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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

My Big Fat Greek Cruise



The Greek Islands are splashed like blotches of paint on the canvas of the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Many are populated by sites with historical significance - remnants of the footsteps of Greek, Roman, Christian crusader, and Ottoman conquerors. And many are sunny oases where laid back natives make room for hordes of tourists that come to spend a few hours or days enjoying their landscape, climate, architecture, and culture.
Movie history made the Greek Islands a focal point in my travel dreams. The islands were the joie de vivre setting of Zorba the Greek.
"What d'you lack?" asks Zorba, a free-spirited Greek peasant (Anthony Quinn), speaking to Basil (Alan Bates), an uptight English writer. "You're young, you have money, health, you're a good fellow, you lack nothing. Nothing, by thunder! Except just one thing - folly! And when that's missing, boss, well ..."
And so, with some "folly" in mind, I decided to experience the Greek Islands. With limited time, I chose a cruise that would take me to as many islands as possible in the shortest time. I was not interested in lazing on beaches or a life change. I just wanted to experience the ambiance of each island, so that perhaps someday I could knowingly return to a favorite.
We booked passage on a ship of Louis Hellenic Cruises, a Greek flag line that had weekly departures from Athens and Istanbul. Louis is described as a "budget" cruise line and it was about half the price of some of the more luxurious cruise lines and, in fairness, had half the luxuries and amenities. Accommodations were comfortable not lavish, food edible not gourmet, and entertainment, well, acceptable. I have no raves - or complaints - about Louis Cruises. They got us to our destinations on time, our fellow shipmates were quite nice, and our daily tours of each site were wondrous.
Mykonos was our first island stop. It is a rugged island, only 10 miles long and 7 miles wide, described as typical of the Cycladic island group - sun drenched, with rocky, steep hilled terrain rising from a deep blue sea. The island is dotted with whitewashed homes and chapels, and landmark windmills. Delos, an uninhabited nearby islet with ruins of temples honoring this birthplace of the god Apollo, is a 30-40 minute choppy boat ride from Mykonos and a separate excursion. But you can skip any formal excursion of Mykonos. From the harbor, it's a short bus ride into town center. It has a picturesque small seafront fronted by several tavernas and a maze of narrow alleys bordered by two-story white-washed buildings - mostly stores selling the local linens and both upscale and tawdry tourist items. The town's mascot is called "Petros the Pelican" and you'll likely sight several great pelicans roaming the streets. The island's white-washed Paraportiani Church and its seaside windmills are its most famous and photographed landmarks. The best way to explore Mykonos is by renting ATV's or mopeds. As we motored off into the hills, we had glorious views of the harbor and half a dozen cruise ships, including ours, at dockside or anchored off-shore. And that seemed to be the rule for almost every island we visited. The first cruise ships to arrive get docks. The rest anchor and ferry their guests ashore on tenders. Our motorbike adventure allowed us to sight several beaches and secluded coves. To actually lounge on one requires at least an overnight stay on the island. By and large, Mykonos is a barren, rocky island that survives only on tourism. But if getting suntanned and searching out the catch-of-the-day is part of your "Zorba" lifestyle plan, put the island on your list.
At midnight, we weighed anchor at Mykonos and awoke anchored offshore of Patmos. Patmos has been an island of Christian pilgrimage for 2000 years - since St. John wrote his "Revelations" there in AD 95. In AD 1080, a monk, Christodoulos, founded the hilltop St. John's Monastery that remains the island's preeminent landmark. A tender ferried us ashore where we boarded buses that wended along precarious tortuous roads to the hilltop monastery. It was a short trek to the chapel with its ornate gilded interior prayer fašade. Next to the chapel is a small museum which contains ancient religious artifacts and writings, most famous of which is the 11th century, 4-foot long deed to Patmos issued to Christodoulos by the Byzantine emperor. From the promontory of the monastery, there were fantastic views of Skala Harbour and our cruise ship. Further downhill we drove to the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse. The Greek word "apokalypsi" means "revelation" and St. John is believed to have received his "revelations" from God in this cave.
We only spent a few hours in Patmos. Our ship left later that morning for the 3-hour cruise to Kusadasi, Turkey. And while Kusadasi (Kush-a-da-say) is not part of Greece, its nearby ancient heritage is Greek.
Kusadasi is a port town and it was another 30 minute bus ride - on excellent roads, past modern luxurious beachside resorts, past amusement parks - to the ancient city of Ephesus (Eh-feh-sus) - the most important archeological site in Turkey. This ancient city was once home to 250,000 people and was one of the greatest cities in world from about the 2nd Century BC to the 7th Century AD. But when the nearby river silted up and the city's access to the sea disappeared, the city too soon disappeared. Ephesus is one of the most dramatic of ancient ruins you will ever see. Although Pompeii is perhaps more expansive, Ephesus was clearly a more wealthy city. You can still see remnants of great fountains and statues honoring the Greek gods Artemis and Diana. Roman emperors, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, and the Virgin Mary all walked along the Arcadian Way - a wide stone paved road, lined with columns, statuary, and shops that led from the port to the center of town. And St. John preached at the great 24,000 seat theatre there in 54 AD. The most architecturally impressive structure in the city is the three-story ancient Library of Celsius; the most unexpected, a communal toilet system with marble seats. The ruins of this once great city are extensive and yet only 5% of it has been excavated. Back in Kusadasi, I found a town chock full of rug merchants but other than replicas of ancient art, I found the best deals to be pistachio nuts and halvah.
The Greek Dodecanese islands are stretched along the coast of Turkey. The largest of the islands and the capital of the Dodecanese is Rhodes. Our ship arrived in early morning again and docked in the large harbor of Rhodes Town with about a dozen other great cruise ships. Rhodes Town is a picturesque medieval walled city. It was conquered by the crusader Knights of St. John who occupied it from 1306-1519 until they were defeated by Sulamin the Magnificent. They then fled to Malta where they became, of course, the Knights of Malta.
The walled city by the harbor of Rhodes was easily walkable but terribly crowded with tourists meandering through its beautiful squares, with plenty of shops and restaurants. The most important landmarks are the castle tower main gates, the Palace of the Grand Masters, the Street of the Knights, the courtyard at the Knight's Hospital which now houses the archeological museum, the Mosque of Suleiman, and the synagogue and Jewish Quarter.
Our tour of Rhodes Island also took us to the southeastern end of the island and the city of Lindos. Lindos is older than Rhodes. Great medieval castle walls surround a hilltop and in the midst of those walls stands the Acropolis of Lindos with the remnants of the 4th-century BC Temple to Athena. This was one of the most sacred spots of the ancient world, visited by Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy. You can make a long, steep trek up narrow souvenir store lined alleyways to the entrance of the castle walls. Or, you can make your way to the top along a side path on a donkey ride. Choose your pain - sore feet or sore ass. The winds atop the hill are fierce. The views from the acropolis of blue water and two sheltered coves below are phenomenal.
The Lindos' Acropolis and Temple, as are many other archeological sites, is undergoing a mix of excavation, renovation, and re-creation. There are areas of patchwork, where only tiny portion of an ancient pillar or statue remains and the rest is replica. I wondered why they just didn't rebuild a replica of the entire structure. To tell the truth, I think I might prefer a Disneyesque view of the ancient world. I want to be at a "real" historical site. I want to know that some of what I am seeing is indeed "ancient." But I would like to know and feel as well what it really looked like in ancient times as opposed to just imagining it from a few pillars and statues lying askew on a glorious mountaintop.
As we returned to Rhodes Town, we passed the entrance to Mandraki Harbor which links Rhodes' old walled town to the new town. Legend has it that this was the site where the great Colossus of Rhodes once stood. Today, the harbor entrance is marked by two pillars topped with a bronze doe and a stag. It's just not the same as a "Colossus." I guess I'll have to wait for Disney archeologists.
Another night at sea and we awoke again at another port - Heraklion, Crete. Crete was the home of the fictional "Zorba" and is the largest of Greece's islands - 155 miles long. We made one stop in Heraklion or Irakleio - the Archeological Museum which houses the world's best collection of Minoan art. My image of Heraklion driving through was of narrow roads, horrendous traffic, dirt sidewalks, graffiti, and public squares and historical sites sorely in need of some imaginative refurbishing. Our destination, however, on this cruise stopover was seven kilometers out of town - the archeological site of the 4000 year-old Minoan capital of Knossos.
The Minoan civilization of 3-5000 years ago paralleled the world of the Egyptian pharaohs. Knossos is the site of the largest excavated palace of the Minoan kings. Frescoes showed the men in costume resembling the Egyptian pharaohs and bare breasted women in long gowns. The palace contained over 1,000 rooms and had - 3,000 years ago - underground plumbing and indoor toilets. The symbols of this ancient kingdom were the bull and the double axe, called a "labos." The word "labyrinth" comes from this root word because Knossos palace was so massive and intricate.
Our last port of call before returning to Athens, was the island of Santorini. The Minoans settled Santorini in 3000 BC. The volcanic island erupted in 1450 BC and formed its current crescent shape around the undersea crater. Some believe the island is the lost city of Atlantis. The sea approach to this beautiful island enters the caldera of the ancient volcano. The city, of whitewashed houses and occasional blue tile roofs etched atop volcanic cliffs, is breathtaking. You reach the mountaintop village of Thira, overlooking the caldera, by either gondola or donkey. If you choose the donkey ride, take it up, not down. A downhill race on a donkey is not a joy. The views from Thira, Santorini's hilltop, town are extraordinary. And, as in other Greek islands, narrow alleyways led to lots of stores selling jewelry, linens, and the usual tourist souvenirs. A short walk across the crest of the mountaintop town leads you to a view of a flat plain leading to most of the island's popular black sand beaches.
As dusk settled over Santorini and the lights of the cruise ships in its harbor began to glow, we descended on the cable car, boarded our tender, and re-boarded our ship for a last dinner, a last show, and last farewells to fellow passengers.
"You can find here plenty of all your heart and belly can desire," said Zorba. "A real paradise for old rascals like me. Do you understand, boss? A wonderful life ..."
And it was a wonderful trip.