Mythical, Magical Voyage to Antiquities
History, geography, and current events have never been my strong suits. But even I, who would rather be immersed in a plate of loukamoades (Greek doughnuts) than stumbling among the rubble of an archeological ruin, found myself inspired and humbled by the mythology, economic turmoil, and natural beauty of my journey from Athens to Istanbul.
Voyages to Antiquity, a bespoke cruise line committed to exploring ancient civilizations, was my porthole to discovering the blue waters and breathtaking vistas of the Mediterranean.
A Voyage Like None Else
For the gay traveler who is more interested in the Greek gods than looking like one, cruising on Voyages to Antiquity, is like riding the ocean waves with Poseidon at your side. A single ship cruise line conceived and founded by cruise ship innovator Gerry Herrod, the MV Aegean Odyssey recently received a Mediterranean makeover with cabins resized and reconfigured to accommodate an average of 350 passengers compared to its original 570.
The ship served as home base for my 13-day adventure and provided the perfect backdrop for discovering the history, art, and cultures of the ancient world. You won’t find a 24-hour ice cream buffet or sequined-studded cabaret lounge on board the Aegean Odyssey. Instead, you can grab a book and settle into the library or catch a pre-excursion lecture from an Oxford-educated expert. That’s not to say the ship isn’t outfitted with classic cruising amenities. It is equipped with a spa, workout facility, outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, numerous bar and lounge areas, and two restaurants including an outdoor terrace café.
The stewards and food service crew exude a warm, inviting energy without missing a single detail. Offshore excursions are accompanied by a bevy of young, enthusiastic Brits, whose exuberance for ancient cultures made me regret dropping out of Mythology 101 during my freshman year.
City of the Violet Crown
The pre-cruise itinerary began with several days at the Westin Astir Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa. While I was hoping to be in the city center with views of the Acropolis and Parthenon, I was happy to unwind (sans tear gas and yogurt bombs) on the Athenian Riviera, Vouliagmen-just a half an hour from Athens.
The poet Pindar wrote of Athens: "City of light, with the violet crown, beloved of the poets, thou art the bulwark of Greece." It may have been a testament to the iridescent sunsets reflecting off of the surrounding mountains or perhaps the majesty of the great temples. The Athens that I saw felt both fractured and beautiful.
With the gracious accompaniment of Greece’s International Gay & Lesbian Tourism Association (IGLTA) representative Orhideea Rosu, I got a taste of what Athens has to offer and a perspective on how the country continues to struggle with a failing economy and a financial structure without foundation.
We hit the Gazi area two nights in a row and it was everything you might imagine. Hopping from bar to bar, the men radiated sensuality, their perfect olive complexions set off by blinding white teeth and freshly pressed pastel shirts. Having dinner with Orhideea at an outdoor café told a different story though, as she shared real concerns about Greece’s economy. One would think that rising taxes, an insurmountable debt, and a multi-billion dollar bailout package would weigh heavy on the Greek people, but a spirit of survival and perpetual celebration seemed to prevail on the streets. That or we all had one too many shots of ouzo.
Visits to the stunning Acropolis Museum and National Archaeology Museum were a poignant reminder that a powerful civilization had risen - and fallen - on the very ground which I stood. My adventure of land and sea had begun.
The Lion Gate
Our first port of call was the charming village of Nauplia followed by a visit to the ancient ruins of Mycenae. Wandering the sleepy streets there was little indication of the fractured economy-until we started chatting with the locals. "We are the first nation," proclaimed our guide, "This crisis is not just Greek, it is a crisis of the European Union."
We sat down to a rustic lunch of mezze (small dishes) at Mezedopoleio O Noulis that included herb salad, fritters, octopus, and assorted spreads. For 8€ it seemed as if we had stumbled upon the deal of the century, but as we chatted with the tavern owner, we came to learn than an impending 23% food tax might put him out of business. In spite of its charming storefronts and local vendors, Nauplia was a haunting reminder of a country in economic despair.
A short drive inland brought us to the ruins of Mycenae, one of the major centers of Greek civilization from approximately 1600 BC to 1100 BC. The gateway to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is The Lion’s Gate, Europe’s oldest piece of monumental statuary.
After a few hours in the Mediterranean sun and listening to the story of Agamemnon, the mythological king of Mycenae who was murdered by his wife’s lover after returning from Troy (reminding me that infidelity is as old as time), what I really craved was a glass of water. Had I lived at Mycenae all those centuries ago, this would have been miraculously possible due to one of the most monumental achievements in ancient building art: the underground cistern at Mycenae provided fresh drinking water from a natural spring that ran among clay conduits and a quadrilateral roofed shaft. Now stagnant and mosquito-infested, I opted for the bottled water back on board the ship.
Island of the Sun God & a Night in Mykonos
Our next major destination was Delos, known in mythology as the birthplace Apollo (and his twin sister Artemis), but also as a spectacular center of commerce and religion in spite of its lack of natural resources.
The sheer magnitude of the island’s development showcased the fact that at one point there were more than 30,000 inhabitants. The Delphic oracle declared the island’s sanctity in the 5th century BC and from that point forward, no person could give birth or die on the island.
From a cosmopolitan center of centuries past to a delightful maze of shopping and nightlife, our next port of call was the epitome of gay Greece - Mykonos. The whitewashed buildings and signature windmills that date back to 16th century seemed to beckon me, or perhaps it was retail outlets like Lakis Gavalis, the collectible artwork at Scala Shop Gallery, or a seafood lunch at Niko’s Taverna with a visit from the island’s famed pelican, Petros.
Nightlife in Mykonos may need to be renamed, as the party usually doesn’t kick in until around 2am. Whether you want to enjoy the cool breezes off the waterfront at Jacki O’, sing a showtune at Montparnasse Piano Bar, or experience the legendary Pierro’s, Mykonos will keep you coming back time and again. Like Cinderella at the ball, I had to make a mad dash back to ship, but would have been happy to be stranded until sunrise on one of the island’s beautiful beaches.
A Sweet Farewell
Our last stop in Greece was the island of Samos, which embodied much of the agriculture bounty for which the country is known. From honey and olives to figs and almonds, the air smelled sweet from the surrounding fields. Samos’ most prized product, though, is its dessert wine derived from the Muscat grape. The perfect send-off to my time in Greece was a visit to the Samos Wine Museum.
Approximately 97% of the grapes grown in Samos are of the Muscat variety and are used to produce high quality dessert wines. They are fresh and floral, "the perfect expression of fruit" according to the Union of Vinicultural Cooperatives of Samos. To me, it was the perfect expression of my time in Greece - along with the doughnuts, of course.
A New Country of Epic Proportion
Leave it to the brilliant minds at Voyages to Antiquity to plan an itinerary that departed Greece only to arrive in the Turkish port of Ku?adas? followed by one of the most magnificent cosmopolitan cities of ancient times, Ephesus.
Once populated by more than 250,000 people, this seaside port shows evidence of playing host to Antony and Cleopatra, a 24,000-seat theatre, 8-acre shopping center, and the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
Our tour offered exclusive access to the terrace houses, and like all of our tours throughout the trip, made excellent use of the Quietvox Audio System, which allowed me to wander off and take photos while still catching the commentary through a radio receiver and ear piece.
The ship docked overnight in Ku?adas?, which gave us an opportunity to explore Turkish nightlife. There are a surprising number of Irish bars in this tourist-driven port town.
While I might expect to get a pint of Guinness and toss some darts at my local Irish joint in the U.S., the Turkish version involved hawkers on the street inviting us to enter any number of wild dance parties where cocktail waiters (mostly young men with mullet haircuts and purposefully distressed wardrobes) and patrons danced on the tables to high energy DJ mixes. Most of these venues can be found on Barlar Sokak ("Bar Street").
On the way back to the ship I couldn’t resist stopping off at a local shop for some Turkish Delight, which isn’t what you might think. This sweet confection has been part of Turkish culture since the late 18th century. The taffy-like treat is often flavored with pistachios, dates or rosewater. It was then back to the ship and off to our final destination - the mystical city of Istanbul.
The City on Seven Hills
With only 24 hours in "The City on Seven Hills", I dropped off my bags at the Ritz-Carlton in Taksim Square, found my way to the light rail system, and before I knew it I was standing in the middle of the infamous Spice Bazaar. With my pockets overflowing with smoked paprika and Medjool dates, I grabbed a quick lunch at a local stand and washed it all down with traditional chilled buttermilk.
With the clock ticking, I hopped on a boat tour of the Bosphorus River and winded my way through the Blue Mosque, a culmination of two centuries of both Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church development. It was back to the hotel to splash some water on my face and then off to my final dinner of this extraordinary journey.
Topaz, the Jewel of Istanbul, was the perfect culinary ending to my Mediterranean adventure. From fresh artichoke with melon foam to baked lamb with mastic-smoked eggplant, the menu soared beyond expectation as the sun set on this spectacular city of more than 13 million inhabitants.
While Voyages to Antiquity may have created the perfect recipe to share the unique sights, sounds, and flavors of world’s most ancient civilizations, for me it was much more. The juxtaposition of magnificent architecture and soaring mythological tales against a country in economic crisis struggling to hold onto its identity was hauntingly beautiful. It was, without a doubt, a voyage of a lifetime.
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