Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba The Greek, wrote: 'Happy is the man...who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.' The encyclopaedia tells us the Aegean is 'a body of water which lies between Turkey and Greece'. But there is so much more to it than that, as my wife and I found out on our recent cruise on Thomson Celebration.Who says that cruises aren't cultural? The Parthenon, Athens' beguiling temple, was part of the tour for Neil
We arrived at Marmaris, our departure port in Turkey, on a gloriously sunny afternoon and soon we were sitting on deck sipping drinks and gazing out at the picturesque harbour before, at 10pm, as passengers joined in a hearty rendition of Rod Stewart's Sailing, the Celebration set sail. Our Aegean adventure had begun. Our first day, spent at sea, gave us a chance to find our way round the decks. Celebration, with room for 1,254 passengers, was intimate but offered plenty of space. There were three restaurants, in addition to the Lido buffet, including the Meridian and the ultra-posh Mistral. Inside and out, there was no shortage of activities.
Despite being able to name all three years Red Rum won the Grand National, we failed to land the trivia quiz, and it was a similar story in Name That Tune later that evening. When we docked in Piraeus, gateway to Athens, we were ready for some on-shore exploration. Going by metro to Thissio, we walked to the Acropolis.
It was in the high 30Cs (100Fs) but it was worth the sweat to get a glimpse of the magnificent Parthenon. The only problem was the huge crowds queuing to go in, so we explored the area around the site instead, and enjoyed wandering the side lanes and admiring the views across to ancient Agora, once the centre of civic, religious and social life in Ancient Athens.
That night, back on board, it was time for the formal 'dress-up' event of the week, The Captain's Dinner. In the party mood after the great cabaret show that followed, we checked out the disco in Liberties and danced away to Lady Gaga until the small hours.
Next morning, despite our exertions, we were up early for a pre-booked excursion from the Turkish port of Kusadasi and a trip back in time. Our first stop was the House of the Virgin Mary. According to the Bible, Jesus asked St John the Evangelist to look after his mother Mary after his death and many believe that John took her with him to Asia Minor.
But where? About 200 years ago a German nun had visions of a stone house where she claimed the Virgin had spent her final years. After much detective work, a French priest found, in 1881, what he believed was the house and 15 years later, it received its first Papal visit.
It's an idyllic spot, high in the hills and if Mary did spend her last years there, it was a wonderful choice. Ephesus was once the second-biggest city in the world. In its Roman heyday it had a population of 250,000. All that remains today are ruins, the most impressive of which is the striking two-storey facade of the Library of Celsus at the end of Curetes Street, Ephesus's main thoroughfare.
Celsus was once home to 12,000 scrolls, before they were burnt when the Goths sacked Ephesus in 262 AD. Along Marble Street is the Grand Theatre, an auditorium for 24,000 spectators that dates from the 3rd Century BC. Today, it is still used for concerts.
The downfall of Ephesus happened when the harbour silted up, and the once-thriving port is now three miles from the sea. As we sat on deck on our final evening we decided there were five main advantages of going on an Aegean cruise. There's the good weather at most times of the year, fascinating ancient history, spectacular mountain scenery and the friendly locals in Greece and Turkey. And for those who get sea-sick, a sea usually as calm as a lily pond.
I can't think of anywhere else you can experience all five at the same time.
Thomson Cruises offers a seven-night Ancient Wonders cruise on Thomson Celebration from £888pp all-inclusive. The cruise visits Marmaris, Istanbul, Mytilene, Piraeus, Mykonos Town and Kusadasi. The price includes return flights from Luton, transfers and gratuities.
Call 0871 231 3243 or visit thomson.co.uk/cruise
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