Travel is not what it was. When Odysseus journeyed home across the Aegean after the fall of Troy 3,000 years ago, his epic odyssey took 10 years and was fraught with whirlpools, cannibals, ghosts, monsters and alluring nymphs.
Today I face no trials, tribulations or temptations as I make the 45-minute flight from Athens to Rhodes. The sea lies calm beneath me, speckled with ragged islands of all shapes and sizes.
There are around a hundred populated Greek islands, with many thousands more uninhabited. The wakes of myriad ferries, hydrofoils and yachts crisscross among them. I recall the old Greek proverb: “The land divides, but the sea connects.” It seems profound, yet on reflection the proverb is both right and wrong in equal measure.
More than 6 million years ago, the Mediterranean was a dry basin, and the islands we know today were mountaintops. Passage from one to the next is much easier now that they are enveloped in azure water. Submerged wrecks and reefs permitting, you voyage between them directly.
But at Rhodes I have reached the end of the islandhopping line. To the north is the looming coast of Asia. I am standing in Greece looking at Turkey. The 11-mile width of placid water conceals the political gulf between the two countries. When tensions between these uncomfortable neighbors rise, passage from the island to the mainland becomes practically impossible: You might as well be looking at the moon.
The Turkish shoreline is a wonderful, fractured thing, scarred and indented by the clash of the European and Asian tectonic plates. For tourists who choose to view the Aegean from the Turkish side, crewed traditional yachts — gulets — provide the perfect means to spend a week or more voyaging between the tranquil coves of the Turquoise Coast.
When one is moored close to Turkish fishing villages, dusk and dawn are heralded by muezzins calling the faithful to prayer at local mosques. Sometimes the sound is carried on the breeze across to Rhodes. Similarly, when the wind switches, the clang of Greek church bells can be heard in Turkey.
The historic tussles between Islam and Christianity have played out vividly in Rhodes. It was here that the Knights of the Order of St. John established a Christian stronghold after Jerusalem fell. The medieval old town, with its foot-worn stone alleyways and formidable battlements, is largely the legacy of those crusaders.
In the 16th century, the island was captured by the Ottoman Empire and remained in Turkish hands for 400 years. After periods of Italian and German occupation, it finally reverted to Greece in 1948. Minarets and Turkish baths testify to the long Islamic period, but today Rhodes and its population are resolutely Greek.
It is from here that I embark on my minor odyssey, using the extensive ferry network to carry me in installments back to the distant Greek mainland.
A map of the Aegean is like a chart of the night sky, with innumerable islands speckled like stars across the watery firmament. Look closer and there are distinct constellations.
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese, a group of 17 inhabited islands nestled against the Turkish coast. To the west lie the Cyclades, the archetypal Greek islands: arid, studded with olive groves, fringed by rugged cliffs embroidered with white-washed houses and blue-domed churches.
The Argo-Saronic Islands are clustered within an easy day trip of Athens and boast some significant ancient ruins. Despite their proximity to the capital, these islands have been overlooked by package tourism and retain an authentically rustic atmosphere. To the west of the Greek mainland, in the Ionian Sea, lie the beautiful islands of Corfu, Kefalonía, Zákinthos and Ithaca (Odysseus’s homeland).
My journey will keep me in the Aegean. After a voyage via Crete, the vast island that divides the Aegean from the Mediterranean, I arrive at Santoríni, the most spectacular of the Cyclades. Here is geological eviden ce that some of the legendary perils faced by Odysseus were very real. The island is the remnant of a volcano that erupted 3,750 years ago, wiping out the Minoan civilization.
Small sightseeing boats — which I make use of during my stay — dock at Skala at the foot of a volcanic cliff. Foolishly, I shun the line for the cable car and elect to climb the switchback steps that lead up to the island’s precariously perched capital, Thira. It is a breathless, breathtaking hike. Soon the port and its fishing boats floating below appear miniature.
I am scaling the rim of the cataclysmic volcano. From this high vantage I can survey the steep, enfolding curve of the main island and can imagine the extreme violence that created the fragmented caldera that survives today. Yachts tack through the sheltered waters, blissfully unaware that they are in the jaws of the volcano.
From Santoríni I catch the ferry north to another of the Cyclades, Mykonos. The waterfront of the old fishing town of Mykonos, Chora — unimaginatively dubbed “Little Venice” — is one of the most picturesque spots in Greece and is a particular favorite of watercolor artists.
As I approach Mykonos from the sea, charter jets fly overhead bringing in an endless succession of European vacationers. I can’t help but feel that they are cheating.
My chain of voyages ought to have brought me somewhere truly remote, but all too often in the Greek islands a somnolent boat journey ends abruptly at a dock lined with souvenir shops and all the trappings of package tourism. After nightfall, bars thump out the latest dance music, and gaudy lights glitter in the lapping water of the harbor.
For an entirely different pace, I head for the Sporades, a group of islands north of Athens. It was on one of these, Skopelos, that the movie Mamma Mia was filmed, and consequently its popularity — especially among women of a certain age — has dramatically increased in the past 12 months.
But my goal is another of the Sporades, Alónissos, which is largely untouched by mass tourism and is the location of the first national marine park in Greece.
At the little fishing harbor of Stení Vala, I join a boat tour to some of the uninhabited islets protected by the national park. For the early part of the voyage, a dolphin weaves back and forth across our bow. It abandons us when we enter shallow water, and now we raise our binoculars and scan the shore for another marine mammal.
The Sporades are the last significant refuge of the Mediterranean monk seal, one of the world’s rarest animals — fewer than 450 individuals remain in the wild. After an hour of looking, we finally spot one basking on a pebble beach. The boat maintains a safe distance. Later, back at Stení Vala, we gain a much closer view of this perilously endangered creature at the village’s Monk Seal Rehabilitation Center.
In the late afternoon I take a long walk into the hilly, pine-draped interior of Alónissos. I follow a winding path through tree-shade, finally reaching an open vantage that affords a panoramic view to the horizon.
It is a timeless vista. The Aegean glistens silver in the declining sunlight. Neighboring islands loom as rugged silhouettes. The scent of salt and pine is carried on the lazy sea breeze. Gulls call overhead. For a few precious minutes, I can believe that nothing has changed here in 3,000 years.
AMAZING VIEW HOTEL, MYKONOS
The name is no idle boast. From its hilltop location, 1,600 feet above sea level, the panorama is, well, amazing. $$$
AMAZING VIEW HOTEL, MYKONOS
Agios Stefanos Beach, 84600 Mykonos
tel 30 22890 22053
CAPSIS HOTEL RHODES
This 5-star beach resort overlooks the Aegean and is within a short drive of the medieval city of Rhodes. $$$$
CAPSIS HOTEL RHODES
Ixia, 851 00 Rhodes
tel 30 22410 25015
PEGASUS SUITES, SANTORÍNI
Luxurious suites in a spectacular cliffside location within walking distance of the island’s picturesque capital, Thira. $$$
PEGASUS SUITES, SANTORÍNI
tel 30 22860 28336
FOTIS ME LATHR ON, RHODES
Greek specialties served within a medieval building in the heart of the old town of Rhodes. $$
FOTIS ME LATHR ON, RHODES
41 Parodos Sokratous, Rhodes
tel 30 22410 24272
LOTUS TAVERNA, MYKONOS
This bougainvillea-draped property in the old town has been a Mykonos favorite for three decades, serving authentic Greek dishes. $
LOTUS TAVERNA, MYKONOS
47 Matoyanni, Mykonos
tel 30 22890 22881
PAPAGALOS RESTAURANT, SANTORÍNI
Contemporary Greek cuisine incorporating organic farm produce and fresh seafood. $$
PAPAGALOS RESTAURANT, SANTORÍNI
tel 30 22860 71469
It is tempting when you arrive on a Greek Island to stay put. Many writers and artists have done just that, often for decades at a time. But for the more curious traveler, every island offers a tempting view of other islands, and regular ferry services provide the means to hop between them. Ferry companies operating within the Aegean include Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.com), with extensive routes in the Dodecanese and the Cyclades, and Hellenic Seaways (www.hellenicseaways.gr), which additionally has services in the northeast Aegean and the Sporades. These are perhaps the oldest maritime routes in the world, reaching back to the dawn of human civilization. Millennia of migration and invasion, trade and commerce, and evolving culture and religion have deposited layers of history on every inhabited island.
Rhodes exemplifies this rich heritage. The medieval old town, built by Christian crusaders, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cobbled Street of the Knights is lined with the ancient inns that housed the various national chapters of the Order of St. John; the crusader knights were drawn from all over Europe. At one end of the street is the impressively imposing Palace of the Grand Masters and at the other is the Hospital of the Knights, which is now home to the excellent Archaeological Museum. Several mosques within the old town are the legacy of the Ottoman period, while at Platia Evroen Martyron (Square of the Martyrs) there is a memorial to the island’s Jewish community, wiped out by the Nazi occupiers during World War II . A couple of miles west of town are the ruins of the Temple of Pythian Apollo, a remnant of an ancient Hellenistic city.
The massive eruption of the volcano on the island of Santoríni destroyed the Minoan civilization. Ironically, that apocalyptic event helped to preserve the 4,000-year-old settlement of Akrotíri under layers of ash. Although painstaking archaeological excavations continue at the site, it is open to tourists. The other great attraction of Santoríni is a day-long boat trip within the caldera, including the chance to bathe in the natural hot springs off the shore of the little island of Palia Kameni.
The old town on the island of Mykonos is justly famous, with its ramshackle houses seeming to rise directly from the sea and a line of old stone windmills providing a scenic backdrop. Off the west coast of Mykonos is the island of Delos, one of the most sacred sites of ancient Greece. The island is uninhabited and can only be visited during the day. Highlights include the three temples of the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Terrace of the Lions, presided over by five age-worn lion statues.
The attractions of Alónissos are predominantly natural. The National Marine Park around the island protects dolphins, whales and the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal.
Several Turkish and European tour operators run holidays based on the traditional wooden sailing boats, known as gulets, along the Turkish coast. A U.K.-based company, Day Dreams (www.turkish cruises.co.uk ), offers a range of gulet voyages off Turkey and across to the Dodecanese islands. Prices excluding international flights are from $1,300 per person for a 10-night, small-group tour, and from $4,700 per boat per week for a private gulet and crew.
INFO TO GO
The main gateways for Turkey’s Turquoise Coast are Izmir (ADB) and Bodrum (BJV), served by direct flights from major European cities April to October, and year-round from Istanbul (IST).
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