Cruising the Greek Islands. Part four – World Meanderings (n°29)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Today is our fourth day aboard the Celestyal Crystal and it now feels just like being home, finding our way from our cabin to the different restaurants and bars or to the swimming pool, the gym or the theatre is not a problem anymore. There are no more hesitations whether or not we should turn left or right at the end of our cabin’s corridor to go to the sun deck, or if we should take an elevator up or down to get to the spa.
This morning the boat stops at Piraeus, Athens’ main port, but we decided to skip the excursion to the Acropolis organised by Celestyal Cruises. We already have been there and our first three days have been busy enough to make us feel like having some rest and enjoy a relaxing morning at the Spa. Tariffs are affordable and indulging ourselves is what we needed. I had a divine Indian head massage that blew away a nasty headache and Frédéric had an invigorating Reflexology foot massage.
The boat left Piraeus by noon and we got to our next destination, Syros, late in the afternoon. For a very long time Syros has been an unimportant almost forgotten island where only few catholic farmers lived. For fear of pirates that infested the Mediterranean Sea they didn’t settle on the seashore, but safely lived inland. Until 1821 when the long Greek War of Independence began (it ended in 1829). In those days Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and when the war began many Greeks who lived in Asia Minor or Chios, another Cyclades Island, fled conflicts and persecutions and found refuge in Syros. They found there an excellent natural harbour and founded the city of Ermoupolis.
Syros’ golden age began. Located at the crossroads of the maritime routes between East and West, Ermoupolis became the first commercial port in Greece and the economic centre of the country. The town was built on two hills the first one was inhabited by Catholics while the Orthodox lived on the other one and it was a peaceful cohabitation. It was a wealthy city with beautiful buildings and its inhabitants built beautiful houses on the seafront. This golden age came to an end when the Corinth Canal opened in 1893. The maritime routes changed and the Piraeus took Ermoupolis’ place. Ermoupolis that had once dreamed of becoming Greece capital city slowly sank into oblivion.
Today the town has not lost much of its former splendour. Famous architects of the 19th century worked here and created Neoclassical buildings that still look great although some may say it is a pretentious style for such a minor city. But just remember that it once was the number one city in young Greece. The city hall, the Apollo Theatre (a miniature replica of the Scala of Milan), the Workers Palace, the Pallas movie theatre or the Hellas club are a few examples of these old beauties.
We decided to sightsee Ermoupolis on our own and we discovered a very lively city. Trendy bars and restaurants line the port and are full of tourists and local people, stylish shops sell the tasty Turkish delight of Syros and streets cobbled with marble lead to the city hall square, the Miaoulis Square, with its palm trees, its archways and its old fashioned bandstand. It was and still is the place where young people come every evening to stroll and get chatted up…
Ta Vaporia was the exclusive district of Ermoupolis where rich people built their houses. Most of them are well preserved and we walk through quiet and elegant streets. Two of these mansions have been turned into small luxury boutique hotels. The “Art Hotel Ploes” and the “Xenon Apollonos Hotel” still look like family houses and would be a perfect place to stay at and discover the rest of the island.
But time flies and we had to go back to the boat that leaves tonight for our next destination, Cesme that we will reach tomorrow morning. Cesme is a popular Turkish resort from where you can go on an excursion to Izmir or to Ephesus. Since we have been to Ephesus on our second day on board we chose to visit Izmir. Entering Turkey is very easy for all the passengers of the Celestyal Cruises boats and customs formalities are very simple: you just have to show your individual key-card to the customs officer to get in or out the port area and you can leave your passport safely on board.
From Cesme we got on a coach that was going to take us to Izmir, a one-hour drive on a well-maintained highway. Izmir is located on a beautiful bay and we got a good view of it while driving on Ataturk Caddesi, a long curved road lined by the sea on one side and by hotels and restaurants on the other. The first part of our visit was a cultural one with a stop at the Roman Agora and to the Archaeological Museum. Izmir was founded by Greek settlers during the 11th C BC and was called Smyrna. Later the Romans conquered the city, and Emperor Marcus Aurelus rebuilt its agora when an earthquake destroyed it in 178 AD. The agora was quite big but today only a long colonnade is still standing and the most interesting part of the visit is underground where tens of stone archways help us realise how big it was.
The Archaeological Museum has a wide collection of artefacts coming from archaeological sites of the area such as Ephesus, Milet, Sardes, Bodrum…There are wonderful marble and bronze statues, sarcophagus, jewels, terracotta pots and amphora… Opened in 1993, it is one of the most interesting museums of Turkey.
The second part of our visit in Izmir was more fun: we went to the Kemeralti market, Izmir’s souk. Both tourists and local people go to this market and it is really crowded and hot. I guess you can buy almost anything here but beware of counterfeits. Back to your country customs officers may not like them as much as you do! The shops are tiny but are overstuffed with goods: clothes, musical instruments, jars full of strange and colourful food, fruits including currants that were invented here, water pipes, wedding dresses, jewels, baklavas, Turkish delights, toys, saucepans, inlaid chessboards… Not to forget restaurants with huge meat kebab or cafés where coffee is roasted on the spot and fills the air with strong aromas. What a place!
We got back on board for lunch and since the boat was to leave Cesme at 9:30 pm we had plenty of time to take a walk in this Turkish resort. A new marina has recently been built and it’s very pleasant, clean and we felt perfectly safe. There are mostly Turkish tourists and families, and no veiled women. I was perfectly at ease wearing a pair of shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt. We had a drink on the upstairs terrace of the Café XII from where we had a wonderful view over the pleasure boats and yachts in the harbour and over the big medieval castle of Cesme. During these last two days, whether in Greece or in Turkey everything looked “normal” and we saw neither refugee camps nor omnipresent and armed policemen. So far we are just having a wonderful time! See you next week for the last two days of the cruise.
More information: http://www.celestyalcruises.uk/en
These are the links to visit on line the two nice hotels in Syros:
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes