Our cruise ship was travelling through history: past, present and – if only we’d realised – world-shattering events about to unfold.
The good ship Celestyal Crystal docked at the Turkish port of Kusadasi for passengers to explore the bazaars of the town or venture to Ephesus, the best-preserved ruins in the Mediterranean.
Back in Greek waters we sailed by yacht along a pristine coast where centuries ago gangs of ruthless pirates raided trading vessels – and were hanged for their villainy.
We moored at Samos where hundreds of thousands of desperate and displaced refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq have risked drowning to find sanctuary in the European Union.
This was living history.
Our mini-cruise – just three full days at sea – started in the Greek capital of Athens where we would eventually return to explore the glories of the Acropolis.
First stop Mykonos, a waterless, windswept island with winding, narrow streets of arty shops and galleries beside the curving Chora harbour where waves pound the seawall. It may have morphed from Seventies frenetic party town with gay bars to an upmarket tourist magnet for rich Russians, Saudis and Turks showing off their super-yachts but dancing till dawn is still the norm.
With the sun setting on the windmills we visited a couple of the older inhabitants – the last two weavers left from 50 who are still at their looms in their twilight years producing exquisite silk scarves. Grey-haired Ionna told me how the looms had saved young girls from poverty after World War II. She’d worked since 12, eventually selling her wares to Dior in Paris.
Overnight sailing brought us to the Turkish port of Kusadasi, close to Ephesus, which rates as Turkey’s most important ancient site and arguably the best preserved in the Mediterranean. It was a thrill to explore the 2,000-year-old marble streets, where sleek cats catch their breakfasts among the columns of a theatre, gymnasium, library and even a brothel. The excavations reveal the site of the Temple of Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Efes was the capital of Asia Minor, a hugely important city of 250,000 souls. After 150 years of excavation only a fraction of the city has been unearthed. But its classical architecture gives a fascinating insight into the ancient life in a vibrant metropolis.
Archaeologists are still chipping away in dusty corners to discover more secrets to enthral future generations. There’s little shade so wear a hat and slap on the sunscreen. One of our party returned to the ship with heatstroke and repaired to her cabin rather than tucking into dinner and taking a starlit walk on deck.
I found shade touring Kusadasi’s covered bazaar, re-fuelling with strong Turkish coffee – ask for medium to sweeten the bitter grounds before tipping out the dregs to read your fortune. A tiny cup packs all the caffeine punch of a double espresso. Or try a shot of raki with water, the alcoholic aniseed tipple known as lion’s milk which turns men into pussy cats after one too many. And for a sugar shock there’s gooey honeyed baklava with pistachio nuts.
We were there just days before the turbulence of the abortive military coup erupted in Ankara and Istanbul.
Would any of the smartly uniformed officers policing the port be among 1,500 languishing in detention after President Erdogan took revenge in a purge of 13,000 soldiers, judges and army and navy officers?
Would any of the teachers, university lecturers, civil servants chatting in a cafe’s shady courtyard find their lives turned upside down, careers ruined, liberty denied?
We had no inkling of the impending convulsions that would rock the country as we immersed ourselves in cruise mode.
Ship life is never boring. Our welcome on board started with shots of ouzo and plates of meze before we set sail from Athens to Mykonos, the legendary party island with its crazy nightlife.
There’s a swimming pool, hot tub, a daily programme of activities – anyone for paper flower making, lessons in Greek dancing and language, jewellery workshop or zumba? I even managed a blissful massage under the soothing Serbian hands.
An attentive staff of 400 – we were only half full with 600 passengers rather than a full payload – ensured we mustered for that all-important safety drill to familiarise us with life jackets and emergency procedures.
Our captain inspired confidence as he showed us around the bridge with its disappointingly small steering wheel. It’s not a burnished mahogany wheel to spin this way and that, but nothing bigger than a gear stick of a Fiat 500 that miraculously operates two rudders to steer 25,000 tons of this cruise ship at a stately 18 knots between the islands.
‘My favourite route? The one that takes me home to Athens,’ confided the 57-year-old seadog with sons of 25, 23 and two.
He steered a steady course to Samos, just a mile across the Mycale Straight from Turkey. It is now sadly known as one of the Greek islands where unseaworthy inflatable boats with their pathetic human cargo in orange lifejackets would land in their quest for sanctuary in Europe. Some would not make it there alive.
The flood of asylum seekers has had a disastrous impact on tourism, the life blood of the island’s economy. Hoteliers and restaurant owners, shopkeepers and bar staff are all feeling the pinch.
Our guide, Hara, told us how 2,000 refugees from Syria, Pakistan and Bangladesh would arrive each week.
“I give them clothes and food,” she said. “The problem is tourists are put off because they look dirty and smelly after their journey. The poor and filthy are not a good advertisement. They block the port. They can’t stay here because there is no work.”
For all that Samos – land of Pythagoras and Epicurus – is still a welcoming island with beautiful beaches, a laid-back atmosphere and delicious Muscat wines. Wine production dates back to the 1200BC so we took the chance to visit the local winery to taste nectar fit for a Greek goddess.
We were more than happy to do our bit for the local economy, buying ceramics and delicate jewellery, lunching on fresh seafood in beachside restaurants, and sipping iced coffee as fire-fighting helicopters tried to douse regular forest fires.
The cruise saved the best day to last. She might have been called Nemesis, but the 47ft. yacht that picked us up from port at Milos on our final day delivered a delight.
At last, a chance to swim in that tantalising bluest of blue seas. Captain Costa dropped anchor. its chain rattling over the deck as Nemesis bobbed gently. Open mouths of caves gaped in invitation to explore their dark mysteries in this land of pirates and serpents.
The island is where the legendary Venus, or Aphrodite, de Milo was found in 1820 by a local farmer. Milos is volcanic, with hot springs and a landscape of weird and wonderful rock formations. The wind-eroded kaolin peaks of Sarakiniko Bay are dazzling white because of high levels of oxygenated lava, like dollops of cake icing that wouldn’t be amiss on Bake Off.
It is also home to protected goats and seals – beware the odd serpent or land snakes called vipera lebetina that can grow to two meters and send you to hospital. We stuck to the water, the very same that was once base to 15,000 pirates – half the island’s population – who preyed on the trading ships in the Aegean.
We had marvelled at Ephesus, joined the chic of Mykonos, supped in sleepy Samos, walked in the footsteps of ancient Greeks, been mesmerised by mythology , impressed by the brilliance of scholars, sampled the food of gods but what I really craved was here off Milos: total immersion in that cool, sparkling sea.
Gill travelled with Celestyal Cruises (CelestyalCruises.com +30 210 4583400) on an Idyllic Aegean 3 day cruise to 3 Greek islands and Ephesus onboard the Celestyal Crystal. Prices are from £238 pp full board (departures run July and August each year, FYI iconic itineraries on the Olympia run from May to October). Drinks and shore ex packages are available from £18 a day. Return flights from Heathrow to Athens are from £239.69 with Aegean Airways.