Greece: Sailing into the Aegean Sun
Photos by Brett Patterson/Abrivo Studio

We dance with the wind.

Our four mainsails curve like bird wings, as they fill with Aegean air and blow us toward discovery. There is a dynamic tension to sailing. Ropes and sails draw taught, squeaking and moaning in a constant trimming and tightening. We sail under a blood-red moon, full and ripe in the Grecian sky. We are bound for the islands, as ancient Greeks have done for millennia.

Our bowsprit noses us toward an unknown horizon. Out there, dotting the sea, awaiting us are Samos, Patmos, Delos, Mykonos, Milos and our first port of call, Kusadasi, Turkey. We will carve the waters, slice the wind, find adventure. We will, for a short week, feel like ancient mariners.

We step into the maritime as we board our vessel, the Star Flyer, all 367 feet of well-crafted wood and sail. She is a four-masted, 16-sail barquentine, launched in 1992, out of Luxembourg. We are in the capable hands of Captain Hans Jurgen Enge, a pleasant and wise German with many sea-going years and half dozen oceans or better under his belt.

After pleasantries, cocktails and a sumptuous meal, we set sail from Pireaus in the dead of night. A motley crew, we hear the accents of Russia, India and the Philippines among Captain Enge's crew. Those who have booked passage are a mix of Brits, Germans, French, Belgian, Swedes and Americans. We have pointed our noses into the wind and will wake up in Turkish waters.

I awaken before dawn from the sleep of the dead. There is something about the sway of a sailing ship that's conducive to a good night's rest. I see first light, and head up on deck. Distant silhouettes of islands are limned against a hazy blue sky. A pacing and vigilant Alexandre Mekshun, the chief mate, tells me the winds are at 22 knots, and we are cruising at 6.8 knots. He is from Russia, worked in the cargo ship industry, and escaped it to sail aboard this ship. "All the time hurry," he says of his former career. "All the time check. Too much stress. This is much better."

We are passing through Mykale Straight, the narrowest passage between Greece and Turkey. An egg-shaped moon hangs in the sky, two fists off starboard. The sun is about to ignite in a blaze of red the morning sky over Turkey.

I drift back to cruise director Peter Kissner's words of the previous evening. "Forget everything you know about cruising," said Peter, a Bavarian with nearly 20 years of sailing experience. "To be on a sailing ship is always a special event. Sailing ships take you to new horizons. It's always been the connection between the new world and the old world. It's adventure."

My reverie is interrupted by John Woszon, an affable Brit. "Have you done your homework?" he asks in a voice far too cheery for 5:30 a.m. "Do you know why I'm up at this ungodly hour?" he says w ith a laugh. I help by pointing out Turkey's Samsun Peak on our right, and the island of Samos on our left.

He and his wife have sailed on the Star Clipper before. "We absolutely loved it," he says. "I love the pace and being under sail." It's narcotic. It's a gentle role and pitch, and completely outside a landlubber's comfort zone.

And the sea. The color of the Aegean is a wonder. Those who've seen it know. It's a couple of clicks this side of cobalt, but richer than royal. Azure? Cerulean? I have come to calling it simply Aegean blue.

In the early afternoon we dock in Kusadasi, disembark and climb aboard buses. Our guide, Ortune, begins a gentle history lesson as we wend our way up steep narrow roads.

He talks of Turkey and its 70 million people, 15 million Instanbul alone. Famous for figs and seedless grapes, cotton, tobacco, textiles, and the most accomplished salesmen in all the world. He teaches us "yes," "no" and the real "no" in Turkish. Plain old "no," hayir, means maybe. "Say 'tch yok,'" he says, making a clucking sound before yok, "and throw your head back while you do it. It means 'absolutely no way.'"

He continues his history lesson in a lilting voice, about Constanine, where the word mausoleum comes from (a king named Mausoleos), Mongols, the fact that Turkish is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world, and the reason for the Great Wall of China. "Turks are the reason," he says with a laugh.

Soon we stop at Meryemana, on Nightingale Mountain, way up in the hills, isolated. It is thought to be the ancient home of the Virgin Mary. It sits on pastoral grounds of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees, white oleander and what look like red bouganvilla.. The stone house has been rebuilt, but its foundation is original. It isn't hard to imagine how it might have been. Birds chirp gaily. The sun shines. It is as peaceful a place as any I've found on Earth.

A holy shrine, it is where Mary spent her final days, from 38-42 A.D. The very house. Visitors reverently file through to witness shrines, to light candles, to touch the walls that Mary may have touched. Outside is a prayer wall, covered in short messages and prayers left behind. Down the way is a holy spring from which the believers drink. I drink to peace.

The story of how it was found - in a vision by a 19th century German nun named Catherine Emmerich -- is mystical and magical. I am strangely moved as I sift through the house. I have tears in my eyes. Whether truth or myth in the whole pantheon of Christian history and lore, I found myself thinking about Mary's agony in the days after Jesus was crucified, her son martyred, a new religion struggling to gain a foothold in a crazy world. Two thousand years of Christianity possibly flow back to this place. It resonates a power and an endurance of resolute persistence, virtue and righteousness.

Despite Ortune's best attempts, nothing truly prepares you for Ephesus, not even a warm-up trip to the Acropolis in Athens. Ephesus was once a thriving Greek city of 250,000. Saints Paul and John both visited here. It is a sprawling site of temples, public baths, council chambers, a massive library. It is thought to be one of the first cities to have water and sewer systems.

Standing in its mammoth theater, you hear in the breeze faint echoes, of the rabble, of orations of Paul and John. You hear the voices of children and shopkeepers, of teachers and politicians, from an ancient golden time.

The breeze moves you back toward the bus. Shops line a small thoroughfare and old-fashioned selling begins.

"Best price."

"Come, look in my shop."

"Genuine fake watches. Rolex and Cartier."

I wonder if history repeats itself.

We sail into the night, bound for the island of Samos. It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Greek goddess Hera, wife of Zeus. It is also the birthplace of Pythagoras. We step off into the town of Pythagorio, named for the mathematician, and head for Ireon and the Temple of Hera built by the ruler Polycrates during Greeces' golden age, in his bid to make this island a prominent religious center of the world.

We pass verdant farmland, full of olive trees and grapes. It smells green and fresh. In view are high rolling hills, cypress and pine trees. We pull into a parking lot and walk to the ancient ruins. A lone column, some nine meters tall, stands where 155 of them once stood, all that's left from one of the world's great temples, and one of the Seven Wonders of World. Were it still standing, it would dwarf the Athens' Parthenon.

We board our bus for a short tour of the island. We pass the capitol city of Vathy, and by the small village of Kokkavi, and its beautiful beaches, including Lemonakia Beach.

We pull into Platinikia Taverna, nestled under a shady grove of trees and a landscaped of flowers. Plates of feta, tomatoes, tzatziki (that heavenly spread of yogurt, cucumber and onion ) and olives wait for us at a long table. Jugs of wine - white, amber, dark red - are placed on the table. The honey-colored wine is a sweet Muscatel, a dessert wine, best left for last. The white is crisp and clean. The rose is hearty. We toast each other, and nibble, until our bus ride back to the dock.

It's a sweet day. Gentle breezes blow. The pace of Pythiagorio is tranquil. At the moment, I couldn't possibly care less about whatever craziness has befallen the world. I sip a cold Mythos beer, listen to Greek music on the stereo, hear the gentle mumble of conversation, stare off at the ancient Lykourgos Logothetis Castle, look into the eyes of the lovely Greek waitress and breathe in the pleasure of the place.

We sail around a sharp rock outcrop to a beautiful harbor and touch the island of Patmos. It's a bluebird day, warm, little breeze, calm seas. We dock and take a long and winding road up the hill from Skala, the port town, to the Cave of the Apocolypse. Think Book of Revelations, the last chapter of the New Testament, and St. John's prophecy of the Second Coming.

It was to this island that John was banished after leaving Ephesus. We come upon a small, cool cave halfway up a hill between the port town of Skala and the hilltop town of Hora.. I stand in the cave where he had the vision and I touch the spot where he lay, "as if dead," according to him, where Jesus appeared and told him not to worry, and to take a little dictation, which turned into the 22 chapters of Revelations. John, so overcome by the vision, asked Prochoros, a priest, to write it all down for him.

As our guide Despina Daoula, was about to explain things, the lights went out. A sign? Who knows? We like to think so. The spot where John lay is enshrined with silver. Beautiful Byzantine iconography surrounds the place.

We visit the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. John the Theologian nearby, marveling at the iconography, the ornate ancient tomes, and artifacts. We are treated to ouzo and snacks at a nearby taverna. "The last time I had ouzo," says shipmate Bill Lucas, from Columbus, Ohio, "was the day Elvis died." We sip the milky licorice-flavored beverage, and wipe our chins.

Rather than take the bus back down to the dock, Bill and I decide to walk down. Despina points to an old cobblestone path. "Take that," she says, "You'll enjoy it." We do. We have a panoramic view of Patmos, the Dodacanese islands in the distance, and our majestic ship in the harbor.

After a dip in the blue Aegean at Meloi Beach, we sail on, basking in the sun and the history. I park on the aft deck to make notes and to let sink in the beauty and timelessness of Patmos. Something off the starboard rail catches my eye. We are clipping along at something like five knots, and I catch a glimpse of a duo, then a trio, of green dolphins dancing alongside. It is a good sign, I decide. One of many.

We will, before we are through, visit Delos, the mystery island, where by ancient decree no one is born or dies. It is vast, with its ruins.

We will stop in Mykenos, that tourist haven of whitewashed walls and deep blue trim, of narrow streets and ancient churches and windmills. Night time is the right time in Mykenos.

We will spend a few minutes in Milos and Sifnos, long enough to shop and shake out our sea legs. And then we will be bound for Athens, to visit the Acropolis and marvel at its glory, high above the city. We'll make frequent trips to Plaka for simple dinners of pestitsio and souvlaki, gyros and restina. We will shop in Plaka and the daily street fair of Monasteraki for jewelry and worry beads and the finest olive oil. We'll visit Mt. Lykavittos and its small chapel, affording us a grand view of the city that will soon host the next Olympic Games.

And there will be lightning. The majesty of the gods will explode around us on our last night onboard. The arcs will flash and pierce the horizon as we head for shore, mesmerizing, other-worldly, dream-like.

I stumble across the words of Greece's literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis. Maybe it's no accident. "Happy is the man," he wrote, "who before dying has the good fortune to travel the Aegean Seas. Nowhere else can one pass so easily from reality to the dream."

Maybe I'll never fully wake up.

Don Campbell is a frequent contributor to World Traveler magazine.
Website design by The Flower Press