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23 August 2016

www.jean-lombard.com
Tuesday 16th August, Athens.
We arrived into port this morning and said goodbye to our cruise yacht and two blissful weeks amongst the islands.  This blog entry is about those weeks and the beautiful places we visited, as well as life on the boat.

It has been a very busy time, besides the beauty of our surroundings there was so much to see and so much to learn.

We started our holiday at Dubrovnik, where we spent three days before the cruise.
It is a stunning town, there is no doubt.  A gorgeous setting, and with such history.  A lot of the town was badly damaged in the homeland wars in the 90s, but much of it has been repaired and rebuilt, and really works well for visitors.  It has been an important port since before Roman Times, and especially during the times of the Venetian merchants, it is in that triangle containing Venice - so close - Ancona in Italy and Dubrovnik itself.  

The standards for tourism were very high and they make it comfortable and easy with plenty of information available.  But most of all the people seem to care for themselves - they are so dependent on tourism, it really has to be successful.  They have taken a lot of care in the presentation of their history, through well presented museums and old architecture that has survived.  The actual city walls are magnificent – built to defend the city, they would have had canons in the towers. 

We walked ourselves to exhaustion.  The whole town is very comfortable and clean and very well organised, with good public transport.  We bought a 3 day pass which took us on buses, and into museums and the challenging walk around the city walls. They are special - and the views all around were wonderful.   I was amused to see Red Cross stations at various places along the wall top in case of people getting exhausted – it was hot and crowded!  Someone mentioned that we should see a library that survived the bombing, but we didn’t see it.  Nor did we see any mention of it in the tourist material.  

Sunday was a pleasant day because there were no big cruise ships in….  We sat through two masses in the cathedral. The choir was beautiful and the music excellent.   I noticed a number of words similar to Russian in the sermon!!!!   The cathedral was cool and a blessed refuge from the heat before we set out on climbing the hundreds of stone steps up and down as we worked our way around the walls. 

There are plenty of shady and nice places to have a beer and lunch so we were able to recover quickly.  However when the cruise ships come in, it is not good.  Monday was pretty bad, with 2 massive ships in so we escaped and left the old town and took a bus south to a place called Cavtat, about 30 minutes drive along the coast which was very pleasant.  There we visited the home of an artist – now a museum - which had been recommended to us, and after that had a refreshing beer and a salad.  Everyone in the tourist industry speaks English in varying degrees. I am glad we were not staying in a hotel at the Old Town, but nearby at the port of Gruz and it was so easy to take a bus each day whenever we wanted to.  There were also lots of small restaurants around for eating dinner away from the crowded places. 

Anyone who is ever thinking of a holiday here, best to avoid the European holiday season in July and August.   May/June or September would be much better and less busy.   The big cruise ships with 2-3 thousand passengers can really be very destructive.  Imagine what they are doing to Vienna.  Our little ship with 200 passengers looks so small, thank goodness. 



Old town of Dubrovnik, walls on the left.

Old town taken from high on the walls

Old town - showing new roofs

steps of up old wall

Maritime museum Dubrovnik

model of fighting ship Maritime museum

from the walls - formerly a canon space

Our reward after the hard climb and walk in the heat

The Rector's house in the old town.

I don't know what this was used for - very large


Exquisite embroidery

Street in the old town - there were lots like this

The Old town and the walls from the sea.
First week's tour


When we boarded yesterday, we pulled out of the port of Gruz and anchored off the coast in sight of the Old Town, which looked magnificent from the water especially with floodlights at night. The first morning we went on a trip around the islands in a zodiac and had a swim in the beautiful clear water. 

At 7pm the Commandant’s welcome cocktail party was followed by a gala dinner with caviar, shrimps, dorade, fillet of beef, chocolate mousse, plus their usual array of wine. The cocktail was in the open air at the back of Deck 6 with copious quantities of Veuve Cliquot.

The sun is searing hot - and so many people are sun baking, burning themselves to a cinder as they lie out on sun chairs. Bodies off all shapes and sizes, many looking like old leather.   It was too hot for me and I have come inside where I can watch them through the window and write some notes.

Apparently there are 221 passengers - several families with children - 149 are French, and the rest mixed from mostly other European countries. We donated Claudette to the library, in both languages, so I am waiting to see if I can spot someone reading it.  We never see the children except at meals sometimes, as there is an organised program for them.  

Lots of fig trees around, but sadly it is not the season for fresh figs, however, there is fabulous seafood and the olive oil is wonderful. 

On the way to Paxos:   There is a heat mist this morning and the sun is shining through our large open doors onto the balcony. I can hear the waves swishing past as we travel south along the coast from Croatia to the Greek Isles. Fabulous coastline of mountains, cliffs and caves and a beautiful clear sea.  If I wished to listen I would hear a running commentary of the places we are passing, about their agricultural production - olives and wine mostly and fishing - We have passed along the mountainous coast of Montenegro and Albania. Lots to learn about the history - so much we don’t know.   We are passing an ancient monastery - apparently there are many archaeological sites where ancient coins have been found. We went into the Bay of Kotor through a narrow entrance and slowly moved around.  Very beautiful. 

Thursday morning: 4th august:   I heard the anchors going down just off Paxos, part of the smallest group of Ionian islands. it looks very picturesque and is an island of olive groves, and the neighbouring Anti-Paxos an island of vineyards. We had a lazy morning on board till lunch (fresh Paxos oysters and mussels).

Paxos and AntiPaxtos  are the smallest group of islands in the Ionian Sea with very few  permanent inhabitants.  We could see  mansions built high in the mountains - apparently owned and built by rich Italians for summer houses. We were told one of the houses was owned by the head of the Fiat company.  Our guide told us that all the material for building the houses is taken up to the site by donkeys.  I suggested helicopters, but she said oh no,no, donkeys.   We have four very good guides on the ship with us, all Greek women from Athens, they speak English and French very clearly.  They stay on the ship and give lectures and go on all the tours with us.  So they are always available for information which is great - very pleasant.  I suspect retired history professors.
We are wandering around feeling as if we are Ulysses or Poseidon (God of the Sea) and this is our Odyssey.   All amazing.  We could just imagine the ancient galleons rowing and sailing around.  We went on the tender to Gaios a small village built by the Venetians where some boats pull in.  These days the boats are mostly large private sea going yachts.  

What a day, and what a place.   We got on a quaint local boat – an old wooden boat, possibly a former fishing boat, with an upper deck with a shade. I think there were about 30 of us - the boat was painted in blue with floral painting along the sides and was run by a Greek family - father and two sons probably.  We chugged along listening to all sorts of fascinating information - it appealed to me to learn about our use of Greek words that are around 4,000 years old.  For example archipelago - a group of small islands, and another interesting one Fos greek word for light, and grasping the light fotograficka, which became photograph.  Echo, Farmacia, pharmacy, aqua, aquamarine and so on.  The grand old boat tootled along around the limestone cliffs  - the turquoise colour of the water is absolutely magic. We then entered into a little cove and they just kept driving until the nose of the boat crunched into large flat pebbles on a beach.  They put down wonky ladders back and front and we couldn’t wait to get into the water.  Just fantastic.  Nobody wanted to get out and move on - they had to keep calling us in.  

Our Odyssey continued along the coast and into some huge caves, including one where Poseidon, God of the sea, hid his mistress Amfitriti, daughter of King Aheron.  - the water was very deep but so clear you could see the bottom in most places.  Apparently during the war a submarine was hidden in one of these caves. The light is extraordinary.   The  mountains are covered in scrub, olives and some vines, and here and there ancient water cisterns for collecting rain water - the Venetian merchants ships used to come in to buy or trade for water. After that lovely swim we took lots of photos. We had a stop at the village of Lakka and went to a little tavern where they had organised a plate of lovely Greek food for us and a cold beer or wine.  Small olives, tomato, cucumber, stuffed vine leaves, lovely feta cheese, potatoes.   Delicious.  It was getting late so we had to go back on the tender and get back on board.  It was an absolutely wonderful day. 


Our cabin and balcony

an example of the colour of the sea

caves along the coast of Paxos

Dora, one of our magnificent Greek guides




inside the cave

They keep you so busy - we have hardly time to think.  I had my hair cut yesterday in the hairdressing salon - the young hairdresser said she had spent 2 years working in Australia, and is on a wonderful contract with Ponant.  The window of her salon has a magic view - and as she said, it changes every day!! After this trip her next contract is around Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.   What a way to see the world!

Every evening there is a show in the theatre at 10pm after dinner.  The first two evenings it was very good contemporary dance, and last night a group did excerpts from Broadway musicals, including Mama Mia!  They had the whole theatre rocking and singing along, hilarious….

All very exhausting this wonderful stuff, we stay up too late, drink too much, and we are enjoying very pleasant company of several different nationalities. 

John has gone on the tour this morning around Zakynthos, where the first inhabitants arrived around 6,000 BC.

This afternoon one of the guides is giving a lecture in the theatre.  A page of Greek modern history – there is a lot of emphasis on the struggles for Greek independence from Turkey – from the Ottoman Turks, stories and more stories of the brave Greeks who fought in the battles, and ran the underground. The Greek Revolution 1821-27.
Next stop the island of Hydra, the name derived from the Greek word for water.  It used to have a good supply of fresh spring water sources, but after many earthquakes they disappeared and now water has to be brought to the island each day.
Anchors are up with loud groans and creeks and we are swishing along again - we keep our balcony glass doors open, the water sounds nice and whispery as we sail along, and the colour is a rich turquoise, or aqua marine.

We approached the entrance to the Corinth Canal about 10pm, it was pitch dark with a warm breeze. Two small pilot/tug boats were roped one to front and one to back of the ship.  They looked like toy boats and made our ship look very big.  The canal was barely a metre wider than us each side.  The front of our ship had huge floodlights shining ahead and we could see the pilot boat and the cliff sides of the canal which I could almost touch from our balcony. The canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea.  It separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland.  The builders dug the canal through the Isthmus at sea level, so there are no locks.  It is 6.4 km in length and only 21.4 metres wide making it impassable for most modern ships.  It took about an hour to crawl through and that was an excuse for the captain to put on a party on the top front deck with Veuve Cliquot and ouzo, accompanied by music from a violinist.  It was dark so photos didn't turn out well enough to publish.

So this morning we arrived at Hydra (from Greek word for water).  It is hard to find words to describe these different islands, all unique in their own way with some similarities.  They seem to get better all the time. What a beautiful place.  Apparently earth quakes played havoc with the fresh water springs and there is no fresh water any more.  Water is brought in by sea each day.  The town is very concentrated in a kind of amphitheatre coming down to the sea. Most of the houses are sparkling white, with brightly coloured blue shutters, and a few houses painted in a yellow-mustard making them stand out amongst the others. Very picturesque. We are moored just off shore outside the small harbour, and the tender took about 5 minutes to take us into the town.  There are no cars or any motorised vehicles allowed here.  There were rows of donkeys lined up at the ferry stop where they were taking loads of boxes for delivery.  Some of the tourists who arrived with suitcases had them taken by donkey to their hotel.  You could also take a pleasant tour on donkey back if you so wished.  We had a marvellous walking tour with one of our guides.  We climbed up the narrow streets on stone steps early in the day before it got too hot. We learnt a lot of history about how the islands joined the rest of Greece and became independent from the Ottoman Turks.  The war of independence was 1821-27, and the islands became independent in 1827.  We visited a house formerly owned by a Greek shipping merchant.  His family donated it to the state as a museum.  He made a lot of money but was a great benefactor to his home island, building houses for the poor and supporting the cause for freedom. It was all very interesting and I was delighted to examine the family’s 19thC weaving loom and spindles, wool winders etc, and some wonderful examples of the heavily embroidered clothes they wore for special occasions such as weddings, as well as furniture and icons.  The kitchen and cellars were very interesting. Everywhere we look the colours are stunning, the water sparkling blue and the sky beautiful.

As long as they paid their taxes the Turks more or less left the Greek community alone. With their excellent seafaring skills they were very useful. It wasn’t until the Turks tried to increase the taxes and make the Greek women dress like Muslim women that there was an outcry.  The Greeks had secretly preserved their language and their orthodox religion.  At night-time they would meet secretly in the “closed” churches.  They brought their children with them at night to teach them the Greek language.  Not allowed to have any schools in their own language, the children learnt their language through the bible and Homer. 

waiting for customers
Well, after all that fascinating information we visited an orthodox church which strongly reminded us of the Russian orthodox churches.  Same sort of iconostasis and gold and silver ornaments, and brightly coloured ceilings and arches. And another museum.


loaded up and waiting












Inside the naval merchant's house

The Greek shipowner/merchant who built this mansion



Clothes used by family members




handspun stockings

Felt coat

old counter balance loom

spindles

Linen ready to be woven

kitchen

Our lovely guide Ioanna




Le Lyrial

Magnificent embroidery

houses on the hill at Hydra

typical windmill
 Back at the boat for an Asian buffet lunch.  With a choice of food from Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, it was delicious. Then a little snooze before our afternoon exercise.  The crew had set up an area on the 2nd deck at the back of the boat with floating buoys, (where we usually get on the tender or the zodiacs), making a good sized area closed off for us to swim in.  We were protected by 3 zodiacs to make sure no other boats came close.   The water was beautiful, they put down a ladder which made it possible for us to get on and off, some of the younger ones dived in.   Absolutely heavenly, with the background of that beautiful little town sloping down into the bay and being able to float in turquoise water in front of it. A hydrofoil came past a few times on the trip from Pireaus – the port of Athens (2hr trip), and made some waves which livened things up a bit

swimming off the back of the boat

The tender/life boat which takes us to shore

swimming off the back of the boat


Climbing out after a wonderful swim

Farewell Hydra

Dinner in the 2nd deck restaurant



There is always entertainment on in different parts of the ship, jazz playing somewhere, a singer somewhere else, a violinist or pianist playing classical music in another lounge, yoga or dancing lessons. So plenty of choice.  Another beautiful dinner and bed, no show this time, as we have an early start to go to Delos in the morning before it gets too hot and crowded.

Delos – here I am running out of words again – as we were returning to the ship I said to John that it was like Lego Land of ancient Greece, all tumbled down and waiting to be rebuilt or reassembled by our grandchildren and many other hands.  It might take another thousand years to do so, but gradually it will be done with funds from the European Union I expect.   It is just a small uninhabited rocky island 5kms wide and 1.3km in width.  Our guide as always was superb.  We heard about the legend of Apollo and his sister Artemis being born there, the island raised out of the sea to give their mother a safe place for their birth.  It became a shrine to Apollo, a busy religious and commercial centre for many years where people went to pay homage.   Delos was the greatest commercial centre in the whole world. It has been called the Wall Street of the ancient world. It was a free port from 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD. Rich merchants, bankers and ship owners from around the world settled here attracting many builders, artists and craftspeople who built luxurious houses with rich frescoes and marble floors.  

Today it is an archaeological gold mine and researchers are still working away finding all sorts of evidence of life in a former age.  Earliest inhabitants were around 2,500 B.C. but its major development was by the end of the 5th century B.C. 
There are masses of remains of sanctuaries to various Deities, a lot of ruins, columns standing tall amongst the ruins, and the Naxian lions which were apparently carved to protect the sacred lake where Apollo and Artemis were born. They had to take the originals and place them in the museum for security, as some of the lions disappeared.
Some of the bigger houses owned by rich merchants still have remains of beautiful very fine mosaics, usually covering the floor of an open central courtyard with the water cistern underneath. The small museum had many stone carvings and statues, and several of Apollo.  They also had a good collection of pottery and household tools used by its former inhabitants.  It is extremely difficult to absorb the great age of this place.

Delos - the centre of finance and commerce
There were the remains of many houses with wells or cisterns, market places, a gymnasium, a hippodrome, and an amphitheatre. We walked around as much as possible in the few hours allowed.  There was quite a strong wind blowing which helped to keep us comfortable and cool. The entrance to some houses had the doorsteps in marble worn down in a deep curve.  Whose footsteps had worn this entrance stone down?  Imagine the men and women, the slaves who worked here, and the busy lives they had.  The streets were very narrow, the houses stone without any outside windows.  This was for protection as they were always in danger of an attack by pirates.

Research teams are continually working here, they are the only people who stay on the island as well as the guards.




A house on Delos




The entrance step - so well worn


Portico of Philip V



More well worn entrance steps


The Oikos and the Colossus of the Naxians


Temple of the Athenians

The Poros Temple




Copies of the Lions of the Naxians


The original Lions of the Naxians in the museum for security


These are the original lions

Some fine mosiacs that have survived

More mosiacs

Back to a lunch buffet, this time Greek food.  As always delicious.  As we were eating we moved on again, and we are now moored off Mykonos.  We will go in and have a wander around after a rest. 

Mykonos looked very dramatic from the sea, the houses whitewashed and stacked up in terraces all over the hills.  This is a very busy place and a very popular tourist centre. We walked around and looked for some museums, there were three, but all were closed.   It was not as clean as the other smaller places we had been too.  Many Greeks are here on their annual holidays, and many other nationalities too.

So Mykonos just wasn’t so attractive to us, too busy and crowded, and not so clean, although it might be better out of season.  It looks really beautiful, with the rich colours of bougainvillea spilling out in each narrow cobble stoned street. 

We were happy to get back to the boat and spend another pleasant evening.  Apero time 7pm, with classical music being played in the bar.  All the staff are so pleasant, and the bar man always remembers our name.  He always greets us as Jean, and “Sir John”.  The staff seem to be very happy, and although they work hard and get little time off, they are earning clear money and get all their accommodation and food.  The young administrative staff seem to be mostly French, and most of the household staff, waiters and bar staff are Filipino.  I guess they are sending their money home. One waiter is called June, his brother is called July and his sister April May.  There is another called Irish!  They seem to enjoy talking and chatting away.  The Executive Chef who looks like a Viking, presents each day some delicious special dish.  There are some very pleasant people to join for meals, and we enjoy a variety of good company.

Today we are at the island of Lesbos, anchored off the small harbour at Petra.  Another beautiful quiet place, with no big boats here, not even millionaire’s yachts.  Wonderful. It was much in the news as a destination of refugees.  We asked about the refugees as there are still about 3,000 on Lesbos, but at the other side of the island to where we were.  You can see Turkey very easily across the sea.  Our guide told us that the people on Lesbos were kind to the refugees and looked after them, but that no more are coming now.  Tourism suffered on Lesbos as a result of them giving refuge to these sad people, what a pity.   The islanders are worried about what is happening in Turkey, but Turkish people are still coming on holidays.
We went on a bus tour, visiting Molyvos castle high in the hills, and then Limonos Monastery which dates back to the 16th century and was founded St Ignatius. which strangely enough is funded from Istanbul.  They have a wonderful museum with ancient icons, and beautiful examples of old religious textiles, and ancient manuscripts dating back to 9th century. There are very few monks there currently.  More slices of history to fill in the gaps and enjoy.  Another lovely day. 

Lesbos

Turkey in the distance

Molyvos Castle

Molyvos castle

Limonos Monastery

Church in Limonos monastery




Iounna our guide at Lomonos

Storing olive oil

grinders for wheat



At the entrance to the monastery
A farewell gala cocktail and dinner before some of the passengers disembark tomorrow.
The food was Very Good!

Captain's farewell




 
Dinner with horse loving Parisians Florence and Vincent

The first part of our cruise is about to come to an end with our arrival at Pireaus, the port of Athens tomorrow morning.  Then tomorrow evening we start the second part of our cruise coming back here amongst the islands for the rest of the week.

John has had some kind of delicious chocolate desert every single day with dinner.  Can you imagine?  He thinks he is in chocolate heaven.   So last night I was dreaming of Ancient Greece’s Legoland at Delos and he was dreaming of chocolate….

We have just had an hour on the ‘bridge’ with a talk by the captain explaining how this ship works.  It was timed so that we could be there while the boat was pulling up anchor and setting off.  There are always 3 people on the bridge, and they work 4 hours on and 4 hours off. 

On the bridge of Le Lyrial


On the bridge of Le Lyrial


Pireaus and Athens
What a contrast to stop in a big city port – we are tied up quayside waiting for the new passengers to board this afternoon.   There are huge cruise ships around, and lots of lots of large ferry boats.  It smells of a city instead of the beautiful fresh air of the islands.  It is very busy – the water traffic passing back and forth all the time.   We decided to take a taxi into Athens to the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum.  We were lucky to find a very pleasant woman taxi driver who we struck a deal with for 4 hours.  She took us where we wanted to go and waited for us everywhere, returning us to the ship at the end of our tour.  Everywhere you go in Athens there is some famous ruin, a temple of Zeus, the Parthenon, Hadrian’s arch and so on.

The Acropolis was amazing, the only downside was that there were thousands and thousands of other tourists there.  I find it hard to concentrate on the atmosphere of the monument and all the stories it has to tell, when I am surrounded by thousands of others.  But by golly it is very impressive.   Massive – on the top of a large hill, its high marble columns stand out for miles and miles.  A temple to the gods of the time.  Also hard to imagine the fact that apparently it was brightly coloured.   It was the only such monument here that was not built by slaves.   Who built it I don’t know, and how it was built is another huge question.   Athens seems to be in a bowl with the suburbs stretching up into the hills. There are other ruined monuments at the top of several other hills surrounding the city.   It was a big climb up to the top in the heat amongst the crowds of others, to see the building and read the information boards, but so worthwhile.  A lovely breeze was blowing as we climbed higher and that was a relief.  The marble stones and steps are very worn and quite slippery.  Very interesting to read about the restoration going on at the moment, funded by Europe.







View of the Acropolis from the museum

Our loyal taxi driver was waiting for us when we eventually made it down again, and took us to the museum.  That was a great experience again and more information overload!!  A lot of the stone carvings from the original building are in the museum, and some very good examples of pottery and tools.  All very well displayed in this great modern building facing the Parthenon on the hill.


Second week tour.

We are back on board now, in the lounge on deck 3, listening to music, having green tea and writing our notes.  I am watching the sea out of the window – its quite choppy and windy – enjoying watching lots of ships toing and froing.

The crew are all lined up in their uniforms to greet the new arrivals – I wonder what they will be like.  We were 3 hours late leaving port as the luggage of some passengers was lost by their airline.

Now we are guessing nationalities of the newcomers – sometimes we can guess by what they eat for breakfast!!  Breakfast seems to be so different in each country and culture.
 
Dinner on deck
Last night we had dinner outside on the back of deck 6, a little bit breezy as we were sailing along, but very pleasant with a half moon and the waves breaking gently on the side of the ship.   Sea gulls swooped around us playing with the breaking waves, as if they were taking part in a complicated ballet performance. So lovely to be away from the big city and out in the freedom of the open sea again.

Now we are on the way to Petra, on the island of Lesbos again, the sea is very rough, so we are staggering along the corridors in zig zag fashion, bouncing off the walls. There is a very strong wind, and I can see people being blown wildly on the deck.  Every so often there is a thump when a wave hits us and the boat shudders.  It is great not to have to rush out this morning for an excursion and we can take our time. 


At Petra we will visit a petrified forest, apparently we have to drive in a bus for an hour and a half to get there. More about this later when we have some information.

We are sailing along in the north eastern Aegean Sea to the mountainous island of Lesbos again where the main source of income is olive oil, as well as fishing, mostly sardines.  I must remember to look out for oil from Lesbos, it is top quality.   We anchored off the little harbor, and the tender took us to Petra where there was a bus waiting for us. Our first stop was at medieval Molyvos Castle an impressive fortress standing on a hill.  Inside the castle there seemed to be a Greek dancing class going on!

After that a long drive through villages and around hairpin bends to the other side of the island to visit the petrified forest museum. About 20 million years ago the area was covered with enormous trees, including oaks, cinnamon, pines, conifers, and sequoia.  After a huge volcano eruption the trees were all covered with ash and preserved as they were.  Later the water of the Aegean rose and many of the remains were under water.  A museum area has been constructed to show the stumps of these ancient trees, which seem to be partly covered in crystals and are varied and beautiful colours. The museum built in 1994 to study, collate, research, conserve and protect the petrified forest which is a Greek national heritage.  There were also some casts of skulls and huge jaw bones with teeth and tusks of an elephant like animal and people who populated the area in those very early times.  All very fascinating stuff, but how can I get my head around 20 million years ago?? 

A petrified tree

Elephant like animal with tusks



   
Back on board for another Commandant's cocktails on the deck followed by a gala dinner to welcome the new arrivals.

Dinner with some new arrivals - Jenny and Anne

The staff coming down from Deck 7 for introduction to new arrivals
Cocktails: Veuve Clicquot on the deck.

We sailed all night, and this morning, 11th August, anchored quayside at the island of Syros. It looks beautiful from where we are on the ship.  The houses climb up the hill in terraces around the bay and towering above it all a Catholic church and monastery – it will be a challenge to visit later.   We set off with our regular guide for a 2 hour walking tour of the town.  Apparently on this island there are a large number of Catholics, more than anywhere else in Greece, which is mostly orthodox. 

Icon painting by El Greco
Like the rest of Greece this island has an ancient history of habitation, in 5th century BC the Phoenicians came here and used it as a seaport.  The island passed through various rulers 18th and 19th centuries, Turks and Russians, and during the war of Greek independence it was under French protection because of the large number of Catholics living here, and so remained neutral. However the island helped in the independence war by being a refuge.   It is now the administrative centre of the Cyclades group.

We had a great walk, and learnt about the history and architecture of the place.  Key parts of our visit were to the Greek Orthodox church, the splendid Town Hall building and the Catholic church.  The Catholic church has a famous El Greco painting – apparently he started his artistic career painting icons. Some years ago his signature was discovered at the bottom of the painting – his full family name Domenicos Theotokopolous.  


A stroll through the town

Town Hall and Civic Centre

just steps and more steps

figurine in the museum

The two churches Orthodox and Catholic are very similar inside, with silver framed icons and the iconostasis in front of the altar, both were very colourful and heavily decorated with silver and gold, and well endowed with gifts of paintings and silver.

Our guide made an interesting comment in that she said – when things are difficult, people need something to believe in, they need their faith. If they can believe and pray it helps them.  The poor economic situation is not so apparent on the islands except for unfinished houses here and there.  Families ran out of money and had to abandon the project.  As a result engineers, builders, architects could not get work.  Some of them gave up their profession and retired to the islands to take up farming vines and oil.

We will go back and walk to the top of the mountain later in the afternoon if we are able for it!! It is hot.

We went ashore about 5pm and gradually climbed to the top where the Catholic church stood.  What an achievement!   The old ladies sitting out on their steps were worried about us and kept trying to direct us unto a road instead of the steps!!  They were very caring.  When we descended we stopped at a tavern for a beer and an ouzo before returning to the ship for dinner.  
One of the significant aspects of these Cycladic islands is the amount of marble. Syros has marble footpaths and marble streets. There is marble everywhere you look. One of the guides said the local joke is that marble is cheaper than wood. There is certainly a lot more of it than wood.
After dinner a classical music performance from the on board pianist, a Ukranian. Mostly Chopin and Schubert.
 
On our way to the top, marble and more marble

Looking down on Le Lyrial




One day we had a most interesting lecture from a former French Minister, Madame Monique Pelletier, who later when retired from politics became a Constitutional lawyer.  She had 7 children, and was Minister for families, for violence against women, for protection of children, for prisons.

It never ceases to amaze us – all of these islands are stunningly beautiful – but each are different in their own way, and in how they exist, many of them self sustainable.  Mostly they show no evidence of financial hardship, everything maintained well and very clean.  Most have solar panels, and some have windmills as well.

However they are resilient, they have had years of practice.   Such a long history of struggle with invaders over thousands of years, and attacks by pirates always a problem, hence their fortified towns are often high up from the shore.  Apparently pirates used to come and capture their children and take them away to be slaves.  What a world it was, and still is.  Still a struggle against Islam and the Turks as it has been for thousands of years – previously it was the Ottoman Turks, the Venetians, then a thousand years of the Byzantine period when Greece ruled Constantinople. Then the Turks invading again, and at last independence in 1827, most of the islands too, but some a bit later.

Paros yesterday.  Very picturesque villages. Like the other islands it has been inhabited for thousands of years, and is most well known for the quality of its marble.   Everywhere you look there is marble and more marble.  All the houses, streets, walls, pavements are made of marble. The main town Parikia has another beautiful cluster of whitewashed houses and narrow little streets, with splashes of colour from bougainvillea everywhere.  It has a busy harbour with huge ferries coming and going to Pireaus.  This is a long weekend here – Monday is a religious holiday and there will be processions in the streets where they carry the important icons of the Virgin Mary and place it back in the church.   In the ancient church of Ekatontapyliani women were busily polishing all the candlesticks, cleaning the icons and the silver frames, flags were being strung outside the church all in preparation for Monday.  After our busy morning walking tour with our guide, we had a siesta but returned to the town later in the afternoon just to have a walk around and again a beer and an ouzo.  The tender goes back and forth to the ship, so we can come and go as we wish as not everyone books into the tours.


small church/monastery

Overnight we sailed to Amorgos and this morning we had to get up early to be ready for an excursion leaving just after 8am.   That is why it gets tiring, because we rarely get a chance to take it slowly in the mornings.  The excursions are planned so we can get out and about before the main tourist crowds are busy and before it gets too hot.   Amorgos was known as Minoa since the Cretan Minoans lived here for many centuries. It has been inhabited since at least 3300BC.  It is just 153 square kms, long and with a chain of mountains, east of the Cyclades.  It is very small and quiet, and very pleasant to visit. Lots of chains of old windmills can be seen on the skyline.  Apparently Luc Besson chose Amorgos as the background for the first part of his movie “The Big Blue”.    

294 steps up to this monastery, difficult coming down
Today we had a mini bus for the English speakers which was quite luxurious!  We set off – our guide talks all the time giving us a run down on the facts and history of the island – and we came to a monastery set into the high cliffs of Mount Prophet Elijah, hanging over the sea.  This was the main feature of our visit.  It is called the Holy Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, and we had to climb 294 steps to reach the monastery which is 300 metres up above sea level. It is small and narrow, built into the cliff, and we just cannot imagine how it was built – started in the 8th century.   Today there are only 3 monks left keeping it going, but there were young students guarding the doors and making sure everyone was dressed appropriately. They have several very precious icons and documents which they keep there, and occasionally lend to museums throughout the world.  Inside we climbed up small steep steps in the cliff and were invited to sit down in a small room where we were given raki flavoured with cinnamon, lemon leaves and cloves, and Turkish delight to eat.  We listened to several legends of how the most famous icon came there and inspired the building of the church.  Coming down the 294 steps was almost harder than the climb up.  The famous wind, the meltemi which comes in August to this part of the world was blowing a gale, it was hard to stand up, but kept us fresh at least in the heat.





 After the monastery we visited the main town of Chora, a lovely little town with gorgeous winding narrow streets, all whitewashed with bright blue shutters and wrapped in the vines of bright pink bougainvillea. The wind was so strong it was hard to get around.  We will go back to the shore later in the afternoon to have a walk around. 

Our guide told us that in ancient times the women used to weave dark red material from bamboo fibre, or a kind of linen, an interesting note for me. I see a few hand-woven rag rugs on steps and seats and lots of lace and embroidery that is old and attractive.  I am told that sadly nobody does any of these kind of handicrafts anymore. It hasn’t rained for 5 months, so everything is brown and dry, I noticed some wild thyme near the monastery, several goats around and donkeys but not much else.  Always olive trees and figs.     

Symi The maritime skills of the Greeks can be seen again and again.  Now we are in the Dodecanese, at the island of Symi, just northwest of Rhodes.  When I look at the map I realise we are very close to Turkey. The island has cypress forests, vineyards and olives, and the people live off tourism, fishing and agriculture.  They have a thriving industry of sponge diving here. Long ago it had a boat building industry and it is said to have built 500 ships a year.  Homer writes that Symi sent ships to the Trojan War.  The history is similar to the other islands, Romans where here in 2nd and 1st century BC, followed by the Byzantine period, then the Knights of Rhodes, then the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century.   As Symi boats were very fast there was an Ottoman post office an important responsibility.  Early 20th century the island was given to the Italians, then liberated at the end of the 2nd World War.   Apparently there are 500 steps we can climb later to get a stunning view.  Don’t know yet if my knees will allow it, we shall see.
At the port








gorgeous old loom in the museum



oil jars



We went to a great lecture yesterday about Greek mythology – we saw a family tree of of the Greek Gods, and were told various legends of which there are always meanings that can apply to life at any time.

The God Chrono (time) was jealous of his sons and killed most of them.   Zeus survived and went through the same situation.  Every time his wife Heres had a child, he would swallow it.  She went to her mother in law to ask her advice, and her mother in law suggested that the next time she should hide the baby and give Zeus a stone instead of the baby and he would swallow it. 

The outcome of it is that Zeus was forced to spit up all the babies and the stone eventually and the children survived.  Lots of other legends of similar style.

When I was writing before about water cisterns under houses on the islands that don’t have any fresh water, and even those that do, I forgot to mention the ancient method of making sure the water was fit for drinking.  When the rain water runs off the roof into the cistern, the dust and grit all settles in the bottom.  However, they put eels in the cisterns who feed on the bad microbes dangerous for humans, therefore making the water clean and pure for drinking.

our view at lunch time
We had a magnificent day on Symios.  We went over on the tender this morning and climbed up the hundreds of steps to the top of the town for a magnificent view, then we worked our way in a circle through the little streets as we gradually went down again.  We then took a small local bus - €3 - to the other side of the island to a very small village called Panormitis, about 35 mins on winding narrow roads, a hair raising drive.  Passing through rocky terrain, a ferry comes in daily which can take anyone who wants to Symios, and the bus goes 3 times a day. It is a place of pilgrimage mostly to the monastery.  There were lots of goats wandering around here and there.  We enjoyed the trip in the bus so much, such breathtaking views everywhere.  It dropped people off and picked up here and there, it had about 20 seats I think.  It couldn’t be any bigger on these small roads.  We had to reverse - or others had to sometimes, to get around corners. 

The road was high in the mountains so we had terrific views each side, eventually descending to the village and the 6th century monastery dedicated to Michael the Archangel.  It had a small beautiful and heavily decorated church, the ceilings and arches were painted with biblical stories and there were of course lots of icons.  Then we went to the small museum which was excellent and very interesting.  

lunch at local tavern beside the monastery
It had sections dealing with maritime history, with family agriculture, ecclesiastical items, such as robes, icons, communion cups, crosses and ancient parchments.  There was a textile section with a very old loom, some woven items and embroidery, some old winding machines and bits and pieces.  Part of old distilling machinery and huge jars used for olive oil.   We had a lovely typical Greek lunch in a small tavern overlooking the sea in this very quiet little place. What a place it would be for a relaxing holiday.  






Entrance to the monastery

From the bus



Back at port waiting for the tender 
Now we are back on the boat resting.   Tomorrow is our last day, and we will take an excursion to another famous church on the religious holiday to watch what is happening.  All the colours here are striking – all the houses so different to the other islands we have seen where everything is whitewashed.

St John and the Apocalypse.  Today we are at Patmos island, a small island with rocky mountains, it is the place where it is said that  St John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelations.  An isolated place -  and a place of exile.   The island of Icarus is not far away, and several other small islands and the coast of Turkey.  It is not used generally as a tourist or holiday place, except by upper class well off Greeks who have built beautiful houses around the monastery area. A popular holidaying spot for the Athenian wealthy, in contrast to Mykonos a popular place for the international wealthy. 
Knights of St John


Huge stone dough bowl for making bread


The Knights of St John

Courtyard of the monastery







View on our walk down to the Cave of the Apocalypse




We have had a wonderful excursion this morning to a monastery set on top of a mountain built in memory of St John.   A beautiful very old church with monastery buildings.  Our guide told us many stories that have been passed on about the saint, about the icons, and about words and meanings of the Greek language.  Today Theologian appealed to me.  Theos – a God – logian words, where logic comes from -  The Knights of Saint John were active here, the Hospitaliers, and their sign – a cross with eight points is carved into several stone archways.

The rest of the day was basically packing up and getting ready to leave. A farewell cocktail party on Deck 6 again, followed by a magnificent dinner. 
Crew farewell

We disembarked the next day and took a taxi to our hotel in Athens.  We spent most of our full day in Athens using the open top bus, and passed many fascinating hours at the Archaeological museum.  All the displays from the islands were fascinating as we were able to identify with the places they were found.  It was a happy and interesting full on three weeks.  The ship is a friendly and happy place to be, the staff so agreeable and seemingly enjoying their work.

We are very much looking forward to our next cruise, a 17-day cruise in August 2017 under the title of Ultima Thule, the Horizontal Everest, which goes from Kangerluassaq in Greenland all through the Baffin sea around the east coast of Canada to Straeling island, the northernmost point reached by the Vikings.  

Following are some favourites at the Archaeological Museum, Athens. 
From the archaeological museum at Athens











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