I'm not really into cruising but I must admit I've cruised on few occasions to see places and experience something that could only be experienced through cruising, such as going through the Panama Canal. Recently, I went on a cruise to sail the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Ionian waters and visit the famous Greek Islands.
Santorini is the most popular island in the Aegean waters. I thought I was seeing snow-capped mountains as the ship approached the island. But up-close, they were rows and rows of white-washed houses occasionally dotted by blue domes perched on the cliffs or sitting on top of the mountains. I visited the two most popular villages in Santorini: Oia and Fira. Getting to these villages from the seaside was a challenge. We first visited Oia, the most famous and most photographed village in Santorini. We transferred from the ship to the port of Ammoudi, tucked beneath the village of Oia, and took a short shuttle ride to the village. However, the shuttle buses could not go down the port, so we walked uphill to get to the shuttle bus. It was a very strenuous climb. The village was different from what I imagined it to be; the view was absolutely stunning. There were lots of visitors navigating through the narrow flagstone steps trying to take photos from one corner to the other. I could not linger to take in the view because other people were waiting for me to leave so they could take pictures. I had to go to the hotel restaurant terrace to take in and enjoy the view. Oia was mainly a photograph waiting to happen.
Fira is the capital of Santorini, so it's more populated. From Oia, the shuttle bus took us to a parking lot near a school. We walked up to the village center with a bunch of kids. There was more to see and do, museums and churches to explore and much more bar and restaurants in Fira. Our guide left us to explore on our own. Of course, the first thing I did was to take pictures of the stunning white-washed houses (mainly hotels) built on the cliffs of the caldera. I walked the narrow cobbled-stone streets and ended at the north side of the city center known as the French or Catholic neighborhood. Most tourists probably stopped at the bar or restaurant terraces that I found the neighborhood without the crowd. The area was composed of mansions built in in the last centuries, such as Gyzi Hall which dates back to the 17th century AD, a cathedral, a monastery and a convent and workshop or art gallery. I sat for lunch at the hotel restaurant terrace to enjoy the view.
You can’t get lost in the village for there's only two ways to get back to the ship from Fira: by the cable car, hop on the mule or walk the 600 steps to the old Port of Ormos. My friend who visited earlier warned me to not take the steps. So I just looked for the cable car station which was not hard to find as there was a long line of people waiting to ride.
I called my visit to Crete my "Crete Odyssey". Our ship dropped anchor in Iraklion, Crete. I joined an excursion to the village of Elounda and Spinalonga Island. The early morning drive to Elounda was nice with panoramic views that stretched for miles. As soon as we arrived in Elounda, we hopped on the boat to get to Spinalonga Island. Dark clouds hang on the horizon, literally. As we approached the island, the rain started to pour, but stopped as we got ashore. Spinalonga Island was mainly a fortress that was built by the Venetians over the ruins of a Greek acropolis. The unused fortress became a leper colony 1903 - hence nicknamed "The Island of Tears". The island was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe and was closed in 1957. We entered the island through ‘Dante’s Gate’ (a reference to hell where the lepers entered) and followed our guide to see renovated houses, shops and tavernas, gardens and where livestock were raised. There was another Gate leading to the water. We happened to be by the gate and by a larger building when thunder and lightning struck, and the rain started to pour. Lucky for us, the building that was used as the "Disinfection Kiln of Leper Colony" was big enough for the whole tour group to shelter from the rain.
We were caught in rainstorm as we boarded the boat back to Elounda. The streets were flooded when we arrived in Elounda. So, we were not able to explore the village. I'd guess our guide got a directive to bring us back to the ship. Luckily, we did not run into traffic on the return to Iraklion. The other side of the road (outbound traffic) was like a parking lot. I learned later that two people in Crete died from the storm.
Our ship dropped anchor in Napflion, not exactly an island but a coastal town in the Peloponnese, the capital of Argolis. The view of a massive fortress could be seen from the ship. There were nice beaches in Nafplion but I decided early on to not spend time at the beach but take cultural visits. First, I visited the fortified area known as the Palamidi. It was perched on a crag over 700 feet high. The fortified area consists of 3 self-contained castles linked by vaults, corridors and secret passages. As a photo enthusiast I enjoyed the commanding views of the town, the harbor and the Argive plains from the castle. So, I was left to take photos and explore the place on my own.
I took an excursion to Mycenae - well-built and rich of gold - according to Homer in "The Odyssey". (Sorry for the reference to those of you who have not read or heard of Homer. Homer is the author of two great epic poems: "Iliad" and "The Odyssey"). First, we visited the museum that housed some artifacts found in in the citadel of Agamemnon including a replica of the famous golden death mask excavated by Schliemann (the original is housed in Athens Archeological Museum). Then I started to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site via a walkway lined by impenetrable cyclopean walls through the "Lion's Gate", Europe's oldest existing example of monumental statuary. It was here that Clytemnestra received her husband Agamemnon on his return from Troy.
Upon entering the gate, I found the first shaft tomb where in 1874 Schliemann excavated the famous golden death mask(s). There was nothing more noteworthy farther up the ruins except for the magnificent view of the Argive.
A short distance away from the citadel, we visited another UNESCO World Heritage site: the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Beehive Tomb. Historians believed it was actually the tomb of Agamemnon. The eerie grave has a 10 feet corridor and dark interior - an impressive monument, nonetheless.
Cephaloia or Kefalonia was my favorite of all the Greek Islands visited on this trip. Our excursion started in the town of Sami where the movie "Captain Correli's Mandolin" was filmed. The ride to get to the main attractions was exciting in itself. Our driver navigated through twisted roads with panoramic views of vineyards, endless expanse of olive groves that stretched for miles, cypress trees, goats crossing the road and mountains before reaching the first attraction - Cave Melissani/Lake Melissani - an underground lake with subterranean channels with water flowing to Apostoli, the opposite side of the island. The visit here was well organized: we passed through a tunnel to go directly into the tiny lake shore where an oarsman helped us get into a small boat. Narrating about some facts and figures and legends made about the lake, he rowed us around the small lake and onto the cave. Soon enough we were under a very high ceiling (300 ft.) with hanging stalactites. The pristine water of different shades of blue and the play of light and darkness from the cave was a postcard waiting to happen. It was simply put, amazing.
Then on to the most photographed sight in Cephalonia, Myrtos Beach: a stunning crescent beach framed by white cliffs, green vegetation and deep-blue-colored sea.
Our bus continued to climb through twisted narrow roads with panoramic views of deep blue sea and little mountains in between. Our guide would point to the mountains that belong to another island like Ithaca and Scorpios until we reached Fiskardo, a charming little village with quaint shops and restaurants along the water's edge. I saw fishs jumping while having lunch of a typical Greek food: meat pie and Robola wine.
Corfu is the biggest island in Greece. It’s a blend of natural beauty, traditional villages and archeological sites. My favorite part of the trip was the visit to Paleokatritsa area with a magnificent view of the sea.
Our bus driver navigated through narrow twisted roads lined by cypress and olive groves and made our bus climbed to dizzying heights to reach the lookout. I saw our bus inches away from the houses on both sides as we passed through the very very narrow road in the ancient village of Lakones. After the lookout and coffee stop, we continued on to the very top of the mountain where our guide narrated about the other mountains from the other side of the island or from the neighboring countries such as Albania.
We stopped at Kanoni Viewpoint where the twin islets of Vlachernae and Mouse dominate the view.
Corfu has a charming old town with a blend of medieval and modern buildings. I decided to explore the old town by foot starting from the fortress to the town center. Since it was the last port of call in Greece, I did some shopping and took plenty of photos.
All photos by the author.
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