By Lee Foster
Crete happened to be the start of my Mediterranean cruise.
I began my trip at the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos, on Crete. As I perused the frescoed images of dancing dolphins and laughing maidens with platters of abundant food, a sense of anticipation filled my heart. I was exploring one of Europe’s first advanced civilizations. The Minoan vision of 1500 B.C. celebrated the joy of life, the fecundity of Crete’s agriculture, and the arts of peace. Images of warriors and war were absent from the frescoed walls of Knossos.
Crete, as one of the cradles of European civilization, was capable of producing a lofty ideal of man’s relationship with his fellow man. Perhaps the Minoan perspective on Crete can still contribute some hope today.
In Crete the morning light exuded a golden sensuality. The taste of coffee seemed more intense. Fresh oranges and kiwis possessed a special sweetness.
Crete is prosperous because so many varieties of food plants grow successfully here. There are 14 million olive trees alone, and some believe the olive tree may have originated here. Travelers enjoy the island’s salubrious climate, fresh-ingredients cuisine, sandy beaches, and Minoan heritage.
After Crete, the Celebrity cruise ship took me to more remote Greek islands, such as Santorini and Gythion. Then I encountered Malta, and finally I made day trips to Rome and Florence.
I saw all this territory from the comfort of my cruise ship, which saved me the bother of packing and unpacking.
The voyage also allowed an experience of the Mediterranean Sea, crossing it by ship, as travelers have for thousands of years.
Santorini and Gythion
Santorini proved to be the Greek island which provoked in me the most powerful longings to return. Santorini is a volcanic island whose mammoth explosion in 1450 B.C. wiped out Minoan civilization with ash and tsunamis. The event made Santorini the prime candidate inspiring the legendary myth of a lost continent, Atlantis. Today the main village, Fira, perches high on the caldera lip of the volcano, accessible by cable car.
Whitewashed stucco buildings, with bright color accents, and the characteristic round or barrel roof of the local architecture stand out in memory. A notable archaeological discovery at Akrotiri in 1967 uncovered 40 buried houses with frescoes and large ceramic jars of barley, olives, olive oil, and wine from 35 centuries ago. Grapevines now cover the island and are planted low to the ground to avoid the wind. Sunset viewing is the favorite pastime from restaurants high above the ocean on Santorini.
Gythion, port of the ancient Greek city of Sparta, is a postcard-picturesque place with colorful, small fishing boats and 19th-century pastel-colored houses along its waterfront. I remember walking the back streets on a Sunday morning and hearing a Greek Orthodox patriarch intoning prayers at the local church. At a taverna I savored the full spectrum of foods that the Greek seaside does so well, such as eggplant pâté, cucumber salad, Greek salad with tomatoes, feta cheese, and olives, and then the local sea bounty, including squid and several sizes of fish, the small ones eaten whole.
The water approach to the fortified Maltese capital of Valletta illustrates one of the best arguments for cruising the Mediterranean. Only at water level do you sense the impregnable golden stone fortress that Malta became under the formidable Knights of the Order of St. John. The walled city was built quickly, starting in 1568, and has a uniform architecture of magnificent stone buildings. An afternoon spent walking through Valletta acquainted me with this architectural legacy, epitomized by the Auberge de Castile, the home of the knights of the Spanish and Portuguese divisions of the Order. Younger-son noblemen from eight European countries were attracted to serve in the Order of St. John.
One of the pleasures of cruising the Mediterranean is the skill with which the cruise companies can pause at the coast, then bus the traveler, in a well-planned day tour, to explore inland world-class destinations. On my trip we landed at the Italian port of Civitavecchia and journeyed to Rome, then at Livorno for a day in Florence.
Rome’s layers of rich cultural history are so thickly textured that a day only allows a glimpse at them. The Sistine Chapel shows Michelangelo’s brilliance. The extensive Vatican Museum includes room after room of art treasures from the Roman era to the present. St. Peter’s Basilica houses the mosaic art masterpieces of Raphael and numerous other artists. When wandering the Colosseum area, one can buy the clever souvenir book, called Rome Then and Now, which has transparent overlays showing the white-marbled original appearance of what is now only the crumbling brick core of an ancient building. It is stunning to realize that the Colosseum, for example, could seat 50,000 spectators for its gladiatorial entertainment.
In Florence I was reminded of how natural disaster competes with political turmoil as a destroyer of all that civilization holds dear. Fresh in my mind was the information that the volcanic explosion on Santorini in 1450 B.C. wiped out with ash and tsunamis the brilliant Minoan culture of Crete. By coincidence, as a young student, I had visited Florence one week after the great floods of 1966. A dam had burst above the city, sending a wall of water through this urban jewel box of art treasures. I remember how the fine Lorenzo Ghiberti gilded bronze doors on the cathedral baptistry in Florence were literally hanging in the metal grate outside the church. The grate had saved these masterpieces from being totally washed away. The famous artworks of many Florence museums were literally sitting out on the street, drying in the sun. Now Florence is restored and intact. Would that we could banish both political and natural disasters.
Celebrity line is one of several cruise lines plying the Mediterranean, starting at various locations, including Spain, Italy, and Greece. Each of the great competing cruise companies has its fine dining, staterooms with outside balconies, and a high level of service to the cruise passenger. King Minos, who built the Crete Palace of Knossos and who savored the good life, would have been a candidate for a Mediterranean cruise.
Cruising the Mediterranean: If You Go
A travel agent knowledgeable about cruising is an invaluable assistant in choosing the right Mediterranean cruise for you. Each of the great cruise companies has a competent website outlining its programs. For Celebrity, the site is at http://www.celebritycruises.com.