Cruising the eastern Mediterranean

A Polish priest  says Mass in a modern chapel attached to an ancient stone house rebuilt many times over the centuries. He is one of just four Catholics – two nuns and another priest – who maintain this holy shrine, high on Koressos Hill in Turkey. About 30 of us fill the pews, while two people eagerly step up to read the Gospel. Another hundred pilgrims and curious folk are outside, queuing in single file to enter the little house, where the Virgin Mary is said to have lived after she left Jerusalem with the apostle St John. Others fill bottles with water from a holy spring or they pin handwritten notes on to the "Wishing Wall", asking Mary for blessings or perhaps giving thanks. 

I've always loved a good story, religious, historical or otherwise, and while no one has authenticated this stone house, a few kilometres from ancient Ephesus, as the last final resting place of the Virgin, I am more than happy to be here. Decades ago when travelling as a frugal backpacker, I wanted to visit the shrine, known in Turkish as Meryemana, but didn't have the cash for the taxi fare.

Now, as a cruise ship passenger, I'm on the biblical tour of Ephesus. There are 14 excursions to Ephesus and surrounds on offer but this one piques my interest despite the mandatory stop at a carpet shop. What intrigues me is the inclusion of a biblical lunch in the Cittantica Ephesus park, a sort of Greco-Roman theme park where gladiator fights and other events of early Christian times take place. I wonder what we'll be eating? 

Although it's mid-October, the eastern Mediterranean turns on ideal weather for our 11-day cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection.  

This is definitely the time to be cruising – the kids are back at school, tourists are few on the ground and the temperature hovers about 25 degrees, perfect for exploring the marble roads of ancient Ephesus and cobblestone lanes and ruins of five Greek ports. It's also the last cruise of the European summer before the ship heads back to the US and repositions in the Caribbean.

In Mykonos you can spend hours ambling and never get bored.

A whirl around the Med, with two full days at sea, just skims the surface, but with a little planning it's possible to squeeze in quite a bit on self-guided trips. Alternatively, there are plenty of ship excursions to book on airconditioned buses where all is arranged without any fuss. But it's nice to mix things up a bit.

With a full ship of 3084 passengers we leave Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, just as the afternoon sun loses its bite. The following is a sea day, and I learn a little about Sicily as the ship nudges its way through the Strait of Messina, for a close up view of the island's San Ranieri Lighthouse on our starboard side and the boot of Italy on our left.

First stop is the treasure of the Greek Isles, Santorini, where hundreds of white buildings cling to the steep slopes of this extinct caldera. Some like to imagine it's the lost city of Atlantis, another story I explored during my last trip 20 years earlier.

In a nutshell Santorini erupted about 1640BC, and Atlantis (if it existed) is said to have exploded and sank about 1500BC; artefacts at Akrotiri on the southern end of Santorini attest to a previous destroyed civilisation. The main island of Santorini is what's left of the massive eruption while the bay where ships berth is at the volcano's centre. After landing at Santorini's little port of Fira, I take a boat tour to Oia, the village where all the best photos are taken. From this northern eyrie, I can see all the way back to our ship and the island of Palea Kameni still smouldering away. Had I read my cruise information more closely, I could have booked the ship's excursion there, arriving by sailboat and hiking up the slopes of the still active crater. Next time.

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Instead I inspect a few of the churches – classic Orthodox style with blue domes and little multi-bell towers in Oia, and the roof-top bars galore where you can't help but yearn to drink in the azure sea view and a retsina or two.

This $30 jaunt includes a bus ride back to Fira via the island's eastern road, which, courtesy of a few hairpin bends, affords views of the island's surfing beaches and the non-touristy side of Santorini life.  There's an almighty queue and two-hour wait for the cable car that connects Fira to the pier, so I gird the loins and take the 587-step descent, a good 45-minute walk as I dodge donkeys and donkey dung. I'm very pleased to meet the Celebrity crew below handing out cool towels and drinks.

Athens is next and luckily buses from three different hop-on-hop-off companies are waiting at the wharf. I choose the blue "Sights of Athens" and pay  $22 for two days of travel during our overnight stay in the city. First-time visitors who want to cram in a lot might consider the ship's Mask of Agamemnon tour, which over two days crosses the Corinth Canal, visits beautiful Nafplion in the Peloponnese and the theatre of Epidaurus and explores Athens while returning at night for a comfy sleep on-board. At about $270, it seems a good price for a pretty comprehensive itinerary. 

Despite all the bad news and crippling economic woes, Athens is alive and buzzing, even if it is just the restaurant touts around Monastiraki Plaza vying for my business. The food is good, hearty and cheap (who can argue with plates of succulent yeeros, salad, hummus, chips and wine for  $15) and the glorious Acropolis seems so much more spic and span than I remember. However, I despair knowing full well I'll never in my lifetime see it without the scaffolding.

In Mykonos you can spend hours ambling along narrow alleyways bordered by whitewashed shops and houses and never get bored. Our cruise coincides with the island's last week of business – I am told all the shopkeepers and hotels will close in a few days and head to Athens for a rest. The signature bougainvillea  is out in force and I pick a restaurant because it sits under a trellis simply groaning with blooms of the softest pink. Later at a stylish cafe I raise an eyebrow at the cost of a decent coffee. "It's Mykonos," the waiter says. And so it is; still pretty as a picture.

In Rhodes I discover, thanks to a taxi driver, Theodore, there's also an acropolis on a hill. The old walled medieval town, built by the Knights of St John, is just a stroll from the ship but hiring a cab gets me out of town and to beauty spots including the point where the Aegean and Mediterranean seas collide. Later, left to my own devices I mosey around the cobblestone lanes, winding in and out of several of the old gates and snap photos of the harbour entrance where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood. A climb up the Roloi Clock Tower is a good decision not just for the included drink, but panoramic views of the old town and its forest of domes, minarets and castle turrets. 

And so to Ephesus, the magnificent city built four times during a 2000-year history – by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. Today's notable buildings – the Library of Celsus, the brothel with its advertising footprints pointing the way and the much-photographed latrines (said to be warmed by slaves before the nobles used them) – are remainders of the Roman and early Christian days.

On our biblical tour we learn that both St Paul and St John preached in the city at different times. We then travel a few kilometres to another site believed to be (but not authenticated) the tomb of St John. The John and Mary stories are compelling, even Roman Ephesus has a church dedicated to the Virgin. Some of us discuss the legends and stories over our "biblical" lunch.  We tuck into olive oil with oregano and mint, dried fruit and seeds, honey, thick yoghurt, a shepherd's salad (cucumber, rocket, and onions), goat's cheese, Jacob's green beans soaked in olive oil, a potage of lentil, barley with mustard seeds and mint, King David's lamb and among other small dishes, the Apostles' "favourite" of grilled fish of the Aegean with pomegranate-honey glazed sauce. There's also cake, apricots and a glass of wine. A veritable feast and, coupled with my holy water from Mary's shrine, which I have no option but to drink, it turns out to be my favourite day ashore. 

Back on the ship, the Ocean Cafe has also laid on a Turkish spread featuring spicy kebabs, pomegranate salad and sticky honey tarts, certainly more than enough to fuel us as we head south to explore more of the Mediterranean.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

celebritycruises.com.au

GETTING THERE

Emirates operates regular services to Dubai from Sydney and Melbourne with connections to Rome. See emirates.com/au

CRUISING THERE

Celebrity Reflection operates its 11-night Eastern Mediterranean cruises from May to October 2016. Ports may vary but should include Athens, Santorini, Kusadasi (for Ephesus), Crete, Mykonos and Naples. Fares for the June 27 departure from Rome start at $1599 a person twin share for interior cabin; $2609 for ocean view cabin and $2159 for balcony. Bookings made by March 31, 2016, for ocean view category or higher receive two perks that may include unlimited internet, $200 spending money, beverage package or prepaid gratuities.  

TOURING THERE

Celebrity Cruises has new European shore excursions for this year's summer season. They include small group market visits in Rhodes where the produce is cooked and served during a private dinner on the ship that evening. Other tours include a private luxury Mykonos yacht cruise and a "soft-rafting" adventure along Rome's Tiber River in Rome. See celebritycruises.com.au 

Caroline Gladstone travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises. 

FIVE MORE CELEBRITY CRUISES IN EUROPE

BALTIC BASH

Rug up and take in all the sights of the Baltic Sea on the 14-night Scandinavian & Russia cruise aboard Celebrity Eclipse. Departing Southampton for a round-trip on June 19. Fares, for an interior cabin, are $2649 a person twin share.

TOTAL ECLIPSE

A fascinating combo is the 12-night Iceland and Ireland cruise also on the Eclipse. It visits three ports in Iceland including Reykjavik and two in Ireland departing Southampton on May 10. Interior cabin fares are $2759 a person twin share.

LIGHTEN UP

Check out sunny Spain and Portugal aboard Celebrity Constellation as it cruises around the Iberian Peninsula over 13 nights. Departing from Barcelona on July 1, the fares for an interior cabin are $2799 a person twin share.

HEAT IS ON

Take a short sojourn from Barcelona to Rome, via Malta, aboard Celebrity Equinox in the heart of the northern summer. The ship departs on July 30 with interior cabins at $1539 a person twin share.

SIMPLY MED

Cruise through the Adriatic and the Med for seven nights taking in Italy, Croatia, France and Spain. Celebrity Constellation departs Venice on July 23 bound for Barcelona, calling at five ports on the way. Fares in an interior cabin are $1599 a person twin share. 

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