When you’ve been traveling nonstop for months, one of the most challenging things to get used to is sleeping in a different bed every night. After a while, you begin to feel a bit like Goldilocks. Everything’s either too soft or too hard, too hot or too cold, too light or … let’s face it. It can never be too dark when you’re sleeping.
So it was with eager anticipation of resting in the same bed every night that I awaited our Mediterranean cruise. Ten days—and nights!—visiting the sunny shores of Greece, Italy, and Malta.
Known as the “Island of the Winds,” the Greek isle of Mykonos is equally well known for its iconic blue and white architecture. The first stop on our cruise included a walking tour of the hills and shores of the western coast.
We visited the skeletal remains of the windmills built by the Venetians in the 16th century as well as the famous Panagia Paraportiani, a Byzantine church overlooking the sea. At Mamalouka, we lunched on fresh oysters with black truffle dressing, sea bass baked in a sea salt crust, and chilled white wine from Mykonos Vioma, a local organic winery. And we wound our way through the tiny passages of Matoyianni Street, lined with shop after shop bursting with colorful clothing, jewelry, and souvenirs.
Since we’ve visited the Greek capital several times in the past, including a 10-miles-a-day walking tour just a few weeks prior, we spent this day in port visiting with friends who live in the city.
We love Rhodes, or Rhodos as it’s called by the locals. In fact, it’s a top contender to be our next home. It was with great pleasure that we returned to the city’s medieval old town for a walkabout within its fortified walls.
The “Island of the Knights” was once home to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BC. Much of the city was destroyed then as well, but construction from the 5th to the 15th centuries AD established the main harbor town that exists today. Eleven gates provide access to the city within the walls, which is the largest active medieval town in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re looking for refreshment as you wander the city, skip the tourist shops and venture into the residential areas of old Rhodes for a local market. There you’ll find cold sodas, beer, and bottled water for around a dollar apiece.
Oh, the poor donkeys of Santorini. The town is famous for these beasts of burden that trek tourists up the more than 500 steps to the top of the 980-foot-tall (300 m) cliffs. In fact, it’s gotten so bad for the donkeys that the country recently instituted a weight limit for riders as well as rules requiring them to be given regular breaks and fresh water. It would be one thing if the only way up was to walk, but there is a cable car next door to the donkey station that takes only two minutes to the top.
Once you’ve reached the summit, the sweet donkeys are forgotten as you take in the panoramic views. The island of Santorini is the result of an enormous volcanic eruption, and the aforementioned cliffs slope sharply into the water. The Greeks don’t give any of this a second thought, however; they’ve built their homes and businesses right into the rocky cliff face, where they cling precariously above the Aegean Sea.
The island is covered with iconic white plaster churches topped with bright Greek blue domes. The most famous of these is the Church of Panagia on the main square in Oia. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside, but it’s still worth a peek if it isn’t too crowded.
After our walking tour, we relaxed at Remvi Restaurant, where we had unobstructed views of the volcano and caldera as we snacked on roasted Greek manouri cheese topped with a sauce made from locally-grown tomatoes and served with freshly-baked bread. And then we walked down the 500-plus steps back to the port.
One of our favorite things to do when we’re visiting old cities is to find their marketplace. The municipal market of Chania, Crete, is known as the Agora and features vendors selling fresh fish, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat, and more. It’s also a great place to get a typical “working man’s lunch” if you don’t want to dine in the pricy tourist cafes.
On your way to the Venetian harbor and Chania lighthouse, you’ll pass Bronze Age excavation sites of Minoan ruins in the middle of residential neighborhoods. At first it seems surprising that these important archaeological monuments are surrounded by regular apartments, but when you realize that Chania is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it makes sense that these relics are part of everyday life on the largest of the Greek isles.
From the Grand Harbour, our stroll through through Valletta could have been much the same as that of the Knights of St. John in the 1500s. In fact, much of the world’s tenth-smallest country has withstood the test of time. This island at the center of the Mediterranean has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC, and its seven megalithic temples are some of the oldest freestanding structures in the world.
The City of Valletta itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we began our exploration with the Floriana Heritage Trail as we made our way toward the Mall, the oldest garden in Malta that was once accessible only to the Knights. We took in an aerial view of the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where we paused to buy a postcard for Wanda.
We walked down St. Paul Street toward Fort St. Elmo, but the sun was beginning to set, so we had to abandon our plans to walk all the way out to the St. Elmo lighthouse. However, we did make time to see St. John’s Co-Cathedral and St. George’s Square while there was still daylight. It began to rain on us as we returned to our ship, so we ducked into the Beer Cave for a beverage while we waited out the storm. And what a fun surprise that was! More than 120 beers from all over the world in a space that was once used as an underground bakery, kitchen, stable, and wine celler for Capitano Giacomo de Robertis, who was employed by the Knights of Malta.
“Picture it: Sicily.”
I’ve been waiting my whole life to say that! There were so many reasons why I was excited about visiting Sicily, and perhaps none greater than Sophia Petrillo of Golden Girls fame. Coming in a close second was the food. After all, there’s a reason they call Sicily “God’s Kitchen.”
We were pretty eager to sample the thriving street food scene in the city of Messina, and we struck gold with La TASTeria Gourmet, one of the top five restaurants in Sicily and number one in the street food category on TripAdvisor. The tiny little shop builds huge flavors: I had the outstanding Panarea sandwich with tuna tartare, capers, citrus, and olive oil on wheat toast, and Mike enjoyed the Montalbano with provolone cheese, crushed green olives, Nebrodi prosciutto, and blood orange jam. And their selection of local craft beers was fantastic. The complimentary dessert was a deconstructed cannoli, based on the dessert for which Sicily is famous worldwide.
Just around the corner is Duomo di Messina, a Roman Catholic cathedral with the largest astronomical clock in the world. Next to that is Fontana di Orione, which art historian Bernard Berenson described as “the most beautiful fountain of the sixteenth century in Europe.” Much like the little restaurant, Sicily knows how to pack a lot into a tiny space.
For our last port of call, we opted for a guided tour of the island of Capri. That was a mistake.
We were eager to see the famous Blue Grotto, and we were concerned about getting back and forth by ferry to Naples on time since it was a short day in port. We knew that tour companies would have this down pat; in fact, ours had a “back on time” guarantee. But we aren’t interested in window shopping at designer boutiques, and we don’t care where the rich and famous stay, which was how much of our tour time was spent.
What was worth the time was the boat trip around the island. Also enjoyable was the chair lift ride to the top of Monte Solaro, with its sweeping views of Anacapri and the coastline. And we could’ve done both of these on our own and made it back to the cruise ship with plenty of time to spare. Lesson learned!
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