Sunday, September 27, 2020

Cruising the Aegean

The Windmills of Mykonos. Photos by Vickie Kelber

The Windmills of Mykonos. Photos by Vickie Kelber

There are two ways to visit the Greek islands. You can do it yourself using ferries, hydrofoils, planes, or chartering a boat. Or, you can take a cruise.

After 2 weeks in Nafplio with Untours and a few days in Athens on our own, we chose the convenience of a cruise on a midsize ship with 800 passengers. The various cruise lines offer a few options for seeing the islands, but most of the options are standardized across lines.

Mykonos, with it’s Cycladic architecture and popularized by Jackie Onassis, is a favored location in the islands. Because we were on a smaller ship, we docked right at Chora, the largest town; most ships dock at the new port, about a mile north of Chora, with shuttle bus service into the town. With its whitewashed buildings and labyrinth of pedestrian streets, one of the best things to do on this island is to stroll, drinking in the atmosphere. Watch the sunset from one of the bars or cafes in Little Venice with balconies that hang over the water. Visit the church of Panagia Paraportiani, a national cultural monument and the whitewashed windmills, the trademark of Mykonos.

The island is known for its beaches. Optional shore excursions include a visit to Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and now home to extensive remains, including the Delos‘ lions. Incidentally, the Cyclades islands got their name  because they are the islands that surround (circle) Delos. There is a very active nightlife on Mykonos.

Most cruises include at least one stop in Turkey. Ours was at Kasadasi, which is just 20 minutes from Ancient Ephesus. Even if you have seen many ancient ruins (or as my husband likes to say, “lots of rock and rubble”), Ephesus is impressive.

Church of Panagia Paraportiani, Mykonos.

Church of Panagia Paraportiani, Mykonos.

Its Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Anthony and Cleopatra lived in this region, as did St. John, St. Paul and the Virgin Mary. The ancient city is now home to the largest collection of Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. For me, the imposing LIbrary of Celsus was most memorable.

The port of Kusadasi is home to a shopping bazaar where, in addition to Turkish carpets, a variety of goods are available. Another optional excursion is a visit to Mt. Koressos and the home of the Virgin Mary in her final years. One tradition says that both Mary and St. John died and are buried nearby. Most excursions include a stop at a rug weaving establishment for a demonstration and the opportunity to make a purchase. Although we groaned when the bus made the stop, it was actually quite interesting, particularly seeing how they get silk out of the cocoons, and the sales pitch was not too high pressure.

Patmos, the next stop on our cruise, is a small, beautiful island with a population of about 3000 and 365 churches and chapels.  It is part of the Dodecanese Islands which means, literally, twelve islands; the Dodecanese are comprised of 12 large islands and 150 smaller ones. Patmos is noted for the Monastery of St. John at  Chora and the Grotto of the Apocalypse, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation.  Patmos, with its hills overlooking the harbor and coves, is most picturesque and a tour of the island is worth it; you can do it on your own by taxi or as part of a shore excursion. We stopped at the small village of Kambos with our guide, an ex pat Brit who

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey.

reminded us of Shirley Valentine. We were fortunate to then be invited to attend a baptism that was going on in the village church. The port of Skala provides a charming locale for some shopping or refreshments.

Iraklion (Heraklion), the capital of Crete, affords the opportunity to tour Knossos, the palace of King Minos and home of the first paved road and theater in Europe. The palace, with its painted walls and frescoes, alabaster throne,  and labyrinthine character is engaging. However, since most of it has been reconstructed, we were oddly let down after having visited Ephesus. Other shore excursions include a tour of the wine country south of the capital. The bustling city of Iraklion offers shopping, restaurants, bakeries, and a nice stroll in the old part.

Santorini (Thira), the most popular and most photographed Greek island, is also the most dramatic as you approach it by ship. Due to a volcanic explosion and collapse thousands of years ago (and possibly the lost continent of Atlantis), you sail into a large caldera, with houses built into rust colored cliffs and whitewashed villages shimmering in the distance atop the island. Ships enter the port of Skala, with the town of Fira perched high above.  You can take a cable car, mule ride or walk up to Fira; the best way is to take the bus or a much more expensive taxi, although taking the cable down when you return to your ship is a nice option.

The most popular shore excursion on Santorini is a trip up to the beautiful village of Oia, home of the iconic picture of the whitewashed, blue domed church jutting out over the water. Both Fira and Oia are charming, if not crowded, to walk through and

Oia, Santorini

Oia, Santorini

have many shopping and refreshment opportunities. Make sure you try some of the pistachio honey candy, Pasteli Me Fistikia, famous on Santorini.

UPDATE ON GREECE

Unrest in Athens Unlikely to Impact Cruises

(5 p.m. EDT)—A national strike in Greece has turned violent—a worrisome development for visitors to the European nation, including cruise travelers calling, or turning around, in the port of Athens. However, with the strikes scheduled to end at midnight tonight, future port calls should remain unaffected.

MSC Cruises’ MSC Armonia and MSC Musica are scheduled to call in Athens tomorrow, while Holland America’s Westerdam and Seabourn’s Seabourn Odyssey are arriving on Saturday. (Odyssey will be debarking and embarking passengers.) Athens’ port, Piraeus, has not been affected by the strikes, with the exception of the Greek ferries, Seabourn spokesman Bruce Good reports. He does say that some hotels might be affected, which could be a problem for travelers with pre-cruise stays in Athens. MSC Cruises and Holland America representatives were still waiting for news of any possible itinerary changes at press time.

Earlier this week, Thomson Cruises altered the itineraries of two ships to avoid the strikes in Greece. Thomson Celebration swapped a May Day call in Athens for a May 1 visit to Kusadasi, Turkey, and a May 2 call in Athens. Thomson Spirit was due to call in Athens today, during the strike, but, instead, visited Athens yesterday and Mykonos today.

We’ll keep you posted.

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services,and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.

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