by Wallace Immen

The Glories of the Ancient World from the Comfort of a Modern Cruise Ship

Acropolis of LindosiStock 0 The Acropolis of Lindos, Rhodes

Grooves worn into the road by cart wheels centuries ago lead to a village well that’s still the place to gather and gossip inside the walled city of Rhodes.

Nowhere is the sweep of thousands of years of history as clearly visible as in the ports along the Adriatic coast and the Aegean islands of the Mediterranean   The wardrobes may have changed, but the daily routines and even the cobble stones in the streets of the ports of Rhodes and other cities we’re visiting on a cruise in the eastern Mediterranean have remained the same..

And the best way to experience the scope of antiquity is to use a modern cruise ship as your floating home.

When we think of the Mediterranean we tend to think of the western part of the sea that the Romans called their lake. But even older and every bit as fascinating cities are the eastern Mediterranean ports, where not only the Romans but the Greeks, Crusaders, Venetians and Ottomans have left lasting marks.  They’ve stood the tests of time because they were built of stone to fend off outside influences, which led them to retain unique styles and cultures.  

The experience begins or ends in Venice, where for most cruises the itinerary includes a day for exploration of the serene city before sailing out or disembarking. Ships in port provide water taxi service to docks near the iconic Saint Mark’s Square. And sailing past this jewel box of a city is unforgettable, with its rich palazzos and gorgeous squares that look today very much as they did when sailors ventured forth during the Renaissance.

Few travelers today are aware that Venice was able to call much of the eastern Mediterranean its domain from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Trade and a mighty fleet made the tiny city able to rule the Dalmatian coast and the islands of the former Byzantine Empire.

Stadun's Marble pavement, DubrovnikDreamstime - The Stadun's marble pavement, Dubrovnik

Their influence on architecture and art is visible everywhere, even in cities that held out against Venice. Dubrovnik, which was a rival of Venice as part of the Anconian alliance, built imposing walls around itself. They’ve proved useful even recently, as attested to by the scars still left in the massive fortifications by cruise missiles during the Serbian war of the 1990s. The city has risen marvelously from that destruction and today its gleaming marble streets are a haven for artists and musicians and refined cafes. Most cruises from Venice call on Dubrovnik and several lines, including Holland AmericaNorwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises offer exotic day trips into the Croatian countryside for gourmet experiences.

Beach in HvarShutterstock - Waterfront beach at Hvar, Croatia

Another Croatian port growing increasingly popular on cruise routes is Hvar, which was long a rival to Dubrovnik. It’s on itineraries of Silversea Cruises and Windstar Cruises. The vibrant port that was a stronghold of the Venetians is known as the “sunniest place in Europe,” So naturally sunbathing is a favorite pastime here, especially at the beaches of Dubovica and the Pakleni Islands. There are plenty more jaw-dropping sights to be seen along the way: lush olive groves, fruit orchards, fields of lavender, and many vineyards that make Hvar one of the top winemaking regions in Croatia.

Want to go more indepth in the Adriatic? Azamara Club Cruises’ offers specialized “inner passage” journeys focusing on the lesser known ports. In addition to Dubrovnik, there’s Korcula, with a history that goes back to the Trojans, and the ancient Roman and Venetian city of Zadar, the oldest settlement in Croatia, along with medieval Koper in Slovenia and Kotor, in Montenegro. Sailing in to Kotor along a beautiful fjord dotted with small islands is a treat unto itself, never mind what you find when you arrive.

Celebrity Cruises also offers a unique 13-night loop of the ancient trade route from Athens west to Corfu, which was another important outpost of the Venetians with intensive visits to ports in the Adriatic before heading back to the Greek Isles of Santorini, Rhodes and Mykonos.

DubrovnikiStock - Dubrovnik's famed fortifications

Been there, seen that? For seasoned Mediterranean sailors there are truly out of the ordinary itineraries such as Seabourn Cruises’ sailings from Venice that include “where’s that?” ports such as Primosten, a fortified Croatian hill town whose vineyards and beaches are considered some of the most beautiful and unspoiled in Europe. There’s also Nydri on the Greek island of Lefkada that’s believed to be the Ithica described by Homer, where the palace of Odysseus was located. Another highlight of Seabourn’s route is the fortified Byzantine and Venetian town of Monemvasia in the Greek islands.

Silversea Cruises is also offering an intensive cruise itinerary from Venice that includes the Croatian seaport of Rijeka, which has a unique Celtic history that was described by Pliny the Elder during the reign of Julius Caesar. It also calls at Kavala, the Macedonian city that became a battleground when it was besieged by the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War in 411 B.C.

And for a comprehensive sweep of Mediterranean history, Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria offers itineraries through the Adriatic and Greek Islands that extend as long as 21 days, from Rome to Athens.

Palace of KnossosFotolia - Palace of Knossos, Crete

Many of the eastern Mediterranean itineraries include Crete, the most ancient civilization of all, where the ruins of Knossos attest to the fact the Minoans had a flourishing empire around the Aegean nearly 6,000 years ago. My stop at Heraklion on Crete was aboard a Holland America cruise and it’s also a highlight of Mediterranean itineraries of Cunard, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean.

We’ve all heard fables of the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull who guarded treasure on Crete. It’s a treat to find out that there may actually have been a place that fits description in Homer’s tale of the labyrinth where the beast supposedly lived.

The PlakaShutterstock - The Plaka 

One of my favorite ports is still the old town of Rhodes, whose crenulated castle walls with parapets and slits for shooting arrows at invaders were built in the fourteenth century, when the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem made this Greek island their stronghold in the Crusades. The Crusaders might still recognize the beautifully twisting streets where there are fresh fish on ice at every taverna and local delicacies including grilled calamari drizzled in olive oil on the menus. Rhodes is on many itineraries of Azamara, Seabourn, Silversea, Celebrity, Princess Cruises and Windstar Crises.

My cruise ends, as many do, in Athens with a drink of grappa on the Plaka, the ancient marketplace on the slopes of the Acropolis. My voyage has taken me on the route of the Argonauts, the Roman galleys, and the merchants of Venice. The ancient world is still a glorious place, and what better way to see it than aboard a modern cruise ship?

Originally published in Dream Voyages Fall 2016 issue.

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