A Mediterranean Odyssey

An out of season cruise from Athens to Rome sets up opportunities to visit fabled ancient cities, writes Neil Geraghty.

From coffee table books to Instagram pages, Turkish street cats have a worldwide fan club and anybody who’s visited a Turkish fish restaurant on holiday will have encountered their endearing shenanigans.

None however compare to the cats of Ephesus. I’m strolling down Curetes Street, a marble paved processional way lined with temples and grand civic buildings. It should be an educational journey into the ancient world but the cats have put paid to any such notion. Wherever there’s a broken column or marble plinth you’re sure to spot a cat, and all they seem to want is to be stroked. Throughout the sprawling archaeological site you’ll spot tourists entranced by these feline show stealers to the point where they completely ignore the information panels.

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Ephesus is one of the highlights of an eight day Journey to Antiquities cruise run by Viking which I’ve joined during one of their mid winter sailings. The itinerary from Athens to Rome takes in some of the most iconic destinations of the ancient world and to visit them during a low season cruise has considerable advantages. Avoiding summer crowds and heat are the obvious ones but during the winter months the Mediterranean landscape, flushed with green after the autumn rains, looks at its very best. The sun, low in the horizon, bathes the ruins in soft golden light which is perfect for photography while the sight of oranges and lemons ripening on the trees is always a cheerful sight.

Ruins of the antique Temple of Apollo with bronze Apollo statue in Pompeii, Naples, Italy. Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.Ruins of the antique Temple of Apollo with bronze Apollo statue in Pompeii, Naples, Italy. Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.
Ruins of the antique Temple of Apollo with bronze Apollo statue in Pompeii, Naples, Italy. Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.

Our ship, the Saturn, is one of 12 identical ocean going cruise ships run by Viking which have a maximum of 930 passengers so are small enough to feel uncrowded but large enough not to get cabin fever. The public areas have a relaxing Scandi chic ambience and are dotted with eye-catching art works by contemporary Nordic artists. Best of all the public areas double up as an extensive library where a classic collection of exploration and history books have been expertly curated by the Duke of Devonshire’s London bookshop Heywood Hill.

The itinerary begins with a two night sojourn in Athens where from guided tours around the Parthenon to a day trip to Delphi a wealth of excursions are available for guests to choose from. I opt for tour to the less visited ruins of ancient Corinth. The drive takes us along the Saronic where spectacular vistas open up of the Peloponnese mountains. Our first stop is the Corinth Canal, a 6km long channel that cuts through the Isthmus of Corinth. Attempts were made in ancient times to build a canal but cutting through the hilly terrain proved too difficult for their limited technology. The present canal only opened in 1893 but due to the rise of steam shipping proved a commercial failure. Nevertheless it remains a marvel of 19th century engineering and the canal flanked by towering cliffs is a popular shortcut for yachtsmen sailing from the Ionian to Aegean seas.

Ancient Corinth was one of the wealthiest cities in ancient Greece and the imposing ruins strewn out beneath a towering acropolis have a commanding position overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Although most of the city was destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans, the Temple of Apollo was spared and is one of the oldest temples in mainland Greece still standing. In the soft winter light its honey coloured fluted Doric columns look stunning. As I approach the temple a solitary crow starts squawking which adds an aura of timeless mystery to the ancient religious site.

Pottering around archaeological sites can be surprisingly hard on your joints and back on board I head down to the Saturn’s Nordic Spa where bubbling hydrotherapy pools, spacious sauna cabins and a delightful snow grotto quickly melt away all the aches and pains. Overnight we sail across the Aegean Sea and at dawn reach the pleasant Turkish seaside resort of Kusadasi which is located close to several ruined ancient Greek cities. Ephesus, just 15 minutes drive from Kusadasi, is the main draw and in its heydey was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the ancient world. The ruins are dominated by the partially reconstructed Library of Celsius which is decorated with imposing statues of the Virtues. The library was one of the largest in the Graeco-Roman world and gives a real sense of the serene grandeur of classical architecture.

From Kusadasi we sail south to the charming town of Chania in western Crete where excursions leave for the world famous Minoan palace of Knossos. I opt for a more leisurely walking tour around Chania old town where cobbled streets lined by Venetian and Ottoman mansions surround a picturesque harbour. After exploring the town I take a stroll along the breakwater where a lighthouse built by the Ottomans in 1824 guards the entrance to the harbour. At the lighthouse I sit down to bask in the warm sunshine and take in the dazzling views of the cobalt blue Mediterranean lapping against the rocky Cretan seashore.

The fine weather continues for the next couple of days which we spend slowly sailing across the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. It’s a golden opportunity to relax and enjoy the on board activities and entertainments. These are generally low key with an intellectual feel and range from lectures on ancient history to early evening classical music duets in the Atrium Bar. There’s also ample time to try out the on board dining options which range from the casual World Cafe where chefs rustle up comfort food classics from countries visited during the cruise, to fine dining at Erling’s Scandinavian Bistro. In the evening as we sail past Stromboli I sit down to a leisurely festive Nordic dinner during which, with apologies to Rudolph, I try reindeer ravioli followed by Norway’s national dish Får-I-Kål (lamb braised in cabbage leaves).

For most guests the highlight of the cruise is Pompeii where nowhere else on earth has life in the ancient world been so perfectly preserved. Beyond the world famous frescoes, mosaics and harrowing plaster casts of victims buried by the volcanic ash, it’s the snippets of everyday life that are the most fascinating. Election slogans carved on clay tablets still adorn the buildings, street fountains with decorative carved faces stand on street corners and fast food joints with marble counters line the streets. In the afternoon I take a stroll around Naples city centre where it seems the whole city is out enjoying a Christmas passegiata. The street food sellers are doing a brisk trade and underneath lines of washing strung out across the narrow streets groups of friends and family are standing around eating delicious-looking fried seafood and croquettes served in paper cones. Substitute the paper cones for clay plates and it’s a scene that would have been familiar in ancient Pompeii. I spot a faded election poster and reflect that daily life perhaps hasn’t changed that much in the past 2000 years.

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Viking’s 8 day Journey to Antiquities cruise starts from £2,790 for a December 2024 sailing. Prices include return flights from selected UK airports, eight days on board in a veranda stateroom, transfers, all meals including wine, beer and soft drinks, access to the Nordic spa, evening entertainment and enrichment talks. The itinerary includes stops at Athens, Kusadasi, Crete, Sicily and Rome. To book call 0800 319 66 60 or visit www.viking.com

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