A porthole in a stateroom always hypnotises me, like a child discovering cinema for the first time. I sit immobile on my couch, swaddled in a blanket with a glass of Greek red, while the picture moves in an endless sideways scroll of unfamiliar horizon. First there is sea then a coastline peeps out of the haze. Houses and mosques slide into focus. Eventually a loudspeaker announces that we are approaching Istanbul. I finish my wine, swallow some Turkish delight – known here as rahat lokum or “contentment of the throat” – and close the curtains. If there is a more satisfying way to arrive in a new place, I am yet to discover it.
The name of the ship is the Celestyal Crystal and it’s my home for seven nights. Though the literature doesn’t mention it, it’s occurred to me that this “Eclectic Aegean” cruise follows a remarkably epic itinerary. In Homer’s The Iliad, Odysseus accompanies other Greek kings to do battle at Troy. In the poet’s sequel, The Odyssey, Odysseus then tries to return home again, drifting between islands in the Aegean Sea on dramatic adventures involving, among other things, a nymph and a Cyclops. My own journey is also to Troy, in modern-day Turkey, then back to Greece via a series of islands enshrouded in myths. In a sense, I am retracing Odysseus’s route – just in a great deal more comfort, with nightly cabarets and ouzo Martinis. The ship itself only reinforces this idea. Each of the 10 decks sports a god’s name: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon. And much of the entertainment takes place in the Muses Lounge & Bar.
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…” The famous opening line of The Odyssey rings in my head as we twist through the Dardanelles.Istanbul sets the tone of the week, a first port of call that is thrilling for its heady combination of the traditional and modern, for the Hagia Sophia, a former cathedral dating to 537CE, contrasted with the Çamlica TV and Radio Tower, so futuristic it looks like aliens built it. But it’s the second stop that makes it clear how interesting this cruise really is. We arrive in Çanakkale one morning before breakfast. The sun is still rising when I disembark and climb into a minivan bound for the Gallipoli peninsula.
“My mother used to say that you could hear guns in the village in 1915,” says our guide, Kenan Çelik, a Turkish military historian who was awarded the Order of Australia in 2000. Over the next several hours, Çelik leads us to the infamous “beaches” – nothing more than rocky shorelines leading up to steep bluffs – and memorial sites like Lone Pine, where thousands of the fallen are listed on plaques. Remnants of the trenches remain etched into the earth here and the extent of the battlefield is staggering.
In the afternoon we go to Troy, a nearby ruin marked by a replica of the famous wooden horse that is large enough to hide inside. The city of Troy is unremarkable: piles of rocks. But I’m moved by something that has never struck me until now: the parallel between the Gallipoli Campaign and the Trojan War. This is even highlighted in the impressive Troy Museum, which opened in 2018 to explain the complicated history of this place.
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“The land defended, assaulted, landed, shelled with cannons and fought hand to hand in the Gallipoli Battles is the same land where the first Achaean Protislaos had landed,” a panel notes. “Today, monumental tombs of heroes of Troy and Gallipoli stand side by side on the Gallipoli Peninsula.” Anzac soldiers in the trenches shared commonalities with Odysseus. This, I think, is a stirring idea. I return to the cruise ship to head for the Greek Islands. The vessel shudders through the “wine-dark sea”, as Homer once described it, and my fellow passengers taste actual wine or attend lectures on philosophy and mythology then convene in a restaurant named after Amalthaea, the foster-mother of Zeus.
“The captain, he drink a little bit last night,” a waiter jokes as the ship rocks from side to side in strong winds. “I’m not too happy about it,” replies one of the other passengers.“I’ll tell him to lay off!” Our next stop in Greece is actually on the mainland, at the port city of Volos. A winding two-hour drive past Mount Olympus brings us to the Eastern Orthodox monasteries of Meteora, which translates as “suspended in the air”. At the top of vertical cliffs are buildings housing nuns and monks and several well-fed cats. They adhere to the stone like oysters. The Plain of Thessaly stretches away below, so far down that it feels like the monasteries are actually above the earth, which was probably the intent of the original builders. In the past, at least one of the monasteries was accessible only by a long, retractable ladder.
“They wanted to be isolated,” a guide tells us before pointing out a large crowd of visitors. “Of course, today they are not isolated at all.”
From Volos, the Celestyal Crystal drifts away through the Aegean. Shapes appear and vanish on the horizon like optical illusions. The Greek Islands encompass 6000 landmasses, of which only 227 are currently inhabited. It makes perfect sense that Odysseus got lost for the better part of a decade. On Santorini, also known as Thira, I wander around the much-photographed village of Oia, still and silent in the low season. Beyond the white stucco buildings and blue domes, it’s impossible to miss the fact that this popular destination sits on the rim of an active volcano seven kilometres wide and 12 kilometres long. On Mykonos, I eat an extraordinary meal of octopus, taramasalata and stuffed vine leaves and thread my way through dark streets to windmills illuminated against the crashing waves.
The ship docks at the bustling city of Heraklion on the island of Crete and I find myself on another minibus ascending into hills covered with grapevines. Crete is famous for many things, including the labyrinth with its Minotaur, but I never quite make it to any of the tourist sites. At a vineyard called Myragapi, we’re introduced to a passionate winemaker who immediately jumps into an empty vat to demonstrate his process and begins stamping up and down on imaginary grapes.
“When you work, you have to give love,” Vassilis Korsavvas explains through a translator. “We don’t squeeze it to get money. We squeeze out of love!”
He leads us inside where a distillery is turning grape pomace – the solid remains left after pressing – into raki, a spirit that tastes something like gasoline. But my attention is caught by rows of tables and dozens of people who have come for a kind of communal distillation day. These local families are celebrating together as they each turn their own grape pulp into raki. Soon we are drawn into the party and before long a band is playing, everyone is singing and an 85-year-old woman is dancing on a table as napkins rain down around her like giant snowflakes. Here I must make a confession. I have long harboured a prejudice against cruises, assuming they are so tightly scheduled that spontaneous experiences – the magic unexpected moments of travel that transcend cultural divides – never happen. I was wrong.
In The Odyssey, there is a chapter in which Odysseus reaches the land of the lotus-eaters. He sends some members of his crew ashore “to scout out who might live there” and when these men taste the lotus for themselves, they’re struck with delicious amnesia. They forget everything about their own homes and want nothing more than to stay on the island. For me, that island is Crete and the lotus is raki. I could have remained there forever, dancing the zeibekiko as the ship pulled away.
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