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Linda Coffman


R1 Pre-Cruise Tours

by Linda Coffman

Athens-Corinth-Cape Sounion

With such a historic and destination-rich itinerary, I approached planning for this European cruise carefully. For the Caribbean, my first stop is the swim wear section of a local department store; for this trip, I headed for the travel guidebook shelves at my local Borders Bookstore. (photo-the Hephaisteion, best preserved temple in Greece)

Having devoured the guidebooks in the weeks leading up to our departure, I skimmed them again on our flights from Atlanta to Athens. So much to see... and such a short period of time. Comparing my list of top "must see" sites to those described in Renaissance Cruises' Shore Excursion booklet, I was pleased to see that many matched up. While I seldom recommend a guided tour in the Caribbean, or even Bermuda, I highly value them in European locales. Good tour guides in Europe have the insight and ability to breathe life into inanimate objects. Moreover, they seldom hear a question they can't answer -- they are well educated and, after all, have grown up amid the historical artifacts we've come to discover.

With limited hours in ports, a tour offers the expediency of immediate transportation. For those of us who don't speak the local language, there is the comfort of an English-speaking escort and the knowledge we won't get lost on public busses or cheated by an unscrupulous taxi driver.

Corinth - June 10th

Buoyed by anticipation, Mel and I were ready to begin touring within three hours of arrival in Athens. The afternoon tour to Corinth - Ancient Civilization and Legendary Canal seemed a good place to start. A five hour excursion, much of the time was spent driving past olive fields and small villages getting to Corinth and back. Our guide spent the first hour explaining the history of the construction of the canal and the once rich and powerful city of Corinth. We dozed and awoke to discover we were at the canal, an 1893 engineering marvel, cut through solid rock to connect the Ionian Sea with the Aegean sea . The canal vastly improved sea transportation -- prior to its completion, ships were moved from one sea to the other by dragging them on a special overland road (photo-Corinth Canal).

After a comfort stop in a local café, we headed for the excavation of Ancient Corinth and our first taste of Greek history. Our guide led us through the museum and explained the various styles of pottery, mosaics, frescoes, and statues. It was here we learned one is never to photograph a statue with a person posing beside it. Greek statues are unclothed and this rule is to avoid any "misuse" of such a photo.

Corinth is a confection of antiquity. The bottom layer is the Greek city, above it was the Roman city, and current buildings are the icing. Seeing the modern city high above our position before the fountain and bathhouse, it wasn't difficult to imagine it once covered by another entire city. Unlike their northern European counterparts, the ancient Greeks and Romans were very conscious of bathing and sanitation and built elaborate public latrines and bath houses. Felled not by invasions, but by earthquakes, the remains of Corinth's Temple of Apollo, marketplace, and Fountain of Priene are restored enough to invite the imagination to fill in the missing stones and pillars. (photo-bath house)

Athens - June 11th

Our morning began with the Highlights of Athens tour. The name doesn't do justice to the main feature of the morning -- this is what visitors to Athens eagerly anticipate -- the Acropolis, capped by the crown jewel, the Parthenon. After a steep climb over slippery uneven stones, we entered the Acropolis through the Propylaea, sacred gates guarding the sanctuary of Athena. Built in the 5th century BC, the Acropolis was a place of worship -- with the Parthenon (dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and protectoress of cities) built on the highest point. Shining in the morning sun, elegant white columns reach heavenward in perfect symmetry. It's simply breathtaking. Tiny by comparison, the Erechtheion Temple is equally as lovely. Built on the most sacred spot of the Acropolis, it is here that we find the Caryatid Porch, supported by columns of delicately carved maidens. (photos-Parthenon above & Caryatid Porch below)

From the fringe of the Acropolis is a bird's eye view of two of Athens' most famous theaters, the Odeon of Herod Atticus and the 17,000 seat Theater of Dionysos. Reluctantly leaving the tranquility of the Acropolis, we plunge back into the absolutely horrendous Athens traffic and head for a stop at the Olympic Stadium, the 1896 birthplace of the modern Olympiad. The morning tour came to an end after a ride past the Temple of Zeus, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the University of Athens and the National Library. With no superfluous shopping stops, it was a satisfying and educational tour with plenty of time at the Acropolis -- highly recommended.

The afternoon tour of The Old City and Archaeological Museum was (thankfully) less demanding. While I normally prefer to browse through museums at my own pace, our guide's commentary was invaluable. Her shared knowledge of the history and evolution of Greek sculpture insured that we understood the significance of what we were viewing. As a result, this was a more rewarding visit than it would have been on our own. Of particular interest are the golden artifacts from Mycenae and the colorful and lively frescoes rescued from the walls of Akrotiri in Santorini. Preserved for years beneath the ash of a volcanic eruption, the frescoes are displayed in the museum's only air-conditioned room.

On to the Plaka, the Old City of Athens, where we did a bit of shopping. Most of the stores contained the usual tourist items (printed tee-shirts $6, embroidered tee-shirts $10, jewelry in many variations of the Greek key design, framed prints $6 and up, and hand-made rugs and pillow covers, to name but some of the wares). A real find were lovely framed prints in "Helen" (down a side street, Pandrossou 7-15), a small shop specializing in silver jewelry and quality popular art. US dollars are widely accepted and we were advised to barter for the best prices.

Before rejoining our bus, I viewed the interior of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral while Mel waited outside in the pleasant square. Shorts are not allowed in the cathedral and only those of us wearing skirts were able to go inside to see the ornate ceiling frescoes and religious artifacts.

Cape Sounion - June 12th

Our Shore Excursion booklet explained that because Athens hotels require an early check out -- and the R1 couldn't be boarded until afternoon -- tours are offered to while away the hours until embarkation. We chose the trip to Scenic Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon (photo). This was an excellent choice and a real high point in our trip. Once out of the city we passed miles of beaches and seaside villas and resorts on the hour-long drive to majestic Cape Sounion. Gleaming white in the sunshine, the Temple of Poseidon is a beacon atop the sheer cliff above the sea. Our anticipation built as we glimpsed it from far down the coast.

God of the sea, Poseidon was honored by this sanctuary in the most appropriate manner -- the temple was a sort of ancient lighthouse, giving comfort to sailors who knew they were close to home when they spied it from their vessels. The temple itself was built of a very hard marble and the Doric columns designed with fewer and shallower flutes to withstand exposure to salt air. Reaching it from the small café at the bottom of the hill is something of a challenge. We carefully picked our way up on a steep and slippery pathway. The view from the top is spectacular and we were blessed with a sunny clear morning.

After sufficient time to fully explore the temple grounds, we set off to sample a typical Greek luncheon in a pleasant beachfront restaurant before the drive to the port of Piraeus and embarkation on the R1.

Facts and Touring Tips

Tour prices may vary from season to season (and from one cruise line to the next), so I haven't specified them. We felt Renaissance's tours were competitively priced with those offered by Royal Caribbean last year in the southern Mediterranean as well as the ones we purchased on our own in Barcelona. Prices ranged from $40 to $70 per person (longer tours, and those which included a meal, were more expensive).

Without exception, the Shore Excursion booklet we received with our Renaissance documents recommended "seasonal clothing and comfortable walking shoes." I can't emphasize enough the need for comfortable shoes. Conservative walking shorts or slacks and short-sleeved shirts were the norm -- it was quite hot in Athens and I chose a skirt or light dress. A hat and sunglasses are a necessity. As is the case in many European cities, respectful attire is required when visiting churches and cathedrals. Shorts are not allowed.

Several of our tour descriptions contained the disclaimer, "This tour involves strenuous walking and climbing." We had no problem reaching the sites thus described and we're not particularly athletic. Unfortunately, Europe is not user-friendly for those with mobility problems. While none of our fellow travelers were confined to wheelchairs, there were some difficulties for anyone not sure-footed. I can't stress enough that care should be taken when an uphill walk includes stone and marble steps. More than once I felt my rubber-soled shoes slipping, particularly on the way down. It's easy to be distracted by spectacular scenery and sights -- stop when you want to look around and watch the ground when walking.

Athens in the summer is hot and muggy. But for the pink and white star-shaped blooms of the oleander, there isn't much in the way of vegetation. Any grass is parched and brown -- parks are not inviting. A must for tourists is bottled water. Available for purchase at all our stops, it was nearly everyone's drink of choice. In addition, several of us carried individually wrapped moist towelettes which proved refreshing. Tissues are a necessity if the "facilities" run out of paper, as they often do.

Last, but not least... Ladies, don't weight yourself down with a heavy purse. Carry only what you need and carry that inconspicuously. Don't become a target for pickpockets or purse snatchers. No one on our tours was bothered in this manner, but I've heard stories from other cruisers who've run into this sort of thing. Our guides cautioned us in several locales.

Smooth Sailing! ~ Linda

Greek Island Hopping - Visit Santorini and Rhodes, Greek islands in the sun.

Turkish Delights - Uncovering Ephesus, exploring Istanbul, and that unexpected "eastern" plumbing

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