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Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Travelogue

By Clement IP

In March of 2017, Dominic and I, and our respective spouses (Cecilia and Margot), went on an Eastern Mediterranean cruise on the Viking Star.  The ship is practically brand new, since Viking launched its maiden ocean cruise only a year ago.  With a capacity of about 900 passengers, there is plenty of lounge area for people to relax, and we never felt crowded at any time.  All state rooms have a balcony, and our standard accommodation was quite comfortable.  Best yet, there are two specialty. restaurants that we could patronize at no extra charge.  Due to limited seating, Cecilia quickly secured reservations for us just in the nick of time.  We were very glad she did that; the food and service were excellent.

Our 10-day voyage began in Athens and ended in Venice.  We boarded the ship at Piraeus, on the outskirts of Athens. The narrative below describes our itinerary in chronological order. A 2-part travelogue video has been made by Dominic for us to remember it by and for you to watch, click here

Athens

  

We journeyed from Piraeus into the heart of Athens by motor coach.  The sightseeing was no more than a whirlwind drive-by of a few highlights - the Hellenic Parliament, Syntagma Square, Temple of Zeus, and the Panathenic Stadium (a brief stop here for a photo op).  The stadium is the only one in the world built of marble, and was the site of the first modern Olympic Games held in 1898.  

The coach then dropped us off at the Acropolis Museum.  This relatively new building houses many statues, sculptures, and objects recovered from the Acropolis.  Other exhibits include pediments and friezes removed from the Parthenon for preservation purposes. Plaster replicas were made of those elements taken by Lord Elgin to the British Museum. A set of 5 original Karyatides (women figures serving as outside supporting columns) from the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis is given a place of prominence in the museum. Lord Elgin also carried off one of the original Karyotides. The top floor has full length glass windows on an entire side and provides a marvelous view of the Parthenon.  After visiting the museum, we were given some free time to wander around the Plaka shopping district before returning to the ship.     

Author's note:  The Viking sightseeing tour is too superficial to do justice to Athens.  For this reason, Margot and I had decided to stay several days in Athens before boarding the ship so we could thoroughly enjoy the city and points beyond (Dominic and Cecilia did not join us for the pre-cruise foray).  We had mapped out two walking routes for anyone interested in following our plan.     

Route 1 - Start at the Hadrian Gate at the eastern edge of the Acropolis.  Proceed westward to the Lysikrates Monument and follow the Grand Promenade to the Theater of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Continue to the flight of steps leading up to the Acropolis.  Spend time on top to admire the majestic architecture of the Propyleae, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena.  Descend back to the Grand Promenade, then round the bend to the right and head for the Agora, a political and civic gathering place in the old days.  The building has been restored to its former glory with a spacious columned stoa.  Upon leaving the exit, pick one of the many restaurants lining the alleyway and have an early dinner.

    

Route 2 - Start at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (in front of the Hellenic Parliament) to watch the changing of the guards.  Across the street is Syntagma Square where Athenians congregate to relax on a sunny day.  Explore the side streets in the vicinity to feel the pulse of the city.  Have lunch at one of the many restaurants there to sample local fare.  Afterwards, take the subway from Syntagma to a station closest to the National Archeological Museum (not to be missed). This place has an encyclopedic display of Greek culture dating back to the Minoan period.  It is like living through thousands of years of history in an afternoon.   

   

We also took day trips outside of Athens.  I highly recommend tours to Mycenae (where King Agamemnon united all the chieftains of Greece to plan the Trojan War), Ancient Corinth (where the Apostle Paul preached to the Corinthians), Epidaurus (a sanatorium from 1,500 years B.C. and site of the largest amphitheater in Greece), and Delphi (who can resist the mythology of the Oracle of Delphi).     

Despite my fondness of Athens, time to move on.  Back to the cruise.

Santorini    

  

After pulling up anchor at Piraeus, the ship set sail for Santorini on the Aegean Sea.  Santorini is a crescent-shaped island molded by volcanic eruptions about 3,500 years ago.  On the evening before arrival, a geologist on board gave a lecture regarding the possible location of the fabled lost city of Atlantis on the island.  He postulated that Atlantis was vaporized at the time of that same volcanic eruption and now lies at the bottom of the ocean within the confine of the caldera - the large body of water encircled by the crescent.  Although the theory is based mainly on circumstantial evidence, it still makes a fascinating story.          

We tendered to shore and a scenic drive up the mountain took us to the stunningly beautiful town of Oia.  Gleaming whitewashed houses with blue roofs cling to the rim of the rocky cliff, framed by an expanse of turquoise water below and a cluster of smaller islands on the horizon.  We strolled leisurely along the pedestrian-only streets, soaking up the spectacular panorama at every turn.  In some sections, the houses are literally stacked on top of each other, with the roof top of the house below serving as the front garden of the one above. Of great interest was that the cave dwellings of an earlier time have now been turned into 5-star luxury hotels.      

Next stop was the capital city of Thira where we were given ample time to explore on our own.  On the way, we saw the unique vineyards, in which the vines, instead of growing up, grow in a circular configuration close to the ground. This strategy was developed because of the high winds on top of the cliffs; reportedly, the wine has a very aromatic bouquet. Thira also perches on a high ridge and has the same Cycladic style of architecture as that in Oia.  It is bigger than Oia but equally charming, and has many more shops, restaurants and taverns.  A cable car brought us from the mountain top to the tender dock, thus ending the day's outing.

Olympia  

  

The following morning found us at the fishing harbor of Katakolon on the western side of the Peloponnese peninsula.  Katakolon is the gateway to Olympia, the 2,800-year old birthplace of the modern day Olympic Games.  On the way to Olympia, which is situated at the base of Mt. Kronos, we passed by many olive groves, vineyards and orchards.  No wonder this area is known as the fruit basket of Greece.       

Led by a guide, we walked among the ruins of the first Olympic park - Temple of Zeus, Temple of Hera, Palestra, Gymnasium, and other structures which were used as quarters for the athletes.  In the ancient days, the athletes had to live on site for a short period of time before competition began, so they could be schooled in the philosophy of sportsmanship.       

An open-air stadium for track and field events still remains in great condition.  It is banked on three sides for spectators to sit and watch the competition.  Dominic and I raced down the full length of the stadium of 200 meters. We were happy that we did not collapse from the exertion.  Nearby is the new Archeological Museum which houses an assortment of statues, blocks of pediment, bronze figurines, decorative potteries, votives, medals, and ornaments of every kind - all salvaged from the temples on the grounds of the park.   

Corfu

  

Corfu is an island on the Ionia Sea off the northwestern corner of Greece.  Because of its strategic location to maritime trade, Corfu endured a long history of occupation by European powers.  A short shuttle ride from the ship to Old Town followed a picturesque coastline dotted with palaces, monasteries and fortresses.  The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Venetian architecture is the predominant style of buildings that still remain standing today.  The graceful Palace of St. Michael, the former home of the British High Commissioner, is one of just a few Georgian style mansions in this enclave.     

The Old Town is fronted by a large public square and the elegant Liston promenade.  Behind is a warren of 3- or 4-story high residential buildings with all kinds of shops and cafes on the ground level.  Behind the Liston we were taken to the church of St. Spyridon, wherein lies the silver coffin of Saint Spyridon, the patron saint of Corfu. It is believed that he saved the town several times by his miraculous interventions, which may explain why half the population of Corfu bears variations of his name.

Corfu is a very pleasant place to wander around and watch the local citizens go about their business or enjoy themselves in outdoor eateries under a warm, sunny sky.  We were not afraid of getting lost as long as we retained a sense of direction of the public square in order to catch the shuttle back to the ship.

  

Kotor    

  

Leaving Greece behind in our wake, we continued our voyage to Kotor, Montenegro.  Kotor is a well preserved medieval port nestled at the end of a long fjord branching off from the Adriatic Sea.  The narrow water passage is flanked by dark limestone peaks, thus giving rise to the name Montenegro (Black Mountain).  The country has a checkered history as it transitioned successively under Venetian, Ottoman, Austrian and Yugoslavian rule.  Our guide, a rather jaded and witty young man, spoke proudly of the struggle of Montenegrins for their independence.     

A short walk from the dock brought us to the main gate of the city wall, which was constructed by the Venetians almost 600 years ago.  The town square is immediately behind the gate; it was the place where armament deals were transacted during the fight against the Turks.  Most of the buildings in the Old Town have a definite medieval look to them.  Of particular significance is the Romanesque Cathedral of St. Tryphon which houses many valuable frescos and artifacts.

We also walked by another church, and our guide pointed disapprovingly to a huge Serbian flag hanging on the outside.  It seems that the desire of Serbia to assert political dominion over a neighboring country has not diminished despite the bloody Balkan conflict in the 1990's. 

In the afternoon, we traveled by motor coach to the hinterland.  We started going up a very steep mountain; the road is barely wide enough for traffic to move in one direction.  Frequently the coach had to pull over to a cut-out spot (with no guard rail!) to let oncoming vehicles drive through.  To make matters worse, the road has 27 hairpin turns.  However, the nerve-wracking ride was worth it when we reached the summit.  The view of the sparkling fjord and the surrounding mountain ranges is absolutely breathtaking.       

We stopped again at the quaint little village of Lovcen, which is famous for its production of ham.  Apparently, the climate in the valley is perfectly suited for curing meat.  After a snack of locally produced ham and cheese (I still prefer prosciutto), we re-boarded the coach to Cetinje (the former capital of Montenegro) where we visited King Nikola’s Museum.  He was a very important monarch who introduced many key reforms to his country in the early 20th century.  On the way back to Kotor, we passed through the bustling seaside resort of Budva - a favourite place for foreign vacationers.  In spite of its small size, Montenegro appears to be trying hard to gain a toehold in the EU.

Dubrovnik     

  

The medieval red-roofed Old Town of Dubrovnik lies on a spit of land jutting out into the Adriatic Sea on the coast of Croatia.  It is totally enclosed by a towering wall built in the 14th century.  The best vantage point to take in the magnificent postcard landscape is to go to a spot high above the city, and that was where we were driven upon leaving the ship. After the overlook stop, we descended down the mountain and entered the Old Town through the Pile Gate.  Immediately in front of us was the Stradun - a broad marbled walkway lined with weathered stone buildings.  If one is struck by the absence of Venetian legacy here, in contrast to Corfu and Kotor, it is because Dubrovnik was never occupied by outsiders.  Her past leaders had been very adroit at playing one foreign power against another so as to maintain her neutrality.  On our leisurely stroll along the Stradun, our guide pointed out several notable structures, including the Franciscan Monastery with its rich collection of Renaissance paintings, the Sponza Palace, the Church of St. Blaise and the oldest Apothecary in Europe.     

One cannot leave Dubrovnik without climbing the monstrous city wall.  We were charged 20 euros per person for the privilege of testing our stamina.  It turned out to be a very rewarding experience as we got to appreciate up close the mighty fortification, the sweeping contour of the splendid coastline, and the radiant newly reconstructed terra cotta red roofs of the Old Town.  Because of the topography, sections of the wall have long stretches of steep steps.  Interestingly, many of the guard houses are now being used as wine bars or refreshment stands.  Tired tourists with leg cramps can always find a table to rest at before moving on.     

When we climbed down from the wall, we came upon a map showing the numerous locations in the Old Town hit by Serbian rockets during the war of the 1990's.  Fortunately, all the damage has been repaired.  It would have been a crime to destroy this jewel of a place which George Bernard Shaw called "paradise on earth".

Zadar   

  

For over a millennium, Zadar was the capital of independent Dalmatia, which is now part of Croatian territory. Our initial impression of the waterfront was one of wonder at the art installations that grace the large public area where our ship docked. The first of these, which jumped out at us as we approached on our ship, was the “Sun Salutation”, an enormous circle of solar panels mounted into the ground. The bright blue circle mirrors the colour of the sea. Adjacent to this is the Sea Organ, which is built into the marble steps at the waterfront of the Adriatic Sea. Here, a staccato of whispery rumbles could be heard (recorded on Dominic's video), emanating from a series of 35 organ pipes, groups of which are tuned to a different musical chord. As rolling waves gently slap at the tubes, an acoustic effect is produced and the reverberations bubble up to the surface through holes embedded in the pavement.  

With the exception of a sizable city block of Roman ruins not seen in previous ports of call, Zadar's Old Town has the same familiar look of cobblestone streets and plainly adorned medieval buildings.  In fact, images of all the Old Towns are beginning to blur as I am writing this travelogue 3 months after the trip.  Distinctive features do emerge notwithstanding.   Three imposing churches within shouting distance of each other lend an aura of religiosity to Zadar.  We visited two of them - Cathedral of St. Anastasia (classic Romanesque architecture) and St. Mary's Church (with a beautiful campanile).  Adjacent to the latter is a convent where an impressive collection of gold and silver objects is displayed.  This treasure trove of precious metals probably attests to the past wealth of Zadar as a center of commerce.  We did not visit the circular Church of St. Donatus because it was closed. However, one thing that attracted our attention outside the church was the ancient public shaming post; we think the use of it should be resurrected given the political climate of today.

Koper

  

Sailing northward along the Dalmatian coast, we reached our final stop at Koper in Slovenia, a commercial port with many container ships in the harbour (in contrast to the picturesque ports along our cruise route).  Koper was a stronghold of the Venetians for 500 years (yes, the Venetians were everywhere!), and since then has been controlled by many foreign governments including Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Because of its close proximity to Trieste, Italian is commonly spoken in Koper.

The showpiece is Tito Square which is dominated by three gorgeous structures.  The Venetian-Gothic Praetorian Palace with its crenellated facade and ornate carvings is certainly an eye catcher.  On the opposite side is the Loggia, another Venetian style building now used as an art gallery.  The stately Cathedral of Assumption stands on the third side.  The church tower has a bell which was cast almost 800 years ago.  Nearby in Preseren Square is the magnificent Da Ponte Fountain, which is modelled in the shape of Venice’s Rialto Bridge, but with exquisite carvings. Outside the old town are impressive areas of salt flats, and while wandering around the town we found a store specializing in selling different varieties of salt from these flats.

By now we had our fill of seeing too many Old Towns.  We wandered around a bit more and returned to the ship to pack.  The next morning, we arrived at Venice for our flight home.

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