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Linda Coffman

Greek Island Hopping

R1 ~ Santorini and Rhodes

by Linda Coffman

Santorini - June 13th

Spectacular and mysterious in the early morning light... the world's largest caldera loomed before us. R1 slipped silently through the watery sunlight, approaching what legend suggests is the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Waves of visitors are drawn to this beautiful and arid island by the legend, the scenery, the resorts and beaches, and most significantly, to see the ancient Minoan city at Akrotiri.

Our arrival was punctuated by the tenders waiting to take us ashore. Curious, I thought... the jagged cliffs are covered with snow. Nearing the port of Athinios, the dusting of white became recognizable as the whitewashed buildings so typically identified with Greek isles.

Unfortunately, our day in Santorini coincided with European Union elections and Akrotiri was closed to the public. It was a major disappointment--our peek at the Santorini frescoes in Athens' National Archaeological Museum whetted my appetite for a tour through this Pompeiian-like site. Destroyed in 1522 BC by the eruption of the volcano Thera, the city's two and three story building were perfectly preserved beneath the lava and ash. Since excavation began in 1967, Akrotiri has been regarded by archeologists as one of the world's most significant sites. Alas, we weren't able to view the remains of this advanced civilization.

Instead, we boarded buses at Athinios and made our way to the picturesque village of Oia. Passing barren volcanic landscape, our guide pointed out areas where pumice was once mined for export. Santorinians quite literally were selling their homeland! Currently agriculture and tourism are the main commercial pursuits. Oia, like much of the island was devastated by earthquake in 1956. Rebuilt, it perches on the cliffs above the sea and gleams -- buildings and tree trunks are painted white every year. White serves to disinfect and the rounded roofs are designed to collect water, scarce on Santorini.

After a leisurely stroll through Oia and a visit to the Naval Museum we had free time to visit the shops which opened for our visit. Somewhat touristy, they nonetheless contained some nice souvenirs, including lovely watercolors and hand-painted shirts. The real appeal of Oia is the stunning scenery and utter tranquility. We then made our way to a winery where we were shown through the working areas, tasted their wines and had the opportunity to purchase our favorites.

Back in the capital of Thira, we were on our own for the rest of the day. Buildings cascade over the caldera rim and it's quite breathtaking to stop for lunch at a taverna seemingly suspended in mid-air. Merchants in Thira are anxious to show off their wares, particularly their gold jewelry crafted in ancient Greek designs. Be sure to barter for the best price.

To make our way 1000 feet down to the small harbor below the town (and our awaiting tender) we were faced with three choices -- the cable car, a donkey, or walking. No contest. We selected the cable car and a heart-stopping ride straight down. Thankfully, it was swift and we concluded our day with coffee and conversation in a shaded waterfront cafe.

Rhodes - June 14th

Arrival in Rhodes, the sunniest of all Aegean islands, isn't nearly as dramatic as Santorini, but it's intriguing nevertheless. Between earthquakes and invasions by Goths, Persians, Romans, and Crusaders, Rhodes has managed to acquire quite a rich selection of sightseeing stops. Immediately visible beyond our balcony doors was the walled city built by the Knights of St. John in 1309. These are the same Knights who later fell to the Turks in 1522 and retreated to Malta.

To conserve my flagging energy, I chose only the afternoon "medieval" tour and sent Mel off to explore Beautiful Lindos in the morning. What a major gaffe on my part. Without exception, everyone who visited Lindos raved about it and I've had to settle for seeing it through the lens of Mel's camera. Fortunately, he captured the Temple of the Lindian Athena, atop the Acropolis of Lindos, gleaming in the beautiful morning sunshine. How could I miss a temple named for the goddess Lindia? Sounds like my kind of place! Mel returned with a small pottery vase for my collection and didn't rub it in too much about what I'd missed.

I didn't waste the morning, though. Walking to the walled city, I struck a bargain with a cabbie and headed off to buy earrings in a traditional Greek design from a non-tourist suburban jewelry maker. Once back in the old city, I wandered past the ruins of the Church of the Virgin of the Burgh and browsed through shops tucked into the old city buildings. Happening across Cathy and Jim Gaffney and Len Hansen, I joined them for a morning pick-me-up and the four of us proceeded to explore the Old City with its moats, churches, mosques, and museums. When they decided to climb the clock tower, I bid them goodbye and headed for the R1 for lunch and the afternoon tour.

Our Ancient and Medieval Rhodes tour began with the ride to Mont Smith, site of the Acropolis of Ancient Rhodes and the restored Temple of Apollo. Then on to Mt. Philerimos and the serenity of the Church of the Virgin and the monastery with frescoes of the Knights of St. John at prayer. The afternoon's highlight was back in the old city and the completely restored Grand Master's Palace. The 14th century original was destroyed in an 1856 explosion and rebuilt by order of Mussolini in the 1930's. Probably one of his few good ideas, it's a "fake" but a terrific one. Using original plans for the exterior, the rebuilders made up interior spaces as they went along. Lifting floor mosaics from temples and Roman villas on neighboring islands, they created vast impressive chambers that are just what you'd expect the Knights would have enjoyed in their heyday.

Unfortunately, our fellow tour companions included a contingent of slowpokes and we grew impatient. Mel hadn't seen the rest of the walled city so we ducked the tour and made our way back to the ship through the old streets. For once I played "guide" and pointed out my morning discoveries. If I had it to do over again, I'd have taken the morning tour to Lindos and skipped the one in the afternoon. The Old City can be seen more effectively at your own pace.

What about the Colossus of Rhodes? One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it sadly no longer exists. The huge bronze statue collapsed during a massive earthquake in 227 BC and lay in ruins for nine hundred years until it was carted away in 653 AD by Arab conquerors of the island. No record remains of the figure's appearance and the efficient Arabs left not a trace behind. Did the Colossus straddle the harbor as popular myth suggests? Probably not. The statue's height is know to have been 31 metres and that pose would have been impossible. But it's a popular notion and no one is really certain of anything -- other than that the statue fell on land, not into the sea as it surely would have had it been guarding the harbor entrance.

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 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.

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.

Smooth Sailing! ~ Linda

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

Athens Pre-Cruise - The tour starts here! Seeing antiquities come to life.

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