Cruising the Aegean Sea to get to the next port was our recovery time from a heady day in Athens. This was all we needed to get back to the rhythm of our own Greek Odyssey. From Athens, we were headed for Nafplion whose Venetian small fortress the Bourtzi (built in 1471) was visible even from the low seats of our Seabourn tender. There it was, standing on the rocky islet of Agioi Theodoroi, opposite the harbour. We docked at the old section of Nafplion (or Náfplio) in the gulf of Argos in eastern Peloponnese. Nafplion is actually on the Greek mainland and only a two-hour drive from Athens. Locals and tourists consider Nafplion as one of the most romantic and beautiful villages in mainland Greece, and known also for its rich history. Its early beginnings can be traced back to the Argonautic expedition and Trojan wars. For me though, the Greek mythology of its origins is more intriguing. It is said that Nafplion was founded by Náfplios, the son of Poseidon and Amymone, one of the fifty daughters of King Danaus (Danaida). The seduction of Amymone by Poseidon began when he found her while she was sent out to search for water in the parched land of Peloponnese. The legend is indeed a story of love at first sight. Poseidon was so enamoured with Amymone to the extent that he divulged to her the location of the coveted spring in Lerna .
Greek mythology aside, just like Monemvassia, Nafplion is a quaint medieval village whose architecture show influences of various cultures of people who have occupied this eastern Peloponnese (Argolis) town. The Venetians, Turks and Franks left their respective footprints and legacy in the town’s architecture, food and culture.
We were keen to explore Nafplion independently and followed our noses. From the pier, we headed straight to the Italian influenced Nafplion Syntagma Square, the hub of the old town. It was a good place to get one’s bearings to start an exploration of the old town. Historic buildings, mostly neoclassical, surrounded the beautiful square of polished marble floor. Most interesting were two Turkish mosques; one of them was the Trianon, operating as a theatre and the Archaeological Museum built in 1713 originally as a Venetian arsenal. We then proceeded to Megalos Dromos or the Main Road, to the left of the mosque, which went through the old town. Narrow alleys and Venetian style mansions adorned with flowers in their balconies, little shops selling handmade jewellery and artefacts caught our attention and having seen the beautifully handcrafted jewellery from the shops, I vowed to get a little ‘gift’ for myself on our way back. And perhaps, even enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the many cafes around the square before we return to the ship.
The next challenge was to get high up to the Palamidi Castle, 216 m above sea level and a climb of the 999 steps leading to it. The incentive was to view the stunning vista of the Argolic gulf and the Mycenaean plain from the Agios Andreas battlement built at the top of the Castle by Nafplion’s Venetian conquerors. The trick was to take it slowly to the stop. We soon discovered that it was easier said than done. The climb was indeed challenging. To make matters worse, this was also a frustrating day since I left my iPhone, doubling up as my camera on board the ship. One of the prettiest ports and I have no photos of my own! But for those who want to see good images, I found this site.
To compensate for this oversight, I bought myself a beautiful handmade jewellery from a very interesting craft shop in the square, a fitting reminder of the beautiful village.
Crete was our next port of call. The largest island in Greece, it has the distinction of being the seat of Minoan civilisation (the earliest known culture in Europe). Located on the Sea of Crete, this island is also rich in Greek mythology. For instance, the Ideon cave in Mt. Ida in Crete is said to have been the birthplace of the main Greek god, Zeus. Colourful legends and stories of the first king of Crete- King Minos, son of Zeus and Europa and the deadly Minotaur are set in Crete, as well as the adventures of Heracles (Hercules) also a son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene.
We docked at the port of Agios Nikolaos in Crete, fondly referred to by my husband as “Agnik”. Set on the beautiful bay of the Gulf of Mirabello, Agios Nikolaos is a picturesque fishing harbour and a small, bustling town. There were options for shore excursions to Heraklion and Knossos, considered the oldest city in Europe and the ancient capital of Minoan Crete. For those interested in the Minoan civilisation, we were informed that Iráklio (Heraklion) Archaeological Museum is a ‘must visit’ to see the world’s greatest collection of Minoan artefacts. The palace complex in Knossos is known to be the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on island of Crete. However, we wanted to explore the harbour town of Agios Nikolaos, and the tour to the museum was going to take 8 hours. We decided to give Knossos a miss.
At Agios Nikolaos, we actually wanted to see its inner harbour, Lake Voulismeni, which is in fact a lake, and a bottomless one according to legend. What’s more, it is said that the goddess Athena used to bathe in it. But, a spoilsport in the person of an English Admiral, determined in 1853 that the lake is 210 feet deep and therefore not bottomless. Regardless, the legend does make for an interesting story and it wasn’t difficult to be drawn to the lake, made more picturesque by the tavernas and cafes that surrounded it. Fishermen just coming in from their night fishing and the small fishing boats bobbing up and down the inner harbour completed the tableau.
Because “Agnik” is small, it was easy to wander from the lake and explore the town on our way to the Archaeological Museum, just a little up to the northwest from the town centre. Pausing to take in views of old mansions and beautiful houses on the hill, the breathtaking views of the harbour were a feast for the eyes. We noted that the Venetian architecture and Ottoman influence were also evident in this town.
Though we thought the Archaeological Museum wasn’t far, it was nevertheless a good, long hike so our advice for those who want to visit the museum is to wear comfortable walking shoes.
The Archaeological Museum has a good display of recovered Minoan artefacts including the goddess of Myrtos, a drinking vessel shaped like a phallic from the head and neck with two breasts shaped into it, ostensibly used for fertility rituals in the Minoan period.
On our way back to the ship, we stopped to admire the bronze statue of Europe sitting on a bull. The mythology is just as fascinating as the art. According to legend, Europe the daughter of Agenor (a Phoenician king) and celebrated for her beauty caught the attention of Zeus. He then made it his mission to woo and conquer her heart. First, he turned himself into a bull with soft fur . One day, while Europe was playing with her friends, Zeus under cover by mingling with Agenor’s herd managed to win Europe’s trust. Once this happened, Europe enticed by the soft fur jumped on the neck of Zeus (the bull) and was whisked away to the Cretan coast. They later had three sons: Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus.
Paphos a coastal city in the southwest of Cyprus was our next port. In fact, due to the emergency situation in Turkey our intention to spend a full week in Istanbul and surrounds at the end of the first 14-day cruise was abandoned. Instead, we opted to extend our Seaborn cruise by a week. This meant coming back to Paphos 6 days later, after this first visit. Despite our frustration in missing out on Ephesus and Istanbul this seeming setback turned out to have numerous pleasurable surprises because it gave us so much more time to explore the other religious and historic sites in the village of Paphos.
For our first stop at Paphos, we took the excursion for a brief visit at Fyti Village in the mountainous village of Panagia and also where, west of the dense Pafos forest, set in beautiful surrounds was the Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery. A monk named Ignatios founded the monastery in 1152 A.D, which he dedicated to Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate. It was said that Ignatios found a miraculous icon of the Virgin in the Moulia area of Pafos. St Luke the Evangelist, one of the Four Evangelists who authored the canonical Gospels was thought to have painted the image. St Luke was known to have accompanied St Paul during his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean and perhaps was an early Christian historian. The current building we visited dated back to 1770 and housed invaluable artefacts of the Ecclesiastical Treasury. The three entrances were adorned with beautiful frescoes and several icons were on display inside the monastery. Hard to miss were the silver and gold plated images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that were believed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist. Like most museums, the Monastery prohibits taking photos of the interior and the icons. After our visit, we were treated to refreshments of delicious vintage wines from the monastery’s vineyards as well as delicacies of haloumi chees on freshly baked bread. While enjoying the local refreshment, we took in the amazing views seen from the terrace of the café just outside the entrance of the monastery.
Fast forward, six days later we were back at Paphos. This time, we were given a Seabourn complimentary UNESCO Walking Tour to visit the well-preserved ruins of the House of Dionysos and the Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa Anglican Church also known as “The Church by St. Paul’s Pillar”. The former was our first stop, located at the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park, near the harbour.
This extensive UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site boasts of mosaics, all of which date from around the 2nd century AD. The archaeological park claims to have the most impressive Roman mosaics in the eastern Mediterranean, which were discovered, in four main houses. The largest of these is the House of Dionysos. It was constructed towards the end of the 2nd century AD, and architecturally designed in the Greco-Roman style with rooms surrounding a central court. Situated in a large area and occupying 2000 square metres, 556 meters of these are covered with mosaic floors adorned with mythological, vintage and hunting scenes. The colourful and well-preserved art form is the main attraction of the House of Dionysos and certainly gives an insight on life in Cyprus during the Roman period. As we know, Dionysos is the ancient Greek god of wine. The most memorable for me was a colourful series depicting Dionysos returning from India on a chariot drawn by two panthers. He is shown to be counselling the nymph Akme who was drinking wine. Our guide said that it could be that he was perhaps warning her of the disastrous effects of binge‑drinking.
We were then taken on a short ride by van to the Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa Church. This building was built around 1500 AD as a Latin Church on the same site of the old small church, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 59 AD. In 1570 it became the Byzantine Cathedral of Kato in lower Paphos. I was fascinated by the history of the church. According to what is written in the New Testament, St. Paul and St. Barnabas visited Cyprus in 45 AD and were responsible for the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor to Christianity. He became the first Christian ruler in Cyprus. What was more interesting for me was seeing the pillar near the church, reputed to be where St Paul was scourged in Paphos during his preaching days.
Cyprus became the first Christian province of Rome, thanks to St Paul’s efforts. The visits to Cyprus and Paphos certainly made up for the otherwise disappointing diversion from Ephesus during this cruise.
(Although, I must confess, my husband and I still have the yearning to visit Ephesus and Istanbul as soon authorities deem it safe for travel)
Note for visitors: the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park daily April-Oct, 8am to 7.30pm, Nov-March 8am-5pm; €3.40/ £3
Rhodes, the largest island in the Dodecanese islands of Greece was once an important trading centre in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the northern tip of the island is Rhodes Town or Ródos. Held by the Greeks, the Knights, the Turks and the Italians through centuries, it is still considered to be the best-preserved medieval settlement in the world and therefore, steeped in history from the antiquity period to the present. Like Paphos, we were scheduled to visit Rhodes town on two different days so on our first stop, we decided to explore the Medieval City of Rhodes- the old town – another UNESCO World Heritage site (inscribed in 1988). As our ship made its way to the harbour, we could see the lines of the fortress walls, interrupted by towers, domes and ramparts. We couldn’t wait to get off the ship and discover the Island of the Knights.
Entry to the old town can be made through several gates (there are seven large ones and a few smaller ones around the 4 kilometre wall). From the port, we made our way to the major and most imposing gate, the Thalassini (Marine Gate also called St. Catherine’s Gate or Sea Gate), built by the knights in 1478, with two towers on the left and right.
The heavily fortified old town so evocative of the Hospitaller monks (a military Catholic religious order) of the earlier crusades reminded me of the many scenes of the 1986 movie starring Sean Connery, called, ‘The Name of the Rose’. Though distinctly medieval, buildings, mosques, courtyards and domes in the old town showed evidence of Byzantine and Italian architectural influences. From 1309 to 1523, the Order of St John of Jerusalem (the Knights of St John of Jerusalem) occupied Rhodes until the Turks successfully seized the knights’ stronghold. The knights were then forced to flee and move their base to Malta. Italians followed the Turks and occupied Rhodes from 1912 until they agreed to return the island to Greece in 1947 after signing the Treaty of Peace, one of the Paris Peace Treaties. In 1948, Rhodes and the other islands in the Dodecanese were returned to Greece.
Walking through the massive Thalassini gate, we came across the Ippokratous or the Hippocrates Square and the fountain that was part of the 14th century structure of the Castellania built by the knights. Surrounding the square were many alfresco cafes, bars and dining establishments as well as souvenir shops catering to tourists. As it was early, the shops were just setting up so we continued through a maze of cobbled street to explore the many places of interests.
We meandered our way towards the long (200 meters) and straight ‘Street of the Knights’ in the upper end of the old town where the knights lived, worked and trained. The Turks converted most of the churches to mosques but the Italians restored the many stone buildings along the street between 1913-1916. Today the edifices are back to their original medieval designs characterised by imposing Gothic arches.
On our way towards the Palace of the Grand Master at the end of the Street of the Knights we saw the inns or headquarters of the different nationalities, which comprised the Knights of Rhodes. Each inn was quaintly referred to by the spoken ‘tongue’ or language by the different groups of knights. The seven ‘tongues’ were England, France, Germany, Italy, Aragon, Auvergne and Provence. The inns were used as a club or hotel where the knights would meet and entertain official guests.
Finally, we reached the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, built in the 14th century as the residence of the governor. The palace was erected on the original foundations of the Temple of Helios (the sun god), an important and much revered figure in the antiquity period. The Ottomans then used the palace as a fortress when they captured Rhodes from the knights. Unfortunately, in 1856, an ammunition explosion destroyed most of the original palace. During the Italian occupation of Rhodes, the palace was rebuilt as a holiday home for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and later for the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, whose name can still be seen on a large plaque near the entrance. The palace is now a history museum.
We headed back to the Ippokratous square on our way back to the ship to check out the shops and cafes. By then, there was a palpable buzz in the square with many tourists wandering about or just ‘people watching’ while they sipped their espressos. What we thought was curious was the number of shops selling fur coats; not just in Rhodes but also in the other islands. The explanation from one of the shop owners was that these luxury goods were geared up towards the wealthy Russian tourists.
We would be going back to the town on our second stop and explore the other sites including a walk along the ramparts of the old town walls, the Castellania library located on the Ippokratous square, Temple of Aphrodite on Symi square in front of the Eleftherias Gate (dating back to the 3rd century), the Turkish baths and the beautiful and majestic 11th century church, the ‘Lady of the Castle Cathedral’. This building was first the Orthodox Cathedral of Rhodes before the Knights occupied the island. When the Turks took the island from the knights, they changed it to a mosque, the ‘mosque of Ederum’.
Mykonos, one of the Cyclades islands was the next stop. This pretty island is popular with the rich and famous as a party place in a similar vein as Ibiza and other fashionable islands of Croatia. It was first made trendy by Jacquie Kennedy Onassis (so we can really blame Mykonos’ notoriety on her). For the more sedate, the island’s beaches, windmills, shops and restaurants are beautiful diversions.
We decided to discover the many charms of Mykonos on foot, making our way to the heart of the small village trudging up and down the winding lanes, cutting past little steps next to pretty whitewashed houses which were in stark contrast to the splashes of colours from bougainvillea blossoms. We were warned that the intricate layout of the town would be somewhat confusing, resembling a labyrinth. This was apparently deliberately designed in this manner in order to ward off attacks from pirates of earlier times.
The shops and cafés were most interesting but it was far too early to have a sip of ouzo at one of the cafés as suggested earlier by the guide stationed at the Seabourn Square.
We made our way towards the windmills to take in the famous emblem that is synonymous to Mykonos. The windmills can be seen as one approaches the island from the sea and from each vantage point in the village. Discovering Mykonos was undeniably a feast for the senses.
After enjoying a sumptuous meal and entertainment on board that evening , we were all set to discover more enchanting Greek isles for our last seven island hopping days .