On my first afternoon on board the Aegean Odyssey, I fell into conversation with a gentleman with enormous eyebrows and a teasing smile. We were waiting for the first on-board lecture to begin, a talk entitled Sailing From Byzantium, to be delivered by Dr. Robin Cormack, a fellow of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
"I'm sure you will enjoy the talk," Mr. Eyebrows assured me. "He's a brilliant scholar. And I think you will enjoy the second lecturer just as much."
From the twinkle in his eye, I was not too surprised to learn that he was that second lecturer, Dr. Thomas Mannack, a Reader in Classical Iconography at Oxford.
When he told me he was an expert on ancient pots, I couldn't suppress an amused grin.
"You think it's funny, Barbara!" he said, in pretend offence. "But consider this: There is as much historic truth in a shard of pottery as in any literature."
The painted pots show life as it was lived, and they were hard to destroy. They were often placed in graves, and so were protected and survived. And even if they are found in shards, they can be reconstructed and so tell their story."
It emerged that he is The Man when it comes to old Greek pots, a universally acknowledged expert. And he was right. I did enjoy the talks.
Would everyone? I'm not sure.
This is a cruise for a particular type of traveller – a cruise for people who do not like cruising, at least, in the "big box" style that has dominated the industry of late. This is for fans of the small and intimate, for lovers of history and art, for devotees of beauty and architecture.
The Aegean Odyssey is a 350-passenger ship that conducts Voyages to Antiquity, cruises that explore historic ports of the Mediterranean and the Far East. It is well-equipped and comfortable, with everything travellers have come to expect: a pool, three restaurants, a small spa, and a bar that serves martinis and a good cappuccino. But the Odyssey boasts an added bonus: On board are some of the world's foremost authorities on the history of the areas visited.
I am convinced that this is an important developing niche for cruising, but also for any kind of travel. Today, we want to do more than look; we want to learn and grow and explore connections.
The cruise I took, from Istanbul to Athens, was called All These Begin With Greeks and wove its way through ports from Turkey to Crete and through the Greek islands to Athens.
The ports and the excursions were carefully selected, and each tour was lead by local guides who were well-trained and authoritative.
Maria, our guide for Nauplia and Athens was a perfect example. She was feisty, funny and informed. She was also devotedly Greek. When we toured the new Acropolis Museum she pointed out the caryatids, the supporting columns shaped like young women, one of which was taken away to England by Lord Elgin. "I visited the one that is in the British Museum," she told us. "I thought she was crying out of loneliness."
At Mycenae, as we walked through the Lion Gate, Europe's oldest monumental structure, she showed us the shaft graves from which Heinrich Schliemann excavated 19 graves, each body festooned with gold. "He thought he had found Troy. He wrote to his benefactor, after he unearthed the golden mask, 'I have kissed the lips of Agamemnon!' He was wrong, but he had made a momentous discovery."
Later, we saw the golden mask in all its glory in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens – no wonder he was thrilled.
In Pergamon, we saw the barren space on the side of a mountain where the Altar of Zeus originally stood. In Ephesus, we saw the famous library of Celsus and the beautiful Temple of Hadrian. Both lecturers came along on all of the tours and were happy to answer questions or expand on information.
In Santorini, Mannack convinced me I should eschew the souvenir shops and cafés of Fira and instead visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. "Just give it 10 minutes and then go and have coffee in a café," he said. Of course I spent the afternoon in this small jewel of a museum, and saw the frescos of Akrotiri, including one haunting mural famous for its early portrayal of a full frontal face on one blue monkey. Before this, faces were consistently presented in profile. It is awesome to be able to see a point in history where art took a new turn, where perception and depiction began to change.
But the trip was not stuck in the past. In Izmir we toured the bustling grand bazaar, tasting powdered squares of jewel-like Turkish delight and enjoying chilled pomegranate juice.
In Skiathos we went swimming at Koukounaries Beach, one of Greece's best, and visited the church where the wedding scene from Mamma Mia! was filmed. We sailed close to the lonely and hermit-like monasteries of Mount Athos, where only men are permitted and where Cormack has spent time studying the ancient manuscripts.
"Prince Charles comes to the island by helicopter for a week every year," he informed us.
We drank wine on the back deck and lingered in the lounge.
There was so much I enjoyed about this small-ship sailing that I did not miss photographers snapping my picture in the dining room each evening, as you often find on large cruise ships. Ditto the on-board shops with designer dresses, or the obligatory perfume store. (One discrete shop on the Odyssey stocks things like toothpaste or makeup, plus a small selection of luxury items.) I did not miss the baked Alaska parade at the closing dinner – and I certainly did not miss the magic acts offered as evening filler. The Odyssey does have a trio, a piano player and a singer, the lovely Babette, who perform in the small lounge.
On the Odyssey, dinner-table conversations are not about the odds in the casino or the sale in the jewellery store or the challenges of the rock-climbing wall – these things simply don't exist. Rather, people get to know each other, and the discussions are wide-ranging. But short lived. The itinerary is a busy one, with early morning starting times and long days filled with walking and climbing. By the time the sun sets over the Aegean, most of us are nodding in our chairs.
I also did not miss the towel sculptures on my bed, though the little chocolates on the pillow were nice.
IF YOU GO
Voyages to Antiquity conducts cruises to the Mediterranean and the Far East for travellers who want to explore the culture of the ancient world. Most shore excursions are included, as well as hotel stays, lecture programs, gratuities and beer and wine with meals.
A 17-day cruise to Burma and the Malay Peninsula, leaving Nov. 24, is $6,850 (U.S.) a person for a deluxe stateroom with balcony.
The company's fee includes round-trip airfare for any Grand Voyages, and discounted flights for other tours. voyagestoantiquity.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Voyages to Antiquity.