We made the most of the second stop at Piraeus (Athens) during our extended Aegean cruise with an excursion to Ancient Corinth and the Corinth Canal, compliments of the Seabourn. It was one of the highlights of our cruise. A one-hour bus ride from Piraeus port took us to the famous Corinth Canal. The canal regarded as a maritime engineering feat, was a short cut connecting the Ionian and Aegean seas. It is 4 miles long, 70 feet wide and has sloping sides 170 feet in height. The canal cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth separating the Peloponnesian Peninsula from the Greek mainland, making the peninsula an island. Interestingly, the idea of building the canal was first conceived during the antiquity period, around 7th century BCE by the Corinth ruler, Periander. However, a warning from Pythia (priestess at the Oracle of Delphi) that a canal would incur the gods’ wrath made Periander abandon the idea and instead, went for a simpler alternative. Needles to say the difficulty of such undertaking would have been a good reason to just consider simpler options.
During the Roman period, Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Caligula all tried to find a solution but it was actually emperor Nero who made more progress in the construction of the canal. But, due to his macabre end, the project was once again aborted. Much later, the Greeks took up the idea when they became independent from the Ottoman Empire. As expected, funding was a big hurdle but eventually, construction began in 1890 and was completed in 1893. Amazingly, the construction plans of the Corinth Canal was almost identical to the one made by Nero, 2000 years earlier.
The next stop was a visit to Ancient Corinth. Due to its geographical location and the fertile plains and natural spring that surrounded Ancient Corinth, the city was always a target for occupation. It was first inhabited during the Neolithic period and evolved into a wealthy city. It was during the Roman era under Julius Caesar that Ancient Corinth flourished.
The ruins we saw were a mix of an ancient 6th century BC Greek city and a 44 BC Roman city, built after Julius Caesar founded a colony there. Corinth became the centre for early Christianity in Greece, thanks to the efforts of St Paul who was dedicated to convert the Corinthian citizens during 51 to 52 AD.
Prominent in the ruins were the Christian Basilica, the starting lines of a Greek racetrack, a sacred spring with its bronze lion’s head spouts and the Roman fountain of Peirine, the remains of a marketplace and most conspicuous of all was the Doric styled, Temple of Apollo. The remnants of the temple lie on a terrace, which is on the highest part of the city.
Famished after another exhilarating day of history, we were delighted to partake a simple but delicious meal of what I called a ‘Greek salad’ and grilled fish at a local restaurant nearby. Soon, it was time to board the bus for the port of Piraeus where we would sail off and complete the last week of our cruise.
The next stop from Ancient Corinth was Patmos, one of the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean. UNESCO designated its historic city centre and the Monastery of St John the Theologian as World Heritage sites in 1999. Historically, the Romans had used Patmos as a place of exile for the banished that preached Christianity. Among the notable exiles was St John the Divine (or Theologian), one of the 12 apostles of Christ. The Roman Emperor Domitian exiled him in Patmos for a period of 18 months around 95 A.D. The controversial Book of Revelation also known as the Book of Apocalypse was the final chapter of the New Testament and believed to have been written in Patmos. St John was said to have dictated these revelations to his disciple, Prochorus, while in Patmos during his mystical experiences with God in his cave dwelling in the mountains of Patmos. The cave now considered the most sacred place in the island became a place of pilgrimage for the Greek Orthodox.
The shore excursion we opted to take was a visit to the Monastery dedicated to St John, founded in the late 10th century. We arrived at the fortified Greek Orthodox monastery by bus and had to climb a few yards up to the gate entrance on foot. The first thing that caught my eye when we arrived at the courtyard was a round covered structure that looked like a well. We were told that in the earlier days, it was used to store wine but now contain holy water instead. On top of the cover of the well was a beautiful, well cared for cat sunning herself. Apparently she belonged to the monks, who, like most Greeks loved their cats.
St John’s monastery perched on the hillside of Chora was overwhelming not only because it resembled a Byzantine castle with walls that were thick and over 15 meters high, but also because it was a maze of different levels of interconnecting courtyards, chapels, and museum treasury. Founded in 1088 by Ossios Christodoulos following a grant by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I. Komnenos, this amazing edifice was built on the very grotto where St John found solace from the Romans during his exile.
We were taken to the Cave of the Apocalypse (the grotto) where St John received his God inspired revelations or messages, which he dictated to his disciple Prochorus who then faithfully recorded the words as the Book of Revelation. The dwelling, now a chapel was also where he slept. The stone or hollow that St John used as his pillow, then another hollow which he used to lever himself up as well as the ledge of rock used as a desk by his disciple were all intact and preserved. Despite the dimly lit cave, these were visible and easy to distinguish from the other objects in the cave.
On the left of the courtyard was the main chapel built in 1090. The adjoining chapel next to the main church was the chapel of The Virgin Mary. Both this and the main chapel have been decorated with frescoes that date back to the 12th century and onwards. In the forecourt was also a series of frescoes depicting the life of St John. To the right was the chapel of the founder, the Holy Christodoulos. Inside it were the skull of St Thomas, pieces of the Holy Cross and other religious relics.
The Byzantine characteristics of this monastery were manifested in the stunning icons, the relics and art that adorned the various chapels and museum. Unfortunately, photographing the chapels and icons were prohibited but we satisfied our senses with a visit to the museum or Treasury whose remarkable collection of Byzantine art, books, original manuscripts from the bible, the gold and silver thread ornamented vestments as well as jewels and relics were simply spectacular. Most notable was an unusual mosaic icon of Agios Nikolaos and the 11th-century parchment granting the island to Ossios Christodoulos. The visit to the monastery would be one of the many unexpected but exceptional highlights of our extended Aegean odyssey.
The closest we ever got to Turkey was the day we anchored in the shores of Megisti, an island in the easternmost edge of the Dodecanese Greece. A hidden little treasure, Megisti is a small and pretty village with a long history starting from the Neolithic period. We strolled up to the 14th century castle of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John on Castello Rosso up the hill but a walk through the village and the harbour was a more charming experience. The water on the waterfront was so clear we could see the school of fish and turtles.
Who hasn’t heard of Santorini! The darling of photographers, Santorini, the most popular among the Cyclades group of islands is a very photogenic destination in many ways. Picturesque particularly at sunset, this gorgeous spot in Greece overlooking a wide expanse of the Aegean Sea should be in everyone’s bucket list. Located southeast from Athens and north of Crete, Santorini (officially named Thira.) is a C-shaped volcanic island with 300-meter towering cliffs on 3 sides. The centre of the caldera or crater is the half-moon-shaped bay of the island. Around 1650 BC, a volcanic eruption caused the centre of Santorini to sink leaving the signature Santorini caldera ( crater) with high cliffs.
The destructive volcanic eruption caused the sides of the island to collapse into the sea and is believed by many to be the reason why the early Minoan civilisation that inhabited the island vanished. Many also say that the discovered Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri in Santorini was the inspiration behind Plato’s legend of the lost city of Atlantis. Legend or not, the story gives credibility to the reason why the major volcanic eruption caused the annihilation of Santorini’s Bronze Age Minoans.
Cruise ships’ port of call at Santorini is Skala located at the bottom of the Caldera Cliffs in Fira, the island’s capital, west of the island. To get to the port, we were tendered from the Seabourn Odyssey by smaller boats. Santorini is a very popular and busy destination for good reason. During the height of the season ( northern hemisphere summer) as many as 5 big cruise liners anchor at the same time in the waters of Fira with thousands of passengers being tendered to the port. With that in mind, even though we were there late in the season, we took the tender right after breakfast to avoid the long queues of tourists who want to get to the top where the village of Fira is perched on the edge of the cliff. Our ship wasn’t going to sail off until late at night to allow us plenty of time to explore this mysterious and pretty island that promised so much.
To reach Fira at the top of the cliff (260 metres from sea level), there were three options:
- By cable car (daily, 6.30am-10pm, every 20 mins, €5 / $5.44),
- On a mule (the ride costs €8/$8.70)
- Taking the hike up 587 steps following the same path as the mules.
It was a no brainer; the cable won over the poor mules and there was no way we were going to climb the 587 steps up to Fira alongside the donkeys.
Once we were hoisted up to the bustling village of Fira, we made our way along narrow cobbled streets lined with shops, bars and restaurants. Most had breathtaking panoramic views of the black and red coloured cliffs exposing volcanic layers of rock and soil and the Aegean Sea. It was easy to appreciate why photographers love this island. Even I found so many photo opportunities of the landscape and Santorini’s gleaming white houses contrasted against the blue skies and sea.
From Fira, we wanted to visit the famous little village of Oia (pronounced ee-ah). We were told that we could either hire a taxi or be adventurous and use the local buses that ply the route to Oia every 15-20 minutes. The bus ride would take about 30 minutes with stops along the way. We chose the latter and cheaper alternative; cost is € 1.60 per person (one way).
Note: The central bus terminal in Fira is a 10-minute walk from the centre. Just turn right and follow the Golden Street, from the main shopping street. After a few minutes of easy walk, the Cathedral can be spotted on your left; continue a little further and just past the Cathedral, take a left with the road going down. Cross the intersection and a little further to the left is the bus terminal.
Oia known to be the most popular village in Santorini was certainly the most beautiful, it took my breath away. Standing on the edge of the caldera we were afforded a spectacular view of Palia and Nea Kameni volcanoes as well as the island of Thirassia. But before we got to see this magic vista, we meandered through a maze of narrow lanes full of shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. I found the hand crafted jewellery & art shops to be most interesting and if I had the foresight to pack my credit card in my little travel pouch that morning, I would have purchased a gorgeous byzantine styled cross pendant.
Oia stole my heart. The barrel vaulted houses and burst of colours from blossoms of bougainvillea trees made the landscape uniquely Santorini. White buildings, azure domed churches, hotels and bars, all with spectacular views from the edge of the caldera gave me plenty of reason to snap every image to fill my photo album folder of Greece and the wonderful memories the cruise.
For our final foray in Santorini we made our way to Akrotiri, known also as the Pompeii of Greece, situated in the southern part of the island. To get there, we had to return to Fira’s bus terminal to board another bus that headed south. Along the way, we saw some of the vineyards of Santorini, which the Greeks claim to be the world’s oldest. Interestingly, the vines we saw were grown straight from the ground and woven into continuous circles to form a basket. This method known as “koulara” is for the protection of the vines from the elements as the winds and sun in Santorini can be very strong and harsh. We were hoping to taste some of the famous Santorini wines before our departure.
Akrotiri is an excavation site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement in Santorini. That it has an eerie similarity to the Roman excavation in Pompeii, Italy is due to the fact that ashes of the massive volcano eruptions preserved evidence and traces of life of these two civilisations. The volcanic eruption almost 4000 years ago that caused the centre of Santorini to sink also destroyed the Minoan settlement but fortunately, all was not lost. Local villagers found old artefacts at a quarry, which led to the early excavation of the site by French geologist F. Fouque in 1867. But the subsequent expeditions from 1967 were more extensive and showed the remains of the village, how the Minoans lived, the remains of buildings, city squares, shops, frescoes and other objects and artworks. It was a very interesting visit and my husband considered it the number one ’must see’ and experience in the Aegean. Santorini for us is most definitely a MUST in the bucket list.
We viewed the much touted sunset of Santorini from the Seabourn Odyssey’s Observation deck and toasted this thoroughly loved and memorable day.
Here’s a useful pocket guide to Santorini for those who want to explore the many delights of this alluring Greek destination.
Spetses was to be the last port for our extended Eastern Mediterranean cruises. Known as the island of the aromas (isola di spezzie), Spetses is located near Athens in the Saronic Gulf. We noted the big mansions and houses, the up market retail shops near the harbour and the yacht marina, which spoke of the affluence of the inhabitants. It was a relaxing day, promenading along the esplanade admiring the naval and marine influence of the town.
All good things must come to an end and we truly were sad and reluctant to leave our ship. Disembarking for the last time in Piraeus (Athens) we said our ‘au revoirs’ to the fantastic crew of the Seabourn Odyssey and made our way to the Royal Olympic Hotel in front of the famous Temple of Zeus and National Garden in Athens. Its proximity to the Pláka (the old historical neighbourhood of Athens) made us choose this hotel before our flight back home.
We highly recommend the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar, the Ioannis. Superb view and service!