The sun was setting as we sailed away from Venice, Italy, with the realization that these were the same waters navigated by ancient mariners, warriors and merchants on their Mediterranean routes to Greece. Champagne in hand, we were not on some Bronze Age sailing vessel, but a modern 10-story ship that towered over the historic island.
Special occasions call for special celebrations. Our 30th wedding anniversary was cause for a Mediterranean voyage of a lifetime. We’ve always placed a priority on life experiences more than material possessions, so we put everything on hold for two weeks and declared the trip had no limitations and no budget.
The romantic streets and canals of Venice were our home for three days before sailing. This city radiates romance, anchored by the massive Byzantine San Marco Basilica and Piazza. Lined with some of Europe’s grandest cafés, Venetians and visitors rub elbows in the Piazza, sipping cappuccinos or wine while dining on Italian delicacies amid a serenade of outdoor orchestras.
Venice is a collection of breathtaking architecture and art, intertwined with endless shops. Whatever you can imagine, you’ll find the very best of it here: shoes, fine clothing, gloves, jewelry and beautiful Murano glass. Around every corner is a magnificent church and over every bridge is a charming café. Few dinners in the world can compare to enjoying seafood hors d’oeuvres, lobster pasta and shrimp scampi along Venice’s Grand Canal.
But Venice was only the starting point on our way down the Adriatic Sea to the Greek Isles, with stops along the way in lands where civilizations thrived and died as far back as 7,000 years before Christ. They left behind masterful pagan temples, Christian churches with architecture that boggles the mind and ports that hold secrets we will never know.
We began with stops among the Roman and Greek ruins of Croatia and the medieval fortresses of Montenegro. In Split, Croatia, we enjoyed dark beer sitting on the marble steps beneath the towering columns of a peristyle that served as the center for conversation and debate for rulers and citizens thousands of years ago. How surreal. Down the coast in Montenegro, a strenuous three-mile hike up a steep mountainside led us to the distant Fortress of St. John, capped off by an awe-inspiring view of Kotor harbor. Then we meandered through the streets of Kotor, a picturesque village that looked like the setting for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Our entry to Greece was the Isle of Corfu, which is less about history and more about the coastal beauty of a mountainous resort. Reportedly, Prince Harry and Kate Middleton like Corfu for romantic getaways. But the real highlight here was meeting a tour guide who took us down a country road to the best restaurant on the island for the most incredible Greek lunch. At Spiros Vasilis, we dined on olives, taziki, tamara, stuffed grape leaves, tomatoes, fresh baked bread, grilled lamb and Greek meats, punctuated with Greek wines. We were in foodie heaven.
The port of Katakolan, site of the first Olympics in 776 B.C., was our gateway to ancient Greece. Earthquakes have long turned the temple of Zeus and its massive surrounding buildings to rubble, but the collection of recovered antiquities, statues and artifacts is jaw dropping. The archeological site was buried for centuries and unearthed in the 1800s. The fallen columns are huge, leaving visitors in awe of the scale and scope conceived by the builders and artisans who first mastered math and construction techniques that are unparalleled today. Every four years, modern Olympians still return here to light the Olympic torch.
That evening, we sailed through fiords into the dark, only to awaken in the caldera of a volcano, which makes up the island of Santorini. The most photographed island in Greece, Santorini is famous for its bright white stucco homes adorned by blue domed roofs and housing tiny chapels.
Imagine sailing into the center of a large donut-shaped island with one bite missing. The center hole is a seven-mile wide lagoon, surrounded by a sheered 1,000-foot crescent cliff. From below, the ridge looks like it is covered in snow, when in reality the white caps are the famous stucco homes. This unique topography was created in 1,600 B.C. when a massive volcano erupted here, blowing what was once the center of the island into the cosmos and leaving only the outer walls of the mountainside. Many historians believe tales of the lost city of Atlantis are really Plato’s way of explaining how one day an entire island civilization existed, and then vanished into the sea.
The true charm of Santorini is walking an intricate path of narrow stairs amid a constant collection of interconnected dwellings perched perilously along the caldera rim, overlooking the most amazing deep-blue ocean the eye has ever seen. We dare say the world has few vistas as spectacular.
Feeling adventurous, we trekked through village after village, then along a stony caldera trail for nearly three hours before surrendering to a taxi for a ride to Aio, the most scenic of the island’s villages. Here, paths are lined with shops featuring amazingly unique art and handcrafted jewelry, accented by a myriad of restaurants with spectacular views.
The next day, we landed in Crete, which can boast of one of the most charming harbors in the world. Ringed by a broad paved walk, the harbor is lined with restaurants and coffee shops, perfect for people watching. We wined and dined where 9,000 years ago early civilizations developed and where all life was destroyed by a tidal wave nearly 500 feet high when Santorini erupted.
Crete is a shopping mecca, ranging from traditional Greek produce markets where the locals shop to fascinating art and jewelry. Our search for a special piece of jewelery to celebrate our anniversary ended in Crete. The two young ladies running the jewelry store were happy to serve us Raki (grappa brandy) while we made our final purchasing decision. Then, it was a celebratory kiss on both cheeks for both of us after the sale was made.
We ended our cruise aboard our ship, the Azamara Journey, by sailing into Athens, the modern capitol of Greece and home of the picturesque mountaintop, Acropolis, the most famous of all Greek landmarks.
Ancient Agora, Dionysus and Odeon Theaters and Panathinion Stadium were just a few of our stops. Working up an appetite, we enjoyed a traditional outdoor Greek lunch of veal, with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, taziki and tamara. The proud owner checked on each guest, making us think we had stumbled across the Sal & Judy’s of Greece.
Appetites satisfied, we journeyed on to explore the massive outdoor markets where bargains abound. But before turning in on our final night, we snuck out one more time to wine and dine on the Greek cuisine that we couldn’t seem to get enough of.
Of all the places in the world, Greece was on the top of each of our lists of places we wanted to see. The adventure from Venice to Athens was worth every dollar and every minute. Life is too short to focus on only money and possessions. Sometimes in life, you have to chase after dreams that lead you to the great destinations and experiences in life.Filed under: History, Hobbies, July-August 2011, Travel