Greece and Turkey: from Athens to Istanbul Jun 18—29, 2015
Posted by Victor Emanuel
In 2005, for the first time in our company’s history, VENT chartered the incomparable Sea Cloud for a Birds & History cruise from Athens to Istanbul. That trip proved so successful that I’ve longed to repeat it ever since. I never thought it would take ten years, but indeed it has, which is why I was so thrilled to offer this trip in 2015 after having waited so long.
Our tour group assembled in Athens on the evening of June 19 for a trip welcome and introduction. Dinner that night was at a rooftop restaurant that offered superb views of the Acropolis. The next morning, kicking off a full day in Athens, we started with a tour of the Acropolis and the Theater of Dionysus Eleutheris. As always, the Parthenon, that singular emblem of Athenian democracy, commanded the most attention. In the afternoon we visited the Acropolis Museum which houses thousands of works and artifacts from antiquity including originals and copies of the blocks and statuary that formed the friezes and pediments of the Parthenon. The next morning we visited the Agora, the public assembly place of ancient Athens. A highlight from our time there was a reading from Thucydides of a part of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Interestingly, the reading was delayed owing to the discovery of a Little Owl that had flown out of the nearby Temple of Hephaestus!
Paul Woodruff set the stage for the reading by discussing the Peloponnesian War and the events that led Pericles, the great Athenian general and statesman, to deliver his seminal speech, comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Various members of the group read parts of the oration. As we walked around the Agora, we thought of ancient luminaries such as Plato and Socrates who had walked those same paths more than 2,500 years ago. In the site museum we saw vials that had contained extracts of hemlock, the substance that was used to execute Socrates.
Having meandered among the columns and pediments of the archaeological sites, and having viewed the statues and other antiquities housed in the marvelous museum, we were better able to appreciate the creative power and genius of the ancient Greeks who irrefutably contributed so much to the development of Western civilization. After a fine lunch at a seaside restaurant in Piraeus, we embarked the Sea Cloud and commenced our voyage. A highlight from that first night at sea was our pass by Cape Sounio and witnessing the Temple of Poseidon illuminated against the night sky. As a side note, our trip would follow more or less the same route the Greeks followed when they crossed the Aegean to fight at Troy.
The next day was marked by a full day at sea. The morning began with a demonstration of the setting of the sails. Dr. Paul Woodruff then presided over a reading of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Various members of the group volunteered to read sections of this fascinating and little-known masterpiece. There, on the Lido Deck with the navy Aegean around us, we continued our immersion in the history and culture of ancient Greece. In the afternoon, Paul presented a lecture on Homer in preparation for our visit to Chios the next day.
In preparation for this voyage, we selected Chios for our first destination as it is the reputed birthplace of Homer, not to mention that it is a beautiful island seldom visited by American tourists. We divided the group in half as we explored the central and southern parts of the island. For the morning session, one group visited Homer’s Rock and the Nea Moni Monastery, the latter dating from the twelfth century A.D., while the other group toured part of the island looking for birds. The birding group was fortunate in obtaining good views of a number of Eleonora’s Falcons that were cruising a ridgeline. This falcon is one of the rarest raptors in the world. It breeds in the late summer on steep-sided islands in the Mediterranean and winters in Madagascar. While watching these beautiful birds, one member of our group told us that it had been named Eleonora to honor Queen Eleonora, ruler of Sardinia, who issued a decree to protect the bird which later acquired her name. Over the course of the day, both groups also visited the charming villages of Pyrgi and Mesta. Outside of Mesta we saw the famous mastichoria (mastic) trees that extrude a sap which crystallizes and is then harvested for use in a variety of foods.
The next day we disembarked on Lesvos, home of the ancient poet Sappho, immortalized through her poems of love. Again we divided the group in half. One group toured the Castle of Mytilini and visited the new archaeological museum containing wonderful Roman floor mosaics. The other group, organized for the birders, visited the Kalloni Gulf where time amid a woodland of Aleppo Pine and nearby salt pans and wetlands yielded a wonderful array of birds including Common and Ruddy shelducks, Black Stork, Long-legged Buzzard, Common Nightingale, Krueper’s Nuthatch, Crested Lark and, perhaps best of all, an over-summering flock of over 100 Greater Flamingos. In the afternoon we offered a return visit for part of the group to the Kalloni wetlands where we saw a White Stork at a nest site, Pied Avocets, and Slender-billed Gulls. The stork experience was especially memorable as the nest was located in the middle of a busy town. The rest of the group went to the lovely town of Agiassos, located on the lower slopes of Mt. Olympus and surrounded by beautiful forest. That evening we enjoyed a wonderful barbeque on the back of the Sea Cloud as we gazed back on Lesvos to the west and nearby Turkey to the east.
On the morning of June 25, we disembarked at Dikili, Turkey and visited Pergamon, an ancient site situated on the hills overlooking the region. This site reached its zenith in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. We visited the Greco-Roman theater, the Sanctuary of Trajan, and ended with a tour of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, an important center of healing in the ancient world. Our time at Pergamon produced a number of great birds including Syrian Woodpecker, Red-rumped Swallow, Black-eared and Northern wheatears, Western Rock Nuthatch, Woodchat Shrike, Cirl Bunting, and European Goldfinch.
In the afternoon we cruised north toward the famous Dardenelles Strait. On the following morning, participant David Rowe gave a fascinating talk on the WWI battle of Gallipoli. In the afternoon we toured Troy, one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Here, we looked upon ruins over 4,000 years old, including those of “Homeric Troy,” when the Greeks and Trojans waged epic warfare as chronicled in Homer’s Iliad. We also saw the city gates from which Hector supposedly led the Trojans into battle against the Greeks. As we stood on the walkways of Troy looking toward the sea, we could imagine what it would have been like for the Trojans to gaze upon the beached ships of the Greek army while masses of armed men came forth, and contemplate Hector saying goodbye to his wife, aware of his destiny.
Of course, our tour of Troy included close encounters with some wonderful birds including our best views of Eurasian Jay, a skulking Eastern Olivaceous Warbler that eventually showed well, and a memorable study of a gorgeous Masked Shrike.
The next morning we joined excursions either to the ancient Greek site of Assos or to the Gallipoli Peninsula to visit sites associated with the WWI battle. Both excursions were excellent. Those who went to Assos saw the Temple of Athena and other ruins and enjoyed a marvelous view of the Aegean with both Mt. Ida and Lesvos in view. Paul Woodruff talked about Aristotle, who lived at Assos for three years, teaching at the Academy of Assos. Those who went to Gallipoli visited a number of sites where the ANZAC forces landed in 1915 and attempted to establish beachheads. We also saw many gravestones. A tour group from Australia was visiting these sites, putting flowers on the graves of their ancestors. It was a moving experience to spend time where this famously bloody WWI battle took place.
In the afternoon we completed our transit of the Dardanelles. Fellow participant, Diane Katsiaficas, delivered a wonderful presentation on Byzantine culture. Afterward, Peter Zika gave a fascinating presentation on the flowers of the Mediterranean. Late in the day we entered the Sea of Marmara and enjoyed our last evening together aboard the Sea Cloud.
The next morning we disembarked in Istanbul, one of the great cities of the world. Most of the day was spent visiting the city’s most iconic destinations: the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome of Constantinople, and Hagia Sophia.
Of 54 cruise participants, 34 stayed one extra day to participate on the Istanbul Extension. Our morning began with a trip to Topkapi Palace, built for the Ottoman sultans following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. Departing the palace, we enjoyed a wonderful cruise on the Bosporus followed by a superb lunch. In the afternoon many people chose to visit the Grand Bazaar. Our final dinner was in the oldest restaurant in Istanbul, located inside the Spice Bazaar. After dinner we went outside and walked right into a magnificent sunset spreading across the Golden Horn, the pink-stained sky filled with Yellow-legged Gulls and Alpine Swifts. For good measure, just as we began the walk back to the hotel, a muezzin called to prayer over a loud speaker from a minaret.
In the eleven days that followed our initial gathering in Athens, we had seen and learned so much about the history of this fascinating corner of the world. Along the way we saw some wonderful birds, attended thought-provoking presentations, and spent time with a great group of fellow travelers. This was VENT’s fourth Aegean cruise, and one of the best.