations and Greek mythology, and in particular the story of King Mynos.
Our final stop on the Iconic Aegean tour is the archipelago of Santorini, which incorporates a group of islands created by volcanoes, spanning across Thera, Thirasia, Aspronisi, Palea and Nea Kameni. The remnant of a volcanic caldera, it forms the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands.
Captain Ioannis Fountoukas on the bridge as we approach SantoriniThe main inhabited island of Thera has adopted a rugged landscape, with the whitewashed, cubist houses of its two principal towns, Fira and Oia, clinging to clifftops in a most striking pose as they overlook the Aegean. Here, the sun warms and the persistent winds cool.
I head to Venetsanos Winery (www.venetsanowinery.com), situated in a breathtaking position high above the port of Athinios. The first industrial winery on the island, it was built in 1947. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the small museum before a wine tasting.The Greeks have a love of white and blue on this island. In the main town of Fira, and its neighbour Oia, the houses are whitewashed. As well as helping to keep the interiors cool, the whitewash also acts as a disinfectant, thereby keeping bugs at bay. The blue, of course, is all around: the sea… the sky…
Here in the cultural and commercial centre of the archipelago, Fira is awash with tourists, stalking the small shops, cafés, restaurants, museums and galleries. There are some delightful places to stop for refreshments, many tucked into the quaint cobbled streets that weave their magic through the town.
The old port of Thira lies at the bottom of the cliffs, complete with a small collection of restaurants, taverns and gift shops. The harbour is accessed via a cable car. Alternatively, you can walk down the 600 stone steps. It is here at Ormos that the cruise ships drop anchor and passengers are ferried to shore in tenders.
During my time with Celestyal Cruises, Apollo, the God of Light, and Artemis, the Goddess of Nature and the Moon, born of Leto following her illicit lovemaking with Zeus, helped transport me to islands of unrivalled beauty, and I cannot thank them enough. For I have seen many wonderful, archaeological sites, I have walked in the presence of the Gods, and not once did I annoy Poseidon, so renowned for his grumpiness. And all the rest is simply Greek myth.
Our Editor-at-Large Michael Cowton travelled as a guest of Celestyal Cruises (www.celestyalcruises.com +30 210 4583400)
The best of the Aegean in 3, 4 or 7 days. Prices for the ‘Iconic Aegean’ cruise are from £238pp full board, with departures running through to October. Drinks and shore excursion packages are available from £18 a day. Return flights from Heathrow to Athens are from £227 with British Airways.