Primosten Croatia, Dubrovnik Croatia, Corfu Greece, Nydri Greece, Katakolon Greece, Monemvassia Greece, Piraeus ( Athens) Greece
We awoke to a beautiful day on the first day of our Eastern Mediterranean Cruise. With restrained enthusiasm , we set to shore as soon as the first tender was available. Primošten in Croatia, is a small town in the coast of the Adriatic known for its vineyards and unspoilt coastline. Primošten was an island but when the Turks invaded it in 1542, walls and towers were built to fortify the island from future invasions. To allow access to the mainland for the villagers, a drawbridge was used to connect Primošten to the mainland. Much later when the Turks retreated, a causeway was built to replace the bridge. On our shore excursion we found Primošten to be a charming fishing village that still had a medieval feel to it. Our main focus while there was to stroll through the narrow winding streets that led up to St. Juraj (St George) parish church. This old church was built in 1485 on the highest point of the island. We took our time to go up to the top of the hill to see the church and then slowly meandered down the promenade along the beach. It was the end of the season so fortunately for us; there wasn’t much competition for choice spots in the pristine beaches.
The next port of call the following day was the UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval town of Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. Despite the destruction of the walled city during the Yugoslav army siege in 1991-92, the city was rebuilt and has retained its charm. The best way to get a feel of Dubrovnik is to see the sights on foot. We wandered through the ‘Old Town’ encircled by the 16th century high stonewalls that was built to protect the town’s citizens from invasion. Despite the threatening rainclouds, we joined the hundreds of tourists to admire the baroque church of St Blaise, the Assumption Cathedral, the Renaissance influenced Sponza Palace and the Gothic Rector’s Palace. Not to be missed in Dubrovnik is the imposing 13th century Dominican Monastery in the eastern side of the city which houses treasures and books that any art lover would die for. The rich art collection includes the altarpiece of St Magdalene by Tizian, the painted crucifix by the noted 14th century Venetian painter Paolo Veneziano and of course Dubrovnik artists masterpieces by Nikola Božidarević, Lovro Dobričević and Mihajlo Hamzić. The old town’s appeal for me was the Strada or main shopping area lined with shops, art galleries, coffee bars, bistros and restaurants. We then wandered down to see where the location of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, of the popular TV series Game of Thrones was filmed. A dramatic setting indeed!
As the wind picked up, the rain started pelting down and we decided to call it a day and went back to the comfort of the Seabourn Odyssey and enjoy its first class amenities.
On the Seabourn that evening, I was hoping Peka would be on the menu. A friend who just spent a week slumming it around Croatia mentioned this traditional Croatian dish from the Dalmatian region. Meat, specifically lamb and vegetables drizzled with olive oil, wine, herbs and garlic is slowly baked to perfection under a bell-like dome, or ispod čripnje. Unfortunately, food wasn’t Croatian ‘themed’ that evening but the chef’s offerings from the Thomas Keller for Seabourn menu more than made up for my hankering for a taste of Peka.
We left the rainy shores of Dubrovnik, Croatia for the Greek Isles and looked forward to the ‘promise’ of sunshine, idyllic beaches, clear turquoise waters and antiquities. In the next 3 weeks, we were to cruise and explore choice islands of the Adriatic, Ionian, Mediterranean, Aegean Seas and the Sea of Crete.
Our Greek odyssey began from the isle of Corfu or Kerkyra, the second largest island in the Ionian, first settled by the Corcyrans in the 8th century. Corfu is known to be the most lush and green island in Greece due to its heavy winter rainfall which apparently rivals that of London. Corfu has a very European and cosmopolitan feel to it. The Old Town with its narrow cobbled medieval streets, steep stairways and arched alleys was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2007. With almost 500 years history of Venetian, French and British rule, Corfu has a lot to offer its visitors.
We joined a shore excursion that took us from the port straight to Paleokastritsa famous for its wooded hills and sheltered fine beaches. It is also where the Paleokastritsa monastery, founded in 1226, is situated. Unfortunately on arrival, we were turned back due to big rocks that blocked the narrow windy road caused by landslide the day before. Apparently the famous heavy winter rain started a little bit early. Much to our disappointment, we were unable to reach the monastery and had to detour. Instead, we spent considerable time exploring the pretty beaches and headed for Kanoni where the old cannons still stood. It was also a good vantage point to admire the view across the bay of the convent of Viacherna and Mouse Island.
On our way back we were given time to sightsee in Corfu Town noted for its two imposing 400-year-old forts designed by Venetian engineers. They were built to protect the Adriatic from invasions of the Ottomans. The Old town was easy to explore on foot. The labyrinth of narrow alleys led us to its two celebrated churches; the 16th century basilica of Agios Spyridon ( St Spyridon) housing the remains of the island’s patron saint in a silver casket and the Agia Theodora Mitropolis Orthodox Cathedral, which interestingly also has the remains of Saint Theodora, who was a Byzantine Empress. Revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is said that her remains were brought back to Corfu (Kerkyra) in 1456. In a story of drawn-out twists and turns, somehow, the remains found its way in the Mitropolis Orthodox Cathedral. Her head is covered because she was a nun when she died but this covered head brought about a rumour that her body was headless. Apparently, this myth was simply just a misunderstanding.
The Venetians ruled Corfu for more than 400 years and there is much evidence of Venetian influence in Corfu town, from the Old Fort to the ‘Spaniatha’ or Esplanade, the narrow streets and the tucked away small squares, the coffee houses and pastries, the ambience and architecture in Corfu are distinctly Venetian. ‘Spaniatha’ or the Esplanade, a green area between the town and opposite the old fort was created and completed during the brief French Occupation of the Napoleonic Wars. Just across, on the west side of the Esplanade is the arcade known as ‘Liston’ noticeable for its French style architecture, similar to the style of arcaded buildings in the Rue de Rivoli (located in the right bank of Paris). But what caught our attention was the cricket ground; a legacy of British rule which took over Corfu right after the French left. Also from the British, in the north end of the Esplanade is the Royal Palace of Corfu or the Palace of St Michael and St George, built in 1820 under the stewardship of Army General Whitmore. It is now the Museum of Asiatic Arts, the Historical Archive and the Classic Relics Authority of Corfu.
The stroll around town was interrupted by rain and our guide along with everyone else thought it was a good idea to go back to the port where we once again sought the comfort of our floating hotel, the Seabourn Odyssey.
The following morning we found ourselves in Nydri in the Ionian island of Lefkas (Lefkada). Of late, Nydri has become trendy among European holidaymakers due to its proximity to the Greek mainland and its fine beaches. The highlight for us was the walk along the small seaside village and through the trail that brought us to the waterfalls. I preferred a swim on the Seabourn pool so we went back to the ship, had a fabulous lunch as usual at the Patio Grill and a relaxing afternoon by the pool.
The Olympic games as everyone knows, originated in Greece so with a lot of enthusiasm, we joined another shore excursion the next morning to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games. From the port of Katakolon, our bus took us through hills and olive groves to reach the archaeological site and museum. Situated in a wide valley where the rivers Alpheios and Kladeo meet, at the foot of the Kronion Hill is Altis , an important sanctuary to the gods dating back from the 10th century BC to the 4th century AD. The ancient Greeks worshipped their 2 principal deities and constructed the Sanctuary and altar of Zeus where today the ruins of the temples of these ancient Greek gods Zeus and Hera remain. From the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, this was the site for the Pan- Hellenic or Olympic games, held every four years. This important event set the standard for the competition showcasing the prowess of bodies and minds among the athletes of nations. In awe of our surrounds, while walking through the ruins, baths and temples, my imagination drifted to an era when the Greek gods and athletes reigned supreme. I was rudely brought back to the ‘now’ with an interesting trivia told by our guide. It would seem that the ancient Greeks liked the physique of the male body so much that they were known to unashamedly walk around and train in the nude. The Olympic ideal of excellence in physical strength and a strong mind were only for male athletes, and guess what? They competed in the nude! Mind you, she also said that some athletes were known to wear some contraption or restraint to protect their genitals. Imagine running, wrestling, discus throwing and whatever else in the nude! Alas, the spoilers of this great competition were the Roman Christians who in 393 AD conquered Greece. Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great banned the games saying it was a pagan ritual. The games did not happen until its revival in 1896. Of course these days, we know that Olympia is still important to contemporary athletes as the torch for the modern Olympic games is ceremoniously lit there, where it all began. Runners carry it on a relay to the site of the games, wherever that host country may be.
There was a lot to take in. For the imaginative, it’s not difficult to conjure images of these ancient athletes as one goes along remains of the temples and grounds. One of the interesting places in the site is the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia where artefacts from the days of antiquities are on display. Notable among these statues is the one of Hermes, attributed to Praxiteles the most renowned Attic sculptor of the 4th century BC and was said to be the first to sculpt the nude female form in a life-size statue.
After the awesomeness of Olympia, we didn’t expect to have another day of yet more amazing discoveries. But at the next port, looking out from our tender, we saw a nondescript island, more like a towering massive rugged rock. Nothing spectacular about it we thought , but the surprise that awaited us would prove us so wrong.
The island of Monemvassia (in the Greek language, the name literally means ‘single entrance’) off the east coast of the Peloponnese is linked to the mainland by a short causeway. Founded in the 6th century most likely by the Spartans, Monemvassia was fortified during attempts by the Slavs to invade this island. Regardless, in years to come, the Franks, Venetians and the Turks also held Monemvassia. Architecture and art that hint of these various cultures were later evident during our stroll through the old fortified village.
From the pier, we decided to walk along the causeway, 200 meters long to reach the fortress wall, whose impressive, massive spiked door was a legacy of the island’s fortification.
Shuttle buses to transport visitors from the pier to the gate were in fact available but it was such a glorious day, we decided to walk off the excesses of meals we’ve had on the Seabourn. It was an easy stroll. In under half an hour after many stops to admire the clear turquoise waters surrounding the island, we reached the entrance of the very old gate. Our aim was to meander through the cobblestone (meant only for pedestrians) and walk right up to the Kastro or citadel. The experience that was Monemvassia was enhanced by the enchanting narrow alleyways and arches, flower bedecked tall, slim stone houses and bougainvillea trees in bloom. Quaint little shops selling handcrafted wares as well as little Greek tavernas (with spectacular views of the sea) lined the alleyways.
Midway up the main street was a little square (the main square) we saw an old ship cannon, the 13th century Christ Elkomenos Cathedral (Christ Drawn to His Passion or Christ in Chains) built by the Byzantines and restored by the Venetians, and the bell tower looming next to it. The Cathedral noted for its Byzantine bas -relief of peacocks also houses an ancient icon masterpiece from the 14th century. In contrast, the Archaeological Museum across the square was in an impressive 16th century Turkish mosque. It exhibits artefacts, architectural sculptures and ceramic objects from the early Christian period to Byzantine times. These were found and unearthed within the fortress walls.
Undaunted by what seemed to be a steeper climb up to the abandoned upper town, we gingerly made our way the seemingly vertical and not too easy climb path. On the way, we saw ruins of very old buildings until we reached the beautiful and preserved 12th century Byzantine church, the Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) also named Panagia Hodegetria. This building, an octagonal domed church is a faithful copy (albeit a small version) of the Aghia Sophia in Istanbul. Seeing its beautiful sculptured decoration dating back to the 12th century, its sculptured door, marble reliefs and frescoes also dating to late 12th and early 13th century made the experience well worth the challenging climb up. We were told later that the highest peak of the town is about 656 feet above sea level. We were thrilled that we were able to get close to the top. Not bad for a morning walk.
If the climb up was a trial, the way down, descending and avoiding slippery stones was even more intimidating. I would not recommend this for the faint hearted but if one is adventurous, just make sure to wear good, sturdy walking shoes. Still, the upside really was the breath taking views of the Myrtoan (or Mirtoan) Sea, the water so clear, we could see the rocks in the bottom of sea even from high up where we stood.
The hidden gem that is Monemvassia was indeed an unexpected and pleasant surprise. One that for me, was the most stunning place we have visited during this Greek island hopping cruise on board the Seabourn Odyssey.
We reached the port of Piraeus* the next morning where we disembarked to join an excursion to discover Athens. This first exploration would be to the Acropolis, inscribed in 1987 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Athens is a major embarkation and disembarkation port for the Seabourn cruises around the Mediterranean. Due to the emergency situation in Turkey, our 21-day cruise would take us to Athens 3 times in lieu of Istanbul. By this time, we have overcome our disappointment thanks to the efforts made by Seabourn to make this cruise another one to remember. (The second stop in Athens would be an excursion to the Corinth canal courtesy of Seabourn)
*The Port of Piraeus is the largest Greek seaport and one of the biggest in the Mediterranean Sea. The Port of Piraeus served as the port of Athens since the ancient times- source: wikipedia
Athens is regarded as one of the greatest and oldest cities in the world and has been inhabited for as long as 5,000 years. While Athens is the capital city of Modern Greece, it was also the leading city in Ancient Greece and the seat of western civilisation. The city was named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts and the favourite daughter of Zeus, the principal deity or king of the Olympian gods. The state or city is so well positioned that even the gods duelled to have the honour to have it named after them. According to legend, Zeus tried to make the competition friendly between the 2 leading contenders, Poseidon and Athena by asking them to offer a gift to the people of Athens. The people of Athens were to choose which gift they would accept and from this, the winner would be determined. Poseidon (who happens to be the brother of Zeus and uncle of Athena) struck the rock of the Acropolis, opening a spring of water (signifying success in land war and at sea) whereas Athena dropped a seed to the ground that immediately grew into an olive tree symbolising peace, wisdom and prosperity. The citizens of Athens accepted the latter and the city was named after her.
As we gathered on the foot of the *Acropolis which stood 230 feet above the city, we were glad that we were in this open air museum of Greek antiquity and culture in October and not during the height of the summer season when the complex is normally swarming with crowds of tourists and students. Even then during our visit, there were already lots of people queuing to enter the Acropolis.
(*Acropolis means a citadel built on a high hill; from the Greek words Akro, high or extreme and Polis or city)
We wasted no time to make our way to the top at the Parthenon, the largest Doric Greek temple and one of the most important religious sites in ancient Athens. In terms of architecture, the Parthenon is in fact considered innovative because it represents the two architectural styles of Doric and the newer Ionic. Built between 447 and 432 BCE the temple measured 30.88 m by 69.5 m and was constructed using a 4:9 ratio in several aspects
Statues, some well preserved and others that are replicas (most were brought to the new Acropolis museum in Athens) were of the Greek gods. Since the city is dedicated to its patron, Athena, we could only appreciate Homer’s poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, both fascinating sources of information about Greek gods and mythology.
Thanks to general and statesman Pericles, during the Golden Age of Athens (480 BC-404 BC) the city flourished culturally and economically with a powerful city-state government that had its laws, army and navy. Despite the defeat of Athens to Sparta during the Peloponnese War, the best of Greek culture and achievements were preserved.
For more detailed description of the Acropolis, I recommend this site:
The next major stop was at the New Acropolis Museum, below the Acropolis and situated at the Pláka or the old historical district of Athens. We marvelled at the exhibition of varied treasures of the Acropolis, the highlight being the Parthenon Frieze, located on the top floor.
We were then taken on a scenic drive through Athens, seeing the Syntagma Square or Constitution Square, the heart of modern Athens. It is symbolic of contemporary Greece. Lined with luxury hotels, commercial buildings, banks, bustling cafes and restaurants and al fresco dining venues the square was an interesting image. Through the drive we saw the Parliament building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the stadium for the modern Olympics. A heady day full of iconic landmarks of ancient and classic civilisation and history, Athens is indeed a fascinating city of the old and the cosmopolitan new.
We sailed away saying au revoir to Athens to visit more Greek isles on our second week; this time to the Aegean Sea.