Star Clipper: Sail through the centuries

WE TEND to think of the Mediterranean as a small sea, almost a lake. But, when you’re actually on  it, you find it is  a pretty big place.

From Gibraltar to Sicily, Alexandria to Dubrovnik, it spans three continents and many countries and cultures.

It can turn fierce, sink ships and pummel shores. Or, in its more usual calm mood, it can be one of the most idyllic places on Earth.

When you’re voyaging through the Med at its most peaceful, you think yourself blessed by the gods, as the seafarers of Greek legend believed.

Sailing from Istanbul to Athens on one of the world’s most glamorous tall ships, the Star Flyer, you think yourself doubly blessed.

Built in tribute to the romantic clipper ships that heralded the last, glorious days of sail, the Flyer, part of the Star Clippers fleet, takes about 170 passengers and a high ratio of crew in as much comfort as the tight space on board can allow.

The chefs work miracles in their miniature galley, while cabins are cosy, rather than luxurious. However, in such a ship, and in such surroundings, you spend all your waking hours on deck.

After the bustle of the Grand Bazaar and the awesome mosques of Istanbul, who is going to be below deck when you sail out of the Bosphorus at sunset?

This is one of the world’s great shipping passages, spanned by two mighty bridges linking Europe and Asia, criss-crossed by ferries bringing continents together.

Clipper passengers lend a hand to raise the mighty spread of canvas (one of the sails is the biggest in the world) knowing that they are the envy of those on the bustling work-boats.

In the morning, we wake to a passage through the Dardanelles, the Gallipoli monument dominating a headland.

Munching toast and drinking orange juice, we can only imagine the horrors faced by those who fought and died in the mud when British and Turkish imperial ambitions clashed in World War I.

The passing of a mighty empire is also the theme of our first stop, Dikili, which is the gateway to Bergama.

This ancient city, once known as Pergamum (or Pergamon), was famous for its library holding 200,000 volumes which Mark Antony was said to have later given to Cleopatra as a wedding present.

You can walk through the ancient pioneering medical centre or stand above the terraces of a wonderful theatre cut into the hillside.

Even more impressive is our next stop: Ephesus, whose Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

St Paul preached to the Ephesians here and it’s not hard to imagine yourself back in that time, so well preserved are certain corners of the city.

Again, the 25,000-seat Roman amphitheatre impresses, though the chance to sit on a Roman toilet seems the most popular photo opportunity.

Back on board, it’s time to turn our attention away from Turkish ruins and towards the charms of the Greek islands of Patmos, Delos and Mykonos.

Patmos leaves the biggest impression, with its Monastery of St John dominating the island like a fortress.

Patmos is where John the Theologian wrote the controversial Book of Revelation.

The long, hot walk to the monastery’s mountaintop setting is a chance to stretch your legs after the confines of the ship.

Inside the thick walls, it’s cool and quiet, the noisy mopeds and throbbing tourist buses banished by an oasis of prayers, incense and intense beauty.

Gold-heavy icons and a tiny chapel, a treasury of carved wood, overseen by a few priests in long black robes, bring a few moments of peace.

And then, too soon, there’s our final port of call: Athens, with its Acropolis and shady squares to explore.

From the Parthenon, we can just see the sails of the Clipper shining white in the Greek sun, our voyage through history already seeming like another era.

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