J&D's Travelog


Greek Isles Cruise

September 15-22, 2008

Map of the Greek Isles cruise

It was to be a trip of celebration. We were marking our 10th year of marriage while D’s parents were commemorating an impressive 50 years of matrimony. D’s mother had longed to see the Greek Isles, and since she knew her opportunity would diminish with each successive year, she arranged for a cruise that would leave from Venice, take us through the Adriatic, and make several of the more popular stops in Greece. But as the pivotal day approached, health issues prevented D’s parents from making the journey, and we were left to go it alone.

Debtors were tied to the Column of Justice and whipped in Piazza Mercantile.
La Colonna Infame.

The fortress was built by Roger II of Sicily around 1131.
Along the Castello Normanno Svevo.

Bari's current duomo is a prime example of Apulian Romanesque architecture.
Inside the Cathedral of St. Sabinus.

Orecchiette means "little ears" on account of their shape.
A Barese woman makes orecchiette.


Bari's old city has many narrow alleys.
Shopping in the Barivecchia.


Grancaffe Cavour - Home of the best gelato in Bari.
A J&D recommendation.


Our first port of call was Bari on the heel of the Italian boot. This was our opportunity to see how the disembarkation process worked when dealing with European passengers. The rules of etiquette tend to vary with nationality. D’s German lineage puts him at a marked disadvantage when it comes to ignoring rules, with so many freewheeling Italians aboard, we somewhat expected the entrance to the gangway to resemble a Roman traffic circle. To our surprise and delight, however, only a handful of people were waiting to leave the boat when we docked. We suspected a variety of reasons were at play. First, it was lunchtime when we reached Bari – a sacred time to the European – and it was unlikely that many people were willing to pass up their prepaid meals. Secondly, all ship announcements were made in six languages on a somewhat unintelligible PA system meaning that many likely did not know where to go. But we surmised that the prevailing reason was that people had little interest in what Bari had to offer.

In the past, Bari’s reputation was that of a rough-and-tumble industrial port rife with unemployment and crime. While that has changed in recent times, many feel the city still has little to offer. As we researched the finer points of Bari in preparation for the trip, we found it lambasted by the cruising community. We had read postings like “Bored in Bari” and “Nothing to see here”, and the consensus was that this capital of the Puglia region is most useful as a place to get somewhere else via one of its many ferry services to Greece and beyond. We decided to find some hidden beauty in this much maligned town but got off to a rocky start as J announced “It’s kinda ugly” when we disembarked. The old quarter of Bari or Barivecchia is a collection of quaint albeit tortuous alleys that rendered the complimentary map issued to us by the cruise line utterly useless. We took our chances and ambled around town to see the better-known sights such as the 12th century castello, the Colonna Infame where debtors were lashed in public, and Bari’s jewel – the Basilica di San Nicola.

Saint Nicholas (although he was never canonized) was born into a wealthy family in what today is part of Turkey. He was known for giving away his riches to the poor and eventually became bishop of Myra. His most renowned deed involved a poor farmer who had no hope of marrying off his three daughters because they had no dowries. Each year, Nicholas visited the man’s house late at night to leave three purses of gold which eventually accrued to a substantial dowry for each daughter. These purses of gold are symbolized today by the three orbs used to denote pawnshops (Nicholas is the patron saint of pawn brokers). This tradition of gift giving became synonymous with Saint Nicholas and of course forms the basis of the Santa Claus legend. In the 11th century, the bones of Saint Nicholas were stolen by some sailors from Bari, and a new church was built in the saint’s honor to house these relics.

Perhaps our most noteworthy stop in Bari was Gran Caffè Cavour which had an incredible selection of gelato, including a dozen different chocolate flavors like cioccolato all'arancia, bacio, cioccolato con pepperoncini, and the silkiest Nutella gelato we have ever had.

The basilica was built specifically to hold the relics of Saint Nicholas.
Basilica di San Nicola

The bones of Saint Nicholas were smuggled out of Turkey by sailors from Bari.
The reliquary of Saint Nicholas.

The three orbs in Saint Nicholas' hands are believed to represent the three purses of gold he gave to  a poor farmer.
Saint Nicholas stands near the entrance to the church.

This sculpture is one of many that adorned the pediment of the Temple of Zeus.
A centaur from the Temple of Zeus.

Part of the gynmasium, the palaestra was used for boxing and wrestling.
The palaestra at Olympia

The inside walls of the Temple of Zeus had reliefs of all twelve Herculean labors.
Hercules helps Atlas take a load off.


In our travels, we have always made it a point to visit the remnants of past Olympic Games such as in Amsterdam, Lake Placid, and Montreal and even more recent sites like Turin and Beijing, so it was a certainty that we would fork out some extra coin to book one of the ship’s excursions at Katakolon to visit Olympia. Located about 40 minutes by bus inland at the foot of Mt. Kronos, the sanctuary was known as Altis and included assorted temples but none more famous than the Temple of Zeus. Not to be confused with Mt. Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, Olympia derives its name from Zeus Olympus, and it was in the 5th century BC that Phidias sculpted a 40 ft statue of Zeus from ivory and gold regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Beginning in 776 BC, a sporting event was held at the sanctuary in Zeus’ honor which consisted of a single footrace of about 200 yards called a stadion. Athletes from all over Greece and its colonies would compete in the event and even in times of war, a truce or ekecheiria would take effect for the competition. Over the years, more events such as additional footraces, boxing, the ancient pentathlon, and chariot racing were added. The games were held so consistently that the four year period between stagings became known as an olympiad and was used as a standard measure of time throughout the Greek world.

The ancient Olympic games were believed to be last held in 393 AD (some 290 stagings) after which they were halted as Christianity took hold in Greece. The sanctuary was largely destroyed by an earthquake years later and then lost to memory before being rediscovered in the 18th century. While only ruins remain of Olympia today, the accompanying museum has a small collection of recovered statues and even parts of the reliefs depicting Herculean labors that adorned the Temple of Zeus. Much of what survives is attributed to the Romans who revived the glory of the games and repaired many of the structures. They added an aqueduct to supply the site with potable water and opened the games to all citizens of the empire. Excavations are still ongoing, and only last year saw the discovery of the hippodrome several kilometers away.

An earthquake in the 6th century destroyed the temple.
Little remains of Zeus' temple.

The stadion was the only running event for years before a double stadion and even a stadion in full armor were added.
J runs a stadion.

Prior to each modern Olympic Games, the  Olympic flame is lit at this very site using the sun's rays.
Where the flame is lit.

It has been said that the churches were painted blue and white as a means of signifying Greek patriotism during the centuries of Ottoman rule.
A blue-domed Greek Orthodox church.

Oia's beauty has made it the location of several films such as  Summer Lovers, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Tomb Raider.
The sugarcube buildings of Oia.

It is estimated that 97% of the Greek population follows the Greek Orthodox religion.
A view of Oia to the sea.


Not surprisingly, as we drifted further south, the weather began to improve. We were heading to the Cyclades, and we knew that clear blue skies were a vital component in the picturesque Greek island scenes that we had envisioned. Our first stumbling block occurred the night before when we were informed that the stay in Santorini would be shortened and that unless you had booked a shore excursion through the ship, you would have to wait an additional hour and a half before disembarking. So essentially, we were strong-armed into buying an excursion or we had only 3 hours on the island. Compounding matters was the fact that we had to tender ashore at a port below the main town of Fira where you could either climb 500 steps, take a donkey up, or wait in line for a cable car. Our intention was to spend as much time as possible in Oia, a much quainter and appealing village to the north, and then visit Fira if time permitted. Some rough calculations clearly indicated that we would have to book the cruise line’s excursion to Oia if we wanted to see it at all. So we reluctantly coughed up the $150 to get on the first tender of the morning. As we waited for our bus number to be called the next morning, the room began to empty until only eight of us English-speakers remained. Upon inquiring with the cruise staff, we were told that our number had been called 30 minutes earlier. We learned later that our number had actually been called in the waiting room for the French-speaking passengers. So when we finally got to the bus on shore, we took our seats in the back after walking the gauntlet of disgruntled French tourists who had been waiting for 45 minutes. We apologized and announced we were Canadian to avoid any further damage to US international relations. Canada would just have to take this one on the chin. It’s the least they could do.

Oia was as advertized. There were some clusters of clouds overhead, but when the sun poked through, the views were stunning. We have not been many places that look exactly like the postcards, but the scenes of blue-domed churches, windmills, and white-washed sugar cube houses spilling down the cliffs to the azure sea were breathtaking. Unfortunately, the excursion permitted only an hour to take it all in, so a leisurely stroll through the quaint little streets was out of the question. Instead, we muscled our way through the throngs of tourists to find the small alleys that offered the most spectacular views. Even so, we only just made it back to the bus for Fira.

The locals call the crescent shaped island Thira (Santorini is the derivative of the Venetian name for it in honor of Saint Irene), and along with Theresia and four uninhabited islands, it makes up what remains of a large underwater volcano. Although still active, the eruption that occurred around 1640 BC formed the islands and destroyed the Minoan civilization that inhabited the area. The resulting caldera provides steep cliffs and deep-water ports which benefit the large cruise ships. Fira sprawls atop one of these cliffs and offers fantastic views of the other islands. The town consists of a main pedestrian thoroughfare lined with souvenir shops and cafés that offer excellent vistas. As we arrived in Fira by bus, we could already see the line for the cable car stretching for blocks. With an hour left to catch the last tender to the ship, we were left with two options to get down to the port – by foot or by donkey. The perils of traveling by donkey down 588 steps covering a vertical drop of 900 ft are obvious. The perils of walking in sandals where donkeys travel regularly are equally obvious. J’s old rugby knee injury caused her to consider the donkey option briefly, but in the end, we decided to walk it. We had descended several levels when traffic – both human and equine – came to a standstill. A woman ahead decided she had had enough and wanted to be rid of her donkey, but she was unsure of how to dismount. Meanwhile, the queue of people and animals was backing up prompting one Englishman to politely call out “Madam, would you kindly move your ass?”. The locals who drive the donkey trains do not take kindly to tourists who opt to walk the stairs rather than pay for donkey transport and therefore don’t yield any right of way. Thus, one of the donkey herders drove his train right into the waiting tourists resulting in people being pinned against the retaining walls. During the melee, D had his foot trampled by the hoof of a surprisingly heavy ass, sustaining his first ever donkey-related injury. Angry, fatigued, and now hobbled, we bounded down the rest of the steps, avoiding donkey droppings along the way, only to find yet another line for the tenders. We finally made it back to the ship to lick our wounds – but not literally.

Entrance to a house in Oia.
A Oian entrance.


Donkey trains climb up and down the stairs from the port to Fira with no regard to the safety of pedestrians.
All aboard the donkey train.


Doorway to a cliffside restaurant in Fira.
Watch your step.


Panagia Platsani is set in a small square just off of the rim of the caldera in Oia.
The Panagia Platsani in Oia.

Plenty of cliffside restaurants, cafes, and hotels to enjoy the view.
Nea Kameni - the still-active volcanic cone.

The zigzagging steps can clearly be seen leading to Fira.
Fira from the sea.

Beware of donkey trains and their merciless drivers.
The steps leading down to Skála Firón.

Little Venice is so called because the colored houses are built along the water.
Table for two in Little Venice.

Strolling along the streets of Mykonos town is a favorite pastime for tourists and locals alike.
A leering lutist.

It was a little late in the season for beach goers.
Mykonos beach.

The Paraportiani complex is actually five churches.
Sunset at Panagia Paraportiani.


Our respite was short-lived, however, as we were due to go ashore again that evening at Mykonos, an island with a thriving nightlife - especially a gay one. Timing again played a role because this picturesque island is also known for its spectacular sunsets. Once again rushing ashore via the tendering process to be in position for sunset, we made our way through the crowded, twisting streets to see Little Venice and the famous Mykonos windmills with only minutes to spare. After the sun faded below the horizon, we finally had some time to take a relaxing stroll around town and sit at a harborside taverna to enjoy a Greek coffee, a piece of kataifi, and an ouzo chaser.

The shops in Mykonos range from tourist trinkets to high-end fashion.
Nighttime shopping.

The windmills on Mykonos date back to the 16th century.
The famed windmills.

There is no shortage of photographic subjects in the Cyclades.
Painted doors.

The capital and largest town in Mykonos is often referred to as Chora.
The streets of Chora.

Sitting in the sun under a bougainvillea and sipping ouzo - that's living.
An appealing taverna.

Little Venice offers one of the best views of sunset on the island.
Islanders gather to watch the sunset.

Mykonos is known for its nightlife.
Dinner time.

While the Colossus is often depicted stradling the entrance to the harbor, most experts agree that it stood on one side.
The presumed site of the Colossus.

Suleiman the Magnificent had this mosque built shortly after the seige of Rhodes in 1523.
Suleiman's mosque in Rhodes.

The 18th century Turkish baths or hamam in Rhodes are still open for business today.
The Turkish baths.

The palace was the seat of the Knights of Rhodes from the 14th century until their expulsion by the Turks.
Palace of the Grand Masters.

The Street of Knights (Odos Ippoton) was lined with accomodations for the knights representing various regions or tongues.
The Street of Knights.

We succumbed to our weakness for regional vendor food.
A gyro stop.


Our southernmost port of call was the island of Rhodes just off of the Turkish coast. According to legend, the island was the result of relations between a nymph named Rhode and the sun god Helios, thus beginning a long relationship with Helios culminating in the construction of the Colossus. This second Wonder of the World encountered during our trip is also no longer there, but the bronze statue once stood some 100ft tall and supposedly straddled the entrance to the ancient harbor at Rhodes Town. Experts are skeptical over the technical feasibility of the figure straddling the harbor mouth, and speculate that the statue appeared on one side of the entrance looking more like the Statue of Liberty. In any event, the towering statue spent more time on its side as it was a victim of an earthquake in 226 BC which toppled the Colossus 54 years after its construction. The ruins remained a tourist attraction for 800 more years before it was sold for scrap.

The proximity of Rhodes to Turkey has always made the island a strategic and coveted spot. In the early 14th century, the island was purchased from the Genoese by the soon-to-be Knights of Rhodes. These knights fortified the main town and occupied the Collachium section of the town containing the Street of Knights (Odos Ippoton) which hosted the Inns of the Tongues – the meeting halls for knights of various nationalities. The knights’ investments paid off as Rhodes played a significant role in subsequent crusading activities against the Turks. The end came when Suleiman the Magnificent sacked Rhodes in 1523 but allowed the surviving knights to flee and set up shop in Malta. Rhodes remained in Turkish hands until 1912.

One direct result of this Turkish occupation was the goal of our self-directed shore excursion for the morning. In the center of Rhodes town is a hamam which has been operating for 250 years. Neither of us had ever experienced a Turkish bath, so we dared one another to go through with it. At the very least we would get to see the inside of this historic bathhouse. We each bought the full package for €15 and were issued a bowl, a towel, and a locker before being led to separate sides of the building. According to custom, the baths are segregated by gender but the experiences are somewhat similar. First we stripped down and were led to a large marble-floored area having a number of basins at which we bathed. Neither of us brought soap, so this part of the experience amounted to sitting on a stool and pouring warm water over ourselves for about 20 minutes. Our accounts diverge slightly from here as J was taken by a tanned, toned, and topless Greek beauty into a private room for a massage. The masseuse spoke no English but gestured for J to face the wall on four points, not unlike a police pat-down. The masseuse scrubbed down J with a soap mitt and rinsed her with warm water after which J was led to a marble table for kneading. Meanwhile, in another section of the building, D was motioned by a slender, Speedo-clad man to follow him to another private room where D was invited to lay on the marble floor in all his glory. He complied – first sunny-side up, then over easy – each time being sudsed up and massaged. Then, in a moment that instilled D with both surprise and horror, the masseuse removed his Speedo, stood over D with legs astride much like the fabled Colossus himself, and asked “Are you ready for the final treatment?” D could only muster a nervous reply of “I’m not sure.” “Some people like it,” countered the masseuse and added “Let’s give it a try”. D was as confused as ever at this point and skittishly asked “What do I have to do?” The masseuse gestured for him to follow and led D back to the original bathing area where they lay down side-by-side on the marble floor heated by a fire in the bowels of the ancient building. D and his newfound friend laid there for a spell sweating and making small talk before the masseuse retired to see to a new client. Seizing the opportunity, D returned to his rinsing station, got dressed, and waited for J at the café across the street. We shared our experiences over a few beers and mutually agreed that it was actually a very relaxing time. We would do it again if the opportunity arose and hoped that others would too as the owner told us that closing the place down would be imminent unless more tourists came.

The bathing area of the Turkish baths consist of marble basins from which one could rinse with warm water.
The gentlemen's bathing area.

The dressing area offered privacy and lockers.
Inside the hamam.

Sadly the Turkish bath is in danger of closing as business dwindles.
The hamam's starry dome.

A sturdy Turkish gentleman stokes the fires that heat the water beneath the hamam.
Maintaining the hot water.

The cobblestoned streets and medieval buildings make Rhodes a great place for just strolling around.
A typical Rhodian street scene.

The palace was rebuilt after being nearly destroyed after an munitions explosion.
The Palace as seen from the moat.

A permanent diving platform provides amusement.
The dark sands of Elli Beach in Rhodes.

The red tile roofs, white city walls, and blue sea make Dubrovnik a very picturesque city.
Dubrovnik - the Pearl of the Adriatic.

The city walls offer great views of Dubrovnik.
Courtyard of the Convent of St. Claire.

With city walls, towers, and numerous forts, Dubrovnik was one of the best protected cities in Europe.
The old port.


After a day at sea, we eventually arrived at our final stop, Dubrovnik. The dramatic contrasting colors of the gray city walls, red clay tile rooftops, and the azure water gives credence to the Croatian city’s nickname – the Pearl of the Adriatic. Founded on an isthmus in the 7th century, its original name was Ragusa, and its mighty city walls provided inhabitants with centuries of protection from a variety of invaders. In time, the city came under Venetian rule and prospered by trading with other Mediterranean states. For 150 years, Ragusa grew in wealth and power from its maritime commerce and eventually gained independence from Venice in the 14th century. After an earthquake in 1667 devastated the city’s buildings and killed more than 5,000 inhabitants, the city was rebuilt in its present Baroque style. The arrival of Napoleon finally put an end to the Republic of Ragusa, and the city was ceded to the Hapsburg Empire by the French several years later. After World War I, its name was officially changed to Dubrovnik as it became part of Yugoslavia and then finally an independent Croatia in the 1991. This final transition came at great cost, however, when Serbs destroyed the city with artillery during a seven-month siege. International aid from a number of organizations helped rebuild the city over a decade.

We anchored just outside the ancient harbor and once again went through the tendering process to go ashore, but by now, we knew how to work the system to maximize our time on land. Despite our best efforts, we were still left with only two hours to see as much of Dubrovnik as we could. We began ironically with a short walk leading away from the port to position ourselves for a panoramic view of the medieval walled city. Although this maneuver proved costly in terms of time, it was certainly worth the effort. Once back within the confines of the walls, we did our best to relax and stroll around the limestone streets polished by the footsteps of centuries. As with comparable walled cities, Dubrovnik is filled with narrow alleys that lead into large squares, and the absence of motorized traffic makes for a pleasant opportunity to browse the shops and vendors peddling Croatian dolls and watercolors to buy those last-minute souvenirs. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of time, so we bypassed the window-shopping and even lunch for a quick beer and a tour of the city walls. The walls surrounding the city are in impeccable shape (thanks to renovation efforts following the Balkan conflict) and every guide book lists them as a can’t-miss as they offer gorgeous views of the old town and the surrounding Adriatic. With only two sets of stairs as access points, the walls are open for walking and can be circumnavigated in about 90 minutes. We had only half of that time, so we had to make a hard decision to cut out the lower, longer portion in favor of the route that climbs slightly up Mt. Srd and offers more picturesque vantage points. The crowds only inched their way along the walls, so we had to squeeze past as best we could while still keeping our footing. The views certainly lived up to the hype, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from lingering at several points to take it all in. Eventually, we realized that this bit of the wall was all we were going to be able to experience during our brief visit, so we might as well enjoy it. Having made it to the other end of the city, we descended by Onofrio’s sixteen-sided fountain and crept back down the main thoroughfare to the main harbor.

We had heard that Dubrovnik’s real essence comes out at night as people roam the lamp-lit white streets searching for the right spot to dine al fresco or enjoy a drink with friends, but alas, we would have to experience that side of Dubrovnik another time. The last few tenders were already making their way back to the ship where we would return to Venice and be on a plane back to the US by morning - another successful trip in the books.

The fountain's distinctive roof hole was once covered by a cupola.
Onofrio's big fountain.

While the entire old city is a pedestrian zone, most shops are located down Dubrovnik's main thoroughfare.
Looking down the Stradun.

Saint Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik, is often depicted holding a model of the city.  According to legend, the saint appeared to the rector to warn him of an impending Arab attack on the city.
Saint Blaise

The city of Dubrovnik was orginally known as the Republic of Ragusa.
A bell tower near the port.

Dubrovnik is loaded with places to sit and relax with a cold drink.
A nice spot for people watching.

Dubrovnik sits at the foot of Mt. Srd.
Fort St. John protects the old port.

Durbrovnik took a needless beating from the Serbs during the Balkan conflict.
Our ship awaits our return.

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