A hopeless romantic meets her match
Touring Greece's antiquities, a traveler comes face to face with the temples of the ancient gods – and her childhood dreams.
As a child, on windy nights I'd fantasize that my bedroom could disengage from our home. Like a caterpillar giddy for transformation, it would emerge as a sublime sailing ship, float with the vagabond clouds, then drift down to worlds of long ago.
I would step off the ship onto the bronze earth. Greeting me were Greek gods and goddesses – Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, and the others – smiling gently from ivory faces. My life would be adorned by their radiance, their jealousies would captivate me, and my parents would be proud I'd found such famous companions.
After a social studies unit in fourth grade on Greek mythology, anything even remotely connected to ancient Greece was irresistible. It was more thrilling, by far, than a party or a snow day off school in my Indiana hometown.
In high school, I wondered if continuing such unabashed romanticism about antiquity might prove a liability, as most of my egghead friends had a proclivity for the sardonic. Then I discovered books by poets and scholars exalting the romantic melancholy of ancient ruins. If such notables shared my passion, then I knew my infatuation must be legitimate.
One lackluster day, as I looked through routine snail mail, I found a beautiful catalog with a cover photo of an ancient Greek temple soaring above the sea. It was from a newly launched cruise line, Voyages to Antiquity. Instantly, those three words transported me to my childhood reveries.
All the ancient civilizations I'd longed to visit were in that catalog, encompassed in 25 journeys – aboard a sleek white vessel, the Aegean Odyssey.
It looked like a reincarnation of the ship in my childhood dreams. But this one sailed farther: through the entire Mediterranean world and into the Aegean, Ionian, Adriatic, and Black seas – to Byzantine Turkey, Renaissance Italy, Pharaonic Egypt, Classical Greece, even exotic ports of Asia.
Unable to resist, I chose an odyssey through the Greek Islands and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul.
The cruise line hosted a presailing tour of the Acropolis. Our guide told how it had been sacred terrain even during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods, before Classical-era Greeks created the Parthenon there – Athena's temple, dedicated to wisdom. Later, the guide said, the edifice became a church and mosque.
Just steps from the Agora where democracy was born, her words conjured up an enclave of spiritual and noble yearnings. All this, I felt, must be empowering today's Athenians in their own yearnings for dignity and prosperity.
The first night, on the ship's al fresco dining terrace, the captain regaled me with tales of steering the ship through celebrity waters – the same wine-dark seas that Homer's Odysseus had sailed. Leaning over, as if to impart a secret, he said: "At our next stop, Epidaurus – the best preserved of all ancient Greek theaters – the tragedies of Euripedes and Sophocles are still performed. Shakespeare's masterpieces, too."
Later, in my cabin, I thought of the parallel quest, from Sophocles to the Elizabethan bard, to unfold the mysteries of the human psyche.
The mystical ingredients of the voyage were the near-obsession of a fellow passenger, a charming Londoner. At Mycenae, Troy, and Delos, he'd find secluded spots to create watercolors of the sites. "For me," he said joyfully, "making these pictures is a way of communing with their creators – even penetrating, just a little, their enigma." His words reminded me of a professor at Columbia, who required his students to write a poem in the style of the ancient poetess, Sappho, from the Greek island of Lesbos, as a catalyst to probing her genius. [Editor's note: The name of the poet was incorrectly stated in the original version.]
In Mykonos, that quintessential Greek isle, long a mecca for international voyagers, the Londoner surrendered his sketchbook to simply relish a souvlaki at a waterfront cafe. "I must rejuvenate myself," he confessed, "for the next ports of call and Turkey's gems, the ruins at Aphrodesias and Ephesus."
Wandering through these vast, ancient sites a few days later, it was as though Aphrodite, goddess of love, had returned to me from my childhood fantasy and whispered: "Don't mind the others if they accuse you of being a hopeless romantic. Look at me, I've devoted 2,500 years to being just that."
Back home, reimmersed in the workaday world, a friend from the ship called to commiserate about our shared malaise. "I feel bereft of ruins and all those sublime islands," she lamented, "and can't wait to return." Near retirement, she was determined to experience, solo, all 25 odysseys.
"But what about your husband?" I asked. "Isn't he a homebody with a low tolerance for your absences?"
In a heartbeat, she fired back: "If Odysseus could be apart from Penelope for 20 years, then Max can handle it."