As we pack up to head home tomorrow, we would be remiss if we didn’t share something about our cruise boat, the Viking Antares. This lovely Egyptian vessel was built in 2007 according to the standards and specifications of Germanishcer of Lloyd’s. She has 3 propellers made by Rolls Royce and 3 engines made by Caterpillar. She’s 236 feet long, 47.5 feet wide, 38 feet high. She can cruise at 12.5 mph with the current and 10 mph against. She’s beautiful, comfortable, and cozy with a maximum capacity of 62 passengers. We cruised with a group of 57…plus those who followed along with this blog. To you we say thank you and hope you’ve enjoyed this trip as much as we have!
The food onboard is excellent! A breakfast buffet is available every day with several cooked-to-order selections as well. At lunch there’s a soup, salad, and sandwich selection as well as heavier entrees and always ice cream. Dinner has a regional specialty, different selections of meat, fish, and vegetarian, as well as the traditional “Viking” regular menu available every evening. The food and service didn’t disappoint!
The entertainment is amazing! In addition to the lounge pianist, different groups came onboard to enrich us with traditional music and dance. The Whirling Dervish show was spectacular! And the Nubian singers and dancers on Egyptian Night added a chance for lively “audience participation.” So much fun!
Our stateroom was huge and had every creature comfort a weary traveler could ask for including a French Balcony. It far exceeded every expectation!
The Aswan region is a study in contrasts. An important trading area, the city is divided into the east side where some 500,000 people live and the west side where there’s nothing but the Sahara Desert until the Atlantic Ocean some 3,000 miles away. Aswan is located at the first cataract of the Nile. It has long been a place for trading. The city also thrived because of large granite quarries which were used to build Egypt’s countless temples, obelisks, and Pyramids. In the 1960s, the completion of the Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser. As the lake rose, the region became a magnet for archaeologists intent on saving the ancient temples from submersion.
Our first stop in the Aswan region was the village of Esna where we walked among the local craftsmen who were busy demonstrating their work. Ancient Egyptians knew Esna as Latopolis, named for the largest of the perch species that swam in the Nile’s sacred waters. Its ancient past lives on in the colorful street markets overflowing with their goods and crafts. Although it was early Sunday morning, the residents were welcoming to our band of tourists.
On our way to the Aswan High Dam, our guide explained some of its pros and cons. The first dam was built in 1902 with help from the British. After raising it twice to prevent flooding, it had a capacity of 9 billion cubic feet of water. The High Dam was designed to capture excess water in Lake Nasser and store it in case of severe drought. It has a capacity of 168 cubic feet and was financed by the Soviet Union.
On the plus side, the dam reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation and helps avoid long periods of drought, increasing the number of annual harvests from one to three. It also helps to regulate flooding which had destroyed entire communities in the past. It has had a positive impact on fishing and tourism, and enables the hydro electric power station which provides much of Egypt’s electricity. That and solar power allow Egypt to export their excess electricity.
On the negative side, it has resulted in increased humidity, which we experienced first hand. It also reduced the amount of silt coming into the region, which had been a good natural fertilizer. The saddest outcome, in my opinion, was the relocation of about 140,000 Nubian residents. Although we were told that they were provided with compensation in the form of some land and money, the loss of their ancestral homes and communities was profound. Some moved to Sudan to start new lives while others stayed in Egypt and are trying to preserve their customs in different villages, which we had the opportunity to visit. I’ll talk more about that later.
The Aswan Spice Market is divided into two sections: a tourist market and the local market. We visited both, and the differences were striking. The tourist market offers trinkets and other items of interest to visitors from brightly colored stalls. Vendors are pretty aggressive, often reducing their initial prices by up to 80%! The local market offers mostly fresh produce, baked goods, and some meat and fish, and the vendors do business quietly from behind their displays.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed a sail on a traditional falucca boat. The boats make a striking silhouette along the Nile with their unique and beautiful sails, and the sailors pass their trade down through generations.
The next day we visited a local Nubian village. In ancient Nubia, around 5000 BC, herdsmen and hunters from what is now the Sahara migrated toward the Nile and became farmers and fishermen. The fertile river valley allowed them to grow an abundance of fruits and vegetables, and also to herd cattle. Nubia became a passageway for extravagant products such as ebony, incense, and ivory, which were brought from other parts of Africa and the Mediterranean. Over the years, their fortunes ebbed and their heritage was threatened in the name of “progress” as the dams were built on what was once their land.
Although they lost so much, today’s Nubian families are working hard to carry on the traditions of their ancient ancestors. Many of their homes are built in a traditional domed style with vibrant colors in geometric patterns. We had the privilege of visiting one of their villages, where we were treated to a home visit as well as a stop at a local preschool. We received a warm welcome with traditional hibiscus tea; jabana coffee prepared with Sudanese coffee beans, ginger, and sugar; and a sweet homemade bread. The rhythmic sounds of drums and the rababa, a bowed, stringed instrument, filled the air with traditional Nubian music. And I treated myself to a beautiful botanical henna design, done by one of the local women to match hers.
Later that evening we visited Agikia Island located in the Old Aswan Dam reservoir. There we saw the ancient temple dedicated to goddess Isis. This historic structure is part of a complex of temples called Philae. It too was relocated because of the dams. When the Old Aswan Dam was built, the complex was flooded or completely under water for months at a time. As part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign, Philae was disassembled and moved to Agikia Island. It took workers almost 20 years to deconstruct and relocate the temple complex. We stopped by the following morning, and it was just as beautiful! We also had a chance to swing by the Nubian market where the clothes were far more beautiful than what we’ve seen so far. There’s much more gold and bling!
Aswan was the southernmost point on our journey on the Nile. As we began our trip back to Cairo, we stopped at the unique port of Edfu. Located on the west bank of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, Edfu is steeped in Egyptian legend. When we arrived, about 30 horse-drawn carriages were lined up to take us to the temple. We climbed onboard and had the thrilling experience of “rush-hour” as our driver made his way through the heavy traffic, keeping pace with trucks, cars, and motorcycles.
The ride to the temple didn’t quite prepare us for what was at the end of the road. Ancient Egyptian myth teaches that the falcon god Horus battled his uncle Seth after Seth brutally killed Horus’ father Osiris. To honor Horus, the people of Edfu built a grand temple from 237-57 BC. It is truly a magnificent example of an ancient Egyptian temple, with vivid stories and a magnificent Holy of Holies. There was a long line of tourists to take a “selfie” with the statue of Horis sitting in front of the temple. We passed on the selfie, catching a clean shot of Horus between the selfie-takers!
The Aswan Region is fast and slow, old and new, and its history and secrets will take some time to process. As we make our way back to Luxor, we’re left with a feeling that there is just so much to know and so much to do. But one thing is for sure… we’re happy to have made this particular journey before we’re too old.
Our visit to the west bank of the Nile was drenched in sunshine and the highest temperatures yet, but what we saw will be with us forever!
The Valley of the Kings sits in the heart of the Theban necropolis on the west bank of the Nile. This ancient site contains tombs from the 16th to the 11yh centuries BC. The Valley was constructed to provide holy burial sites for the kings, pharaohs, and other powerful nobles to ensure that their final resting places would be safe from the grave robbers. The Valley spans across two valleys, east and west, with the majority of the royal tombs situated in the east. The Valley contains at least 63 tombs in varying degrees of ongoing excavation. The more prominent tombs are open for viewing on a rotating basis. We were able to enter three, most notably that of King Tut.
This area has been the focus of archaeological and Egyptological exploration since the end of the 18th century. In 1922, the Valley captured the world’s attention with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. A new chamber was discovered in 2006, and two additional tomb entrances were identified in 2008. The tombs range in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with more than 120 chambers. Today the Valley of the Kings is one of the most important sites for archaeological research and restoration.
The Tomb of Merenptah is the second largest in the Valley. Discovered by Howard Carter in 1903, its main decorations come from the Book of Gates. Merenptah was a pharaoh during Ancient Egypt’s 19th dynasty and the son of King Ramses II.
The Tomb of Ramses I was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni. It is one of the smallest in size, presumably due to his advanced age and poor health when he took the throne. He reigned less than two years. His actual mummy was moved to a museum in Niagara Falls, Canada, then relocated to Emory University in 1999.
When King Tutankhamun died at age 19, an existing tomb was adapted for his burial. Only the burial chamber itself was painted, with scenes of his journey into the afterlife. Over 3,330 years old, the colors are still vibrant. It is considered the best preserved tomb ever found. Visitors are restricted to prevent further deterioration. The treasures have all been moved to Cairo museums, and some are in other places around the world. Today, only his mummy, the outermost of his three nested coffins, and its lid remain in the tomb. We were thrilled to be able to visit his tomb during the 100th anniversary of its discovery.
Curious to learn more about Howard Carter, the British archeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the intact tomb of the 18th century Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun in November, 1922, we traveled over to the house he lived in while working in Egypt. Most of his belongings, including some tools, his camera and dark room, kitchen, office, and victrola remain intact. In fact, it looked as though he could walk through the door to catch us snooping through his things.
Following our visit to Carter’s home, it was time to visit the nearby Valley of the Queens. The queens and some of their children are buried here, although the reasons for its location is not clear.
The largest and most elaborate of the tombs is that of Queen Nefertari, first of Pharaoh Ramses II (Ramses the Great)’s eight wives. Married at age 13, Nefertari had at least six children during their 24 year marriage. He called her “beautiful companion” and “the one for whom the sun shines.” Her tomb was discovered in 1904 by Ernesto Schiaparelli. It has intense color, with a ceiling painted deep blue and lined with stars. The walls are covered with elaborate imagery. It was badly deteriorated over the years, and was closed for restoration from the 1950’s until 1995. It was closed again from 2003-2016, and now has only limited visitation. Cameras are not allowed, and only cell phone cameras with no video and no flash can be brought into the tomb. The vivid walls depict her journey through the underworld. It is truly magnificent!
The tomb of Prince Amen Khopshef, son of Ramses III, is well preserved and very colorful. It is believed he died young, as he is seen as the small boy with his father in many scenes.
Our next stop on this action-filled day was the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The temple is one of the most beautiful and striking of all of Egypt’s mortuary temples. Dedicated to the sun God Amun, this architectural masterpiece was designed in the 15th century BC to memorialize Queen Hatshepsut’s legacy among her male predecessors. It is an incomparable monument of ancient Egypt and a magnificent tribute to the greatest of Egypt’s female pharaohs.
Egypt had many queens, but none had the full powers of a pharaoh before Hatshepsut. From 1479-1458 BC, her reign was characterized by peace, prosperity, and the establishment of profitable trade with Punt (Somalia.) After her death, her stepson Thutmose III created the largest empire Egypt had ever seen. He also went to extremes to obliterate all traces of Hatshepsut, including chiseling off any and all images and cartouches, and demolishing all of her statues. The queen literally disappeared from history until 1903 when archaeologist Howard Carter found her tomb and her story was illuminated for the first time in 3,500 years.
Our final stop was a brief photo stop at the Colossi of Memnon, the two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The Colossi have stood in front of the ruins of his temple, the largest in the Valley, since 1350 BC.
This was by far the longest and hottest day in our journey, but it was such a rich, rewarding experience. As we headed back to the east bank and our awaiting ship, we were a bit awe-struck (or sun-struck!) by everything we were privileged to see.
Our three days in Cairo were action-packed and exhausting, but we persevered and took in as much as possible. From the intact antiquities and wonders of the world to the present-day challenges with unbridled traffic, pollution, and housing issues, Cairo’s rich past and its unbridled passion provide non-stop stimulation in every way possible. We’ll try to capture some of why locals continue to refer to the city as “Umm al-Dunya,” Mother of the World.
The Nile lured visitors to Egypt as early as 5200 BC and by 3100 BC it had become the world’s first recognizable city-state. Formed around 45 million years ago, the Nile took thousands of years to become the longest watercourse in the world. Most of Egypt’s most important myths were based on the Nile, and even the ancient calendar was adjusted according to the patterns of the river. The Nile continues to be as integral to Egyptian life, lore, and commerce as it was so many years ago. We were blessed to be able to look out on the Nile from our hotel room balcony.
A visit to the Cairo Citadel provided us with a great introduction to the rich Islamic history surrounding this incredible place.
Moving on to the Egyptian Museum, we viewed many priceless antiquities, including some from King Tut’s tomb, and learned more about Egypt’s fascinating history. This visit provided meaningful context for some of the phenomenal things we’ll be experiencing on this journey of a lifetime.
Pyramids represent the epitome of ancient Egypt’s glory. The first pyramid was the Sakkara Step Pyramid. Built under the direction of Imhotep, King Djoser’s chief minister and architect as the king’s final resting place, Sakkara soars to a height of 204 feet. Beneath it lies a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers including the king’a sarcophagus 75 feet underground. It is truly a sight to behold. Seeing the pyramids glowing in the sun is a breathtaking experience, especially knowing that what remains today are only the underlying core stones.
After Djoser, other kings built pyramids in Sakkara and elsewhere, but the greatest of all is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, also called Cheops. Described as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by ancient Greeks, it is the only one of those wonders still standing. It consists of 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 and 15 tons. Contrary to popular belief, they were not built by slaves. Records show that the work was done by skilled craftsmen supervising paid laborers from all over Egypt. The Khufu/Cheops is flanked by the Pyramid of Khafre. The Pyramid of Menkaure is the smallest of the three, but has the most complex mortuary temple. All three are astronomically oriented with their four cardinal points within a fraction of a degree.
Full of mystery and wonder, the enigmatic Sphinx, carved from a single block of limestone and nestled near the Great Pyramids of Giza, is one of the most enduring symbols of Egypt. Its face is missing a nose after having been battered by winds and harsh climates for centuries. Bits of red coloring offer the possibility that it might have been painted red at one time. It didn’t always sit on the ground near the pyramids. In the 1930s, an Egyptian archaeologist dug the cat out of its tomb, allowing the iconic sculpture to bask in the desert sun for all to see.
We also had a little bit of fun riding camels at the pyramids. The guides helped us mount the enormous beasts, who then abruptly stood up. Although a bit intimidating, it was great fun and something we’ll never forget.
We also had the opportunity to visit Cairo’s oldest and largest open air bazaar, Khan el-Khalili, another thrilling experience! The bazaar, or souk in Arabic, is tucked into narrow streets and alleyways and offers a truly dynamic shopping experience. The Al-Hussein Mosque, a sacred religious site and important center of Islamic theology is adjacent to the bazaar.
All over Cairo we saw throngs of people! Over 20 million people live there, and there are clearly some quality of life issues needing attention. And although our three day visit didn’t scratch the surface, we were thrilled to be able to experience this amazing place. Where else can one experience life as it was so long ago, eat exotic and delicious food, see treasures from ancient tombs, dodge endless traffic, ride camels, and see this much cotton candy!
From early morning until late at night, Istanbul offers breathtaking views! As the last of four incredible days in Istanbul winds down, we are still in awe of this amazing place! An assault, in the best way possible, on all five senses, Istanbul will leave an imprint on our hearts for a long time to come. We will try to share a bit of what we experienced here, with strong recommendations to come and experience it for yourself!
Home to some 3,000 mosques, we had the chance to enter only three: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Rustem Pasha Mosque.
Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise. Bazaars of all types and sizes offer everything from sweets to carpets to jewelry. The bazaars are also popular meeting places for a talk, a smoke, and a cup of thick, rich Turkish coffee.
Topkapi Palace was the Imperial residence of the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Amid the lovely courtyards with towering cypress trees and lush gardens, visitors can imagine what life might have been like during this time.
A poet once described the Bosphorus Strait as “God’s beautiful calligraphy written by an ink made of sapphires.” The strait provides part of the continental boundary between Asia and Europe and divides Istanbul into Anatolia and Thrace. An important international trade route, it also connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. We enjoyed a cruise along the strait as well as a ferry ride from Besiktas Pier on the European side to Kadikoy on the Asian side. Views on both rides were spectacular!
We can’t say enough about the food! From street vendors selling grilled corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, and the ubiquitous simit (yummy round sesame bread) to fresh seafood, grilled kebabs, and the fresh fruits, nuts, cheeses, and vegetables in abundance at the bazaars, we found the food in Istanbul to be satisfying and delicious.
But it was the culture in Istanbul that we found most appealing. Although Turkey is 95% Muslim, 3% Christian, and 2% Jewish, we were told that religious freedom and tolerance is the norm. The call to prayer 5 times a day is a reminder of a greater good. And we were told that getting together for a coffee in Turkey can last 2-3 hours. Friends gather before and after prayer, and people seem to greet one another with genuine hospitality. These lovely friends pretty much sum up our views of the people of Turkey…old friends taking time for genuine conversation. We liked that!
At our ages, it’s not likely that we’ll have the opportunity to return to Istanbul, but we’re delighted we had four truly enjoyable days there!
Ephesus is an ancient city in Turkey’s Central Aegean region. Its excavated remains reflect cultures of history from classical Greece to the Roman Empire. Although a great deal of the area has been recovered, archaeologists anticipate that it will take another 200 years before their work is complete. The library has become symbolic of the city, and over 2 million visitors pose in front of its imposing facade every year.
Following our visit to Ephesus, we rode back to the port city of Kusadasi, a shopping paradise. Doug honed his negotiating skills in a shop offering “almost free and almost real” Rolexes, getting the price down from $60 to $25, then walking away.
We also watched an interesting demonstration of the techniques used to weave silk and hand-tie the famous Turkish rugs. We had no intention of buying a rug, but one caught our eye that we simply could not resist. Doug did a great job of negotiating, but I’m sure the seller still made a handsome profit. It will be a lasting souvenir of a lovely day in Turkey.
Sailing away from Kusadasi, we noticed a statue of Mustofa Kamal Ataturk standing high above the city sign. Ataturk came to prominence for his role in securing the Ottoman Turkish victory at the Battle of Gallipoli (1915) in World War I. He was the first president of Turkey, serving from 1923 until his death in 1938. He is well-respected as the Father of the Turkish Republic, and revered for his sweeping progressive reforms which modernized Turkey into a secular democracy.
The lush island of Rhodes is the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese islands and our last stop in Greece. It is situated at the crossroads of the two sea routes of the Mediterranean, between the Aegean Sea and the coasts of the Middle East. Best known for its well-fortified and exquisitely preserved Old Town, Rhodes is surrounded by areas that paint a very different picture.
The Medieval Old Town contains remnants of the many civilizations that have left their marks. Its unique architectural style combines Byzantine, French, and Spanish influences. The imposing Palace of the Grand Masters, Byzantine temples, buildings left by the Knights of St. John including a hospital, stone-paved streets, mosques, a Jewish synagogue, Orthodox churches, and lively squares come together to form a complex mosaic.
The Knights of St. John were a religious order founded in the 11th century. Members represented eight major European Catholic countries and divided themselves strictly into exclusive classes based on their degree of aristocracy. Their primary objective initially was to care for wounded and ailing crusaders, serving as soldiers, nurses, and clerics based on their skills. Occupying Rhodes in 1310, they brought great wealth to the island and left their mark by building massive buildings such as the Palace of the Grand Master and the Knights Hospital. Strolling up and down the Street of the Knights, visitors are provided with glimpses of what life was like during their occupation. The quarters of the various nationalities represented in the knights are located along the pebbled street. The knights fled to Malta in 1522 when the Turks were finally triumphant, but much of their influence remains.
The Palace of the Grand Masters is the most significant building in Old Town. Originally built on the foundation of the Temple of the Sun God Helios, it was the seat of government and home to the Grand Master during Medieval times. It was largely destroyed in 1856 by explosives hidden in the basement of the nearby Church of St. John. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was magnificently restored as a holiday retreat for Mussolini. Although he never actually got the chance to visit, he decorated the palace using floors of intricate mosaics found during archaeological restorations on the nearby island of Cos and furnishings of ornate Italian design.
In addition to numerous historical venues, Old Town is home to some 6,000 people who live here. Their homes and cafes are tucked into quaint side streets, where we stopped for lunch before heading outside to explore more of the island.
Making our way on foot through modern residential neighborhoods to the less populated countryside, we were surprised to find groves of citrus and olive trees soaking up the Aegean sun and forests of cypress and pine trees covering the hillsides. As we hiked Rhodes’ expansive Acropolis area (not the better-known Acropolis of Lindor nearby), we found breathtaking rocky slopes overlooking beautiful beaches. Yet to be fully excavated, this acropolis is a surprising and delightful place that we had almost to ourselves!
Our visit to Rhodes was exhilarating and rewarding. Logging in almost seven miles, we had the opportunity to travel through centuries of triumph and struggle. Back to the port, we agreed that this final day in Greece was one we’ll remember fondly for a long time.
Heraklion is named for the divine Greek hero Heracles, son of Jupiter and the mortal Alcmene. It’s the largest port city on the beautiful island of Crete. During our visit, we spent considerable time in the fascinating Minoan Collection of the Archaeological Museum taking in the well-preserved antiquities from the vibrant, artistic, nature-loving people who settled Crete as early as 3500 BC. The museum is famous for the masterpieces of Minoan art that make up its prehistoric collection, and it did not disappoint.
These are just a few of the Minoan treasures that captured our attention during this delightful museum visit, after which we spent some time exploring Heraklion’s Old Town.
And it wouldn’t be a Greek town without a few Orthodox churches. This one is named for the first Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Crete. St. Titus was a disciple of St. Paul who is said to have preached in Crete in 62-63 AD.
Heraklion, with its ancient Minoan roots, is a beautiful, vibrant city. We topped off our visit with traditional Greek coffee and baklava while watching the world go by.
Our two day visit to Athens began with an early-morning visit to the Acropolis, a good thing since this would become the hottest day of their summer. It was also a Saturday at the height of the tourist season, so although most Athenians had the good sense to leave the area for vacation, throngs of visitors were standing in line as we finished our tour. But we’re going to cover a bit about Athens from our second day first, because there’s so much to say about the Acropolis later.
Ancient Athens, a beautiful walled city-state, was originally called Aktaio after a king, then Cecrops who was half man/half snake. Athens was the most powerful town in Greece, and its citizens developed an enduring civilization based on the principles of democracy. According to legend, the gods of Olympus saw this beautiful place and wanted to name the city after themselves and become its patron. The most persistent rivals were Poseidon, sea god, and Athena, goddess of wisdom. To solve the dispute, Zeus asked each of them to make a gift to the city and let the citizens decide. Poseidon went first. He struck a rock with his trident, causing a spring of water to gush forth. This, he promised, would assure a ready source of water and the end of droughts. The water he commanded, however, was sea water and tasted of salt. Athena planted a seed which grew into a beautiful olive tree. The people knew that olive trees produce delicious food and oil, and can also be used for fire wood if necessary. They therefore proclaimed Athena their patron, giving her the everlasting honor of naming the city after her. Glorious temples were built in her honor, and when money was invented, she and her sacred bird, the wise owl, were depicted on their coins.
You might think this is simply a myth, but as with all great stories, there’s a grain of truth to it. Olive trees still thrive throughout Athens and its countryside, while drought continues to be a major problem. Water has to be imported to Athens from nearby lakes, especially in the summer.
The port of Piraeus, also an ancient city, still serves as the primary port of Athens. The Viking Sky docked there for two days, giving us a bit of time to explore this town as well.
Looking out from our deck after dinner, we noticed a beautiful church close by. We learned that it’s a Geek Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Denise decided to investigate further.
The next day being Sunday, I decided to attend services which started at 7:00 am. I made my way to the church around dawn, and was a bit surprised that I was the first to arrive. Shortly thereafter, a priest came in, and then an older woman dressed in black. I knew enough to dress modestly for church, but missed the memo to wear black. As people entered the church, all wearing black, they made an elaborate ritual involving multiple crossings, bowing, and kissing specific icons. Then one woman entered wearing all white. She proceeded to the front of the church, placing an elaborate cake with a picture on it on a table in front of the altar. Soon a florist delivered three beautiful floral arrangements around the table, and then more cakes. A cantor was singing, but the priest was nowhere in sight. Slowly people started to file in, and after about 90 minutes, the lights came on, the screen opened, and the priest came out. He carried a gold bible around to each person in church, and everyone kissed it. I did the same. Services lasted three hours in total, but people seemed to arrive whenever they felt like it. I couldn’t see what was going on during communion, and since I stuck out wearing pink anyway, I didn’t want to call any further attention to myself so I refrained from receiving. At one point a large man charged the altar shouting and attempted to pull the cantor’s microphone away from him. No one seemed particularly worried, but several men subdued him and led him reluctantly out of the church. I figured they knew him, but I don’t think that was part of the liturgy. As the service was drawing to a close, however, everyone crowded to the front of the church to receive a small piece of blessed bread from the priest. I followed the crowd. I took a few pictures of this beautiful church before and after services, and although I didn’t understand one word, I felt at one with the congregation. I’m glad I started my day this way.
After church it was time for a Greek coffee, a strong brew with foam on top, sweetened and prepared in a special copper pot called a briki.
After our visits to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum yesterday (described below for continuity) we made this a low-key, relaxing day taking in a few sights around Athens. We got to see the “new” Olympic Stadium, built in 1896 for the first modern Olympics. And we visited a few shops in Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens.
For us, the Acropolis was the most interesting part of our visit to Athens. The word acropolis comes from the Greek words akron (highest point) and polis (city.) The Athens Acropolis sits high on a rocky hill above the city of Athens. It contains the remains of many ancient buildings of great historical and architectural significance. While there is evidence that the Acropolis was inhabited as early as the 4th century BC, the first records of construction are from around 495 BC.
There are several very well-preserved buildings among the ruins at the Acropolis. Teams of archaeologists are conducting painstaking, careful restoration work and new discoveries are being made daily. Many of the original artifacts have been moved to the Acropolis Museum for further restoration and preservation. We visited the museum later in the day as temperatures reached close to 100°!
The most familiar building at the Acropolis is the Parthenon. This majestic collonaded marble temple to the goddess Athena has been under restoration for the past 40 years. It has become almost synonymous with the City of Athens as it stands watch over the city. As the day went by, more and more visitors were arriving to view this marvel.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone Roman amphitheater at the southwest slope of the Acropolis. Completed in 161 AD and renovated in 1950, this performance venue has been used for concerts since it was built. Today it’s the primary venue for The Athens Festival which runs annually from May through October.
Over the years, the Odeon has played host to such stars as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Luciano Pavarotti, Yanni, Sting, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, and many other well-known musicians. What an incredible backdrop for a concert!
The Erechtheion, built as a temple of Athena Polias, is best known for the six beautiful Caryatids holding up the porch roof. We learned later that these beauties are actually replicas of the originals, five of which are housed at the Museum…but more on that later! It is believed that the olive tree seen peeking out next to the temple in the third picture down was actually the tree planted by Athena in the contest that gained her naming rights to the city.
As the temperature climbed and the crowds grew, it was time to make our way to the Acropolis Museum just a short walk away. The Museum was opened in 2009 to preserve and display the important artifacts found on the rock and its surrounding slopes from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine times. Photos are prohibited in several rooms, but most of the museum is welcoming and accessible. Visiting the museum truly enriched our overall Acropolis experience as we learned more about certain treasures, their histories, and whereabouts. The museum makes extensive use of windows and light to create aesthetics that compliment the exhibits beautifully.
The ground level contains artifacts from sanctuaries and settlements along the Acropolis slopes throughout history. There is also active archeological work underway on this level.
Actual remnants from the pediment of the Parthenon are displayed up close to tell their stories of war and triumph.
There are many mythological artifacts, such as this beautiful sphinx, a creature with the head of a woman, wings of a bird, and body of a lioness.
But the most surprising thing we learned is that the six Caryatids displayed at the Acropolis itself are replicas of these beauties. Five of the original six are displayed in the Museum.
There’s an empty space awaiting the 6th caryatid, which we were surprised to learn is found today in the British Museum along with many original marble artifacts.
It seems that Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to Greece) was an art collector as well as a diplomat. There’s great controversy over how he was able to procure these Greek treasures back in 1802, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ladies are missing their sister. And it’s also pretty clear that this story’s ending is yet to be written!
Our two days in Athens flew by, and by the end of the second day we were pretty tired. So as we sailed away toward the Island of Crete, we stopped by the ship’s Wintergarten and did something we’ve never done on a Viking Cruise…we enjoyed afternoon tea. It was a perfect ending for two busy days.
Today we took a trip way back in time to visit the ancient ruins of the legendary city of Olympia, the classical birthplace of the Olympic Games. The well-preserved remains of temples, massive columns, the gymnasium, fountains, hotels, and the stadium all evoke the glory of the early games. It is unclear who came up with the idea of the games initially, but they were definitely dedicated to Zeus, King of the Gods of Mt. Olympus.
One likely theory is that a regional king, frustrated with the constant wars among the kingdoms, went to Delphi to ask Apollo how to end the wars. Apollo recommended starting athletic competitions between the kingdoms during which there would be a Sacred Truce to which all would commit. This truce would be in honor of Zeus. Although it is guesstimated that this might have occurred as early as the 10th century BC, the first written record of the games is 776 BC. After this, every four summers the people of Olympia would organize the games and athletes, trainers, and spectators would make the journey. There was a grand procession to mark the beginning of the games, and sacred fires were kept burning. The wars were suspended during the games, which increased over the years from one event to fifteen and from one day to five. The early athletes were all men (women started their own games later) and the winners would receive a wreath of olive branches. Once the games ended, the parties started! This went on until 394 AD when the games were suspended. By then most Greeks had become Christians and had stopped worshipping Zeus. We were surprised to learn that the marathon was not part of the original Olympic games…but that’s another story!
Over the years, the Olympic venues fell to ruin through earthquakes, wars, mudslides, etc. and the once imposing structures were buried and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century when a team of German archaeologists found some Olympic remains that interest in the games was revived. New facilities were built and the “new” games were held in Athens on April 5-15, 1896, then again in 2004. The tradition of an Olympic fire was reintroduced during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. And the first Olympic torch relay was at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The ancient site has been undergoing extensive archaeological discovery and restoration for decades. We actually saw part of the excavation that’s taking place today.
Waking among the ruins was an awe-inspiring experience. We’re happy to share some of our favorite images here in the hope that they take you back to the early days of this amazing place!
Today, several visitors were inspired to test their skills in the stadium, with varying degrees of success.
I mentioned that the Marathon wasn’t originally part of the Olympics, but how did it start? It’s actually a story of war and love with a happy ending. Marathon was a battlefield 26 miles from Athens where the Athenians confronted the Persians in 490 BC. When the Athenians prevailed, a soldier ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. A Frenchman learned of this story, and in 1896 organized athletes from 13 countries to run the marathon as an Olympic event. A young man named Spiros was hired to carry water for the athletes. Spiros loved a young woman named Helen. Her father said he couldn’t marry Helen unless he did something important. Spiros, not an athlete himself, covered the 26 miles in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 58 seconds, winning the marathon. He ended up marrying Helen. Now every year in November, over 16,000 athletes run the Athens Marathon.
Our wonderful guide Sophia regaled us with these and other stories and legends of the Olympics during our time together. Afterwards, we spent a little time in the city of Olympia which grew up to support the tourism created by the discovery of the Olympic treasures.