Cruising around the Aegean Sea – Part 2

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panoramic shot of the harbour in Syros

Syros harbour

Leaving Milos before nightfall, the Celestyal Cristal , our comfortable home for the week, headed to Piraeus, the port of Athens as it has been for millenia, to continue its journey through the Aegean Sea.

After a pleasant open air dinner on the deck around the swimming pool accompanied Greek food and live music, we moved to the Muses lounge to taste some cocktails while enjoying the Fantastic Circus, one of the numerous shows that are available every night from the entertainment team. Delightful show and great drinks! The “Greek Mojito” was my discovery of the day. It became my favourite one for the whole cruise, even if I have to say that I tried a few others during that week. It’s made with Skinos Mastika liquor, fresh basil leaves and lemon juice, topped with soda water. Nothing to do with a pesto drink! It’s a refreshing cocktail perfect for hot summer days. Mastika is a Greek brandy-based liquor seasoned with the resin of evergreen Mastika trees  which grow only on Chios Island, and has a protected EU designation of origin.

terrace bar in Syros

a terrace on the quay in Syros. How I found an empty bar I’ll never know. It wasn’t empty for very long!

Later on, we were amazed by the number of people who, despite having such a long excursion, were going to the disco that is open every night till late.

Monday: Piraeus and Syros

The call at Piraeus harbour is like the one in Lavrio, a disembarkation- embarkation stop, that allows passengers to choose between short three or four days cruises, or a whole seven day cruise.

The Celestyal Crystal had to leave Piraeus before midday so we had time for only one excursion. This took us to the Acropolis and of a few ancient world monuments that Athens had on offer. It started at 6am, a time of the morning that dissuaded many from going. Perhaps these had been at the disco until the small hours. It turned out that many people were stopping over in Athens for a few days after the cruise ended. After all, how can you do justice to Athens in a few, short hours? So many slept in and then leisurely rose to either laze at the pool or improve their suntans.

shhopping time in Syros

time for a shop whilst in Syros

During the afternoon the wind came up to remind us that we were on board a ship sailing through the Archipelago of the Cyclades. The light rolling and pitching made us feel like real sailors rather just being residents on a floating hotel!  In the late afternoon we landed at the main quay of Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros, for an evening visit.

For a long time it was the main harbour of Greece. The city was built on a beautiful double hill site making it look like an amphitheatre of old white houses and churches. Like many passengers, we decided to walk on our own wandering in and out of the network of charming streets, passing little tempting shops, many bars and cafés with their terraces overlooking at the Town Hall. This is in Miaoulis Square, the central point of the town and is planted with palm trees around a large marble “stage” that is used for concerts by the local philharmonic orchestra From here we headed to the Ta Vaporia area which is where wealthy Syros sea-captains had built beautiful neo-classical mansions during the nineteenth century. We also stopped by the Apollo Theatre which was built in 1864 and is a miniature replica of La Scala of Milan. Time was against us and all too soon it was time to rush back to the ship.

columns of Smyrna in modern day Izmir

Izmir today showing part of the ancient city of Smyrna

Tuesday: Cesme and Izmir

The next morning, the ship berthed on the Turkish coast of Aegean Sea in Cesme, a charming seaside resort a few kilometres away from Izmir, the third largest Turkish city.  Only a few passengers took the morning tour to Izmir. Many chose to stay for the day on a local beach instead.

Izmir is a huge modern city with three million inhabitants totally built over the ancient city of Smyrna. The only remaining part that is clearly visible are the ruins of the ancient agora that have been partially cleared and which show a colonnade and lots of wonderful stone sculpted capitals. The only known Roman double-storey agora building and the remarkable collection of ancient artefacts found there and displayed in the Archaeological Museum right next to the agora could be a good reason to take this tour.

shopping in the old market of Izmir

shopping in the old market of Izmir

During the tour there is, in my view, the cherry-on-the-cake and that is a one-hour stop at the Grand Bazaar of Keremalti, the historic Izmir market. Its charming, tree-shaded square shades bars and restaurant terraces from the heat of the day and this is where locals gather as well as tourists. Here you can indulge yourself in mouth-watering gyros pita, souvlaki, kebabs, Turkish pastries and coffee. (obviously Turkish coffee!) All the lanes and narrow alleys around the square are an Aladdin’s cave for souvenir shoppers. The market also includes an impressive still-standing Caravanserai, Kizlearagisi Han (a roadside inn although that translation belittles it somewhat) built in 1744 where it is very pleasant to wander under its vaults. No one leaves the Bazaar empty-handed. The choice is immense.

When shopping in Turkey there are two important things you need to know: don’t ever buy any antique souvenirs, even fake ones, or any fossils. They are considered by Turkish customs as national treasures, and you really face jail for such a purchase. And avoid all branded clothes, bags or sunglasses, they are only counterfeits and any European customs officer will be pleased to seize them and fine you on your return. And if you buy saffron to take back home, beware it will be safflower rather than saffron. Buy what is called Iranian saffron instead (it costs a lot more) but that is the genuine article.

Wednesday: Kos

an old mosque in Izmir

an ancient mosque in Izmir

We awoke on our sixth day on board to see that the sky was its usual pure blue. A perfect day to slowly discover the jewels of Kos! Two half-day excursions were suggested, leaving time for an afternoon free for an individual stroll in the city.

Leaving Kos town, the bus goes to Asclepeion, the ancient site of what was maybe the first University of Medicine. The size of this huge site which is built on a wooded hillside shows us the importance of this healthcare centre dedicated to Asclepius, the God of Medicine. The Asclepeion is laid out in three artificial terraces, each one about 40metres by 90 and linked by unique, monumental stairs. Still surrounded by a cypress forest, that was considered sacred in centuries gone by, the site remains impressive with its incredibly big stonewalls supporting the terraces. Here Hippocrates, considered as the father of modern medicine, worked and taught his new theories.  Over 2,500 years ago he was ahead of his time as he used the curative properties of plants, saying: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food”.

the site of the Asclepeion

the site of the Asclepeion

From the Asclepeion top terrace the view over the Aegean Sea is a must and, on a clear day, you will be able to see the coast of Turkey and a few other Greek islands of the Dodecanese.

Back to Kos town, we got off the bus in front of the ancient Odeon (a place for singing, musical entertainment and poetry competitions) and we strolled down among the ruins of the ancient gymnasium to get to the modern part of the city that harks back only to the nineteenth century.  A few monuments dating back to the Ottoman period still remain, standing by modern buildings, such as the famous Municipal Market which was designed by Italian architects after the big earthquake that almost destroyed the city in 1933. The Byzantine churches, the ancient agora and the fourteenth-century Knights of the Hospital Castle add historical touches to the charm of this quiet and welcoming town. There is even a very old plane tree that is known as the Plane Tree of Hippocrates although it certainly isn’t 2,500 years old!

Santorini

looking over the white and blue of Santorini

Thursday: Ios and Santorini

An immediate image of Ios is conjured up in the mind as you could forget the deep, blue waters silhouetting the charming white village. A free, walking tour on the quay with a stop at any of the tempting café terraces or a bus excursion to one of the most famous beaches of Ios was the choice that we had to make.  We opted for Manganari Beach, a long white sandy beach in an idyllic setting which was away from any village. Free large parasols and comfortable sun beds awaited us on arrival. The charm is preserved as no other colour than is allowed. This was a real relaxing morning so far away from our fast-moving world!

the beach at Manganari on Ios

Manganari beach on Ios

Leaving Ios after lunchtime, the ship sailed to what was the most impressive stop of the whole cruise, Santorini and its caldera which is a large volcanic crater. The eruption of the volcano some 3,600 years ago left a large caldera surrounded on three sides by 960 foot high steep cliffs. The caldera is connected to the sea and large cruise ships anchor directly in the lagoon. There are no quays for the vessels to tie up to so all passengers have to take small boats to get ashore. Topping the dark brown cliffs, two iconic all-in-white villages, Oia and Fira, were real eye catchers. Sadly we were not the only cruise ships that day, and when getting off the bus in Oia we had to walk through a crowd of tourists groups filling up the small streets and little steps of the village. Avoiding the groups, we succeeded in achieving a more individual and quiet tour of Oia. For us it was the most remarkable and amazing village of our cruise and a place that no one should miss.

A wonderful sunset awaited us that night when we got back on board almost as though it was giving us a grand finale to the end of our cruise for that was our lot in the morning.

To read the first part of the cruise, click here.

Celestyal Cruises is one of a number of cruise companies that offer a large choice of cruises around the eastern Mediterranean.

Text and images © Frederic de Poligny

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