After an epic pandemic, an odyssey in the Aegean

Alex Pulaski

THE WASHINGTON POST – Heroes of Greek mythology, as we learned from poets and scribes and elementary school teachers, rarely had an easy trip.

A passel of indifferent, often merciless deities often stood ready with some cruel complication: Daedalus flew from one trap only to see his son Icarus perish when his wax wings melted. After Troy fell, Odysseus battled ill winds and monsters for another 10 years to get home, where even more threats waited.

As my wife, Mica, and I set sail June 26 from Piraeus aboard Windstar Cruises’ 148-passenger Wind Star, I couldn’t help but wonder how reality would bear up against the mythic Greece of my boyhood imaginings. We were sailing into the pandemic’s wine-dark uncertainties: Greece re-opened to many foreign visitors only in mid-May, and after a worldwide cruise moratorium, Wind Star was among the first passenger vessels returning to sea.

Some things we did know, and others quickly became apparent. We had to provide proof of vaccination, as did the other passengers and crew. We would be asked to wear masks at times aboard ship and on land. We would have to fill out a lot of forms and pass multiple coronavirus tests to fly, sail and arrive home without delay.

The Fates meddled a bit and concocted a late reminder in our week-long cruise (take note, Achilles) that no protection is foolproof. More on that later. In the meantime, think of wind and waves, hot sun and the Aegean Sea’s cool, salty, brilliant blue-green water.

Colourful fishing boats tied up in the Mykonos harbour. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Acropolis dominates the landscape in downtown Athens

Conjure the scent of basil leaves, baking bread and jasmine blossoms. The sight of ancient fortresses, kings’ tombs and purple bougainvillea set against whitewashed walls. Think of 2,000-year-old pottery shards crunching underfoot – the ceaseless sound of marching history.

Remember, as I do, the forced separations and varying degrees of isolation we’ve experienced over the past 18 months. For all of its splendid accomplishments, Greece has been left with an economy as much in ruins as, well, its ruins. Tourism, along with shipping, is an economic pillar, and locals are eager to welcome visitors back.

“A year ago in May I walked through (Mykonos), and it was so empty I could hear the sea,” tour guide Amaryllis Grypari told me. “That never happens. Now, we’re hoping.”

Delos, the tiny island near Mykonos where Grypari guided us, was a renowned tourist destination in its heyday – roughly 2,500 years ago. The mythological birthplace of Apollo and Artemis thrummed with commerce and drew visitors to worship at its temples.

Now it’s a jumble of stones, scattered marble and pottery shards. But fascinating, nevertheless, to connect the dots from abandoned beliefs and civilizations to the surviving proofs of beauty and sophistication: graceful mosaic floors, marble columns, statues and efficient systems to trap rain and transport water.

After we booked this cruise in May, we also arranged daily Windstar shore excursions, which carry an extra cost (generally about USD100 to USD150 per person). We had two reasons. The first was that coronavirus rules in place then (since dropped) specified that to keep passengers in a bubble, only those on organised shore excursions would be allowed to disembark in ports.

Even with that requirement removed, we had a second reason. As this was our first trip to Greece, we sought the benefit of guides to help separate myths from reality, or maybe conjoin them.

Others who had visited these islands before were looking for freedom to roam on their own. Melanie McTiernan Norbut and husband Michael Norbut, of Linden, New Jersey, told me that they had sailed through Greece with Windstar 20-odd years before.

“We wanted to be able to stroll into town, not bubble,” she said.

“After a year and a half, six-foot distancing is second nature. We just wanted to go somewhere. We’re 67 years old, and we have our vaccinations – what are we waiting for?

“For us it wasn’t so important that we do, do, do. Greece is so beautiful, and for us it was a chance to enjoy the familiar,” she said.

All was new and glorious to the two of us, however: the Acropolis lit up at night, or the ruins and neighbouring red beach of Akrotiri on Santorini. .

And simple things, like a grandmother inviting inside to see her home on Syros, or sifting through the magical creations of Kostas Boukouras on Patmos. He transforms castoff textile machinery like bobbins into sailing ships and bottle openers at his shop, Talanto.

Everywhere, we were welcomed in English, nearly always by dutifully masked shopkeepers (Greece lifted its outdoor mask mandate June 24 but kept it in place for crowded spaces, including indoors).

In Monemvasia, the medieval fortress was built to repel invaders. Now it welcomes tourists to picturesque shops, as does the nearby Liotrivi organic farm.

There, Konstantina-Helen Natioti explained to us how olives are still hand-harvested and how until recent years they were processed by horse-drawn and hand-turned machinery. She then led us through a detailed exhibition of baking bread in a wood-fired oven.

After noting that the average Grecian consumes more than six gallons of olive oil annually, she demonstrated that the not-too-secret ingredient in their incredible bread is olive oil, in copious amounts.

“It’s in our culture,” Natioti explained.

Before we left, we arranged to ship home several litres of olive oil and various other items. For good measure, we signed up to “adopt” an olive tree for a year, which involves naming a tree and ultimately receiving its production: about five litres of extra virgin olive oil after harvest.

“Ladies and gentleman, the wind is against us,” the voice of Captain Belinda Bennett boomed over the ship’s public-address system as we departed our last port stop, Nafplio. “We cannot set the sails.”

Wind Star is a lovely four-masted sailing ship built in 1986 in Le Havre, France, and renovated in 2018. If conditions are just right, it can sail entirely through wind power, but mostly the ship relies on its engines.

The ship’s common areas, such as the lounge and main dining room, are timelessly elegant. We often sat outside on the teak decks in the shade; on this day, as the breeze brushed the sea’s surface, we watched the imposing Venetian fortresses guarding Nafplio’s harbour recede in the distance.

An hour later, the wind struck from an unexpected direction. After a festive early evening gathering around the pool, Bennett took the microphone in hand for an announcement.

“We have had a positive coronavirus test on board,” she said.

Bennett went on to explain that the individual and a companion (who tested negative) had been quarantined in their cabin and would continue to be isolated in an Athens hotel in succeeding days.

I spoke with the captain afterward, and she told me the positive test had showed up that day as part of testing guests could arrange on board in preparation to fly home (United States-bound air passengers, even if vaccinated, currently have to demonstrate a negative coronavirus test within three days of travel, or proof of recovery from COVID-19 within the previous three months).

A Windstar spokeswoman later confirmed that the individual in question had showed no symptoms and that other tests of passengers and all crew had come back negative.

“We are pleased that our Beyond Ordinary Care policies worked together to contain the case with zero transmission to other guests or crew,” Windstar’s director of public relations Sarah Scoltock said via e-mail. “We do believe this combination of practices creates layers of safety on board: testing, vaccination, enhanced cleaning practices, updated HVAC system with HEPA filters and UV-C lights, social distancing and masks.”

Unlike Odysseus, whose ship was blown off course by contrary winds unleashed by his crew’s curiosity, we experienced no lasting repercussions on our voyage from the positive coronavirus test. Neither our disembarkation nor the following cruise were delayed.

Earlier on that last port day, we had seen everything from the quaint charm of current-day Nafplio to the nearby ancient ruins of Mycenae. Our guide, Eva Andrikou, spun for us an abridged version of the bloody tale of King Agamemnon, his kin and comrades, as Homer describes in the Iliad.

Andrikou made it clear, however, that the lines between myth and history remain blurry at best. Was Homer chronicling real events? Was he blind? Did he even exist? No one can be sure.

“What we do know,” she said, pointing to the ruins around us, “is that if this acropolis did not exist, none of these stories would exist, either.”