What it’s like to go on an epic odyssey to Greece and Turkey: Ancient wonders and Mediterranean food

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An adventure to faraway lands might just be the spark you need to rediscover the joys of exploring the world after two years of pandemic languishing.

What it’s like to go on an epic odyssey to Greece and Turkey: Ancient wonders and Mediterranean food

Sunset in Istanbul. (Photo: iStock)

Thousands of years on and the Greek gods have not lost their sense of mischief. There I was finally, standing in the shadow of the ancient Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, but my inexplicably morose guide did not seem to feel the same sense of wonder that I did.

He droned on tonelessly as the excited masses swarmed around us. Then, spiel abruptly completed, he made a motion to leave, unconcerned that we (obviously) wanted time to take some photographs.

Under the shadow of the Parthenon (the less-picturesque side). (Photo: Karen Tee)

Fuming via Whatsapp to a friend, I received a wise response: “Do not let a stranger steal your moment there.”

It was exactly the reminder I needed that when travelling, things will somehow go wrong but you just need to roll with it. So, I bargained for a precious 10 minutes of free and easy time and spent every second taking in as much as I could, from the majestic columns of the Parthenon to the magnificent caryatids – sculpted female figures that serve as an architectural support in place of a pillar – on the Erechtheion temple.

Erechtheion temple at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Photo: Karen Tee)

And just like that, what I will remember most fondly is experiencing that sense of grandeur at being in a place that has endured for millennia and withstood wars and invasions.

After riding out the pandemic in ultra-organised Singapore and only travelling to familiar regional destinations when restrictions were relaxed earlier this year, I knew it was time for a shift in perspective.

In September, I finally committed to an extended two-week trip to Greece and Turkey, which I had chosen for their abundance of cultural and historical sites as a change from the Little Red Dot’s modern attractions.

The Odeon at the Acropolis with a view of Athens. (Photo: Karen Tee)

As a solo traveller, I arranged for independent stays in the capital cities of Athens and Istanbul where I could rely on public transport and Uber to get around efficiently.

In Athens, staying around the old town Plaka district or one of the chic boutique hotels in the adjacent Psyrri district will situate you within walking distance of many of the major sights and buzzy F&B establishments in the city centre.

Over in Istanbul, I enjoyed my stay at the W Istanbul Hotel, which is located along a stretch of beautifully restored historic houses that have been converted into trendy restaurants, cafes and art galleries. It is also within walking distance to the vibrant district of Besiktas, known for its popular fish market, local restaurants and lively bazaar for bargain hunters. Plus, just a 10-minute Uber ride away is the very hip shopping district of Nisantasi, where the usual luxury marques are lined up alongside local Turkish designer stores such as multi-label boutiques Gizia and Openhaus.

But I also wanted to roam further afield to fascinating destinations that had long been on my bucket list, such as Ephseus in Turkey and Philippi in Greece.

So, to eliminate the hassle of navigating inter-city transfers and having to pack my luggage every other day, I chose to travel via a “floating hotel” – the cruise ship Regent Seven Seas Explorer. Incidentally, the ship will be making its maiden voyage to Asia Pacific in December. 

Besides the logistical advantages that a cruise offers, I quickly grew accustomed to the perks that luxury cruisers have long waxed lyrical about, such as gourmet meals at specialty restaurants on board, an indulgent suite with a dedicated steward for personalised service and especially, a convivial atmosphere that made it easy to socialise and network since I was on my own.

But most of all, the cruise line’s curated range of excursions at every port of call as it criss-crossed the Aegean Sea made it particularly effortless to explore each destination sans hit-and-miss effect of picking a random tour or showing up with just a guidebook in hand.

Library of Celsus at Ephesus. (Photo: Karen Tee)

For instance, I spent an exceptional day at the ancient port city of Ephesus, once the most important trade city in the eastern Mediterranean. Located about 30 minutes from Kusadasi, Turkey, we took a fascinating deep dive into the daily lives of the people who used to live there, thanks to the presence of a historian on our tour.

He had worked on the excavation of Ephesus’ terrace houses, the equivalent to today’s luxury villas, and offered an insider’s perspective into the details that brought the space to life for us daytrippers.

Mosaics in the terrace houses at Ephesus. (Photo: Karen Tee)

Just like modern society, the wealthy ancients lived large and enjoyed the most lavish luxuries of their time, which included homes decorated with intricate mosaics and frescoes as well as plumbing and hot water. Meanwhile the plebeians had to make do with public baths and lavatories. Tip: Those old marble public latrines still exist and make for a humorous photo op.

On other days, I checked out lesser known (read: not so crowded) but equally historically significant destinations that I might not have even made it to otherwise. At Philippi in Kavala, Greece, which is named after Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, the remains of Via Egnatia, the road that connected Constantinople to Rome can still be seen, hinting perhaps at how the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” came into being.

The theatre at Perge. (Photo: Karen Tee)

Then in Perge, a remarkably well-preserved ancient city located just a short drive from the Turkish Riviera town of Antalya. From an ancient theatre and stadium to an especially intricate Roman thermal bath and an impressive colonnaded courtyard – the equivalent to today’s shopping arcades – one can practically imagine it bustling with life and activity many thousands of years ago.

When it is time for a break from viewing “crumbling rocks”, plenty of modern adventures beckon. For an insight into how historical tensions continue to impact the lives of people, pay a visit to Nicosia, the capital city of the island of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974 with Greek Cyprus to the south and Turkish Cyprus to the north.

The checkpoint between Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus. (Photo: Karen Tee)

Bring along your passport to cross the checkpoint located on the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare Ledra Street from the south to the north, where international shops and brands like Starbucks on the Greek Cypriot side give way to a distinct bazaar atmosphere on the Turkish Cypriot north. It was for me sobering yet fascinating to experience in person what it is like to be in a country that has been torn asunder by age old grudges.

And if there is something that can bridge cultures and forge friendships, sharing a meal would undoubtedly be it. Back in Greece, on the underrated island of Crete, I signed up for a chef-led gourmet explorer tour by chef instructor John Stephano of the Seven Seas Explorer’s Culinary Arts Kitchen.

Shopping for herbs in Crete. (Photo: Karen Tee)

What is lesser known about this traditionally agricultural region, is that its denizens are among the healthiest and longest living people on the planet, possibly due to their wholesome take on the Mediterranean diet which mostly comprises fresh locally grown produce and generous amounts of olive oil.

On our food tour, in an attempt to gain an insight into the secrets of longevity, we meander through a local marketplace to buy fragrant, fresh figs, aromatic spices and fresh pressed olive oil, sample local pastries and finally end up at a farm-to-table restaurant for a shared meal.

There, we were treated to course after course of some of the most flavourful Mediterranean fare that I have ever tasted, from a bright pink beetroot yoghurt dip to a Greek salad made with fresh vine-picked heirloom tomatoes.

The piece de resistance, a one pot chicken and rice dish based on a recipe that had belonged to the owner’s family for generations, was so imbued with both flavour and tradition that our table fell silent as we feasted.

It was at some point during that convivial meal among a group of travellers who were mostly strangers just a few hours earlier but had since become fast friends that an epiphany struck.

Perhaps the secret to longevity lies not just in adhering to a Mediterranean diet, but in the lifestyle that comes along with it. It is an almost alchemical blend of staying active combined with taking time to enjoy life’s pleasures such as good company and excellent conversation.

I’ll certainly toast to that, with Greek wine, of course.

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