ROAM: Cruising through history

An Aegean Odyssey onboard the Celestyal Crystal | Story & Photos by Barbara Ramsay Orr

At 3 p.m. on a sunny fall afternoon, Thessaloniki, a city on the Aegean in northwestern Greece, is much like any city in the world – in some ways. There’s traffic, busy shoppers, and people doing errands. The cafes are full, and I’m lucky to have a table to myself at a local coffee spot called Mikel. I sit with a strong espresso and a triangle of excellent baklava in front of me.

What makes this place and this city unique is right beside me. I can almost reach out and touch it – the remains of Emperor Galerius’ wall, built in AD 299 to commemorate his victory over the Persians.

The wall is almost 2,000 years old. 

With most of a graceful arch and part of the marble frieze still standing, the ancient fragment sits in the middle of the city’s bustling daily life, at the intersection of Egnatia and Dimitriou Gounari streets.

The local population embraces the age and beauty of the Victory arch. Its colossal age is taken for granted, as it’s just one of many remnants from antiquity that hold along the streets and every corner of the city. There’s a reason why Thessalonika can never finish its subway system. Every time they dig for a subway station, they strike another temple or uncover an antique statue, and construction has to stop.

Touring Thessaloniki’s ancient streets is just one of the pleasures provided by an Aegean cruise. That morning I had done a port excursion that included a guided walking tour of the boardwalk, the famous White Tower and Aristotle Square. In a small group, led by local expert Banoush, we learn to say good morning in Greek (Kalimera!) and visit the city’s highlights.

Later in the day, I do a solo walking tour, exploring some of the places that Banoush suggested would be worth a visit. I immerse myself in history but also in good coffee, fine pastries and the odd chunk of Turkish delight. And at the end of the day, a return to the ship means a familiar and comfortable stateroom, pre-dinner drinks with new friends, a delicious meal, and an engaging cabaret show. 

A cruise, I believe, is the finest way to explore the glories of Greece and the Celestyal Cruise line is well-versed in the area. Celestyal Cruises specializes in Greek and Mediterranean itineraries. Its principal strength lies in the highly curated and expertly led port excursions, often located in small ports where larger ships are unable to visit.

When we tour the ancient city of Troy, our guide Adam is a seasoned specialist, once the head of the guild of tour guides in Turkey but now an expert on Troy and its convoluted history. Both his passion for the stories of ancient Troy and the depth of his knowledge are obvious. He tells us about the disappearance of many of the Trojan treasures when many of the gold objects and valuable artifacts excavated by archeologist Heinrich Schliemann ended up in Berlin. The pieces were taken as spoils of war by Russia and now lie in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. That loss is an obvious source of resentment, but the nearby Troy Museum, which opened in 2018, is still full of beautiful and important artifacts. It’s an exceptional museum, containing, among other treasures, the earliest surviving nude female statue and the stunning Polyxena sarcophagus.

In addition to Troy, we view the sites of Istanbul, traipse through the beguiling seaside town of Velos, walk the gorgeous narrow streets of Santorini and marvel at the archeological richness of Philippi.

Except for Santorini, the Crystal can dock right in port, which means there’s seldom a need for tendering. That also means it’s easy to step off the ship and explore on your own if you wish.

The crown jewel for most of us sailing on the Crystal for this itinerary is the day trip to the hanging monasteries of Meteora. The monasteries are built atop massive stone mountains, perched in divine isolation high above the Thessalian plain. Building the religious retreats began in the 11th century when monks escaped the dangers and distractions of civilization and found solace in the austerity of life on the tall stone pillars of Meteora. 

You may recognize the Monastery of the Holy Trinity as a locale used in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.” There were originally 24 monasteries but now there are only six that are occupied. It defies the belief that all the building materials were hauled up to the top of the mountains by ropes and nets. Imagining the monks scrambling up these precipitous spires is difficult, but it was either climb or be hauled up in a net. It’s a special place, steeped in mystery, solitude and spiritual energy. I feel very privileged to have visited.

While the port excursions are the primary attraction, the ship itself is fittingly Mediterranean in character and culture.

The Crystal is a mid-sized ship, with a capacity of 1,200 passengers. It has all the amenities of a larger ship – spa, small casino, specialty dining and a cabaret theatre. The resident performers at present are a Canadian troupe, Cirque Fantastic. There are multiple choices for dining, and the food is fresh, often locally sourced and every meal has a good representation of Greek cuisine.

The specialty restaurant, Aura, is the result of a partnership with Greek/American celebrity chef and cookbook author Diane Kochilas. Together with executive Chef Ioannnis Korolocros, Kochilas has designed a menu of Greek dishes that spotlight the bounty and flavour of local ingredients. Dishes are light and elegant. I sample the six-course dinner, enjoying the local octopus, lobster and fresh salads.

Chef Korolocros emphasizes Celestyal’s commitment to using local ingredients and celebrating Mediterranean dishes. Vegetables and seafood are all fresh and local, and desserts, bread and soups are made onboard. Even the superlative baklava, with which I end every meal, is made daily by the pastry chef.

Guests on the ship are a mix of North Americans, Brits and Europeans. I meet a combat nurse and her husband, a biker from Missouri who restores antique motorcycles. There’s a legal clerk from Jersey, an investment analyst from Washington and a jovial Brit from Sheffield who gets to know every single female on the cruise. Dress is very casual, except for one night when a slightly more elegant attire is requested, though, not a requirement. Generally, the atmosphere is light and informal, mostly a result of the crew. They are, without exception, friendly, happy and quite entertaining.

Adrian, the head waiter in the main dining room, a big man over six-foot-five, has a personality as large as his form. He tells stories, anticipates our dining needs, and always makes sure we have a great table in the dining room. He’s clearly a favourite with passengers, yet all the staff are upbeat and attentive. There exists a feeling of family onboard.

It’s late in the season when I cruise, and I would highly recommend the shoulder season for a Greek cruise (April through October). All of the Celestyal cruises begin and end in Athens, so I was happy to have the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite cities.

I’ve visited Athens several times and always arrange to walk up to the Acropolis. It’s often steaming hot and very crowded, but this time, in mid-November, the crowds are much smaller, and the weather is perfect – just blue skies and moderate temperatures. Ports are less busy also.

If you’re looking for a Michelin-starred restaurant or a climbing wall, or a mini-putt golf course, those are not to be found on the Celestyal Crystal. The real strength of this cruise line is the quality of its excursions, the friendliness of its service and the value for your dollar. It’s the best bargain in the Mediterranean.

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