This Mediterranean cruise takes you back in time

It's a luxurious journey from Istanbul to Athens.
A Viking cruise ship with Istanbul skyline in the background

Istanbul is buzzing. On popular pedestrians-only Istiklal Street, ice-cream salesmen are playing the to the crowds and playing the clown, flicking sticky Turkish ice-cream cones upside down or twirling them like propellors, always tantalisingly just out of reach of their customers’ eager outstretched hands.

Inside the confectionery stores, pastry chefs in starched white tops and red fezes sculpt mouth-watering pyramids of baklava and other delights. There’s plenty of eye candy outside too – squads of Turkish police dressed in resplendent black. The police are out in force because election day is imminent and the campaigning’s reaching a crescendo. Political enthusiasts gather on shopfront steps and street corners; flags and banners radiate ripples of red, white and blue. A young man hanging on at the back step of the cute Taksim-Tunel ‘Nostalgia Tramway’ thrusts a pamphlet into my hands as he passes. Down by the gorgeous Galata Tower, the campaigning’s being done to the tune of guitars, tambourines and a soothing saxophone.

We’re here to do Viking’s eight-day Ancient Mediterranean Treasures cruise from Istanbul to Athens, and I’m excited. Turkey’s a part of the world that up to now has passed me by, even in my schoolboy history books. I know more about Dire Straits and the Sultans of Swing than I do about the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and the Sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. But that’s what travel is for: to open up new worlds and broaden minds.

Greatest hits of Istanbul

The excitement mounts as the city’s famous minarets and the Golden Horn come into view. The traffic around, on and underneath the Galata Bridge – motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, trams, barges, ferries – zooms in from all directions. Fishermen line the bridge, poised like troupe of puppeteers about to perform an underwater extravaganza.

We cross the bridge and  make a beeline for the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. It’s second in size only to the Grand Bazaar but said to be more colourful and vibrant. Underneath its elegant, vaulted ceilings is a dazzling array of spices, dried fruits and veg, nuts, Turkish delight, teas, souvenirs. There’s fish spice, chicken spice, salad spice and “Special Ottoman Spice”. Masala Tea, Cholesterol Tea, Detox Tea, Love Tea and Viagra Tea. Whatever takes your fancy, dig in!

A fun ride on the Kabataş-Taksim Funicular takes us back up to our hotel near Taksim Square – the most convenient area to stay if you arrive by the airport bus (recommended – Istanbul’s new airport is about 55km to the north). The next day is a big one, beetling around Sultanahmet, where Istanbul’s prime attractions are to be found: The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace (fabulous main residence of the sultans), Topkapi Palace museum, the atmospheric underground Basilica Cistern, and shady Gülhane Park.

On-board creature comforts

After all the hurly-burly and the stress and jet lag from long flights, it’s a relief to be putting our feet up on the balcony of our suite on the Viking Sky, with chilled ‘welcome’ champagne to savour. The Sky’s not a behemoth of a ship (nine decks, maximum of 930 passengers) but it offers a wonderful bird’s eye view of Europe’s most populated city (latest estimates, 17 million). We say goodbye to Istanbul in the best possible way: watching it fade into the distance from the deck 7 infinity pool as the ship glides gently westwards on the Sea of Marmara.

I love the sea and I’ve become a convert to cruising, but I’m only now just getting the hang of it. Before I’d rush madly around every port of call, trying to see as much as possible in the allocated time; it was exhausting. Now I realise the quiet moments – reading a book on your balcony or simply staring out to sea – are just as precious.

Cruising’s not ‘gobble as much as you can at a sight-seeing buffet’, it’s a degustation menu. Degustation is a big theme on board Viking’s identical ocean ships. Gourmet fare is served at The Chef’s Table, Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant, and The Restaurant, where a nice touch is a special menu of the day inspired by the destination of the day. 

Viking’s Ancient Mediterranean Treasures is perfectly paced with a smorgasbord of ancient treasures, paired with down time.
Our first port of call is Çanakkale, on the Dardanelles, and the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Troy. Think Troy, think wooden horse; think Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector. The  wooden horse from the 2004 movie, located on the Çanakkale waterfront, gets as much attention as the ruins of the ancient city itself, whose undoing came from a series of earthquakes rather than battles.

Ruins of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus in Kusadasi, Turkey

Next stop is one of antiquity’s best-preserved cities, Ephesus. In the 10th century BC it had one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis, no longer with us today. But you can still admire the towering façade of the Library of Celsus – a skyscraper of its day – and climb up the massive amphitheatre where as many as 25,000 spectators would be entertained. Ephesus is accessed via the port of Kusadasi, where a lovely castle on Pigeon Island is now linked to the mainland by a 350-metre causeway. Well worth the walk.

Greek odyssey

Another day, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This time it’s in Greece – the medieval city of Rhodes, on the island of the same name. Our included walking tour takes us through the historic quarter, which is choc-a-bloc with tourists, and culminates in the Palace of the Grand Masters. After, Zora and I find a lovely, secluded café for a late lunch of grilled haloumi, sliced tomatoes, hummus, and honeyed ricotta cheese pastries, washed down with Greek coffee and ouzo.

The penultimate stop is Heraklion on Crete, boasting sites such as the Kera Monastery and Windmills and the Palace of Knossos. My shout-out, though, goes to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum – it’s superb.

Time for some pampering on the home stretch to Athens. The Spa and Fitness Centre on deck 1 is an oasis of calm and discretion, and I treat myself to my first ever pedicure. As I watch the lovely Marianne from Zimbabwe get to work, I can’t help but think of the ancient Greek, Turkish and Roman artisans, chiselling away at great lumps of stone to turn them into beautiful buildings adorned with Ionic, Doric or Corinthian columns.

In Athens, then, I can put my best feet forward on a walking tour from the Plaka District up to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (the setting for many a famous concert by the likes of Pavarotti, Diana Ross and Elton John) and on to the Parthenon atop the Acropolis. It’s hot, it’s crowded, but when we get to the summit we really do feel on top of the world.

The eight-day Ancient Mediterranean Treasures can be done in either direction and starts from $5495 per person.

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