For this tour, we boarded ship at Piraeus, suburb of Athens, Greece, on Holland America Cruise Line. First stop was Istanbul, Turkey, then Greek island of Lesbos, Mitheline, then Turkish island Kusadasi, then Greek island Mykonos, and then Greek island Iraklion, Crete.
Athens has a lot of history and while there is much to see, the Acropolis or hill on which the most famous Parthnon is situated, is historical and wonderful site. Around 490 BC Pericles began construction of the buildings on the acropolis. Many buildings were damaged in 1687, during siege by the Venetians and during other wars. Some have been restored. Most famous one is a temple dedicated to Athena Nike (Nike means victory and Athena means wisdom). Vying for power, Athena won the battle against Poseidon, God of the sea and the temple was therefore dedicated to Athena. While Poseidon offered water, Athena offered olive tree as a sign of peace and was declared the winner. To the right of the entrance, the Propylaea is also beautiful.
To preserve the impact of the Acropolis, there is a restriction on the height of the buildings in Athens, so the Parthenon remains the highest building. Athens is full of olive trees and beautiful buildings, marred by unimaginable amount of graffiti, perhaps indicative of the economic troubles. Similar to Spain, nearly everyone smokes in Greece. The Constitutional Plaza or Syntagma Square, opposite the Parliament is a great hub of activity. We walked around there, ate peanuts, offered some to the pigeons (who were immediately sitting on our hands and head for food), and watched the change of guards, at the entrance of the parliament, with big pomp and circumstance.
Istanbul, Turkey was the fist stop on the cruise ship that we boarded at Piraeus, Greece. Istanbul is a gorgeous city adorned with many mosques, blaring every now and then with a lyrical calls to prayers. Istanbul is a crowded city, humming with activity. We visited the Ayasofya Mosque, also called Hagia Sophia (meaning holy wisdom in Greek) mosque and museum. It was a former Greek Church, later converted to Imperial Museum, and in 1935 was opened as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. It is absolutely spell binding. We also visited Sultanahmet Camii or the Blue Mosque, so called because of blue tiles surrounding the walls. It is a historical but functioning mosque. You need to go there modestly dressed, with a scarf, (if you do not have one then it would be provided). The walls outside are inscribed with beautiful writings from the Quran.
The Basilica Cistern, the largest cistern, built in 6 century BC (apparently by 7000 slaves), lie beneath Istanbul, and provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and later to the Topkapi Palace. It is about 105,000 square feet in area and is one of the most memorable sites, I saw. At one end, there are columns with visage of Medusa (blocks oriented sideways and inverted to negate the power of her gaze). The cistern was the location of 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.
Topkapi Palace museum consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. After entering the gate of salutation or bab-us-selam, you enter Divan Meydani, a gathering place for courtiers. Several building inside house the extensive imperial treasury, the arms collection, clock collection, royal home of the emperor, home of the queen mother, courtyard of the eunuchs, and more. We could have spent days there but only had couple of hours.
Later we walked in the park, shopped for Turkish candies topped with nuts, had Turkish desert filled with pistachios, almonds, and hazel nuts, looked at the range of turkish spices, took picture of the man making pomegranate juice and then savored the delicious, tart-sweet juice, with corn on the cob, sesame bread, and roasted chestnuts.
Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece
Mytilini is the capital of Lesobs, a tiny island in northeastern Aegean sea. The island is covered with olive and fruit trees, has a petrified forest (which we did not get to see) and has a huge Molyvos castle. Walking around on the grounds of the Mediterranean’s largest fortress with over 200,000 square meters was an incredible experience. The views from every angle are simply amazing. This was not a guided tour but everywhere there are boards with explanation in English and we wandered at our own pace and took tons and tons of pictures. Lesbos is well known for Ouzo, the traditional distilled Greek drink that tastes very much like Sambuca. I saw a sign for Ouzo and went in the distillery and asked the man what exactly was Ouzo and he promptly showed his distillery where it was made and brought out some ouzo for us to try.
Kusadasi, the coastal town of Turkey is known for the ruins of Ephesus. Ephesus, once a port, was an important commercial center, on account of its strategic location. It is located in fertile valley with delicious fruit trees all around. In ancient times it was also religious center of early Christianity. There is temple of Artemis (fertility goddess) built in 356 BC, which was one of the seven wonders, at one time. The city continued to expand and built by successive rulers but new rulers in AD 262 sacked it and the city was abandoned when the harbor silted up. It has since been rediscovered and is a great tourist attraction. The ruins give a great insight into the lives of the people. We had a leisurely drive to Ephesus, to see the ruins. And then we visited the house where Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days. I took the opportunity to tack a prayer to Virgin Mary. Among million other prayers, will she get to mine?
As you land on the shore of this tiny beautiful island, you are greeted by the small Paraportiani church. This tiny town of has some 70 little churches. Votive offerings is an old tradition. As per one tradition, the residents enshrine the bones of their dead in the walls of the shrines. As you walk a little further, you come to the enormous seven 16th century windmills that were used to store grains. These windmills are now the trade mark of Mykonos. On the other side, is little Venice with colorful balconies hanging above the sea. There are many beaches, and we visited one, though we did not venture out in the ocean, to swim.
I Loved this small, beautiful Greek island, east of Turkey. It is absolute clean with all the houses pained white and doors and windows painted in bright hues of all diverse colors. We had a leisurely walk through the island, a short trip to the beach, and then a lazy walk through the long market street. We broke and ate pieces from the loaf of bread that we got from a local bakery as we strolled through the market street, buying little knickknacks.
The final highlight was meeting the respected Pelican, Petros. The ancestor of this Pelican came to the island around 1954, after a storm. He was welcomed and since then he and his descendants have lived on the island and all are called Petros or Pedros. Petros is official mascot of Mykonos. As we were walking through the market street, Petros regally strolled in and as we all reverently made way, Petros simply strolled through the town.
Heraklion, Creete – Island of Greece
The Palace of Knossos is the primary tourist site in Heraklion. It was built during the Bronze age (ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization) and was discovered in 1878. The palace was excavated and partially restored in early 20th century.