The history buoys

By Robin Esser, Daily Mail

Last updated at 17:59 02 July 2007


athens

The Acropolis is one of the world's most famous sights

aspendos

The splendour of the theatre at Aspendos

ephesus

The remains of the library building at Ephesus

knossos

One of the colourful temples at Knossos

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Leaving Limassol: the harbour area by night

Surely it should get easier. Everyone knows that a baby can be a handful on holiday. But by the time your children are in their teens, you'd have thought that finding a break to suit the whole family would be a walk in the park.

Sadly, this is not the case. In fact, many parents with older children discover that picking a trip that ticks everyone's boxes just gets harder and harder.

With two boys - Jake, 21, and Sam, 17 - we usually opt for something with lots of action. Rounds of golf, scuba dives and tennis matches keep everyone smiling. But this year, one of the boys had injured his back, so we had to find a different solution.

How about a cruise? We gently suggested it, but the boys recoiled in horror. 'Won't we be surrounded by ancients like you,' they asked?

'Well that's the point,' we said. 'In fact, these ancients are even older than us - if such a thing is possible. One of you is studying A-level Classics at school and the other Ancient History at university, and this cruise takes us back to the days of the Minoans, the Greeks and the Romans you've been learning about.'

We would get to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon, Knossos and the lair of the Minotaur, the remains of the city of Ephesus and the birthplace of Aphrodite. Forget reading about them, we'd get to experience them first-hand.

They agreed this sounded 'cool'. We boarded The Calypso in Limassol, Cyprus, after a fog-delayed flight from Manchester. She is on the small side for a cruise ship - 11,000 tons - and accommodates only 486 adult-only passengers. I was told she rolls a bit in rough seas but our weather was calm and she does have stabilisers.

The ship set sail overnight for Heraklion in Crete and we woke up to the exciting prospect of spending the day crawling all over the ruins of the palace of King Minos at Knossos, the site of the labyrinth and its most infamous inhabitant, the mythical Minotaur.

There were well-organised coach tours from every port to the sights or the shops, depending on your tastes, and they were reasonable value. They were mostly morning or afternoon half-days, returning to the ship for lunch or tea.

We chose to go independently as we wanted to spend more time at the ruins than the tours allowed. We found the bus to Knossos was just 500 yards outside the port and discovered that, as it was a public holiday, entry to the Palace and its spectacular ruins was free.

Elsewhere, entry to the sites was free for Sam (under-19), and halfprice for Jake (with his student card) and me (a senior citizen). Only mother, with her youth and beauty fully intact, paid full price.

At Knossos, the boys' enthusiasm for the whole venture began to increase as they argued about the allegorical nature of the story of the Minotaur and the tragic tale of how Theseus succeeded in killing the beast, but who then forgot to hoist white sails to signal his success to his father Aegeus, King of Athens, when he returned home.

When the King saw the black sails, he assumed his son had been killed by the monster and threw himself off a cliff to his death in the sea, which was named the Aegean after him.

Later, we caught the bus back to Heraklion where the debate continued over dishes of squid and dolmades, hummus and meatballs, accompanied by a welcome glass of beer in a local taverna. The bill for all of us came to a reasonable £25.

We then turned to wondering how the great Minoan civilisation, which built Knossos and was one of the great naval and trading powers of the Mediterranean, had managed to suddenly vanish into obscurity. But more mysteries were to come.

Back on board, our moving hotel provided a sumptuous five-course meal, an hour-long spectacular show featuring the music of Lloyd Webber, and a late-night session in the casino for those with more stamina than we.

And as we slept soundly in our beds, the Calypso sailed effortlessly to Piraeus, the port for Athens. Having woken up, had breakfast and disembarked, we took the Metro to Monastiraki, and emerged at the foot of the Acropolis.

And here I must quote my sons (and remember that they were indifferent initially): 'The scale of the buildings, particularly the Parthenon and Propylea, was astounding and really helped us to understand how spectacular the buildings were due to their magnitude and position.

'The British Museum has replicas and real remains from the various classical periods of the Acropolis, but it does make you wonder if we shouldn't give the Elgin Marbles back so they can be seen where they belong.'

Now, that's more like it. Restored by a welcome lunch at a taverna overlooking the Agora, or ancient market place, we walked for 20 minutes to the Archaeological Museum, where we spent the rest of the afternoon seeing the golden deathmask of Agamemnon, and the Cup of Nestor, the King of Pylos, and various other special treasures.

And so the voyage continued. Another night on board took us to Kusadasi on the Turkish coast and the biggest archaeological site in the world at Ephesus, once one of the great ancient cities.

Here, St Paul came to convert the citizens from their worship of Artemis and it was while he was imprisoned nearby that he wrote his Letters to the Ephesians.

The remains of the Celsus Library and a bas-relief of the goddess Athena Nike were unique sights here, along with those of the largest remaining open-air theatre, which dates back to the First Century AD.

An audience of 25,000 used the theatre in ancient times and today, Pavarotti, Elton John and Sting have entertained the same number, listening and watching from the same stone tiers.

It was in Ephesus, too, that one of Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, was burned to the ground on July 21, 356BC. The arsonist was Herostratus, who committed the offence in an attempt to immortalise his name. The authorities executed him and forbade mention of him but their efforts were in vain. Here, some 2,500 years later, our tour group was once again hearing all about him.

Our last days with the Calypso saw us taking in the Acropolis at Lindos, on the island of Rhodes, and the Street of the Knights in the Old Town.

We visited the ruins at Aspendos, near Antalya, and the stunning mosaics of the House of Dionysus, back on Cyprus at Paphos. And as if that wasn't enough, we took in the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, too.

But I don't want to give you the impression that it was all archaeological digs, ruins and Greek inscriptions.

We packed in a couple of sunlit beaches, some lounging around on the upper deck, a quad-bike safari in the dunes, some wild tortoises, a flock of flamingos and a horseback ride into the sea. We bought fresh rosewater lokum (Turkish Delight) in Turkey and big luxurious sea sponges in Greece.

The ship provided live entertainment and films every night, non-stop delicious offerings at breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner and supper, all of which our sons managed to hoover down most days, and three lectures on the classical empires, too.

There were also comfortable cabins and, of course, an unparalleled ease of travel between six destinations.

After all, how else could we have travelled back 5,000 years in just one week?

Travel facts

Calypso is next scheduled to depart on the Ancient Empires itinerary in October. Prices from £599 per person, based on two sharing a standard inside cabin for seven nights. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick, tips, port taxes and full-board accommodation. To book, contact Thomson Cruises (thomson.co.uk/cruise; 0870 550 2562). Thomson run a variety of other cruise ships to suit all tastes.

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