Journey Log: Cruising the Greek Isles, September 30-October 9, 2022

Cruising the Greek Isles, September 30-October 9, 2022
October 2022

September 30, 2022 | Athens, Greece

Today we arrived in Greece from far-flung corners of the world. Some were drawn by the allure of ancient mythology and ancient architecture. Some came for the attractions of the modern and buzzing capital, Athens, while others were drawn by the exotic fable-evoking names of the Greek islands, or perhaps by fond Mediterranean memories from past travels. Some may have even been inspired by Lord Byron’s famous poem about the islands, the first verse of which reads:

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

We gathered to stay in the traditional, and suitably grand, Hotel Grande Bretagne, situated on Syntagma Square in the very heart of the bustling city. We gathered on our first evening in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom for a welcome reception, to meet and share our aspirations for the journey ahead and to listen to a briefing about our coming days in Athens from Cruise Director Paul Carter.

October 1, 2022 | Athens

Beginning our first day in the Greek capital, we were faced with a monumental choice: whether to explore the art scene of Athens, the historic centre of the city, or travel further afield to see the ancient wonders of Argolos and Epidaurus.

No tour of the city could be complete without a visit to the astonishing Acropolis of Athens, and suitably this is where we began our day. This raised, rocky heart of Athens is best known for its crowning glory, the dramatic and enormous Parthenon, dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena, as well as the unusually asymmetrical Erechtheion, with Ionic columns and the astounding Caryatid maidens taking the place of yet more columns.

From the height of the Acropolis we looked down on the historic Theatre of Dionysus to the Roman Agora of Athens and the Plaka quarter. Later, walking in the bustling Plaka, we passed the Central Market with its local meat and fish stalls, participated in a syrtaki dance lesson in Kotzia, one of the city’s many squares, paused for various refreshments ranging from dried meats and cheeses to and an ouzo tasting — all before lunch! Lunch itself was a leisurely affair at Daphne’s Restaurant with a tempting range of delicious local dishes and drinks, after which, in the mid-afternoon, we made our way back to the hotel by coach or on foot.

Our tour of the ancient wonders of Argolos and Epidaurus gave us the opportunity to see the astonishingly narrow and vertiginous Corinth Canal where we even glimpsed our own ship, ‘La Bougainville,’ making the transit. Arriving in Mycenae, we first explored the impressive beehive tomb, known as the Treasury of Atreus, on Panagitsa Hill. This extraordinary feat of engineering with its corbelled structure was built during the Bronze Age and has a huge stone lintel that weighs an astounding 120 tons.

After a typical Greek lunch at a private restaurant nestled in an olive and citrus grove, we continued to Epidaurus and moved forward in time four centuries. There, the wonderfully intact theatre is situated within the ruins of the sanctuary complex dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Our guide performed several demonstrations of the excellent acoustics of the theatre before we began to wend our way from the Peloponnese to Athens for the evening's festivities.

We gathered once more in the early evening for our dining extravaganza. Our coaches took us to a viewpoint below the now lit-up Acropolis of Athens. From there, we strolled down a broad pedestrian walkway to the Plaka, this time to experience outdoor dining and a delightful dance and music performance. With a delicious barbecue of local dishes and desserts set up just for us along the flanks of a narrow pedestrian-only street, we were treated to numerous spectacular dances performed in the cobbled street, and even joined in some of them. As we returned, excited by the food and the performance, we saw Neptune rising bright in the inky sky above the floodlit Acropolis — a marvellous way to end a spectacular day.

October 2, 2022 | Athens

With a morning at leisure, we had time to relax and enjoy further sights within this lively city before gathering in the late morning for our final meal and excursion in Athens. With the centre of the city closed to traffic, we strolled down the street dedicated to the god Hermes (the Roman god Mercury) which is now a hub for retail therapy with many famous brand-name shops. Eventually we reached our coaches, and then took a circuitous route around the city to reach our lunch venue, a restaurant commanding tremendous views of the Acropolis of Athens topped by the distinctive Parthenon.

After a tasty lunch, we strolled the new pedestrian way to reach the world-renowned Acropolis Museum. The striking modern architecture of this building is in stark contrast to the astonishing antiquities that it houses. It is, justifiably, one of the ten most popular museums in the world and worthy of far more time than we were able to devote during our sampling tour. Some of the spectacular statuary was delightfully displayed in an enormous space so as to convey the impression of seeing it outdoors.

After our immersion in ancient history and antiquities spanning from the Bronze Age through the Roman era to the Byzantine era, we re-boarded our coaches for the brief journey to the port of Piraeus at the edge of the shining Aegean Sea. There we boarded elegant ‘Le Bougainville.’ Once on board, we familiarized ourselves with our exclusively chartered home for the next seven nights, listened to our first briefing from our Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira and then enjoyed our first dining experience on board, already cruising our way south to the island of Crete.

October 3, 2022 | Ancient & Modern Crete

A beautiful sunrise greeted us as we arrived off Crete this morning. The clear view of the mountains inland immediately gave an indication of the surprisingly rugged and arid terrain of this large island that was once home to the remarkable, ancient Minoan civilisation. Our varied excursions today were bound for Knossos and Minoan Treasures, Heraklion and Rethymnon, and a Cretan farm.

Our tour to Knossos gave us insights into the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, known as Europe's oldest city. There, we began at the imposing Palace of Knossos nestled in a fertile region near the sea and surrounded by pine and cypress trees. We explored its numerous rooms, passageways, theatre, and the throne room of the legendary King Minos. This, the largest of the palaces in Crete, and once home to the fabled minotaur, dates back to the 15th century BC. After some freshly squeezed orange juice, we continued to the renowned Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. There, we viewed the various artifacts from the Neolithic period to Roman times along with those within the Minoan collection. After lunch at a local restaurant, we left Heraklion on a scenic coastal drive to Rethymnon, for a walk in the old town and to re-join our ship.

On the Heraklion and Rethymnon tour we visited the dramatic and heavily fortified Venetian fortress at the edge of the harbor, a relic of the period when warfare was conducted with mighty cannons between ships offshore and forces on land. Our subsequent exploration of Heraklion on foot gave us the opportunity to stroll up 25th of August Street, with its stunning neoclassical architecture, to the famous Morosini Fountain of Lions Square dating back to 1628. Continuing our meander through the town, we visited the Historical Museum to view the varied collections of coins, icons, art and artifacts, in what was once a rather grand private house. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant before we continued to Rethymnon, where there was time to wander along the waterfront and through the charming old town.

The Cretan farm visit began with an exploration of the amazing Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, where we became immersed in Cretan history and mythology and saw exhibits of Minoan art and artifacts dating from the Neolithic period to Roman times. A very scenic drive towards Rethymnon and up to a local farm gave us the opportunity for new and rural experiences. At the farm, not only did we learn all about olive oil, local bread, and vegetables, but we also learned how goats are milked. Our enjoyable local lunch came with a very special view overlooking the azure Sea of Crete, and as we watched we were able to see ‘Le Bougainville’ sail in to Rethymnon Harbor.

Back on board we enjoyed Andy Coleman’s presentation about expedition photography and our first recap of the voyage. We remained late in port and then set sail once more in the mid-evening, this time bound for volcanic Santorini.

October 4, 2022 | Spectacular Santorini

As the first light brightened the eastern horizon, we sailed in towards the great caldera of Santorini. Ahead high cliffs rose and to either side, rimmed with pretty white-washed houses. They were so uniform in appearance and so brightly white that from a distance, it appeared that that the island was capped with snow. Our various excursions today set off to explore all parts of the island, from Oia at the northern tip of the crescent-shaped island to Akrotiri near the southern tip.

Some of us travelled a short distance by boat to the island of Nea Kameni to hike up the volcano at the centre of the great caldera. As we hiked, raw lava fields seemed to stretch in all directions, steam and sulphurous vapours rising from some slopes, and as we hiked closer to the top fantastic vistas opened up around us giving us panoramic views of Santorini and the adjacent islands. We capped off the morning with a swim in a bay of Palea Kameni.

Others transferred to Santorini’s new port of Athinios to take our transport to the archaeological site of Akrotiri, enjoying a photo stop of the caldera along the way. The Bronze Age site had been buried by the ash from a volcanic eruption approximately 2,600 years ago, leaving it remarkably well preserved. Excavations at the site since 1967 meant that we were able to learn about the lifestyles of the people who once lived here.

For some, the fruits of the vine were the main draw for the morning. After taking a local boat to the Port of Athinios, our first stop was at the Wine Museum, and our second at the multi-generational family-run Hatzidakis Winery. Both stops were fascinating and educational and explained how it is that vines can be grown in this astonishingly arid climate and volcanic soil. At the winery, we were treated to a tasting of no fewer than five different wines complemented by delicious culinary treats.

After lunch, we had two options: either visiting the rim-top village of Fira (Thira) with a ride up the cable car from the harbor or riding through the Santorini countryside to the village of Eeya (Oia). Both villages consisted of beautifully whitewashed houses, restaurants, hotels and shops with narrow streets filled with distractions. Both villages offered breathtaking views along the island and out across the caldera, and with time to explore and wander, time passed so quickly.

Back on board ‘Le Bougainville,’ our afternoon’s enrichment lecture was by Susan Langley, who gave a fascinating talk entitled “Beneath the Wine-Dark Sea: Maritime Archaeology in Greece.” This was followed by our daily briefing by our Expedition Director, Suzana, then Captain Fabien Roché’s cocktail party on the pool deck timed so that we could enjoy watching as the sun sank into the Aegean Sea giving us a glorious sunset and a brief green flash. A delicious Gala Dinner brought the wonderful day to an end.

October 5, 2022 | Patmos

Dawn found us sailing toward another beautiful Greek island, this time, Patmos. One of the smaller Dodecanese islands, idyllic Patmos boasts a long and storied history that has earned it an UNESCO World Heritage listing. After we were moored, the tenders ferried us ashore for our various excursions.

Heading northeast, the intrepid hikers were the first to set off. The rugged hiking trail led us across aromatic hillsides of wild thyme as we took in vistas of lovely bays, hidden beaches and rocky headlands — the mountains of Turkey far on the horizon beyond a sea glistening with whitecaps. We rounded off our three-hour hike with a restful stop at a beachside café for welcome refreshments on our way back to the port town of Skala.

Leaving a little later, our Highlights of Patmos excursion set off for the Grotto of St. John. Today, the cave where the saint once lived survives as an impressive shrine. We were fortune to witness a religious service as we visited this site where, it is said, St. John received the divine inspiration to write The Book of Revelation. We continued to the hilltop village of Chora and the Monastery of St. John, where we visited the church and museum before spending some leisure time. The final leg of the tour included a panoramic drive across the island back to town.

Our final excursion explored the art and history of Patmos. We walked the attractive cobbled streets of Chora to visit the Mansion of Simantiris, where the owner revealed the house’s impressive collection of antique furniture, artworks and ceramics. We then visited the Zoodohos Pege Nunnery. Founded in 1607 by the monk Parthenios Pankostas, today it is tended by just eight nuns who continue to maintain the beautiful courtyards full of bougainvillea and hibiscus. We marvelled at the nunnery’s collection of frescoes, books and iconography. We concluded our tour with a visit to the 18th-century Nikolaidis Mansion. Built in several stages between 1705 and 1796, the home preserves several architectural features of traditional Patmian houses, including window frames, cisterns and covered courtyards. Afterward we spent some leisure time in little port town of Skala, taking the opportunity to wander, shop or dine locally.

Back on board ‘Le Bougainville,’ our historian, Luca Zavagno, presented “Relics, Pilgrims, Crusaders and the Turks: Rhodes at the Crossroads of the Medieval Mediterranean.” We rounded out the day with a progressive dining experience and a short show by the ship’s performers. We retired to get some rest for tomorrow’s exploration of Rhodes.

October 6, 2022 | Rhodes

Arriving into the harbor of Rhodes this morning, the sunlit walls of the city’s medieval fortifications made a powerful impression. Once ashore, we broke into three groups for excursions revealing the medieval city of Rhodes, the nearby town of Lindos and the island’s local cuisine.

Our first group entered Rhodes through the Gate of Amboise’s imposing archway, revealing a striking mix of architectural styles spanning several historical periods. Our first stop was the Grand Master’s Palace, a 1930s Italian reconstruction inspired by the Papal Palace of Avignon. Now a museum, the palace’s collection includes antique furnishings and ancient mosaics. We continued down the Avenue of the Knights to a medieval building which served as a hospital for the knights in the 15th century and now houses the Archaeological Museum.

Our second group embarked on a scenic drive south to the ancient town of Lindos. Along the way we passed olive groves, vineyards and citrus orchards, as well as a lively stretch of beachfront hotels and restaurants. Once in Lindos, we walked through the village, continuing upward to an acropolis that housed the fourth-century Doric Temple of Atheni Lindia. After climbing some 300 steps and conquering the hill, we were rewarded with sweeping views across the bay of St. Paul and the sea beyond. After time at leisure in the village, we headed to a ceramics workshop for a pottery demonstration by a local artisan. Afterward, we browsed the village’s traditional pottery and received a complimentary ceramic piece as a souvenir.

Our third group visited the Grand Masters’ Palace and walked through medieval Rhodes before embarking on a culinary adventure. At a local restaurant, a professional chef, Maria, shared her secrets to preparing a host of Greek specialties. Afterward, we sat down to savour the authentic lunch we’d prepared together.

Later in the afternoon, we had some time to enjoy the beach, share some drinks and swim in the Mediterranean — a relaxing way of rounding out a stimulating day on the island of Rhodes.

Back on board, the sunlight faded over Rhodes as the Captain set course for Mykonos.

October 7, 2022 | Mykonos

Approaching Mykonos, we were struck by the island’s white-washed hillside villages set against the brilliant backdrop of a bright blue Aegean Sea and sky. We disembarked ‘Le Bougainville’ by tender to reach the port town of Chora. Here, we broke into groups for the day’s two excursions, a panoramic drive and a walking our through the historic heart of Chora.

The panoramic tour began with a guided walk around the bay. We boarded our coach and headed out for photo stops at Kalafatis Beach, Ano Mera village, the Monastery of Panagia Tourliani and a 14th-century church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Nearby in the village square, we paused for refreshments and snacks at a local taverna. Once back in Chora, we explored further on foot.

Those of us who opted for the walking tour strolled the intricate maze of narrow stone streets that weaves through this delightful town. We learned that the buildings of Mykonos were originally whitewashed in lime to keep insects at bay and the houses cool. Today, local ordinance maintains this distinctive tradition. However, freedom is given for doors and balconies to be of any colour, with blue and red predominating. We also admired Chora’s cluster of simple windmills that stand just above the bay. Many more are scattered across the island, but none in such good repair. Returning from the windmills back into the old town, we wandered little lanes lined with shops, eateries and cafés.

In the afternoon, coaches shuttled us across the island to Ornos Beach, a sun-drenched paradise looking out over a bay dotted with kite surfers. We relaxed in comfort with fruit platters and drinks as we admired the view or took a refreshing dip in the sea.

October 8, 2022 | Mykonos

The previous day’s high winds, swells and waves presented the crew with a rare issue. Even with two anchors out, ‘Le Bougainville’ had dragged, causing one anchor to tangle in the other’s chain. Ever adaptive, the crew and Expedition Team would be put to the test.

Meanwhile, our photo coach, Andy Coleman, shared tips on photographing people and cultures, followed by our historian, Luca Zavagno, and his entertaining presentation on interactions between the Roman and Muslim worlds.

Following the morning’s lectures, our Expedition Leader and Captain briefed us on the new plan to continue our journey onward to Athens. The issue with the anchors would prevent ‘Le Bougainville’ from sailing back to Piraeus as originally scheduled. Alternatively, we would fly out of the local airport to Athens International, where we would overnight comfortably at the Sofitel Athens Airport, just a few yards’ walk from the terminal. It wasn’t the ending to the voyage that we had expected, but this pragmatic solution meant that none of us would be inconvenienced by having to change our flights home.

October 9, 2022 | Mykonos & Athens

Today, we set out on our individual journeys home or onward. For those already in Athens, there was time for a leisurely breakfast in our hotel before walking the few steps across to the international terminal building to catch our flights.

Those with flights from Athens later in the day left Mykonos after a final night on board ship. After a tender ride ashore and a coach ride to Mykonos, we flew directly to the capital. There, refreshments were waiting for us at the airport hotel with the opportunity to relax with fellow travellers before checking in for our homebound flights.

While the sea had thrown the Expedition Team and ship’s crew some unexpected challenges, were impressed with their ability to adapt and get us back on track. In the end, it was a small bump in the road on our grand voyage, an expedition full of memories we would cherish for a lifetime.

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