A Travellerspoint blog

December 2010

Sailing Through History VIII-Santorini & Athens Greece

A city on the edge of a Volcanic Crater and the Centerpeice of Greek Mythology

The morning we docked in Santorini, Greece I stepped out on our balcony to see a beautiful city high above us, perched on the rim of an ancient volcano. The sea around our ship was a color that I had never seen before, a deep rich blue like the color of a sapphire gemstone. Santorini was in a class all by itself and one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen. Today the ship had dropped anchor some distance from the shore and I noticed another ship, the Royal Princess cruising into the area to drop her anchor nearby.

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The history of the island of Santorini is simply fascinating. Santorini is essentially what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion, destroying the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island. The eruption left a giant central lagoon surrounded by 980 ft high steep cliffs on three sides. The island slopes downward from the cliffs to the surrounding Aegean Sea. The water in the centre of the lagoon is nearly 1,300 ft deep, making it a safe harbor for all kinds of shipping. Jules Verne made Santorini famous with his books "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and "The Mysterious Island" where captain Nemo and his crew watch the volcano eruption. I had read that the unique caldera, the energy and the beauty of the island are the most important reasons for being ranked as the top island in Europe and one of the once in a life time must see destinations of the world. Now, looking up at the city of Santorini from the sea below, I could see why that statement is true.

Today we would be taking a tender (small boat) into the port. After so many days of sightseeing, Mom chose to spend her day on the ship relaxing, while Reggie, Yolonda and I took in the sights on our own. Getting up to the city would be an adventure. We could either walk up a very steep path to the top, ride a donkey up the path, or ride a cable car to the top. We of course, chose the cable car.

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After standing in a long line to take the cable car up the cliffs to Santorini, we looked around at the beautifully colored buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Looking for nothing in particular, we walked along, browsing through the merchandise in several lovely little shops. The next day was Mother's Day and I wanted to find Mom something special to celebrate the day. We stopped for lunch in a small cafe sitting on one of the hills above the shopping area. The view from our table was wonderful and the authentic Greek food was delicious. The afternoon passed by too quickly after lunch and I was very pleased to find a pretty necklace with a cross decorated with sparking crystal stones as a present for Mom. On the way back to the cable car station, we stopped in a souvenir shop where I bought some gift wrapped packages of Greek spices and olive oil to take home along with a Greek cookbook. I thought this would be a good way to take the "flavor" of Greece home with me.

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Reboarding the ship later that day, I sat out on our balcony with a glass of French wine looking up at the vision that was Santorini. The beautiful pastel colored buildings and churches perched on the high cliffs were gorgeous in the afternoon sun. I thought about how amazing it was to see what nature and man could do, working together to create a place, so unique in the world.

The next morning I was up very early, extremely excited to visit a city that I had dreamed about since childhood. This day we were docked in Athens, Greece! I made my way up to the Horizon Court for breakfast soon after getting up, because we had a long day of touring ahead of us. The day was not only special because it was Mother's Day, but it was also the day of the official christening of the Emerald Princes. There were lots of activities planned by the cruise line, but we would miss them all because we would be away from the ship the entire day. After breakfast I gave Mom her present which she loved, and then we boarded our tour bus for the city tour of Athens and a visit to the Acropolis and the Parthenon ruins of ancient Greece.

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Athens, the capital of Greece is a huge, busy place with about half of Greece's population living there (close to 5 million). In addition to having many things to do and see, Athens has a big problem with traffic jams and pollution, especially the smog. It is a fascinating place. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and it is the birthplace of many famous people including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There is evidence of ancient settlements in Athens from the 7th millennia BC. Over the centuries, Athens has been invaded several times and the city stayed under Turkish rule for about 350 years. In 1834 Athens was declared capital of Greece - then, only about 6000 people lived there. In 1941 the Germans occupied Athens and during the two months the Greeks resisted over 300 000 people died of starvation. The most famous site in Athens is of course the Acropolis. Standing high up on the sacred rock as the Greeks call it, you can practically feel the magnificence of ancient Greece. Athens is a wonderful mixture of old and new, with over 50 museums, modern restaurants and large shopping areas like the Plaka located just below the Acropolis.

Our tour took us around the city, stopping frequently for photo opportunities of sites of the last Olympic Games and other places of interest. At midmorning we arrived at the foot of the Acropolis where we began the long climb to the top. Who hasn't heard of the Acropolis of Athens? Photos and history of the most famous archaeological monument in Europe has been seen around the world. The Acropolis is nominated to be one of the 7 wonders of modern world. The Holy Rock of Acropolis dates back to the 5th BC, the famous Golden Age of Periklis. It could be seen in the distance from various parts of the city and I was almost overwhelmed to be seeing it myself.

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As we started up the steep steps to the Acropolis, or "city by the edge" the view from various points along the way was incredible. I noticed that scaffolding had been erected around many of the structures as serious repair work was obviously underway. During the Persian wars in the 5th century the Athenians started building the Parthenon, but the Persians burnt the Acropolis and all focus was put on the battles. It was during Pericles era, the so called Golden Age, when the Acropolis got the structure we see today. Starting in the middle of the 5th century, the Parthenon, the Propylaea and a huge bronze statue of Athena was made. It is said that Pericles used unemployed Athenians for workers, and that it was thanks to this initiative, every Athenian had food on his table. The Parthenon was made by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates, and the statue by Phidias. Towards the end of the 5th century the Erechteion was built, as well as the temple of Athena Nike. When the Romans conquered Greece in the 2nd century BC, many of the sanctuaries were looted. Statues and other works of art were taken back to Rome from Olympia and Delphi but the Acropolis was pretty much left alone. Some of the emperors did make a few additions. In the 2nd century AD Herodes Atticus had his great theatre built, and to this day, Athenians are enjoying concerts and ballets here. Listening to the history and mythology of the Acropolis as we walked around the actual structures was one of the greatest experiences that I have ever had.

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Leaving the Acropolis we headed down hill to the Plaka where we did some shopping and more sightseeing. At lunchtime were taken to a local restaurant for a family style Greek meal. It was absolutely wonderful! We sampled foods prepared the way the ancient Greeks had done, salad, lamb, goat, Greek yogurt served with honey, it was all fabulous. Our host, the restaurant owner was very friendly and we all took photos with him and thanked him for the hospitality. We were all given copies of the restaurant menu so that we would never forget the great meal we enjoyed that day.
All too soon we were back on board the Emerald Princess and sailing away from Athens. I stayed out on the balcony until time to dress for dinner, watching the shoreline fade into the distance. THIS is what I had dreamed about, seeing this magnificent city and soaking up the history and mythology that I had studied and read about all my life. It truly had been a most excellent day!

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Next up, we conclude our visit to the Greek Isles and head back to Italy. To be continued.......

Posted by Gerriv 12:45 Comments (4)

Sailing Through History VII-Mykonos Greece & Ephesus Turkey

An island bathed in white and an Ancient Greek and Roman city

After a nice day of rest at sea aboard the Emerald Princess, we arrived at our first port of call in Greece, Mykonos Island. In my mind’s eye, whenever I thought of Greece, this island is what I saw. Like a picture postcard, this seaside village was awash in low white buildings bordered by a deep blue sea.

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Mykonos Island is part of the Cyclades islands group in the Aegean Sea. Mykonos is, with Santorini and Crete, the most famous and popular of the Greek islands and attracts thousands of visitors every year. Mykonos is famous for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, exciting nightlife, picturesque whitewashed houses, blue domed churches, luxury hotels and magnificent sandy beaches. Our ship was docked within walking distance to the town, so I chose not to book a tour but instead explore the environs on our own.

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Among all the white, there were splashes of color everywhere. Beautiful flowers, colorful pattern tablecloths in cafes and painted roofs, railings and balconies. We strolled through the town taking in the atmosphere, looking inside the numerous shops and taking photos. Mom found a jewelry store she liked and spent a great part of the morning selecting a gold gemstone ring to take home. Reggie, Yolonda and I wandered around the shops until time for lunch, when we collected Mom from the jewelry store and found a nice café for a noontime meal.

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Lunch was wonderful. Hot fish chowder, Greek salad, hot bread and tea really hit the spot. The rest of the afternoon passed by slowly as we took our time walking back through town to the ship. We did not get to sample the nightlife on the island, but the slow languid pace of Mykonos during the day was a nice change of pace. We sailed away from Mykonos later that evening having had a very enjoyable day.

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The next day found us in the port of Kusadasi, Turkey. I had only heard a few things about Turkey, therefore, I had no idea what to expect. Walking out on deck the morning we docked in this country, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lovely sundrenched city by the sea. Situated on the west coast of Turkey - 90km south of Izmir, Kusadasi, is reputed as one of the most attractive cities of the Aegean, as it is close to the important historical sites including Ephesus, the Temple of Artemis, built in 550 BC and one of the 7 Wonders of the World, the Goddess Artemis, and the House of Virgin Mary. The area is ideal for sightseers and history buffs. Kusadasi has a typical Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters and is bathed in sunshine for 300 days of the year.

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With so much to see in the area on only a day to see what we could, I chose a tour that would take us straight to the ancient city of Ephesus and its renowned Celsus Library ruins. The ancient city of Ephesus located near the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey, was one of the great cities of the Greeks in Asia Minor. Ephesus is also a sacred site for Christians due to its association with several biblical figures, including St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary. The facade of the Library of Celsus is one of the most spectacular sights in Ephesus. Built by a Roman in memory of his father, it faces east so the reading rooms receive the morning light. Ephesus was one of the seven churches of Asia that are cited in the Book of Revelation. The Gospel of John may have been written here and it is also the site of a large gladiators' graveyard. I was very excited about seeing these famous historic sites but I was still not prepared for what I saw as we exited our tour bus and climbed a small hill to the ruins. The view was jaw dropping in the extreme. I had seen photos of this site in glossy travel magazines, but seeing it all live and up close was an absolute thrill.

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We followed our excellent tour guide down the now broken pavement of the ancient Roman city mainstreet, listening with great attention to her discription of life in this historic place and the significance of each building or facade. Down the street we went, getting closer and closer the the Celsus Library at the end of the street. What a sight it was standing out against the lush green turkish landscape. It was just magnificent. I climbed the steps to the interior of the Library and read the inscriptions on the walls, trying to soak up as much of the sights and atmosphere as I could. Every student of history dreams of seeing such a place and once again I could not believe my good fortune to actually be there seeing it all myself.

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After leaving the Library we made our way out of the city, past the huge 44,000 seat Theater, the probable place where St. Paul preached to the pagans in Acts. Saint Paul was dragged into this theater to face the crowd because of his famous letter to the Ephesians. It is still in use for concerts and large events today.

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Heading back to the ship after spending the morning in Ephesus, we stopped off downtown to do some shopping. We visited a rug factory and saw how the beautiful Turkish rugs are made, and then I found myself in a jewelry store where I purchased a lovely diamond cluster ring. Not at all good at bargaining, which is a sport and expected in Turkey, I was lucky to have my friend Yolonda with me that day. She haggled with the shop keeper like a pro and got me an excellent price on my ring. I wear it every day and think of Turkey when I look at it. Then it was on to the other shops and souvenir stores, laughing at the funny shop keepers trying to lure us in to take a look at their merchandise. I found this part of Turkey to be a very warm and friendly place that I would like to visit again.

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My first visit to Turkey was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. Now it was on to Santorini and the symbol of Greek Mythology, Athens.

To be continued......

Posted by Gerriv 12:21 Comments (2)

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