Guest Elizabeth set sail on a Mediterranean cruise aboard Noordam with her family and wrote about her adventure. Step back in time with her to some of the world’s most amazing ancient cities.
The Mediterranean has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. It features incredible beaches with water so blue, any picture is postcard worthy. But it is also home to some of the most important, well-preserved and breathtaking ancient cities and ruins. I recently took the 11-day Mediterranean Dream cruise aboard ms Noordam. If you’re looking for an interesting and exciting history lesson on your next trip, here are the places you must see:
The first stop on my cruise was Katakolon, Greece. This stop is the gateway to Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games and where the Olympic flame is lit every two years using just a mirror and the sun. I took the Ancient Olympia & the Museum tour. The arch, pictured below, is the entrance to the Olympic Stadium. When it was built it was actually a tunnel but it fell apart during earthquakes. What is shown is a small part that was reconstructed. The marble starting blocks where the Olympians lined up for their races are still intact. Make sure to wear a good pair of Nikes because your guide will invite you to step up to them for a race. You can imagine 40,000 spectators cheering around you for some added motivation!
After walking through the arch to the Olympic Stadium, you can step up to the starting line to run your sprint.
Holland America Line lets you couple your tour of Ancient Olympia with a tour of Mercouri’s Vineyards, Olympia village, Zorba, or the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, which is what I chose to do. The newly renovated museum is considered one of the most important in Greece and features sculptures from the Archaic to Roman periods. It also holds the famous 4th century Parian marble statue of Hermes of Praxitelis.
Piraeus (Athens), Greece
Calls at Piraeus are the perfect way to see Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world and the birthplace of democracy. Being my first time in Athens, I took the Scenic Athens & the Plaka on Foot tour. I wanted to take advantage of my short time there and see as much as possible. I couldn’t have made a better choice. During our drive through the city we saw an incredible amount of historical monuments. In Athens, it feels like their is a “sight” on every corner. We drove by Hadrian’s Arch, the statue of Lord Byron, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus and watched the changing of the guards at the Parliament Building at Syntagma Square, the oldest square in the city. We also got off the bus to take in the beautiful all-marble Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic games in 1896.
The Panathenaic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium, built on the land were the Panathenaic Games where held in ancient times to honor the Goddess Athena.
I only viewed the Acropolis from the bottom, but it is worth mentioning that Holland America offers plenty of tours that will take you to a closer view including the Athens & Acropolis tour and the Athens, Acropolis & Cape Sounion tour.
Of course it is Athens’ most famous sight, but trust me when I say that you can’t miss Areopagus. Located northwest of Acropolis and just steps away from its entrance, Areopagus, also known as Mars’ Hill, was where the council of elders met in pre-classical times. In classical times, it was the sight of the high Court of Appeal and is said to be where Ares was tried by the gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son. A climb up the steps of Areopagus takes you to what has to be one of the most gorgeous panoramic views in all of the Mediterranean. This view of Athens and the Parthenon will take your breath away. I can’t imagine how stunning it is with all of the city lights at night, but I can tell you that seeing it that way has been added to my bucket list!
From the bottom, Areopagus just looks like a big rock, but if you climb up the steps you’ll enjoy an incredible view.
Afterward, we enjoyed a traditional Greek lunch and had time to walk around the plaka. This old, historical neighborhood features neoclassical architecture, winding roads and plenty of opportunities to pick up local souvenirs.
In the first century B.C., Ephesus was one of the largest cities in the world. Today, it features one of the largest collections of ruins in the eastern Mediterranean, and it is very conveniently located to a stop at Kusadasi, Turkey.
The Odeon Concert Hall and Celsus Library are two of the most popular sights at Ephesus.
Walking through the streets of Ephesus, you are surrounded by incredible statues and structures. The Odeon Concert Hall served not only as a concert hall but more importantly as a Bouleuterion for the meetings of the Boulea, or Senate, making it the sight where the most important city matters were discussed. The Celsus Library may have been the most stunning structure at Ephesus. Built in 117 A.D. by Julius Aquila to honor his father Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, it housed more than 12,000 scrolls, making it the third largest library of the time.
The Great Theater is a marvel in itself and the most impressive structure at Ephesus. It was built in the third century B.C., during the Hellenistic Period, and was enlarged during the Roman period. With a seating capacity of 25,000, it held the most important theater performances and religious and political assemblies of the time. The acoustics are so great that in the 1980’s it even featured concerts by Elton John and Sting.
The Temple of Hadrian, left, was being restored during my visit, the perfect excuse to go back to Ephesus. On the right, the Fountain of Trajan, an Ephesian cat nap and a relief of the goddess Nike.
You can couple your visit to Ephesus with a visit to the Virgin Mary’s house, a Catholic shrine and the house where Jesus’ mother is said to have lived the last years of her life; the Terrace Houses, a recently excavated section of Ephesus that was home to its wealthiest people; or Sirince Village, where Greek style houses are decorated with Turkish interiors and there is plenty of shopping for souvenirs.
I was really looking forward to our call at Naples, Italy, knowing that I would get to see Pompeii. This sight is visited by millions of people ever year and I was excited to see why. We know much of what we know about how the ancient Romans lived thanks to Pompeii. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it buried the town in ash. The town stayed buried for about 1,500 years until it was rediscovered. It is preserved in such incredible detail, that walking through is like a first-hand experience of Roman life.
I took the Ruins of Pompeii tour, which gave great insight into ancient life. Our guide took us through the maze of streets, pointing out the chariot wheel marks in the stone. He also pointed out the cat’s eyes — small tiles in the stone that reflected the light of the moon at night allowing people to see where they were walking. We went to the Forum, which served as the center of the town and was surrounded by many important government buildings. It was once two stories high and you can still see the foundation of the second story. We also went to the market where meats and vegetables were sold. In the center you could buy fish, which we know because of the amount of fish bones found in the area during the excavations. The painting fragment on the walls of the market is an original and has never been restored. The detail and use of perspective is incredible.
Hundreds of artifacts were found at Pompeii. Also pictured, clockwise, a mural at the market, myself in the Forum, a statue of the Goddess Artemis, and an oven.
We also entered the spa which still has a roof above it. It featured three bathing rooms including a sauna, marble floors and exquisite details.
Though the entrance is small, the spa was actually very spacious and featured many different rooms.
My Mediterranean Dream cruise was just that — a dream. It felt like I had stepped back in time to some of the most beautiful eras in world history. But it was also just the tip of the iceberg. From the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, to Knossos and Delphi in Greece and Perge in Turkey, there are still plenty of other Mediterranean ruins to be explored.
If you’re taking a Mediterranean cruise that visits these ports, the shore excursions can be pre-booked so you get the tour of your choice.
Have you visited any of these Mediterranean ruins? Which was your favorite? Which is at the top of your list to see next?