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
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.