Coming Ashore For A Day on Lesbos
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Monday, September 22, 2014
Today was our first day of shoreside exploration here onboard Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ EUROPA 2 as we tendered ashore in Mytiline, Greece for a morning of exploration with the Lesbos Tourism Association. This was, of course, after another stunning breakfast taken out on the stern terrace of The Yacht Club on Deck 9.
So, let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Mytiline is the capital and largest city on the island of Lesbos, which is actually located nearer to the Turkish coast than to the Greek mainland. Of course, those who live on Lesbos – regardless of sex – are referred to as Lesbians. The term ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island and 6th century poet Sappho, who was born around 630 BCE. Her writings detailed her admiration for the female sex (not to mention female independence, which was likewise pretty taboo at the time), and the term stuck as a way to describe either independent women, or simply women who like women. I’m paraphrasing through centuries of history, of course, but that’s more or less how it went. It’s a terminology that has been so problematic for the people of Lesbos that they considered renaming the entire island in 2008. Frankly, the situation hasn’t been helped by North Americans like myself who, despite all my best efforts and attempts at professionalism, are hopelessly unable to suppress a stupid smile – particularly when our tour guide informed us that “Lesbians have more fun.”
Terminology nnn and giggles quashed, one of the most interesting places we visited in Mytilene was the Castle of Mytilene, which dates back to the Byzantine period. The current castle, which was constructed around the 6th Century, may have even been built atop another, even older castle. It’s conveniently situated on the hillside looking over both the north and south harbours of the city. The north harbour was historically used for trade, while the south harbour – which now boasts ferry docks and tender piers – was formerly used by military only.
To me, fall is the perfect time to visit Mytilene. I can’t imagine coming here during the heat of July; temperatures soared during our visit to the Castle to 27°C (80 Fahrenheit), and there is precious little shade at the castle.
One interesting part of the castle were the ancient baths, located deep underground and still filled with water to this day. Descending below the surface, the temperature dropped a good ten degrees. No doubt this was where any and all important business was conducted in the middle ages, as being topside during the summer months would have baked even the hearty ancient Greeks to a crisp. If the stone walls surrounding these baths could talk, I’m sure they’d have a story or two to tell.
Driving south from Mytilene, we also visited the Taxiarches Church between Varia and Neapoli. What looks like “just another” Greek Orthodox Church from the outside is actually most impressive on the inside, with its rows of circular, multicolored windows. The sun shines through these vibrantly-coloured windows and bathes the otherwise dull and sombre interior in swaths of brilliant light. It seems almost parody-like; a juxtaposition of fun and energy that might be found in a nightclub instead of a place of worship.
Afterwards, we headed for lunch at the Hotel Heliotrope, located just north of Mytilene International Airport. Of course, in North America it would just be “lunch.” In Greece, lunch – like most meals – is a cause for ouzo-soaked celebration, good conversation, and fantastic food. I must be part Greek somehow; the food in Greece is, without exception, out-of-this-world good, and the veritable feast we enjoyed at the Hotel Heliotrope did not disappoint.
Of course, we also had the local Ouzo, which should be served cold and mixed with equal parts water to create a drink that is cloudy in appearance. I quite like the stuff, but be warned: it has a taste similar to that of black licorice. If you like black licorice, you’ll love ouzo!
After about two hours’ worth of lunch, we rolled back to our mini-bus, and the mini-bus rolled us back to the pier and our tender to the EUROPA 2, still resting beautifully at anchor in the blue swaths of the Aegean Sea.
When we got back onboard, it was Waffle Time – literally. Freshly-made Belgian Waffles and Ice Cream are served each day on the aft port side of the Pool Deck from 3p.m. to 4p.m. Still stuffed, I couldn’t bring myself to try one – but a fellow writer from Belgium took up the task, proclaiming the waffles “pretty close” to what she can get in Brussels. She said they’re 90 percent there, but recommended the batter should be prepared with beer instead as it creates a fluffier texture. I’d say that’s a pretty good idea!
Shortly after, we had the opportunity to visit Captain van Zwamen on the spacious navigation bridge of EUROPA 2 for our departure from Mytilene. While many cruise ships restrict guests from visiting the bridge, Hapag-Lloyd allows passengers to visit the Navigation Bridge if conditions permit, typically once per cruise.
The bridge is a spectacle of engineering; there were even a few things there that truly surprised me even after a number of bridge visits on other ships: propulsion could be controlled via touch-screens on the center console, eliminating the need for physical engine room “telegraph” style levers (though these are present as a backup, and duplicated on the bridge wings.)
As the anchor was being raised, it couldn’t even be heard or felt from the bridge; a digital readout tracked the chain’s progress as it made its way up the starboard side of the bow, and the Chief Officer relayed via walkie-talkie with a deckhand who was physically leaning out over the side, watching its ascent.
Satisfied the anchor was locked and in position, EUROPA 2’s engines were brought online, and her two Azipod propellers slowly began to turn. Azipod propulsion consists of two huge “outboard motor” style propellers that can rotate, or azimuth, 360 degrees. This eliminates the need for conventional rudder systems, and gives EUROPA 2 greater maneuverability. Rather than facing astern, these podded propellers face the bow of the ship, literally pulling rather than pushing her through the water.
EUROPA 2 was also built with open bridge wings; a rare element on modern cruise ships, where the wings are typically fully enclosed by glass to protect Officers from adverse weather. According to Captain van Zwamen, this is by design – and how the Officers aboard EUROPA 2 prefer it. With exposed bridge wings, the Officers can feel the wind, better gauge its strength, and see the current weather conditions firsthand, be it rain, fog, mist, or otherwise.
Watching the center console, a computer graphic showing the azipod propulsion motors at the stern began to animate, as the technical data showing their revolutions per minute began to climb. Our speed increased from 0.2 knots to 1.3 knots to 3 knots and continued slowly marching upward, bound for 16 knots. At the same time, EUROPA 2’s throaty whistles were sounded from the port side bridge wing –three blasts of five seconds apiece to herald our departure.
With the sounding of the whistles came another auditory experience: the song “We Are the Sun”, which plays over the public address system on the open decks during departure. Performed by Sugar Candy Mountain, this song was created specifically for EUROPA 2. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, particularly when you’re watching departure – and sunset – from the port side bridge wing!
Impressively, the day aboard EUROPA 2 was far from over. Tonight, we dined in Elements Restaurant, which took us on a spectacular culinary journey through Asia. Starters, mains and desserts hail from countries like Thailand, India, Indonesia and Japan, and are labeled as such on the menus. It’s almost like travelling to Asia without ever leaving the ship.
I feel as though I am running out of superlatives to describe the food onboard, so let’s just say this: it was all very, very, very good.
Tonight was also EUROPA 2’s Pool Party Under the Stars that began from 10p.m. onward. I’ve seen a lot of shipboard pool parties in my time, but I’ve never seen one like this. Live music and complimentary drinks that flowed like rivers. The champagne bill alone must have been through the roof, but this evening, no guests have to pay for any drinks. Just order, or grab and go.
It was also shockingly-well attended given the late hour. The dance floor didn’t begin to taper off until well after midnight, at which point the crowds moved down one deck to Sansibar, where the music and the dancing continued.
I like pool parties on ships, but for different reasons than you might think. I’m a terrible dancer, so I rarely if ever do it. But I do enjoy a good drink, and I do enjoy watching people enjoy themselves, and that’s exactly what happened here tonight, under the open skies and the dancing of EUROPA 2’s dress lights that gently swung high above us in the warm evening breeze.
Tonight’s deck party was made all the more interesting by EUROPA 2’s international clientele. People have come from all over the world, for various reasons, to be on this ship, and now here they all are, enjoying life for this single moment in time. No one’s worried about jobs, or bills, or kids, or health, or ISIS, or the myriad of ways the world seems ready to fall on its collective sword and commit Seppuku.
Instead, for just one moment – a few brief, fleeting hours – the worries of the world aren’t present here. Only laughter and music can be heard as EUROPA 2 slowly, gracefully, sails into the night.
Our Live Voyage Report onboard Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ EUROPA 2 continues tomorrow as we arrive in Volos, Greece! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
Follow along with our entire journey!
Europa 2, Greece to Turkey
|Friday, September 19, 2014||Istanbul, Turkey||International Flight to Turkey; embark EUROPA 2; evening touring Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia||Overnight onboard ship in Istanbul|
|Saturday, September 20||Istanbul, Turkey||Overnight; official start of Voyage.||24:00|
|Sunday, September 21||Cruising the Dardanelles Strait|
|Monday, September 22||Mitilini /Lesbos, Greece||04:00||18:00|
|Tuesday, September 23||Volos, Greece||07:00||17:30|
|Wednesday, September 24||Kusadasi, Turkey; Izmir, Turkey||Disembark EUROPA 2; afternoon touring||Overnight stay in Izmir, Turkey; onward journey.|