Aegean odyssey


We are sailing…”

Pepe, keyboard maestro and Rod Stewart wannabe, is warbling over the PA from the safety of the ship’s piano bar.

“Oh, be quiet,” I mutter, rather ungraciously, under my breath. I don’t need any fanfare. We are setting sail at night out of Istanbul, pulling gently away from the wharf and onto the Bosphorus, on a glorious white clipper ship. Above us, the old city on the headland is lit up, with Aya Sofia dazzling as a tiara in Topkapi’s treasury.

This is more than magical. It’s one of those travel moments that catches in the back of your throat and fulfils dreams you never dared imagine. The feeling calls for Mozart, or, at a stretch, the theme music from Chariots of Fire. But Rod Stewart?

Mercifully, Pepe runs out of puff and at last we are left in peace, with only the wind in the canvas and the surge of our wake stretching back towards the Golden Horn.

Istanbul is a funky layer of modern life built on top of old Constantinople, with millennia of buildings, layer upon crumbling layer behind Byzantine brick walls, strung out along that fabled waterfront. The city may now be topped with neon (“McTurk!”) and spotted with the headlights of yellow cabs, but it’s as fabulous and exciting as ever.

This stretch of water opens out into the famed Sea of Marmara, and narrows again into the Dardanelles, separating Europe from Asia and weaving the ancient past into the present. These waters have been criss-crossed by the great armies of all ages, and witnessed the end of nearby Troy, rampaging Crusaders, victorious Sulieman, the Ottoman Empire and of course the original Anzacs.

I can’t help smiling myself to sleep, imagining that original hopeless romantic, Lord Byron, splashing by. An adventurous and rather boastful swimmer, he not only braved Venice’s smelly Grand Canal, he swam across this strait and lived to write home.

We wake up to blinding sunshine, and eat crisp white rolls and fluffy scrambled eggs while we glide by 15th century forts and bright red fishing boats. The ship slowly turns into the wind. The water changes from a glittering sea-green to colour-card Aegean blue. We’re heading out to sea. We’re sailing to the islands.

All at sea

Life at sea aboard the Star Flyer is one of sunshine, peace, and an endless banquet. She’s a gorgeous ship and every passenger falls deeply in love with her elegant lines, sense of history, and above all her defiant sails in this age of mega-cruisers.

She’s modelled on the clipper ships that plied the great ocean crossings in the 19th century, even down to the resident parrot (although it must be admitted that those in the deck suites want to strangle the infernally noisy parrot by the end of the voyage). Modern four-star touches include en suite bathrooms, cable television and air conditioning.  Yet we scoff as we skim past giant liners with their poker machines and floorshows. We lounge about the deck during happy hour, and supervise the weighing of the anchor. We take a turn at the wheel, and check the compass to make sure the captain’s on course. We can climb the mast, and heave-ho on the odd line if we feel the urge, but electric winches and pulleys mean even the crew don’t have to haul on the sheets.

Old hands say they’ll never step on a normal cruise ship again. This is not a cruise, they insist: it’s a voyage of discovery.

We cruise down the coast of Turkey, spending days exploring the ruined cities of Ephesus and Pergamon and the Crusader castle port of Bodrum, and being rocked gently to sleep each night by the motion of our ship on the waves. Turkey and Greece are close together here, and many’s the time we can see the Turkish coast on our left and a Greek island on our right. In the middle of one night we cross that intangible border at sea, and wake up to find ourselves anchoring in the harbour of the holy island of Patmos.

Pirates and priests

The island of Patmos is dominated by the tenth-century monastery of St John of the Apocalypse, perched on the very top of the mountain. It looks more like a fortress than a sacred place, but its design was a wise precaution against pirates and invaders that threatened for hundred of years. Below it, where we scramble out of our ship’s boat, the town of Skala nestles around a fishing harbour. It has its own winding lanes, high white walls, and tiny windows, built for defence but now wreathed in bougainvillea.  An old mule-track winds through a fragrant pine forest up to the monastery. Every so often, there’s a white-walled shoebox of a church by the side of the trail, and finally the Cave of the Apocalypse, were St John rested his head and imagined the end of the world.

The monastery is a collection of tiny churches and hidden nooks where the remaining monks, in their black robes and high hats, hide from the world behind massive walls. But the world comes to them, relentlessly, on pilgrimage and on cruise ships, and they welcome visitors to their home with grace. The central church is rich with early frescoes and crammed full of magnificent gilded carvings. The golden two-headed eagle of Byzantium still reigns here, and flies on flags all over the island. A mere detail such as end of empire is nothing when your treasury contains illuminated manuscripts, precious 15th century printed books, two El Greco paintings, and icons over a thousand years old.

The pleasure of ruins

But on the island of Delos, one thousand years is nothing. On this rocky outcrop in the Cyclades, the carved lions stand on their famous terrace watching over the known world as they have since 700 BC (actually, the originals are in the museum, but I never admit unromantic facts like that). In the Odyssey, Homer described Delos as a renowned religious centre, and it was long revered as the birthplace of Apollo. By the time of its destruction in 88 BC, it had an established port, many temples along its Sacred Way, a fine theatre, and a thriving metropolis. It’s been deserted for 2000 years, but remains one of the most intact and fascinating ancient cities in the Mediterranean.

I love ruins. I wandered blissfully alone between high stone walls, through grand marble doorways, and along narrow lanes. It’s easy enough to imagine the daily lives of real people in this town, in their great mansions with delicate mosaic floors, or the one-roomed slave quarters. Terracotta pipes still run from the great water cistern, some of the world’s earliest plumbing. Translucent marble slabs, once kitchen sinks, sit beside carved granite urns. The seats of the amphitheatre look out over the town and the harbour, where one day the fleet of King Mithridates appeared, attacked, and left the island devastated. The people were taken completely by surprise: in the former stonemason’s workshop, a half-finished marble sphinx sits as if waiting for someone to resume chipping away.

Delos remains uninhabited, although it’s now an important archaeological site with its own museum and gate attendants. But that’s all. You won’t find seafood restaurants or nightclubs here. There are no market stalls or souvenir hawkers. Instead, there’s a taste of past life that is fascinating and intensely moving, perhaps even more so than Pompeii or Ephesus. For Delos is untouched, almost inviolate. Wandering the alleyways, you’ll look down to see thousands of pieces of ancient terracotta scattered along the path; glimpse a black cat sunning itself in a marble window-frame; or in the silence, hear only the Aegean Sea slapping at the edges of its sacred island.

Modern and medieval Mykonos

A couple of women on our ship found Delos boring. They whined. They grizzled. They lobbied the captain to change his sailing schedule. They wanted to go shopping. Luckily, only half an hour from Delos by sea is Mykonos – once a pirate haven, now shopping heaven. Those two big-haired gold-encrusted darlings, and I, had heard a great deal about Mykonos and its shops, its throbbing nightclub culture, its lively social set. To my shipmates, it sounded like paradise – to me, it sounded like the Gold Coast with windmills. But in the end we were all happy, because they spent up big in the jewellery stores and boutiques, and I spent hours wandering the white-washed lanes, peering into tiny stone churches, relishing the courtyards brimming with bougainvillea and the brightly-painted woodwork.

Old-timers will tell you that Mykonos is ruined by tourism. It may well be. Perhaps it’s not as it was in the 1930s, but the island has been coping with waves of visitors for thousands of years – a few shiploads of Florida retirees and a gay nightclub or two is nothing compared to Roman legions or Venetian slave-galleys. It’s still gorgeous, and it’s still very much a working town. Fishing boats crowd the wharf, widows in heavy black shawls carry their vegetables home in wide baskets, children play in the alleyways, and elderly men with worry-beads and cloth caps sit in the shade playing endless games of cards.

It’s true, a handful of restaurants straggle along the waterfront, and behind them, expensive boutiques are crammed into narrow buildings alongside shops selling sunglasses and postcards. But two or three lanes back from the harbour, the glossy white town seems to lead its own normal existence, in spite of people like me staring at their brass door-fittings and taking photos of the village well.

I imagine Mykonos looks a little cleaner but otherwise much the same as it has for hundreds of years.

Its inhabitants, and those of many Greek islands, can afford to smile indulgently at footsore visitors lost in the maze of pirate-proof alleys. Unlike other invaders, we pile back onto our ships at sunset, just in time for happy hour, and sail off into the blue Aegean.

Fact file

The Star Flyer and its sister ships sail the Aegean and other Mediterranean routes throughout the northern summer. For more information check the website.



Header photo: Belaying pins, Star Flyer, 2004

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