We were both a little nervous about this trip for several reasons. Not long after we booked the trip, there were several terrorist incidents in Istanbul which made Lee very fearful. To allay her fears, we actually called the US embassy in Istanbul and Lee spoke directly with a female security guard, who, thankfully, reassured her that there was little danger. She even had her son with her. She did remind us to take some common-sense precautions, however.
I was also a bit nervous because I booked this trip on the internet, and, even though we checked the credentials of the travel agency and were very cautious about getting everything spelled out in writing, I felt somehat exposed and vulnerable until events on the itinerary actually took place. Both of us ended up being pleasantly surprised by the overall outcome.
Other new experiences included not driving myself, and, besides that, we were to have several private tours and we had no idea what to expect.
We arrived in Athens and checked into our hotel at around 11 AM — we are staying right in the Plaka, the area just beneath the Acropolis and the oldest part of the city. We have a balcony with a great view of the Parthenon (Photo #16). In the early afternoon, we were taken on a private tour of the city. Our guide, Yannis, was a history teacher, so he was able to give us a living history lesson during our excursion. We stopped at the old Olympic Stadium, where the olympic flame is housed until the games begin and then headed for the Acropolis. Along the way, we passed a number of sights — Syntagma Square, the National Gardens, and the Royal Palace.
We spent the majority of our time at the Acropolis, and it did not disappoint. The ruins are magnificent, especially the Parthenon. We saw the Odeon of Herodotus-Atticus, still used today during the summer for performances of Greek plays. The Propylea was the entrance to the Acropolis and one can still imagine its splendor. The Erechthyon (Photo #17), on the north side of the hill, was also impressive with its Karyatids instead of columns. But the piece-de-resistance was undoubtedly the Parthenon — it is regal, graceful, and beautiful, although much changed from its 5th Century BC grandeur.
It dominates the Acropolis and remains a clear-cut symbol of Ancient Greece despite its ubiquitous scaffolding and seemingly perpetual restoration.
The Acropolis Museum is a treasure trove of original sculptures rescued from the damaging, polluted air of Athens, and of reproductions which show what the Acropolis actually looked like in its heyday.
From the summit, we had great views of the Agora, the Temple of Hephaistus, and the Theater of Dionysus (the oldest theater in the world), the Areopagus (Hill of Curses), which is associated with St Paul’s first visit to the city, and Likavitos Hill, with its St George’s Church.
In the evening, we walked to the Kolonaki area (upscale restaurants and shops) and back through the Plaka before crashing at our hotel. We enjoyed looking at the attractively lit Parthenon from our balcony.
Day 2 – This was our all-day excursion to Delphi (Photo #15). On the way, we stopped at the village of Arohura (very picturesque), then continued on to Delphi.
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the famous Delphi Oracle are located on the slopes of 9,000 foot Mt Parnassus. The Oracle was in operation from 800 BC to 400 AD and was consulted by rich and poor from all over the known world. We bagan our walking tour of the site at the marketplace, which offered goods to be used as offerings to the Oracle. The "sacred way" (the route from marketplace to Oracle) was lined with "treasuries" (buildings erected by the various city-states of Greece to hold their municipal stores of offerings). The largest of these treasuries was the Athenian Treasury. Just above was the Temple of Apollo. Only 4 or 5 columns remain of the huge edifice. Beneath the temple were the two rooms which constituted the Oracle.
The first room was the Reception Room, where petitioners were met by the priests of the Oracle who accepted their gifts and heard their query. The second room was exclusively used by the Oracle itself, typically an ignorant virgin from the village who stayed in this room, exposed to vapors rising from underground. She was entranced by the vapors and received a message which was spoken aloud in an unintelligible mumbo-jumbo. The priests then translated the message into the Oracle’s response. Responses were typically vague and always contained some ambiguity. Thus, when King Croesus consulted the Oracle about an impending battle, he was told that a great civilization would be destroyed. He assumed the message was foretelling his victory, but, instead, his civilization was destroyed when he lost the battle.
The steep path above the temple leads first to the amphitheater and then, even higher, the Stadium where the Pythian Games were held. They were much like the Olympic Games and pitted athletes from all over Greece against one another in various sports.
After a lunch in the town of Delphi, we traveled back to Athens. For supper, we went to the Plaka Restaurant where Lee had the moussaka (great) and Gary had a very tasty lamb souvlaki.
The next day we were transported to Piraeus, the Athenian port city, for our cruise of the Greek Islands. Our ship was the World Renaissance, of the Royal Olympic Line. It was nowhere near as luxurious as the major cruise ships, but it served the purpose.
Our first stop was Mykonos (Photo #14)– a truly beautiful place. Imagine hundreds of white-washed buildings sloping down to a U-shaped, tranquil harbor. Myriad, narrow, winding alleyways, lined with shops and chapels, spread out below a ridge of white-washed windmills.
We absolutely loved strolling the streets, backtracking because of dead-end streets, getting lost, but not worrying. We delighted in sitting outside a bar in Little Venice, watching Petras, the resident pelican, strut, and taking pictures of the town with its row of quaint windmills above us.
Our next port was the city of Kusadasi, in Turkey, the gateway to the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The city’s origins go back to the time of Alexander the Great (about 400 BC) and it grew and thrived throughout Roman times till about 600 AD. We walked the marble road, the main street of the city (as a matter of fact, practically the entire city was made of marble, an indication of its wealth). We began our guided stroll at the government center (agora, town hall, etc) and walked downhill to the port (Ephesus was a coastal city 2,000 years agoe but the sea has since receded 7 miles).
Some of the notable and best-preserved structures include the Celsius Library (Photo #13)(one of the three major libraries in the ancient world, along with Alexandria and Pergamum), the Fountain of Trajan (a two-storey structure which reminds us of the Trevi), and the Amphitheater (one of the largest, along with Epidaurus, remaining from this time), still used for summer concerts.
Ephesus has a religious significance too. St John came here, as did St Paul (remember his Letters to the Ephesians), and Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a house just outside the city. Also, Ephesus was the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the "Seven Wonders of the World", described by Herodotus.
After a brief stop at the rug markets in Kusadasi (where Lee & I invested in a beautiful hand-made Oriental rug), we departed and headed for our second port of the day, the Greek Island of Patmos. Here, our excursion took us to the Monastery of St John the Theologian (Photo #12), built on the highest hill of the island. St John lived on Patmos from 95 – 97 AD, when he was an old man and in exile. He is the author of one of the Gospels, and of the Book of Revelations. Historians believe that the Apolcalypse, about which he vividly wrote, was the result of visions he received inside a cave/grotto on the island (a place that we got to visit on our tour). The split in the cave wall is cited as evidence of God’s hand in the vision.
The monastery, which dates to the 11th century, is still in operation and contains a beautiful church with frescoes from the period. The museum on the grounds displays artifacts left by pilgrims, for example, a painting by El Greco, and several relics left by Catherine the Great of Russia.
This evening’s meal on the ship was "Greek Night". The appetizers included, Domathokea (grape leaves stuffed with rice and onions), Taramosalata (fish egg dip), Tzatziki (yogurt and garlic), Spanakopita (filo pastry filled with spinach, feta cheese, and eggs), Keftethokia (mincemeat balls with onions, herbs, and bread crumbs). Entrees included Kalamarika (fried squid) and lamb. Desserts were Galactoborika (flaked pastry filled with custard and steeped in syrup), baklava (flaky pastry, honey-drenched and filled with nuts), and karetopita (walnut cake). Nota bene: I hope I spelled these dishes correctly
The entire next day was spent on the island of Rhodes. We did not sign up for an excursion so we had the whole day in the beautiful, Medieval walled city. We saw the place where another of the "Seven Wonders of the World", the Colossus of Rhodes, stood, straddling the harbor until crumpled by an earthquake. The location is marked, today, by the presence of two columns (Photo #11), topped by deer sculptures (the symbol of the city).
We wandered through the cobblestone streets, admiring the turreted city walls and gates. The Street of the Knights (Ippoloton) leads up to the Palace of the Grand Master (Photo #10), a beautiful castle with lovely gardens. Along the street are numerous "Inns", places where the Knights of St John were housed. This entire area is regarded as one of the best-preserved Medieval relics in the world.
We got a great view of the city by climbing the Byzantine Clock Tower (83 steps) and were rewarded for our effort with a bottle of Greek beer (mithros) in the bar at the bottom of the tower.
The remainder of our day was spent strolling and shopping in this adorable place. When we returned to the ship, we were surprised to find an invitation to dine with the Captain (only 9 of the 300 passengers were thus honored). I was dreading it, but the evening turned out very nicely. The wine flowed freely throughout and Captain Romeros is a very personable gentleman. We also got impeccable service!
Our next stop was the largest of the Greek Islands, Crete, where we enrolled on a tour of Knossos (Photo #9), the ruins of the ancient palace of King Minos, ruler of the Minoan civilization (2000 – 1450 BC). The palace was also reputed to house the labyrinthine chambers which were home to the legendary Minotaur, half-man, half-beast, who ate humans. The Greek legend surrounding the slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus, with help from King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, is fascinating.
Knossos was first excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman, in 1900. Evans restored some of the palace and has been much criticized by archaeologists because of it. However, I feel that it makes the palace "come alive" and adds richness to the experience.
The Minoans were very resourceful — they had indoor plumbing, and a system of clay pipes used to transport water to the palace from a mountain 10 kilometers away. The columns holding up the walls were made from the trunks of trees, and were wider on top and narrower on the bottom, because the trees were used upside down — they thought the "green" wood would lose its moisture faster in this position, and they were obviously right.
There are huge clay cisterns in the chambers, which held water, olive oil, etc., and the chambers of the King and Queen are decorated with beautiful, colorful frescoes. (the originals are housed in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, which we also visited.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the Palace of Knossos by an earthquake and fire in 1450 BC also marked the end of the Minoan civilization. The event which lead to this destruction was the eruption (in that year) of the volcanic island of Santorini. Archaeologists are convinced that accompanying earthquakes caused the ignition of casks of olive oil which burned much of the palace (some wood from the palace is charred), and a tidal wave resulting from the eruption drowned all the Minoans. Some scientists believe that the legend of the lost city of Atlantis is based on these events.
That same afternoon, we sailed to Santorini, the most beautiful, most unforgettable of the Greek Isles. From the moment the cruise ship entered the caldera, all were on deck to witness the breathtaking view. Striking, pure-white villages spill over steep cliffs of dark, volcanic rock, and look out over the caldera of an extinct volcano far (over 1000 feet) below, which has been filled in with Aegean Sea — an incredible scene (Photo #8)!
We took the funicular up to the village of Fira/Thira (Photo #7)(visitors can also take donkey rides up or walk). The white-washed houses and other buildings are connected by labyrinthine alleys, lined with hundreds of shops and restaurants. But the view is the thing! Looking down or looking up is positively breathtaking. This is certainly one of the most picturesque spots on earth!
This was the end of our cruise. From here we sailed back to Piraeus, then to the airport for our short flight to Istanbul. We were met at the airport by Khan, our private guide, and his driver, and taken to our hotel, the Germir Palas, a very tastefully-decorated, elegant hotel, just off Taksim Square, one of the major squares of the city, and near the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi, the major, pedestrian-only thoroughfare in the Beyoglu section Istanbul.
We began our sightseeing at Aya (Hagia) Sofia (Photo #6), a church, turned mosque, turned museum, and one of the most important and largest churches in the world. It possessed the largest dome in the world until the construction of St Peter’s in Vatican City. Aya Sofia was built from 532 – 537 AD. The artwork in the interior of the church was covered up when it became a mosque, but the mosaics are currently being restored to their original splendor.
From here we walked to Topkapi Palace (Photo #4), residence of the Sultans from the 1400’s to the 19 century. The Treasury displays unbelievable wealth in gold and jewels, including an 86-carat diamond, huge emeralds, etc. We also saw the kitchen which contains a huge collection of Chinese porcelain.
Khan provided a detailed account of Turkish history which enriched our appreciation of these sights. Next we walked to the Hippodrome, the ancient location of Roman chariot races, which also contains several Egyptian obelisks, one dating back to 1500 BC, as well as a relic from the Delphic Oracle/Temple of Apollo.
Next to the Hippodrome is the Blue Mosque (Photo #5), described in many places as the most beautiful mosque in the world. It is called the Blue Mosque because the interior is covered with blue tiles and mosaics. It is truly spectacular. We actually had to wait to go in for about a half hour because we arrived just at the time of prayer service. After prayers, we entered the mosque. We had to remove our shoes and Lee had to cover her head. Our first experience in a mosque was enlightening. The floors have rugs and lights hang from the ceiling by wires. The mihrab is gold; the interior is huge (it holds 2000 people); and it is one of only two mosques in the world with six minarets (the other is in Mecca).
We ate Turkish food that evening at Haci Abdullah (a restaurant I researched which Khan concurred with). Food is displayed in cases and patrons simply point at what they want and it is served to them. We tried many items and all were good.
Our last full day in Istanbul began with a nice continental breakfast at the hotel — similar to European hotel breakfasts except that veggies, such as tomatoes and olives, replace the fruit that is usually served in Europe. We met Khan at about 9 AM and headed for the Egyptian (Spice) Market (Photo #1) where we were fascinated by the variety and quantity of spices, nuts, etc. which are sold by the kilogram. There were mounds and mounds of saffron, curry, and other exotics.
Then we crossed the street to the Golden Horn where we boarded our Bosporus Cruise. We traveled about 20 miles up the Bosporus almost to the Black Sea (we could see the dark waters just ahead). Here we met our driver who whisked us south along the Asian side of the strait to the Beylerbeyi Palace (Photo #3), the summer palace of the sultans during the 19th century. We toured the mansion in little booties (so we wouldn’t soil the carpets) and marveled at the exquisite woodwork, chandeliers, etc.
Returning to the city, we went to our last attraction, the Grand (Covered) Bazaar (Photo #2), the ultimate shopping place, the world’s largest mall, with over 3,000 shops selling just about everything imaginable. There are actually "streets" of jewelry stores, rug shops, ceramics, etc. We bargained for and bought much more than we needed but it was fun.
We said goodbye to Khan at about 5 PM. After dinner we walked in the midst of a demonstration commemorating "Children’s Day" and the Anniversary of the First Parliament, where people were holding Turkish flags, singing, etc. We tried to look nondescript but it was impossible. Lee was frightened since the Embassy had warned us to avoid demonstrations and celebrations. But we obviously survived the experience.