Taking a cruise is sightseeing with a stopwatch. You swoop into a place, see as much as you can with the time allotted and then it’s back on board for yet another meal on the Marco Polo deck.
The Aegean Odyssey arrived on time in each new port with the reliability of a Swiss clock. But similar to the clichéd windshield tour, you dip your toe into the locality and then quickly pull it out because it’s time to go, never having had the opportunity to interact with the locals, explore aimlessly or enjoy down time at a cafe observing resident life pass by. We contributed little to the local economy other than the guide’s fee, the attraction entries and the purchase of an occasional postcard. We had our meals on the ship but made time during a rare free afternoon in Croatia to have lunch in Dubrovnik for a modicum of perfunctory conversation with the local cafe staff. For the bulk of our trip we’ve been immersed in local cultures and everyday goings-on, but for the ten days of the cruise, we lived on the ship, significantly diminishing our experience of a genuine sense of place.
However, there were worthy compensations like the recurrent breathtaking views each time the ship pulled away from the pier, followed by the thrill of seeing a new destination come into view. The pièce de resistance of traveling by ship, the need to unpack just once, is dampened somewhat by the realization that you have only a slice of a day in a beautiful, fascinating place in which you’d love to stay a week. Cruise-ship life is certainly less detail-laden than traveling by land and with many fewer unexpected problems, but the ease of it all can be just a little too antiseptic for me to do more than now-and-then. That sense of accomplishment – that frisson of I-did-it-all-by-myself -- enjoyed when traveling independently doesn’t make an appearance when you’re escorted from place to place. There’s definitely diminished adventure, but the unreserved relaxation was just what we needed for this particular week-and-a-half. Our independent travel thrills would once again make themselves felt before we knew it.
All misgivings about a floating expedition aside, the ship took us just where we wanted to go, no fuss no muss. Our ports of call were magical places, some of which I’d long wanted to visit and others I’d never even heard of.
• Nafplio/Mycenae, Greece – A two-hour drive southwest of Athens, Nafplio is a pretty town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, crowned by a medieval fortress high on the hill. It is elegant and chic, graced with lovely Venetian and neoclassical mansions and its wharf is awash with classy cafés whose colorful cushions beckoned us to come in and if we’d had the time, would have made us want to stay. We walked up the 999 steps to the fortress and breathless, were rewarded with spectacular views across the Argolic Gulf. A short bus ride from Nafplio were the hilltop ruins of ancient Mycenae, an important center of Greek civilization in the second millennium BC and home to King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek Army in the Trojan War.
• Olympia, Greece – We docked at Katakolon, a seaside village on the western shore of the Peloponnese and our gateway to Olympia. Spending a morning among the ruins in the verdant valley, communing with the spirits of the ancient Greeks who flocked there every four years for more than a millennium to celebrate the sacred games dedicated to Zeus was forever imagined and finally realized. A sanctuary for the games rather than a town, Olympia includes a stadium and hippodrome where the athletic contests were held (the marble starting and finishing blocks are still in place), the Palaestra, or wrestling school, and the Gymnasium (from the Greek for nude), where all competitors were obliged to train for at least a month. The complex was also a national shrine and thus included temples, altars and votive offerings for worshipping the gods. The most celebrated temple was that of Zeus, inside of which was a monumental statue of the father of all gods in ivory and gold. Next to Zeus’ Temple was the Heraeum, dedicated to Hera, his wife, which included the podium for the garlands prepared for the games’ victors. I lost myself in reverie, imagining the ancient games of physical glory; I could practically hear the cheers of the crowds and see the oiled, bronzed musculature of the athletes in action.
• Monemvasia, Greece – Travel can reward you with delightful surprises and Monemvasia did just that. The village (whose name means “single entrance”), linked to the mainland by a short, narrow causeway, is located on a small peninsula on the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese at the base of a 650-foot high Gibraltar-like rock. The ruins of a medieval fortress look over the cobblestoned lanes lined by ochre-colored houses of the constricted, fortified town with its Byzantine churches, bougainvillea-covered squares and charming stone architecture cut into the rock cliff. Monemvasia enjoyed a long reign as a primary port through the Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman empires (it was a regular stop for ships sailing between Constantinople and Venice), but is now simply a beautiful, rocky sliver of post-antiquity Greece. A switchbacked path took us by the ruins of churches, mosques and formerly grand buildings up to the forsaken fortress where we could look down on the town and out over the seemingly endless blue Aegean. I so wanted to stay in this place with its back to modernity and its face to the sea, for lunch and dinner and a night under glittery skies. When we found ourselves deep in the village’s maze, unsure of how to return to the town center, an open-hearted woman who spoke little English recognized our plight, led us under arches, up stairs and down alleys and pointed us in the right direction. Before letting us go, however, she invited us in to see her property of which she was clearly proud, a renovated monastery turned sophisticated boutique hotel. We will return to Monemvasia, I vowed then and there. The village was magnetic -- a place I won’t soon forget.
• Ithaca, Greece – The island home of Odysseus and Penelope off the western coast of the Peloponnese and nestled next to Cephalonia, its bigger, more frequently visited neighbor, was green and lush with an inviting natural harbor at Vathy. But Aeolus, keeper of the winds, decided to flaunt his might, thus making it impossible for us to disembark via tender so the ship pulled anchor and we left soon thereafter. We disappointedly waived goodbye to Ithaca from the stern of the Aegean Odyssey, rationalizing that perhaps it’s sometimes good to leave a location with just a bit of longing.
· Corfu, Greece – The first Greek island Joe and I ever set foot on in 1979 has some of the most beautiful coves and hidden inlets I’ve ever seen. The combination of green pines, blue waters and white cottages is simply, chromatically perfect. But on this brief cruise stop, we had a mere couple of hours to see one of the two fortresses and wander the rabbit warren of the island’s main town with no time to experience Kerkyra’s beautiful coastline. Much had changed in over thirty years with the town’s charming streets now overrun with tacky tourist shops all selling the same tchotchkes. The main square facing the old port on which we’d stayed in a cheap, walk-up hotel with sawdust pillows as backpackers had fallen into disrepair since most of the local activity had migrated around the headland to the chic Liston colonnade neighborhood. As we sailed away from Corfu, we held out hope that the rest of the island had remained as pristine as we’d remembered, untainted by massive cruise ship tourism. After five weeks in the land of Pericles, I was filled with a tristesse similar to what I’d felt when we’d left our dear friend, Italy. Waving farewell to Greece was like saying goodbye to yet another old friend; she had treated us so kindly and we would miss her warm embrace.
· Butrint, Albania -- As we approached the Albanian port city of Sarandë, it was clear we were no longer in Kansas. Communist era apartment-block housing of stupefying ugliness and only half of which had been completed, looked like it could fall down tomorrow. The entire seaport needed a good coat of paint and a legion of street sweepers. But a few miles from the city via a rattletrap road that could shake your teeth loose lies the remarkable archeological site of Butrint, an ancient Greek city and then Roman colony surrounded by a lagoon. I had never before heard of this settlement in southwestern Albania, quite close to the Greek border, that was abandoned during the Middle Ages after it was overtaken by encroaching marshes. Perhaps the repository of ruins remained clandestine because for so long it was behind the iron curtain in dirt poor Albania and word did not get out about the lush archeological treasure hiding beneath soaring eucalyptus trees and home to throngs of singing frogs. Our lovely guide, Maria, was quite frank about her country’s economic difficulties and how far they have to go to get even close to neighboring Greece and Croatia in terms of exploiting tourism and attracting foreign investment. She was a kind soul with an industrious spirit and if a representative example of her country’s people, it bodes well for Albania making steady progress toward a better future.
· Kotor Bay, Montenegro – Often referred to as Europe's southernmost fjord, the Bay of Kotor in southwestern Montenegro is a narrow, winding, waterway. Its shores have been inhabited since antiquity and host some well-preserved, picturesque, medieval towns. We cruised the bay for a deckside tour over the course of an afternoon and then headed back out to the Adriatic and north to Croatia.
· Dubrovnik, Croatia – Noted as one of the ten best medieval walled cities in the world, Dubrovnik is a seaport gem tucked into the southeastern tip of Croatia. In its heyday, it was the only eastern Adriatic maritime power to rival Venice. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian forces besieged the city for many months and much of the old town fell victim to ongoing shelling and sustained significant damage. Twenty years and millions of dollars later, much of the city has been rebuilt. To fully appreciate Dubrovnik’s beauty, it really must be seen from a rewarding walk along the two kilometers of the massive fortifications that surround it. From their vantage points, we were able to look down over the characteristic orange tiled roofs and get a good feel for the city with glimpses of daily life on rooftop terraces, in small walled gardens and behind private gates. Statues of Saint Blaize, patron saint of Dubrovnik (and throat maladies), adorn the city throughout as he holds a model of the city in his left hand for safekeeping.
• Split and Trogir Island, Croatia – Roman Emperor Diocletian and native son of Croatia built his retirement palace in his hometown of Split, formerly a Greek colony and now the largest city along the Dalmatian Coast. The city takes its name from the plentiful yellow flowers of spiny broom that cover the surrounding countryside (spalatum, in Latin), which we witnessed on a side trip to Trogir Island, a walled town and harbor just to the west. Split’s medieval center actually developed inside the palace walls, thereby forming the core of the old town with its twisting tangle of streets. On one side of the fortifications along the bustling port is a broad harborside plaza filled with inviting restaurants and flowerbeds. Around the corner to the right are the fish merchants and in the opposite direction and around to the left is the sprawling green market. But these were not the art-directed arcades we’d visited in so many other cities with shiny fish on iced display with delicate lemon slices to adorn them and glossy fruits and vegetables in perfect piles. No, these were gritty, graphic bazaars -- unsentimental presentations in flat plastic containers of all manner of slimy sea creatures fresh from fishing nets and rods, some of them still moving, with blood oozing, fishhook tears gaping and smells overpowering. Away from the stench of the fish on the far side of the town walls, stall after stall of irregularly shaped vegetables in wooden crates that still bore the dirt of the fields and fruits that remained attached to their branches were offered by the callused hands of the farmers themselves. It was hard to imagine that these rudimentary presentations could eventually be transformed into the perfectly orchestrated food pageant we were headed back to on the ship.
· Zadar, Croatia – Our final stop along the dramatic Croatian coastline was the fortified port of Zadar, the historical center of Dalmatia directly across the Adriatic from Venice. The marbled city streets where Roman ruins sit next to Byzantine churches are rich in history, art and architecture and as a university town, its center has a cosmopolitan vibe with lots of young people out and about. While still relatively undiscovered, Zadar appears to be doing a good job of luring visitors to her pleasures with attractive restaurants, trendy bars and a waterside promenade with a fascinating sea organ that turns movement of the wind and sea into intriguing harmonic sounds.
Our ports of call were scenic and historically significant, the excursions were enlightening and educational and what helped bring it all to life was one of the compelling attractions of traveling on the Aegean Odyssey. Insightful lectures by expert speakers on board complemented what we saw and learned on land. Speakers Chris Wood, a former art history professor at the University of Melbourne and Sir Michael Rose, a retired British Army General were fascinating educators and their knowledge of and enthusiasm for their subjects enhanced our trip immeasurably.
As our Adriatic cruise neared its end, we had mixed feelings about going ashore. Being on board had been a welcome break from bag-dragging exertion, the ship’s staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful and the itinerary was just what we’d hoped. It had turned out to be the perfect way to survey the Peloponnese and Adriatic. But while we’ll miss being aboard, it will be good to once again genuinely mingle with the people of the countries we visit and to once again be masters of our route.
When my spirit lags and I’m feeling rather sentimental, I’m convinced that our year is simply a series of goodbyes: to places we’ve grown attached to, people we meet, our visiting children and countries we’ve come to love. But then I perk myself up and remember that there are new adventures and more possibilities yet to come. After all, Venice is our next port of call and we can stay there as long as we like. Walking down the gangway back into the real world and leaving the safety of the ship’s hull for the final time felt a bit like being dropped off at college after a respite at home. We were elated to be back on our own once again but already missed, just a bit, the rhythm and relative ease of life on board the Aegean Odyssey.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com