Overview and Itinerary of Voyages to Antiquity Cruise on the Aegean Odyssey
Voyages to Antiquity operates one 378-guest ship, the Aegean Odyssey. The small ship cruise line specializes in destination cruising to sites in the central and eastern Mediterranean with historical, archaeological, or cultural significance. The cruises often include pre- and post-cruise hotel stays in the embarkation and debarkation ports, and shore excursions in each port of call are also included in the fare, much like you will find on a European river cruise.
I sailed on "The Isles of Greece - Where Delos Rose and Phoebus Sprung" Aegean Odyssey itinerary from Athens to Istanbul. Although I only did the 7-night cruise, plus one night in an Istanbul hotel, the entire cruise tour was 12 nights--2 nights in Athens hotel, the 7-night cruise, and 3 nights in an Istanbul hotel. This tour was an excellent mixture of major cities and charming Greek and Turkish ports. We toured numerous ancient archaeological sites of the Greeks, Minoans, Venetians, and Romans. I had almost forgotten how important the Greek mythological deities were to their ancient civilizations. Moving ahead to the 20th century, we were touched by the more recent World War I battlefields at Gallipoli. Overall, it was exactly what I expected--educational, stimulating, and fun.
The next 14 pages provide a look at each of the places we visited. Some days we were off the ship touring all day; other days we were just ashore in organized tours either in the morning or the afternoon.
Embarkation in Athens, Greece
My cruise on the Aegean Odyssey of Voyages to Antiquity began with an overnight flight to Athens. The television media had recently been filled with stories of political riots in the city due to the economic debt crisis of Greece, but I saw none of this on the ride from the airport to the cruise ship port at Piraeus. I also didn't see a lot of graffiti on the buildings or other signs of social unrest. Most passengers on our cruise participated in the two-night pre-cruise stay in Athens. Voyages to Antiquity had originally planned for the cruise tour guests to stay in a downtown luxury hotel but moved everyone participating in the overnight stays to a resort hotel on the coast. Everyone seemed to be happy with the hotel change, and the included Athens half-day tour to the Acropolis went off without interruption, as did optional tours to the National Archaeology Museum, Cape Sounion, and Delphi.
I was met at the pier by Voyages to Antiquity representatives, and I was in my cabin just a few minutes after exiting the taxi. The cabin was much more spacious than I expected and had a nice balcony and bath with tub/shower combination. I ate a delicious buffet lunch in the Terrace Cafe, followed by a tour of the Aegean Odyssey. Although the ship is older than many cruise ships, it has been significantly refurbished and looks great.
The cruise tour guests arrived in mid-afternoon, and we had the mandatory lifeboat drill, followed by cocktails soon after and the welcome aboard party. Dinner was open seating in the Marco Polo Restaurant (6:45 to 8:45). I had the smoked salmon appetizer, Greek cream of chicken soup, blackened perch, and ice cream with peaches/Prosecco. All were delicious. The Aegean Odyssey sailed for Nafplio on the Peloponnese peninsula late that evening. As we sailed away from Piraeus, I could see the lights of Piraeus and the lovely coastline.
Our first full day on the ship started with the Aegean Odyssey already anchored off the town of Nafplio, Greece in the early morning. I had visited Nafplio (also spelled Naphlion, Nafplion, Navplion, Nauplia or some other variation) once before. Ships anchor in the harbor, so guests must use a tender to go ashore. It has Bourtzi, an old Venetian fort sitting on a small island in the harbor, and the legendary castle of Palamidi, a Venetian fortress from 1687 that sits high on a hill overlooking the town. Prior to 1956, those who wanted to visit the old fortress had to climb the 900+ Bavarian stone steps from near the town square to the summit. A road was built in 1956, and I took a taxi up to the top on my first visit. Like much of Greece, Palamidi was occupied by the Ottomans from 1715 to 1822. After a long siege, the Greeks recaptured the fortress and subsequently used it as a prison for those sentenced to death. It's just a shell today. It was interesting to me that the executioners lived at the fortress of Bourtzi during this time since it was bad luck to have them live in the town itself. (Note: Anyone who has read the novel "The Hangman's Daughter" will appreciate what a sad life people with this occupation had.)
Nafplio was famous during World War II as the site of the sinking of two British ships in 1941, the HMS Wryneck and the HMS Diamond. These two British destroyers were attacked and sunk by German aircraft while in the Nafplio harbor. The ships were helping in the evacuation of troops from Greece. Both ships lost most of their crew and those they were evacuating--over 1000 people.
Voyages to Antiquity had an included tour to Mycenae in the morning, and an optional tour to Epidaurus in the afternoon. I did the morning tour, but after eating a nice Greek salad and pizza for lunch outdoors on the ship, returned to Nafplio to see how much it had changed in the past eight years. I was very happy to see that the town was as pretty as ever, with narrow streets lined with Venetian houses and marvelous bougainvillea everywhere. The town was the first capital of Greece after its 1821-1832 war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, and with three ancient fortresses, it's easy to see that it has long been an important port. Since Nafplio is less than a 3-hour drive, bus, or train ride from Athens, it gets many tourists, but not too many cruise ships since it doesn't have a large dock. I wandered through the streets and did some window shopping, noting the numerous outdoor cafes and bars, which I am sure are packed in the evenings. Nafplio is definitely a nice place for a stroll, and it also has a folklore, archaeological, and military museum.
Voyages to Antiquity has most shore excursions included, and our first tour was to Mycenae, about 30 minutes away from Nafplio via bus. The ship has color-coded groups, and the buses leave about five minutes or so apart. We first rode a tender into town from the Aegean Odyssey. Mycenae is a UNESCO World Heritage site and dates back the 16th to the 13th century BC. Mycenae was one of the greatest cities of the Mycenaean civilization, and it was here that Agamemnon returned to after winning the very long Trojan War, only to have his wife and her lover kill him. The Lion Gate, a large rock entryway topped with two lionesses (without their heads) is Europe's oldest piece of a monumental sanctuary, dating back to about 1250 BC.
Like many ancient Greek towns, the part of Mycenae that has been excavated is the acropolis. Like most people, I always thought the Acropolis was only in Athens. However, now that I've been to Greece several times, I know that any fortified rock on a hill overlooking a city is an acropolis (root words are acro--top and polis--town). The acropolis at Lindos on the island of Rhodes is similar to this one. The Mycenaeans chose this rocky hill rather than the many others nearby because it has a spring water supply, was near the sea (you can see it from the summit), and has two higher mountains over it for added protection. The Mycenae acropolis has the remnants of a simple palace on top and a graveyard. The amateur German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (who also excavated Troy) was responsible for much of the digging at the site (1876), and he found gold masks, breastplates, and arm/leg plates weighing about 90 pounds in the five graves in the cemetery that held 19 skeletons (two were children). Like Egyptian tombs, the dead also had many objects buried with them that they might need in the next life (like jewels, crowns, and vessels. Personally, I would have taken some potato chips and wine.) It was interesting that the monuments over the male graves were sculpted hunting scenes, with just plain monuments for the women. Guess even back then, men got better stuff than women. The graves date back to 1600 BC, so scientists have determined that they can't be those of Agamemnon or his family since they lived about 1200 BC.
After walking around with the guide for a while using the Audiovox machines to hear with, we had free time to explore the small museum (most of the best artifacts are in Athens or the British Museum) or walk up to the top of the acropolis. Like most of our group, I walked up to the top, took my photos, and then zipped through the museum in order to catch the bus.
We next visited the Tomb of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. It was very near the Mycenae acropolis, and we could have walked, but the ride was nice since it was getting very warm. This Tholos tomb is one of nine tombs of similar construction in Greece. Many call this Agamemnon's Tomb, but it was built about 50 years before Agamemnon died, which is why experts think it was his father's. It is also referred to as the Treasure of Atreus. It's a huge conical shape and is built into the side of a hill.
The bus returned to the ship at Nafplio about 12:30, and after lunch, I went back into town for a few hours. Dinner was at the Marco Polo Restaurant, and it was very good. I had a feta cheese/pastry appetizer, green salad, and halibut, with cherries jubilee (and chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. The ship sailed for Crete in the early evening.
The Aegean Odyssey docked in Rethymno (also spelled Rethimno or Rethimnon), Crete early in the morning, and we had included tours both in the morning and in the afternoon. Rethymno is Crete's third largest city, with about 30,000 residents. It's located on the northern coast of Crete and a good port for small ships to dock since it's about an hour's bus ride from Chania to the west and Knossos to the east.
The main attraction in Rethymno is the huge Venetian Fortezza Castle, which is at the top of a low hill and dominates the town. Built in 1580 to protect the town from pirates and the Ottomans, it has long played an important role in protecting Rethymno. The fortress was in active use even during World War II. Rethymno has been inhabited since Minoan times but prospered under the Venetians and Ottomans. At the conclusion of our morning bus tour to Chania, we walked up to the top of the Fortezza and had good views of the ship and the town below. Near the entrance of the fort is an archaeological museum with objects dating back from the late Neolithic to the Roman period.
From Rethymno, the Aegean Odyssey had an included tour to Chania in the morning, returning to the ship for lunch. We then had an included tour to Knossos in the afternoon.
Our group left the Aegean Odyssey at 7:45 am, and we drove the gorgeous northern coastline of Crete west towards Chania. The roadway was lined with white and red oleanders, which add to the dramatic ocean views. Our guide said that the oleanders add to the beauty, but also help keep the many goats and sheep off the roads since they are thick and bitter tasting to the animals.
Crete is about 75 percent mountains, so it has many spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and sparkling, clear blue waters. The island also has many beaches and the mountains are dotted with thousands of caves, which have been very important as hiding places over the centuries since the island has been bombarded and conquered by many groups due to its prime location -- near Europe, Asia, and Africa.
We drove by the large NATO naval base at Souda Bay and many inviting beaches on the way to Chania. We arrived there about 9 am, but the scenic ride went by quickly. I had visited Chania before but hadn't seen much of the town since I had ridden across the island to the southern shore to hike parts of the famous Samaria Gorge. The town was quite charming and had a pretty little Venetian harbor (those Venetians traveled more than I do). It also had a small archaeological museum that was housed in the old Venetian church of San Francesco. I especially liked the large market.
Unfortunately, our time in Chania was very limited. We stayed in Chania until 10:15 and then rode back towards Rethymno for lunch before heading off to the Palace of Knossos in the afternoon.
Palace of Knossos, Crete
We were back on the Aegean Odyssey from Chania by noon and had about two hours to eat lunch and get ready for the tour to Knossos. I ate lunch outside since although it was broiling in the sun, it was very comfortable in the shade.
Our group left the ship at 1:45 for the hour's drive to Knossos, the famous site of King Minos' palace. The peaceful Minoan civilization (no walls around their towns) ruled Crete from 2000-1600 BC. That's almost 4000 years ago! The palace at Knossos was buried under over 50 feet of rubble when Sir Arthur Evans, British archaeologist, began excavation there in 1899. As he dug, he "restored" much of the palace to the way he thought it looked. Although it's interesting, he might have done a little bit too much. It was very hot, and the place hadn't changed much I had visited there in 2004, but it was interesting to see/hear other's thoughts on the restoration.
No matter what you think about what Evans did in his restoration, the palace is huge. Most people know the Greek myth story about the Minotaur and the labyrinth. The Knossos palace was the labyrinth, and the Minoan artwork is impressive.
At the conclusion of the tour, we had about 45 minutes of free time to shop and have a cold drink. We left Knossos at 5:15 and were back on the Aegean Odyssey by 6:30. I decided to have a quick dinner at the Terrace Cafe buffet rather than go to the main dining room. I had a large Greek salad (the second one today), red snapper, minute steak, potatoes, and ice cream. All was accompanied by a bunch of wine; it had been a long day!
The next day we would be at Delos in the morning and on Mykonos in the afternoon.
The Sacred Island of Delos
The Aegean Odyssey was anchored off the sacred island of Delos the next morning. It was my first visit to this sacred sanctuary, and I was very impressed. I've been to Mykonos several times but never had taken an optional tour to Delos, because there is so much to see on Mykonos. This time, our small ship the Aegean Odyssey anchored near Delos, and we used the tenders to go ashore.
We left the ship at 8:30, and Delos and Mykonos are very windy, so it never got as hot as the day before on Crete. We also were always near the water (unlike Knossos, which is about three miles inland). Delos is a small, rocky island about three miles long and less than a mile wide. It was the most sacred place to the ancient Greeks because Zeus' twins, Apollo and Artemis (Diana), were born there. The island is in the center of the Cyclades and has over 300 days of intense sunshine a year. It is not subject to the earthquakes found in much of the rest of Greece.
The earliest inhabitants of Delos (about 2500 BC) had simple homes on the top of a low hill, and the Mycenaeans arrived at Delos in about 1500 BC. The Apollo sanctuary dates back to the 9th century BC, and Greeks from all over the Greek world came here to worship during the 5th-4th century BC.
Starting in about 167 BC, Delos was named a free port, and it became the hub of commercial activity for all the eastern Mediterranean. Rich merchants and bankers and traders settled on Delos and built luxurious homes. Many called Delos the greatest commercial center of the world and 30,000 people lived on this little rock about the 1st century BC. About 750,000 tons of merchandise moved through its four ports each year. Over 10,000 slaves were sold at the huge market square in one day!
The peaceful island Delos was attacked by Mithridates, the King of Pontus (on the Black Sea) in 88 BC and again by pirates from Athenodorus in 69 BC. After that attack, the island was gradually abandoned.
The excavations of this massive site (pretty much the whole island) started in 1872 and continue today. Like many ancient sites, archaeologists had to dig through many feet of rubble and dirt to reach the remains of the many buildings, streets, monuments, and structures like a huge theater. Very interesting site. I still can't believe I never came here from Mykonos.
I returned to the ship about 11:30 am, and we sailed from Delos to Mykonos while we were eating lunch.
The Aegean Odyssey arrived in Mykonos about 2 pm, and I rode the shuttle bus into town from the ship about 3:00. We didn't have an organized tour, but Mykonos is easy to get around, so it wasn't needed. Since I had been to the island several times before, I found an Internet cafe at the far side of the harbor and enjoyed a beer and some people watching while catching up on email. The Aegean Odyssey was not sailing for Samos, Greece until 11:59 pm, giving everyone plenty of time to explore Mykonos and have dinner ashore if we chose.
Mykonos is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Greece. Mykonos town is a quintessential Greek island town, filled with a maze of narrow walkways, bougainvillea-decorated whitewashed buildings, bars, restaurants, shops, galleries, and boutiques. The island is one of Greek's more expensive, so the shop prices are often higher than you will find on less-visited islands. Other than the myriad of shops, the island has remnants of some 16th-century windmills, which were used to grind grain when the island was a major seaport linking Venice and Asia. It also features marvelous beaches, fascinating churches and small chapels, and a few interesting museums. Mykonos is a popular gay travel destination, with several gay bars and clubs.
A group of us from the ship had dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants near the windmills. It featured good food and a spectacular view of the sunset. We were back on the ship in plenty of time before the Aegean Odyssey sailed for Samos.
The next morning, I awoke to find the Aegean Odyssey was already tied to the dock on the island of Samos, Greece in the northeast Aegean Sea. Samos is the closest Greek isle to Turkey, with the distance separating the two continents less than one mile. Samos is quite mountainous and green, very different than dry, flat Mykonos. The island is covered with olive and pine trees and also has good beaches, making it very attractive to vacationers, especially those from Scandinavia on group tours. Since the island is fairly large (six or seven times larger than Mykonos, with about 150 square miles), it offers good hiking and mountain biking for those who don't want to spend their days on the beach.
Samos' most famous native son was famous mathematician Pythagoras, who was born in 580 BC and "discovered" the geometric theorem that bears his name. Pythagoras was also the first westerner to use octave as a musical term and understood that the earth was turning west to east and wasn't flat. However, he didn't know the earth revolved around the sun. Samos' most famous visitors were Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, who spent a year on the island during one of the many wars. According to our guide, they really lived (and loved) it up there.
The Aegean Odyssey docked in Vathi (also called Samos town), which is island's largest town with about 3,500 residents. (total island inhabitants are 45,000, so it must have many towns about the same size) We had a 4-hour tour that started at 8 am and would visit three places--the Temple to Hera, the archaeological museum, and a winery.
Our bus went to the Temple of Hera (also called Heraion) first, which was about a 30-minute ride from the port. The ride was quite scenic, with great views of the oleanders lining the road, olive trees, vineyards, and mountains and the sea. Samos has many new-style windmills, and the guide said many residents make use of solar power also. Greece doesn't use nuclear power, and over 50 percent of its power is from coal. In addition to the solar and wind, they also use tidal water flowing through tubes to create hydro-electric power.
All of you who studied Greek mythology will remember Hera, wife of Zeus. Myths portray him as quite a philanderer. Her husband's infidelities drove her little nuts, and Hera did all sorts of vengeful things to Zeus' girlfriends. Everywhere we went, we heard that Hera was chasing some girlfriend or another across the Mediterranean. Our Samos guide called her the "be careful what you wish for" goddess.
The Temple of Hera was built on a swampy location, and many artifacts were found when it was first excavated 200-300 years ago. Evidently, the swamp protected even wooden items. Although many of the original pieces have been moved to museums in Samos town or Athens to protect them, the replicas provide a good sense of how it looked. It was a little eerie walking down the Sacred Way that thousands of pilgrims had walked over 2500 years ago! The most dramatic original item left standing is one of the 155 columns that once supported the largest Greek temple anywhere in the world. The temple was built in two sections--the first about 700 BC and the second about 500 BC. The column was very tall, but at the time the temple was standing, the columns were twice as high (about 70 feet or 20 meters). This temple was built about 100 years before the Parthenon, and it served as a model for many other ancient temples that were constructed in a similar style, including the Temple of Artemis at nearby Ephesus, just across the channel. During the time of Polycrates, the temple was rebuilt and expanded, but it was badly damaged during the numerous invasions and a series of earthquakes. Many of the visitors to Samos in the 17th-18th centuries spent part of their time sketching this column, much as we modern photographers all have to take a picture of it.
We only stayed at the site about 40 minutes, noting that there were two small groups of archaeologists painfully (and tediously) working at the site even today. The bus took the same route back to Samos town, where we visited the Archaeological Museum, which is housed in two buildings about a block from the harbor (next to city hall). The museum is relatively small, with pottery and sculptures from the area. The surviving statues from the Temple were placed in the museum. This includes the giant five meters high Kouros, which is the largest surviving Greek statue, dating back to the 7th century BC. The piece is a free-standing boy with a smile on his face and looks a little like the Egyptian statues, but is free-standing and sculpted all around (rather than just in the front). Interestingly, the sculptor has the hands "stuck" to the thighs and not dangling like in later works. Guess he was afraid the weight would make them fall off or tip the statue over.
After the museum, we re-boarded the bus and rode the short distance to the winery. Due to the high winds, the grape vines on Samos are grown low to the ground, and the muscat grape is most common. No red wines are produced; only white and rose. The Samos wine has long been famous, and scientists have documented jars of wine shipped across the Mediterranean to Cadiz, Spain in 500 BC. At one time, almost all the wine used by the Catholic Church for communion came from Samos. We tasted three wines, but I only liked the dry one. The expensive sweet wine was way too sweet for most of us.
We were back on the ship about 11:50, and we sailed at noon. Although only a few ships visit Samos, the AIDAaura, a German cruise line ship owned by Carnival, was waiting for our spot at the small pier when we left for Kusadasi.
It didn't take us long for the Aegean Odyssey to cross the strait to Kusadasi, Turkey and we were docked before 2 pm. The ship had an included tour to Ephesus from 2:30 to 6:30, but I decided to skip the tour since I had visited Ephesus several times, and the day was very warm. (To be honest, I was a little "dead-rocked" out, and wanted to enjoy our full-day tour the next day to Aphrodisias, Turkey).
I walked into town for a short time, but I don't have a lot of tolerance for aggressive vendors, especially when I don't plan to buy anything. One of the city's most prominent landmarks is the old Ottoman caravan stopover. Kusadasi is a favorite port for cruise ships, and there were four others in port the two days we were there. There's lots of shopping in Kusadasi, and the small island connected to the mainland by a causeway is named Pigeon Island. Interestingly, the word Kusadasi means "bird island", so the town is named for this small island. Kusadasi also has a few rocky beaches, but the city of about 50,000 is primarily a good base for tours to the ancient cities of Ephesus and Aphrodisias.
Ancient City of Ephesus
Ephesus is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved cities of the ancient world, and anyone who visits Kusadasi should plan to take a tour there. St. Paul, St. John and the Virgin Mary have all been placed in Ephesus, and the city is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis (Diana). Unfortunately, only the massive foundation of this 3000-year-old Temple remains.
In ancient times Ephesus (also called Efes) was a seaport, but the harbor silted in and the ruins are found further inland than it seems they should be. Ephesus was once home to over 250,000 residents, on a par with Athens and Rome. It was a prosperous city as early as 600 BC when it was attacked by King Croesus of Lydia. He destroyed the peaceful city of Ephesus, which did not even have defensive walls and relocated the citizens to a new site inland south of the Temple of Artemis.
In the early days of Christianity, Ephesus was a prosperous Roman town. Although it had the huge Temple of Artemis, the city had a sizable number of Christian residents, and St. John lived there, along with the Virgin Mary and St. Paul. A small house on the slope of Mt. Coressos, about five miles from Ephesus is celebrated as the Virgin Mary's House (Meryemana). Some tours include a stop at the house, and Pope Paul VI authenticated the site in 1967 when he visited. St. Paul wrote his famous letters to the Ephesians while living in Ephesus. The harbor continued to silt up, and the city declined. It was mostly abandoned by the 6th century AD.
Cruise tourists ride a coach from Kusadasi to Ephesus and walk slightly downhill through the ancient city. Buses pick them up at the other end of the city. Some tours also include a stopover at the interesting Ephesus Museum. Highlights of the Ephesus tour include a stroll along the Curetes Way, the Fountain of Trajan, the Library of Celsus, the great theater, the magnificent Terraced Houses, and the always popular world's oldest flush toilets.
The Aegean Odyssey spent the night in Kusadasi, and we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset from the back deck of the ship while having dinner. Some passengers went into the city for dinner or to enjoy the nightlife. I went to bed looking forward to seeing the ancient city of Aphrodisias the next day.
The Aegean Odyssey was docked in Kusadasi all day the next day until we sailed at 8 pm. The ship had one included tour, an all-day shore excursion to the ancient site of the city of Aphrodisias. Many on the ship chose not to go because it involved a 3-hour bus ride each way, but I didn't want to miss it. Unlike some people, I don't mind scenic bus rides, and was actually excited to see some of the Turkish countrysides since my time in Kusadasi over several cruises has been limited to just a few miles inland to Ephesus, the Virgin Mary's House, and the Church of St. John the Baptist.
We left the ship at 8 am and walked the 10+ minutes to the buses in the parking lot since Kusadasi doesn't let buses out onto the pier. Our bus only had 13, so it was almost like a private tour. We drove almost due east towards Aphrodisias, a city named after the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. (Yes, the root word is the same as for aphrodisiac, but they didn't pass out any samples).
We drove up into the hills, passing by many olive and orange trees. The first road was steep and winding and quite scenic but leveled out when we got into an agricultural valley. The bus went through several small towns, and it was nice to see parts of Turkey not so touristy. The bus stopped about half-way at a small store for a bathroom break and so we could get a snack/drink. What a nice surprise--the bathroom was spotless and there were at least a dozen stalls for women. They also had a guy pressing oranges for fresh-squeezed juice. With all the orange trees around, they didn't have to travel far!
Continuing inland, we passed through a few other towns, and I enjoyed the rolling countryside of the Dandalaz River valley, which had many almond, pomegranate, and other trees. We arrived in Aphrodisias about 11:15 and spent over 2 hours at the site, which is huge---twice as large as Pompeii. Only about 15 percent of the ancient city that was prosperous from the 1st century BC to the 6th century AD has been excavated. I really enjoyed the tour since the city looks a little "wild", with pillars, columns, and other remains scattered throughout the undergrowth. The walking was more difficult than at Ephesus, which is all downhill and more well-traveled, whereas Aphrodisias is more natural. Our guide told us Aphrodisias gets about 200,000 visitors each year, far less than the millions that visit Ephesus. We saw many archaeologists, many of whom were associated with New York University, which has had an excavation project in Aphrodisias since 1961.
Aphrodisias was a cosmopolitan city that is famous for the Aphrodite sanctuary and temple. It also attracted many artists who contributed to the huge number of spectacular reliefs and sculptures used to decorate the temple and the city. However, its large stadium that seated 30,000 was the place that provided the "Wow" factor for me. This stadium was the world's third largest in the ancient world (behind the Hippodrome in Istanbul and Colosseum in Rome). This stadium is very long and narrow and was used for athletic events and circuses--not for chariot racing since the narrow turns wouldn't work for chariots. It was very impressive--especially since it is well preserved. Note that almost nothing of the Hippodrome remains, and most of the seats at the Colosseum are gone. Also, the Colosseum is higher and round rather than oval.
The Aphrodite temple once had over 40 huge columns, but only 14 remain today. Other notable monuments were the double tetrastylon (ornamental gate) from the middle of the second century, the Agora from the first century BC, the baths of Hadrian, and a 7000-seat theater. The large Sebastien Hall, named for a part of the Aphrodite Sanctuary, features a few dozen reliefs and sculptures from the site. It is the newest and best part of the museum, but the only part that is not air-conditioned.
We had a few minutes to shop and have a cold drink after the tour, and left Aphrodisias about 1:30 for the short drive to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed a terrific Mediterranean meal. We started with a Greek (or Turkish) salad, followed by a choice of lamb kebabs (my choice), chicken kebabs, fresh trout, or vegetarian. All were accompanied by hot, delicious pita bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Dessert was baklava, yogurt, and honey, or fresh fruit. I went for the yogurt which was very tasty.
The drive back from the restaurant (which also had numerous toilet stalls--maybe the Turks are starting to catch on about tourists' desires!) was uneventful, and we stopped at an almost identical store owned by the same family, but across the street from the one we stopped at in the morning. They had a huge selection of ice cream bars, and most of us bought one, along with a cold drink since we were still hot from our long day.
We were back at the ship about 6 pm, and the shower felt terrific--love to wash off all that sunscreen and the dirt it attracts! I joined some women from New York and Canada for dinner, and we had a lovely sail away from Kusadasi. Next stop was Canakkale at the entrance to the Dardanelles.
Gallipoli on the Dardanelles
When I awoke the next morning, the Aegean Odyssey was nearing the Gelibolu Peninsula, which greets ships to the Dardanelle Straits. We saw numerous ships in the channel as we sailed towards Canakkale, Turkey, where we would spend the afternoon. The wind was whipping in our faces as we sailed northeast through the narrow strait. Although the sea had small white caps, it wasn't rough, and the channel was both busy and scenic.
We passed by two of the largest and most dramatic New Zealand and Turkish memorials to the World War I Battles of Gallipoli, where over 1 million men fought, and over half a million died or were wounded (230,000 men lost their lives according to some accounts; others have the number much higher). The British mistakenly thought the Turkish army/navy would be easy to defeat in their desire to take over the Dardanelles and provide Russia access to the sea via the Black Sea/Bosphorus/Dardanelles/Mediterranean route. They were wrong. After 11 months, the British left Turkey defeated in a series of battles where thousands would die every day, fighting for just a few hundred yards or a hill. Interestingly, one of the Turkish leaders was a young Lt. Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who later became Turkey's greatest leader and most revered person, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic.
Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders make the pilgrimage to Turkey each year to commemorate the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) men who fought and died at Gallipoli. Many British soldiers died there too, but the percentages are much higher for the Aussies and Kiwis. Turkey also had huge losses, and the memorials recognize that the soldiers were from both sides. They just kept throwing more men into the fray, and they kept on dying. At one point during one battle, they had a 9-hour cease-fire to allow both sides to bury the dead. But, there were so many they couldn't give them all proper burials. Just one sad story after another, but an important lesson for all who visit about the stupidity of war.
We docked in Canakkale on the Asian side of the Dardanelles at about noon. At 1:15, our tour left to cross the straits via car/bus ferry to tour the battlefields/cemeteries to the European side. About half the ship's passengers chose to go to the ruins of Troy, the other half like me chose to go to Gallipoli. I had heard that not much was left of Troy, except for a "Trojan horse" used for photo opportunities. Since we had seen marvelous ruins at other sites, I was ready to see something else.
It was a beautiful Sunday, which must be a popular time for travelers from all over to go across the Dardanelles to Gallipoli because our bus had to wait to catch the ferry going both directions! We had an excellent guide--I think he must be the best one (or the only one) that does English language tours. He is a professor who teaches English and history and is an expert on the Gallipoli battles of 1915.
We rode along the coastline and I couldn't help but notice the gorgeous beaches lining the peninsula. Much like the Normandy beaches of World War II, these had beautiful sand and were quiet, with families swimming and enjoying the sunshine. Our guide pointed out some of the important battlefield sites of this battle that lasted 11 months on the sea and 9 months on land. The losses on both sides were horrific, and the Turks didn't really want to be on the side of the Germans but felt like they had been pushed into it. (Turkey had ordered and paid for two battleships from Great Britain, but when war broke out the UK wouldn't deliver the completed ships and wouldn't refund the money. This and a few other imperialistic ideas forced Turkey to choose sides (they were also very afraid of Russia), and they chose wrong.
It was very interesting to see some of the monuments up close that I had only seen from cruise ships sailing the Dardanelles. It was also interesting to hear about the role played by famous soldiers and politicians such as Kitchener, Churchill, and Ataturk.
Because of the late ferries, we were back on the ship later than planned--about 6:30--and sailed right away. We had a farewell cocktail party and dinner. My suitcase was packed and outside the door by 11 pm and I was asleep soon after, dreaming of the next day in Istanbul.
The Aegean Odyssey docked early the next morning in Istanbul. After a wonderful cruise, we sadly disembarked from the ship at about 8:30 am, and the staff began cleaning and getting the ship ready for its next cruise to the Black Sea. The ship had an included half-day tour of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Chora Church and Museum. Most half-day Istanbul tours usually include the Hippodrome (not much left of it) and the Haggia Sophia museum, but it is closed on Mondays, so the Chora Church was substituted. Some tour groups stop at the spice market or grand bazaar and those who love spas should make time to visit a traditional Turkish bath.
The Blue Mosque is still an active mosque, and they allow groups of visitors inside when services are not ongoing. Everyone removes their shoes (they give you a plastic bag to put them in to carry) and men and women have to have their shoulders and knees covered. The place was packed with tourists, so you really couldn't see very well. The Blue Mosque got its name from the 20,000 blue tiles that line its walls and the blue carpet that originally covered the floor, which now has a red carpet.
We walked to the Topkapi Palace, a 143-acre complex of buildings, gardens, and (of course) a harem for the sultan's wives (up to 500). This Istanbul palace was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. Ataturk converted it into a museum in 1923 when Turkey became a republic and didn't have a sultan anymore. Like the Blue Mosque, the place was packed, with long lines for the Treasury that has many jeweled objects, including the famous Topkapi dagger made famous by the 1964 Peter Ustinov movie, Topkapi. The museum also has an 86-carat diamond and many pieces that are so big they look fake.
I had been to both Topkapi and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul but had never been to the Chora Church. It is a Christian church that dates back to the 5th century. It had some very intricate mosaics made with such small tiles that looked like paintings until you got very close.
We got to the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel about 1:30 and our luggage was already in our rooms. I ate a very late lunch in the hotel's outdoor cafe and decided to skip dinner and just eat out of the huge fruit bowl they gave me.
I left the hotel the next morning for my flight to JFK Airport in New York and then on to Atlanta. It had been a memorable cruise tour on the Aegean Odyssey of Voyages to Antiquity, filled with ancient history, amazing ruins, and excellent food and traveling companions. This cruise line is well-suited for those who love small ships, lifelong learning, and destination-oriented cruises to fascinating locales.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.