Islands in the sun

Print edition : March 27, 2020

In Oia, the most famous village in Santorini, the bells that toll in the evening. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Enjoying the blue Aegean in Santorini. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A Crete bull symbol in a Minoan fresco at the palace of Knossos. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A bull head at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A water fountain at Rhodes’ Old Town square that has been operational from medieval times. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Gold jewellery showcasing the craftsmanship of the Minoan civilisation on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Gold jewellery showcasing the craftsmanship of the Minoan civilisation on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

One might get sprayed by the surf when strolling along the waterfront in Mykonos. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The glorious sunset in Mykonos, part of the Cyclades cluster of Greek islands. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The recreated Throne Room in the palace of Knossos. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The Red Beach in Santorini. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The ruins of the palace of Knossos, the centre of the Minoan civilisation, in Crete. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A shop in Mykonos. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A shop in Mykonos. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Sunset in Santorini, “the most beautiful island in the world”. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The Street of the Knights in Rhodes. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The statues of a male and female deer flanking the entrance to the old port of Mandraki in Rhodes. The deer are the symbol of the island. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The famed windmills of Mykonos’ capital, Hora. They date back to the 16th century and were once used to grind grain. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

One can explore the town of Rhodes by taking a “train cruise”. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Stuffed tomatoes on a platter, a speciality in Santorini. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

An odyssey to islands in the Aegean Sea that are steeped in Greek mythology.

THE ship waited for us at the Port of Piraeus, which is a half-hour drive from Athens. We—six women, friends and sisters—looked at the huge white cruise ship we were to board in awe, feeling a little overwhelmed. Then, the excitement took over. Was this hulk of a ship our ticket to discovering the gems of the Aegean Sea? Childhood memories of devouring The Iliad and The Odyssey came flooding back. As did those of geography lessons, when we studied the map of Greece and the Aegean Sea dotted with islands. Sometimes dreams come true, and this was going to be our own adventure, a journey of discovery.

These days, cruises are planned meticulously, so everything moved with clockwork precision: our luggage was tagged and sent across to our rooms, and we ourselves were tagged with wrist ID bands. Once we had located our rooms, for which we needed the assistance of helpful attendants as the ship had many floors, we were asked to congregate on the deck for the “safety first” drill in the event something happened en route. And then we were off to the dining room. About the food on the ship: One was literally spoilt for choice. The ship has to cater for an international crowd and for vegetarians, vegans, meat eaters, only fish eaters, the gluten-sensitive, and so on, so for every meal the table was laden. Take one’s pick and say goodbye to calorie counting!

Mykonos

By afternoon, the ship anchored near Mykonos, “the island of the winds”, in the Cyclades cluster of islands. “Tender boats” were waiting to ferry us to the shore. The pristine white houses and the famed windmills of the capital, Hora, spread across the seafront welcomed us.

According to Greek mythology, Mykonos was formed from the bodies of giants that Hercules killed. The island took its name from Mykons, considered to be the son, or was it grandson, of Apollo.

Taking a stroll on the waterfront strewn with restaurants and cafes, one may well get sprayed by the surf. As we explored the lanes and bylanes of Hora skirted with quaint white houses framed by bougainvillea tendrils and boutiques selling delicate handicrafts, Mykonos seemed so different from our familiar surroundings that it seemed a bit unreal. The 16th century windmills where everybody headed for photo ops were once used to grind grain. Today, they are preserved under heritage laws.

Reluctantly, we headed to the shuttle boat because it was time to sail again, but not before we saw the glorious sunset with boats framed against the golden glow in the horizon.

The next day we made a short halt at Patmos, a small island much revered as a “holy” island because it is where St John wrote “The Revelation”, the last book of the Bible. He was in exile here, it is believed, because of anti-Christian persecution under the Roman Emperor Domitian. Believers call it the “Jerusalem of the Aegean Sea”. The Monastery of St John is on a hill, and one can hire taxis to go up for a visit.

I was agog for the next day’s port of call: Rhodes, “the island of the sun”, once home to the legendary Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Today the Colossus, a towering bronze statue dedicated to the sun god Helios that sailors could see from afar, is gone; an earthquake destroyed it in 282 B.C.

Rhodes

Cruise ships offer optional tours for an extra tariff. We took a walking tour in the old parts of Rhodes, which is encircled by a huge wall with many entry gates. The guide described the town’s highlights: the streets named after famous Greek scholars such as Hippocrates, the oldest operating synagogue in Greece, a square where Jews were herded together during the Second World War to be deported or executed, and squares with water fountains that have been operational from medieval times. Next was a visit to the Gothic Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, which knights of the Order of St John built in the 14th century. They came during the Crusades and stayed on for 213 years until the Ottomans from Turkey defeated them. The huge square in front of the palace, which is used for concerts and plays today, can seat 2,000 people. The knights came mainly from seven European countries. The buildings on both sides of the narrow Street of the Knights served as their consulates. One can still see the distinctive insignia of each country’s army on the entrance doors.

Later, we took a “train cruise” around the charming town and its quaint neighbourhoods, including the ruins of the temple of Apollo, an ancient stadium and modern street sculptures. The exquisitely blue sea invited us to hop off the “train” and enjoy the white beaches under one of the hundreds of sun umbrellas with other sunbathers. But, alas, there was no time!

My friends decided that they had had enough of walking and headed for the ship, but I stayed back to absorb a little more of Rhodes. After all, it was unlikely that I would ever come here again. Walking to the old port of Mandraki with its bobbing boats announcing local tours to other islands and a walkway jutting into the sea, I wished I could linger a while longer. The statues of a male and a female deer on two tall columns flanking the entrance to the harbour seemed to sympathise. The deer are the symbol of the island. Retracing my steps to the ship on the sun-baked promenade with its food stalls and their enticing aromas and hearing unfamiliar words from myriad tongues of tourists from across the world with the imposing wall of the Old Town looking on indulgently, I suddenly thought of the ancient mariners and wondered how they must have felt when they got their first glimpse of the Colossus.

Crete

That night, I dreamt of the Minotaur, the mythical half man, half bull. A fear long buried in a childhood memory of story reading resurfaced, waking me up as the ship rolled. We were arriving at Crete the next day, where the Minotaur was supposed to have lived, devouring prisoners in the Labyrinth King Minos had built.

Crete, the biggest Greek island, was the seat of the famed Minoan culture at the dawn of European civilisation. From the port of Heraklion, Crete’s capital, we set off for a tour of the ruins of the palace of Knossos, the centre of the Minoan civilisation. Excavations of the palace complex have revealed a highly developed culture. Some areas have been recreated to show what Knossos looked like in the Bronze Age.

The palace is also connected to the story of Daedalus, the Labyrinth’s architect, and his son Icarus. A prince from Athens whom King Minos had imprisoned escaped, and the king issued a death warrant to the architect and son for conniving with the prince. Icarus tried to escape the death warrant by flying away from a hill, so the story goes. Daedalus told Icarus: “Fly not too low, not too high.” But Icarus did not listen to his father, flew too high and the wax that held the wings together melted, and he fell to his death. Myth though this is, Icarus remains the symbol of man’s eternal wish to fly like birds.

Later, a visit to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum gave us an idea of Crete’s fabulous wealth and artistic excellence. The gold jewellery dazzled the eyes. The presence of the bull head (rhyton) in various artefacts was noticeable. A historical explanation for this could be that there was a time when priests conducting sacrificial ceremonies disguised themselves with a bull head or mask, perhaps to evoke the Minotaur. Another interpretation is that the Minoans worshipped the fertility goddess and her favourite sacrifice was the bull.

Santorini

The next port of call was Santorini, known as the “the most beautiful island in the world”. Not for nothing has it earned this sobriquet. From the ship, the imposing cliffs topped with white houses were a sight to behold. We had heard so much about Santorini that we had decided to stay back for a couple of days instead of proceeding to Athens with the cruise ship. So it was time to say goodbye to the ship but not to the Aegean Sea yet.

Santorini is lyrical both in name and ambience, but it went through painful birth pangs. A series of violent volcanic eruptions, one approximately every 20,000 years, caused the collapse of the volcano’s central part and created a large crater, orcaldera. The last eruption, known as the Minoan Eruption, was one of the largest such in the earth’s history. It broke the existing land mass into two and caused a devastating tsunami. Scientists are still debating over when exactly it happened, perhaps in the 16th or 17th century B.C. The impact was felt far and wide. The island was covered in ash for centuries before emerging as this beautiful land. Many associate the mythical ruins of Atlantis buried underneath the sea with Santorini. The island, by the way, sits on the rim of a still active volcano.

The local residents call the island by another name: Thiera or Thira. Santorini’s name comes from Saint Irene after the small church above the port in Therassia.

The capital, Fira, is perched on the edge of the caldera, which means it has an outstanding view of the lagoon’s cobalt blue water interspersed with the white sailing boats and cruise ships anchored a little off the shore. In the evening as the sun sets, garlands of lights from the ships twinkle to create an ethereal, romantic landscape. Fira’s roads are full of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and, of course, many tourists. One can just sit there savouring the sea and the air if one does not want to join the endless groups of people walking around.

The next day, we opted for a guided tour for a better introduction to the island.

First on the itinerary was a drive to Santorini’s highest point to get a panoramic view of the island and the sea. On the way we passed through the ancient village of Pyrgos with its Prophet Elias Monastery, which was founded in 1711. Pyrgos used to be the capital of the island until the early 1800s. The village has many churches belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church. During Easter, tin cans with candles are put up on house tops to create a wonderful landscape of lights.

The volcanic activity has made Santorini famous for its distinct beaches. The Red Beach gets its name from the red oxide rocks surrounding it. Even from the top of a hillock, the water near the beach looked transparent. Snorkelling is a popular sport here.

Perissa, a popular tourist spot, is on the Black Beach, which gets its name from its black pebbles and sand. After lunching on a platter of huge stuffed tomatoes, a local speciality, we trooped to the huts on the beach to enjoy some “lotus-eater” time while the blue water of the sea sang a soothing song.

But afternoon was approaching, and it was time to wake up and head to Oia, pronounced “Ia”, the most famous village in Santorini. The small town is perched on a cliff, and visitors crowd to witness the fantastic sunsets. We too walked up the zigzag lanes and arrived at a square with a church, where an old priest tolled the evening bell. On the edge of the cliff at the sunset point, people stood chock-a-block. As the setting sun painted the waves and the sailing boats red and gold, it all seemed a bit unreal to our city-bred souls so used to air pollution and crowded streets. I looked at the sunset wistfully, and felt a little sad that this was the end of the day and of our own odyssey, but without obstacles.

Ranjita Biswas is an independent journalist, prize-winning author and translator of fiction based in Kolkata.

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