Myths of the Aegean

Myths of the Aegean

Holiday Postmortem | Elvis Dias

Why go on a cruise? For a widely travelled man, isn’t that a bit too structured a holiday?

Also, our destination was the Greek Islands, packed with history, and our cruise ship looked more like a hugevessel from the old days than a floating complex.

How did you get a fix on the cruise company?

To travel around the Greek Islands, one needs to sail on a Greek ship. A friend recommended Royal Olympic Cruises’ The World Renaissance. It has only five suites and we had one with a walk-in wardrobe and a living room. It’s easy to forget you’re actually on a ship in a vessel of this kind. It’s only when you look out of the porthole that you realize you’re on water.

Did you sail from Athens?

That’s right. So first we spent a couple of days exploring the city. Our hotel, St George Lycabettus, overlooked the Acropolis, and I’ll never forget the view from the breakfast terrace in the mornings. On Day 2, we visited the Acropolis and the Parthenon and took in all the other sights of the city—Hadrian’s Arch, Byron’s statue, the Corinthian Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Constitution Square. But the real treat was the Olympic stadium, built in 1895 for the first modern Olympic Games. There was a small wrestling stadium for gladiators which seated its audience all the way up to a height of about 200ft. Imagine sitting in the last row of the stadium and looking down on a spectacle—it would be quite a bird’s eye view. The next morning, we were off on the cruise.

The Greek Islands are classified under various heads—Aegean, Cycladian etc. Which ones did you visit?

Our ship stopped at Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Rhodes, Heraklio and Santorini. Each of the islands was completely different but, for us, the principal reference points were biblical: Many of the locations mentioned in the Bible are in the Greek Islands and to be at those spots was awe-inspiring. Of course, there are other historical points as well. We would sail through the night and wake up to a new horizon every day. After a day on shore, we would return around 6pm for a quick shower, a stylish sit-down dinner and an evening of on-board entertainment or a night at the discotheque.

So what was your first stop?

Santorini. A few ships were anchored very near the port but our captain decided to drop anchor at least 300m away—later, I realized it was because a cruise liner had struck bottom right there, two months previously. The sea was choppy and we had to be transported by small, oval dinghies. The moment we boarded one of these, Bob Marley’s Don’t rock my boat began running through my head. The boat was rocking so violently I was certain it would capsize. The five-minute ride seemed like five hours.

On the island, we had a comprehensive shore excursion. But the highlight of the day was seeing the sun set from the colourful cliff-top village of Thera. I almost saw the splash in the sea as the sun went down. Then a breathtaking cable car ride took us back to the port.

But it was Patmos that affected you the most spiritually, wasn’t it?

That’s right. On leaving the Scala harbour, we drove to the village of Chora, capital of Patmos. At the top of the hill, there is the monastery of St John, a Byzantine church built in 1088 by the Blessed Christodoulous, servant of Christ. Behind its imposing walls lies a fantastic array of religious treasures, relics of saints, priceless heirlooms, jewellery and votive offerings. But truly fascinating were the monks living there—they seemed to be straight out of the Spanish Inquisition movies, with their long black robes and lantern jaws. You wouldn’t even want to sneeze in front of them lest a stare knock you out cold.

Our next stop was the Holy Grotto of Revelation, modelled after a 17th century monastery and built around the cave where St John spent two years (AD 96-97) as an ascetic. Under the influence of visions, St John wrote the Apocalypse, dictating it to his disciple Prochorus. This was the Revelation, the last chapter of the Bible, which reveals the future of the world. To stand in the same cave where it was written was a spiritual experience beyond our imagination.

Mykonos, on the other hand, was about the Greek myths.

Right. On our walking tour of Delos, the Aegean lay to the left and beyond it lay the Sacred Way, a holy festival route. At the end of the walkway is the Propylaea, a monumental white gateway that led to the sanctuary of Apollo. One of the island’s most spectacular relics is the Avenue of the Lions, where perfect replicas of the seventh century Naxian marble beasts crouch in silent vigilance at the Sacred Lake, where Leto gave birth to her twins, the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo. Beyond, a path leads to Mt Kynthos, where Zeus observed the event. As with the Olympic stadium, it was all about impressive heights here as well—it’s 368ft to the summit and, for the energetic, well worth the panoramic views.

Mykonos, incidentally, is full of pelicans and swans. You can even pet them, provided they are in a good mood. Sharon tried—it takes a lot of courage.

The next leg of the cruise was in Turkey, wasn’t it?

And yet, again, we encountered a biblical reference point: The shrine of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus. This is where Mary is said to have spent her last days, possibly in the company of St John, who spent several years here. The house itself is typically Roman, made entirely of stones. In the fourth century, a church combining her house and grave was built here, but only the central part and a room to the right of the altar are now open to visitors.

St John himself was buried on the southern slope of Ayosolug Hill. A small chapel here was changed to a marvellous basilica in the shape of a cross during the reign of Emperor Justinian. After a Turkish invasion in the 14th century, the chapel was used as a mosque but a serious earthquake in the same century made the Basilica unusable.

The next time around, would you still want to do it by sea?

Of course. That’s the only way to get around. The first sighting of each of these islands was a big high. I’m not sure if one would get the same feeling travelling on land. Besides, of course, there were the very romantic post-dinner evenings: Standing at the stern, with the moonlight shimmering on the sea, we felt there was nothing between us and the sea.

As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at