Journalist Debbie Selinsky is currently sailing aboard Seabourn Odyssey on a seven-day "Greece & Dalmatian Delights” cruise. She shares her experience from the first few days of her voyage.
Though I've visited Greece many times, I looked forward with no less excitement to the 7-day "Greece & Dalmatian Delights" on board the elegant 458-guest Seabourn Odyssey. We started our three-country cruise in Athens, where we had dinner on the roof of the Athens Hilton overlooking the Acropolis and visited the still-new Acropolis Museum -- both activities well worth doing even if you're in town briefly pre-cruise.
When friends hear that I'm going to visit Greece again, they always say, "Oh, are you going to Santorini?" or "Is that pelican still in the courtyard in Mykonos?" No one would argue that Santorini is glorious or that Mykonos is pure romance, but on this trip, I'm discovering that Greece has secrets -- numerous lesser-known ports that are best accessed on a smaller ship like Seabourn Odyssey.
First, there is Monemvasia (which means The Rock and loomed outside our balcony when we rose that morning), a charming town that is the gateway to the ancient ruins of the city of Mystras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seabourn Odyssey anchored off Monemvasia
Passing through the city of Sparta, which is built atop the ancient city of Sparta, we rode about 90 minutes by bus to Monemvasia, to Mystras, which with its restored palaces, city walls, vaulted alleys and beautiful churches retains its aura of mystery.
Our knowledgeable and amusing tour guide Dionisia Sklavounakou, who described Mystras as "magical but hot," led us across massive grounds and ruins, painting a verbal picture of the once powerful fortress and settlement, which flourished the 13th through 15th centuries before it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Since that time, the site has remained important. The last man who lived in a small dwelling on the grounds died a couple of years ago, but the major renovation work remains ongoing. If you've been to the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey and loved it, you'll appreciate Mystras.
The ruins of the ancient city of Mystras
And it only seems fitting, in light of the recent Olympic Games in Russia, that we visit the birthplace of the Olympic Games at Olympia in the 8th century BC. We arrived there by docking at the port city of Katakalon, known for its intriguing Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and Museum of Ancient Greek Instruments and its export of carrots and raisins.
We rode the air-conditioned (Yes!) coach 30 minutes to the green valley where Olympia is located. Unlike Mystras, few original structures remain intact. "You must use your imagination to picture what this looked like," our guide said as she regaled us with complex stories of the political and cultural considerations that led to the first Olympic games as well as Greek and Roman mythology that is interwoven in most of Greece's history. The earliest athletic competitions were held to honor the dead at their conical gravesites and to praise their greatest god and goddess, Zeus and Hera.
Dionisia spoke of many, many differences between the earliest games and the games as we know them today. For example, she grinned, "If a man ran like a turtle, if he was Greek, he could still run in the Olympics. It was more about the opportunity to get together and form alliances between countries and city states then." After a month (usually in July or August) of practice and getting to know their competitors, the actual games lasted five days -- two days of revelry and ceremony and three days for the actual competitions.
And yes, I went there: "Dionisia, did they indeed compete in the nude?" “Absolutely," she said.
With our tour guide par excellence, we trooped around the wide sites, viewing the remains of the Roman baths of Kronos, the Gymnasium, the Palaestra or wrestling school and the remaining brick walls of the Workshop of Phidias, where the Golden Age sculptor is said to have worked on the huge statue of Zeus (one of the seven wonders of the world) said to have stood in the temple. The 5th century BC Temple of Zeus has only one column standing, but the site of the drums and capitals of Doric columns tumbling down like a house of cards is striking.
Other highlights on the site are the Temple of Hera (or Juno), which boasts several fluted columns that are among the oldest in Greece have been expertly restored; the Stadium, which was the world's first and could accommodate 45,000 spectators; and the site's Museum, which holds many original and restored statuary, pottery and other archaeological items found during excavations. The museum is a must-see since it helps you put the pieces of the ruins together.
Our final Greek gem before moving on to Croatia and then to Italy, is a small, charming seaside town called Parga. Stunningly pretty with its colorful hillside houses and harbor lined with boutiques, tavernas and outdoor cafes, Parga is a great place to stretch our legs and walk up the 64 steps up to the Venetian-style Castle of Parga.
The charming seaside town of Parga
Younger guests and ship staff flocked to Valtos Bay, Pargas main beach, while others meandered back to the ship for yet another fabulous meal, for a relaxing massage, a bit of sun bathing or a refreshing swim. Guests who were quick on the uptake -- like us -- are lucky enough to visit Seabourn Odyssey's unique Restaurant 2, where you get tiny portions of a full menu prepared by Chef Geoffrey Juanillo. Think White Plum Tomato Cappucino, Grilled Lobster Newberg with lemon risotto, and Chateaubriand with bernaise sauce and asparagus ragout. Paired with five perfect wines, the meal ended with a just-big-enough portion of Soft-Centered Chocolate Ganache Cake with vanilla ice cream.
Capt. Mark Dexter promises continued beautiful days with not a raindrop in site -- take that, North Carolina!
Tomorrow, we approach one of the Mediterranean's most popular hotspots – Dubrovnik, Croatia, with the smaller city of Hvar to follow before we reach Ravenna, Italy, in the home stretch toward Venice.
Written by: Debbie Selinsky
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