Mediterranean – Eastern
So much to see and limited time to take it all in. We are always intrigued by all the history – so much to learn, so many questions needing answers. Unfortunately I did not experience far away places and other worlds when I was young.
We’ve been to the Eastern Mediterranean visiting some of the places that I am going to touch on, more than once.
The one area that I am going to omit is Ephesus, Turkey as I have included it in my ramblings about Turkey. Simply, go to My Travels and click on Turkey or click on the link below.
Here my focus is on several Greek islands, Jerusalem and Acre in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine.
This legendary ‘island of the Phaeacians’ (The Odyssey), mountainous Corfu is named for the nymph Kerkyra (daughter of the river Assopos). The highest peak is 3,000 foot Mr. Pandokrator, but several flat areas include the broad Ropa Valley. Corfu (‘town on the summit’) was originally the name of the mountain fortress. The first known inhabitants were 8th century B.C. Corinthians.
Corfu Town is the island capital but we did not spend any time exploring the town. Instead, we headed out into Corfu’s lush and verdant countryside of olive, orange and lemon trees. We caught a distant glimpse of Vlacherna Monastery and Mouse Island with its 13th century cathedral. According to mythology, Mouse Island is Odysseus’ petrified ship, turned to stone by an angry Poseidon.
We visited the Mon Repo Palace, built in 1828 for the second British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, Sir Frederic Adam. It was then utilized as the summer residence of the High Commissioner, while the official residence was the Palace of St. Michael and St. George in Corfu itself. The second son of King George I, George II was born here in 1869. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip was born and baptized here in 1921. This palace is where the Greek Royal family would spend their summers.
The mansion of Acchillion was built by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. She was the last Kaiser to rule Corfu. This palace was the ‘comfort of her soul’. She was assassinated in Switzerland in 1898. The palace was later owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II. the beautiful gardens and statues have been left intact for visitors to admire.
Our first visit to Katakolon was on a day when we were weary as we had been touring for many days previous so we took the opportunity to explore only the beach area of this port. Katakolon is a shore side village in western Ilia in the municipality of Pyrgos. The city center has a gulf overlooking the Ionian Sea. Katakolon is situated on a peninsula and its Lighthouse, first opened in 1865, can be found on its southwest side.
Katakolon is the gateway to Olympia, where the ancient Greeks used to flock every four years for more than a thousand years to celebrate the sacred games dedicated to Zeus. On our second visit to Katakolon, we boarded a bus and travelled to the ancient games site. Famous are the ruins of the Sanctuary, with its athletic square stadiums, temples and treasuries.
Following an exploration of the ruins, we visited the modern Archaeological Museum, a treasure house of Ancient, Classical and Roman sculptures, including the famous statue of Niki, the Winged Victory.
On my next visit to Katakolon (if I should ever be so fortunate to visit a third time), I will explore the village of Katakolon.
We were required to tender in at this port where the tenders let you off at the base of a cliff. The town of Fira is at the top of the cliffs and in order to reach that location you could walk, ride the donkeys or take the cable car.
We had reserved a rental car for the day, picked it up at the top of the cliffs and set off. We drove south and looked at Black beach and Red beach. Santorini is a volcanic island which covers an area of about 73 square miles with a population of about 7000 permanent residents.
We drove along the west side of the island, the side which plunges abruptly into the Aegean sea. We stopped, walked and explored among the houses, shops, walkways, etc. White buildings with the distinctive blue domes dotted the rugged volcanic terrane.
We drove to Ia, a lovely traditional village on the northwest side of the island, built along the rim of the caldera, the crescent rim of what was once the crater of the volcano. In Ia we dined on a wonderful Greek lunch, enjoying the baked feta in a tomato sauce, not to mention the cold Heineken beer.
Apparently on the east side of the island, where we didn’t get to, there is fertile land which extends gently until it reaches the water and turns into a black sand or pebbly beach.
At the port of Heraklion on the island of Crete, we hired a taxi which took us on a little tour of Heraklion and then through the lush countryside where the hillsides were covered with olive groves, orange and lemon groves.
As we drove along, our elevation was continually increasing until we reached our destination, Knossos Palace, which is believed to be the original Labyrinth of the Minotaur and 3700 years old. Visiting these ruins took us a few steps back in time. Crete holds a special place in Greek mythology and was an influential location in the evolution of Hellenic civilization.
Following our somewhat lengthy visit at the ruins, we drove back down to the city of Heraklion and left our taxi in the downtown area from where we made our way on foot. On our way back to the ship, we rested our weary feet in a fish spa.
Piraeus is one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the busiest in the world. It certainly is one of the most important points of continental Greece due to its proximity to the capital, Athens. Piraeus has been the Athenian port since Ancient times with the continuous flow of people and ships from all parts of the world.
On our first visit to Athens we took a guided tour but on our second visit a few years later, feeling more confident and comfortable we used the hop-on-hop-off bus as we made our way around the city with its cosmopolitan life atmosphere. It was interesting seeing the prevalent use of motorbikes with parking lots filled with them. Orange trees heavy with oranges lined the boulevards.
The Parthenon was built and used by the Greeks and when the Romans came, it was used by the Romans.
The Christians came next and they too used this Parthenon as a place of worship. The Parthenon was originally dedicated to Athena, daughter of Zeus and goddess of many things; wisdom, law, intelligence, etc.
The port where we docked is Haifa which is an important port and industrial centre. It is the second busiest Israeli port after Ashdod. Currently Haifa has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, with a Jewish prevalence, but also with Muslim, Christian and Druse presence.
A stop at the Holy Sepulchre brought us to the Stations of the Cross where it was believed that Jesus was crucified. It is very interesting here how places are built on top of another. A temple could be destroyed and another one is simply built on top.
It was interesting coming across the border between Israel and Palestine. Each person required a special pass but they were only superficially checked when we entered Palestine. It was a little different when we were going the other direction.
It took us a long time to get out of Palestine. The lines at the border were long and very slow moving as every visitor card was checked by the armed guards. High concrete walls separate Israel from Palestine around Bethlehem.
A trip to Acre (Akko) where we toured the Old City and learned of some of the secrets of the city above and the city below. In the Old City there exists a preserved Crusader city being unearthed, located directly under the city built above it.
Akko Port was built between 285 and 246 BC, transforming Akko into an international port city and the gateway to Israel. It reached its zenith during the conquest by the Crusaders. In the 13th Century, Akko became the capital of the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land. After the Ottoman conquest, the port was neglected, reduced to a fishermen’s harbour.
The Old City of Akko is recognized as a UNESCO world Heritage Site. There are walls and fortresses, knights’ halls, churches, synagogues and mosques, all reminders of the city’s conquerors and religions, from the Canaanites and Romans to the Crusaders,Turks and British.
The Templars were a monastic military order that guarded European pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land to visit the holy places. The order’s main fortress in Akko was built at the western end of a long tunnel. The tunnel, the bottom section of which is cut in natural stone and the upper section comprising hewn stone, extends from the Templar fortress to the port, a distance of 350 meters, serving as a strategic underground passageway linking the fortress with the port. This location is the last known of the Templars before their collapse.