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The Eastern Mediterranean encompasses a vast area of the ancient sun-drenched lands of Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land and including the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Black seas, making for one of the most history-rich and fascinating cruise destinations in the world.
The Italian seaport of Venice needs no introduction, storied for centuries for its canals and gondolas, the Piazza San Marco with its ornate basilica and towering Campanile. Lovers kiss beneath the Bridge of Sighs, visitors ride vaporetto waterbuses but mostly wander, watching the play of light on the water and along the maze of pedestrian-only streets and bridges.
Croatia’s Dalmatian coast city of Split so charmed the Roman emperor Diocletian that he built a splendid palace that today is Split’s major attraction. Croatia’s Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” proudly showcases stunning Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, carefully rebuilt after earthquake and wars. Kotor, the main port for the tiny nation of Montenegro, features one of the best preserved medieval centers along the Adriatic; its ancient stone walls extend for miles.
Greece is a country of mythical, historic and geological drama. Islands and promontories were shaped by wind and rain and the sea, which varies from crystal clear to ultramarine. Buildings are often blinding white, set off by blue rooftops, colors matched in the Greek flag. Renting a scooter for a day, you may wind up serendipitously where Perseus slew the Medusa, or more realistically, where Pythagoras conceived his theorem.
A maritime gateway to Greece is the island of Corfu, where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea. Corfu’s Venetian, French, Austrian and German influences show in its architecture and in its music. Katakolon on the Peloponnese peninsula is the port city for Olympia where the ruins of the ancient game complex stand. The Museum of Ancient Greek Technology displays Plato’s alarm clock, among other treasures.
Athens, the cradle of Western Civilization, is dominated by the Acropolis and its many-pillared Parthenon, rich with art and artifacts. Here Pericles inspired his fellow citizens to adopt the governmental system known as democracy and Socrates argued his last case. In the Cyclades island group Agamemnon launched his thousand ships against Troy. Apollo, god of music and poetry, was born on Delos and the mythical lost land of Atlantis is said to lie in the sunken part of Santorini. Lively Mykonos is the party isle for everyone from backpackers to millionaires.
South is Crete, the largest of the Greek islands and home of the ancient kingdom of Minos, whose sophisticated civilization is displayed in the Palace of Knossos, overlooking Heraklion. Northeast of Crete lies Rhodes, largest of the Dodecanese islands and site of formidable castles and monuments built by a succession of occupiers, Romans, Crusader knights and Turks, among them.
Limassol on the south coast of the island country of Cyprus is known for medieval castles, winemaking, nightlife and festivals along golden sand beaches and sparkling Mediterranean waters.
For centuries, pilgrims started their travels in the Holy land at the port of Haifa, today a short drive from Jerusalem, a city sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and claimed by all three. Here sites are not mere tourist sites, they are holy shrines: the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Al-Aqsa Mosque, among them. The Israel Museum houses another must-see, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The country of Turkey contains some of the world’s oldest archeological ruins, including in Bodrum, where visitors see the remains of one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World: the Tomb of King Mausolus from 350 B.C. Kusadasi is the port city for Ephesus, a colony of ancient Rome. Its impressive library, temples and amphitheater show the building talents of its founders. From the Byzantine era are remains of the Basilica of St John, which houses the tomb of the apostle.
Izmir, formerly Smyrna, is one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean and, according to some accounts, the birthplace of Homer. Remnants of its past can be seen in the ruins of the agora marketplace and the more intact Kadifekale hilltop castle.
The port of Cannakale, at the south end of the Dardanelles, is near the ruins of Troy and the World War I battlefield of Gallipoli. It is possible to see both in one day: the spot where Priam faced the fleet of Agamemnon and where his 20th century descendants faced the Allied landings.
Istanbul, which famously straddles two continents, is a city of ornate splendor. Topkapi Palace reveals the sumptuous often murderous lifestyle of the Ottoman sultans. The massive Hagia Sophia, initially a church, subsequently a mosque, now a museum, is rich in Christian and Islamic art and architecture. The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque is the largest in Turkey. No visit would be complete with shopping in the Grand Bazaar.
Cruises of the eastern Mediterranean sometimes call at Varna on the Black Sea, the summer capital of Bulgaria. Spas and beaches are an attraction but there’s plenty of history here: the remains of ancient Thrace from 1000 B.C. and before that, prehistoric settlements dating back to the Paleolithic era. Comparatively recent civilization can be seen in the ruins of the thermae, Roman baths.