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Cruising the Mediterranean: A Modern Odyssey

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Photo: Andrea Wyner

In the end, we never got to Ithaca—never followed “in the wake of Odysseus,” as the brochure for the cruise had promised; at least, not all the way to this most famous of literary destinations, Ithaca (Itháki in modern Greek), the small and rocky island of which Homer sings, and where Odysseus had his famously gratifying homecoming. We saw much that he had seen: Troy, where his war ended and his wanderings began; Malta, where he was imprisoned by the nymph Calypso for seven years; Sicily, where his sailors were devoured by Scylla; the Neapolitan coast, which the ancients believed was close to the entrance to the underworld. But Ithaca turned out to be unattainable. For the hero of legend, that island was the culminating adventure; for us, on our Mediterranean cruise, there were just the inconveniences of modern politics—in this case, a strike that forced us to make a mad nighttime dash for Athens to catch our flights home.

But we weren’t at all disappointed, those of us who’d signed up for “Journey of Odysseus: Retracing the Odyssey through the Ancient Mediterranean,” one of several history- and literature-themed voyages run by Travel Dynamics International, a small-ship cruise operator. The opening lines of The Odyssey, after all, describe Odysseus as someone curiously like us—he’s the first tourist, the first person in either legend or recorded history who traveled because he thought the world was interesting, because he wanted to “know the minds and see the cities of many men,” as the poem puts it. So did we; and for a brief period, we felt a bit like our hero—for the 10 days we sailed, one day for each of the years he had to travel before he got to the home we never managed to see.

I was on this Mediterranean cruise less for myself than for my father. As a classicist, I have read and taught The Odyssey many times, and have been to many of these sites before, but my dad hadn’t. Now in his eighties, a retired research scientist—a man more comfortable with numbers than with literature, I had always thought—he decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to read the Greek classics, to know what I’ve spent much of my own career reading and writing about. And so, he’s been studying his Homer. (He even took my Odyssey seminar, enlivening the class with his irreverent comments: “Hero? How can Odysseus be a hero when he cheats on his wife and lies so much?!”) When I saw an advertisement for “Journey of Odysseus,” it seemed ideal—a perfect way to introduce him to the landscapes, the weather, the flavors of the eastern Mediterranean, none of which has changed much since Homer first sang his songs.

But I wanted him to have more than just a pleasant vacation. I’d been a guest lecturer about 10 years ago on a Travel Dynamics cruise of the eastern Aegean, and had been impressed by the intellectual seriousness of the undertaking. For one thing, the tours are often conducted by the archaeologists excavating the historical sites, a privilege not available to the average tourist. Our cruise on the intimate, 57-suite Corinthian II would include daily excursions to archaeological sites in Troy, Pylos, Malta, and Sicily, as well as a full program of onboard lectures every day—often two in a day—given by scholars of classical antiquity and archaeologists.

And then there was the homework. The hefty pre-embarkation packet came complete with a reading list that suggested six “essential” texts—The Odyssey, of course, but also Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi and Moses Finley’s classic The World of Odysseus—and 15 “recommended” texts. Very soon after we set sail from Athens to our first stop, Çanakkale, in northwestern Turkey—the modern-day site of Troy—a nice rhythm established itself, of morning excursions, a leisurely lunch back on the ship on the aft sundeck, and then a lecture or two. Then there would be cocktails and dinner. It was like a very opulent graduate seminar—rich, but also rigorous.

I didn’t really understand how committed our little group of about 80 or so passengers was until one day at lunchtime, when I turned to the youngster standing next to me at the buffet—a serious-looking boy of about 10 whom I’d noticed traveling with what looked like three generations of his family. I jokingly asked what he thought of Robert Fagles’s rendering of The Odyssey, one of our “required” texts. He leveled a cool glance at me. “It’s very good, although it was pretty clear that Homer needed an editor,” the boy, whose name was Robert, replied. I didn’t dare admit that I myself had neglected to do my homework.

We began, of course, in Troy—the city where The Iliad ends, and where Odysseus’s homeward-bound adventures begin. Troy is not the name that the Greeks gave to the city where the greatest war of myth was fought; they called it Ilion, a word ultimately derived from the ancient Hittite name Wilusa. (Iliad just means “a song about Ilion.”) Homer calls the city “windy,” and it is windy still. On the day we visited, there was, despite the summer heat, a faint, steady breeze, coming from somewhere you couldn’t quite identify, just enough to persuade the spiky acanthus plants to wave their hostile leaves in your direction or the thronging wildflowers to nod their heavy heads. It’s a large, meandering site, and most of what there is to look at—once you get past the pier, which has inherited the giant Trojan horse constructed for the movie Troy—is walls: the remains of what were, in fact, nine successive settlements on the site, a seemingly endless series of massive accumulations of stone, from whose crevices little yellow flowers poke out. Brian Rose, the improbably boyish University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who was one of the cruise leaders and who’s been working at the site since 1988, led us around. He explained to the rapt gaggle of shipmates how the dogleg layout of the walls may have been meant to foil invaders. It seemed pretty good at holding tourists back, too: Troy never feels as crowded as, say, Pompeii, which we later visited.

Rose specializes in Troy’s post–Bronze Age history, and he reminded us that the area was a major tourist attraction in ancient times; wandering around gawking at the famous walls is something people have been doing since the time of the Persian king Xerxes (480 B.C.). Alexander the Great visited, en route to conquering Asia. (He slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow.) That thought—the idea that you, as a tourist, aren’t somehow desecrating an ancient site by visiting it, but joining its long history—together with the whispering of that never-dying breeze, makes the place feel alive with ghosts. Unquiet ghosts, to be sure: across the strait from Çanakkale is Gallipoli. As we first sailed up the strait, Gallipoli on our left—with its heart-wrenching monument to the Australian and Kiwi World War I dead—and Troy on our right, my dad (who has always had more respect for The Iliad than The Odyssey) shook his head and said, “Twenty-five hundred years, and it’s still the same story.”

A few days later, after some bad weather had forced us into an un-Odyssean but delicious daylong detour on the Cycladic island of Syros—the capital of the Cyclades, it now seems to spend all of its time posing for postcards, with its little white houses as crisp as newly folded laundry and harbor bristling with masts—we landed at Pylos, at one of the southernmost tips of the Peloponnese, the legendary stronghold of Homer’s King Nestor. Already an old man in The Iliad and very ancient indeed in The Odyssey, Nestor is the hero who enjoys regaling the younger warriors with his tales of how much stronger heroes were in his day.

Pylos isn’t far from Kalamata: when you arrive at the site known as Nestor’s Palace, the landscape shimmers with silver-green olive leaves. The palace is a Mycenaean structure consisting, now, of little more than some thigh-high foundations and an occasional column-base to suggest what the architecture had been. But every now and then, something extraordinary will pop out at you, an object that draws you right into Homer’s world. It was here we saw the richly carved, nearly intact bathtub that sits at one end of the palace enclosure and is decorated with an undulating pattern of large whorls.

Clustered around this stolid household fixture that had so improbably survived, our little group nodded in eager recognition, remembering the scene in which Odysseus’s son is given a bath during a visit to Nestor’s Palace, where he goes seeking news of his long-lost father. One of our fellow cruisers also recalled another famous bathtub moment in The Odyssey: the scene in which Odysseus, having made his way back to his own palace disguised as a filthy beggar, is recognized by the old slave-woman who’s bathing him after she notices a telltale scar on his leg—a scar that, like pretty much everything in The Odyssey, has a story of its own. Clearly, people were doing their homework and enjoying it.

Pylos is typical of the places you encounter on a cruise like this one, where every site has innumerable strata of history; we were always encouraged to explore these post-Homeric layers. Far grander than Nestor’s Palace at Pylos, for instance, is the nearby fortress of Methoni, a relic of the Venetians’ ownership of much of Greece during the Middle Ages: its gargantuan stone walls are studded with carvings of the Lion of St. Mark. I noticed my 10-year-old friend and his grandparents strolling through the silver-gray artemisia, wild with yellow blossoms, that grows riotously among the crumbling arches.

Sometimes, a site would convey not so much this or that era in history, but merely the enormity of time itself. Not far from Nestor’s Palace is a Mycenaean “beehive” tomb. Given the blazing sun, many of us practically ran to the black opening at the base of what does indeed look like a giant domed hive. But once you’re inside, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: a dank and perfect stillness suggests what 30 centuries of being dead might feel like. When we emerged, we were grateful for the whiff of red currants in the air. They grow wild all around the tomb.

Indeed, I kept worrying secretly that the very richness of these sites and the immensity of their histories threatened, rather pleasantly, to distract us from our Homeric focus at times—although it occurred to me that such distraction was itself very Odyssean. The greatest threat to his homecoming is the pleasure and interest and beauty of so much of what he encounters on his journey: fascinating new cultures; opulent riches; amorous nymphs. The claustrophobia-inducing little grotto on Gozo that has been identified as Calypso’s cave—at least since the era of the Grand Tour, when local guides wooed gullible northern Europeans (“Looks a little phony,” my dad said, casting an anxious eye down the lumpy, narrow steps)—is certainly picturesque, but can’t possibly compete, for sheer jaw-dropping impact, with the enormous, Stonehenge-like, Neolithic temples nearby. “I know this isn’t what we came for,” a smartly dressed businesswoman from California—whose tender care of her frail but sprightly father had made her a favorite among the other passengers—turned to me and said as we examined some 19th-century graffiti, as insubstantial as chicken scratches on the man-size stones. “But as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth the whole trip.”

Unlike some college students, grown-up readers of The Odyssey on Mediterranean cruises like ours aren’t fulfilling an “area requirement”; their enthusiasm was palpable, and created an infectious shipboard bonhomie. One morning, during yet another lavish breakfast outside on the afterdeck—the coffee cups gleaming white in the Mediterranean sun, the teak tables shaded by blue canvas awnings—my father and I got to talking with a couple from California. In one of those improbable coincidences that somehow characterizes everything to do with The Odyssey, the husband had been the CEO of the company my dad had spent most of his life working for. “We’re having the greatest conversations we’ve ever had,” the husband declared about the cruise. Evenings after dinner, a group (including the dutiful daughter from California, after she had put her dad to bed) would gather in the lounge for drinks. My dad highly approved of the pianist’s penchant for Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart; on some nights, Elena Myasoedova, the cruise manager, and Rose gave impromptu folk music concerts—congenial sessions that would last late into the night. It was on one of these evenings, as the pianist played Cole Porter, that Rose told us how he’d trained GI’s fighting in Iraq to recognize and, if possible, to avoid disturbing potentially important archaeological sites. “If you see a gentle mound, it’s an archaeological site—there are no natural hills in southern Iraq.”

After a few days’ sailing, we reached the Sicilian coast, the cone of Mount Etna hazily beckoning in the distance, as symmetrical and ethereal as something on a Japanese print. Whatever claims this stretch of coast may have as the mythical home of the huge, cannibalistic Laestrygonians who terrorized Odysseus and his crew, it’s the doggedly optimistic symmetries of the Doric temple at Segesta, which was begun three centuries after Homer composed his poems and has sat on a little hilltop ever since, quietly asserting the values of order and aesthetic calm through two and a half millennia of war and destruction and renewal, that I remember best from the ship’s stop on the coast near Erice.

As Homer knew well, the danger of a great odyssey is that, like the Lotus-Eaters, you can be so distracted by incidental pleasures that you forget your destination and purpose. One afternoon after our visit to Segesta, I bumped into my young friend Robert in the ship’s library, and offered to split some of the sugary pastries I’d bought ashore. While he was happily munching, I couldn’t help noticing what he’d written on his iPad about Odysseus: “He makes many stupid mistakes that get him in trouble.”

But maybe it doesn’t matter how closely you follow in Odysseus’s footsteps, in the end. More than anything, The Odyssey is a story about stories—stories about Odysseus, so long missing in action; stories that Odysseus hears; stories that, often to save his skin, he tells; stories that we all tell about ourselves, often without knowing it: the canny businesswoman who becomes a little girl again with her dad, the family whose Mediterranean reunion seeks to palliate a recent loss, the scientist who sits breakfasting pleasantly with the executive who dismantled the company to which he gave his life.

And then there was the story that I couldn’t have made up if I were writing a novel instead of a travel article. One day, while I was sunbathing, I noticed that the elderly gentleman next to me had quite a scar on his leg; when he noticed me noticing it, he smiled. “There’s a story to that scar,” he said; I settled in to listen. The scar, he began, was why he was on the cruise. He was Dutch, and during the final, most dreadful winter of World War II, when he was a teenager and people in Holland were eating tulip bulbs to stay alive, he went out, weak and underfed as he was, to chop some wood; unable to wield the heavy axe properly, he ended up swinging it into his own leg. For weeks he hovered near death. What saved him was The Odyssey. A family friend who was a professor of Greek would come every day and, to distract the teenager from his pain, would teach him bits of Greek and recite passages from Homer’s epic of wonder and pain. “I can still recite parts of it in Greek!” he exclaimed; and did just that, right there on the deck of the Corinthian II, nearly seven decades later. He grew quiet and said, “I made a vow that, before I died, I would see what Odysseus saw.”

The stories we tell! This was why, when the captain announced that the Corinth Canal had been closed by disgruntled strikers, and that we’d therefore have to skip Ithaca—skip Ithaca!—in order to get back to Athens in time for our flights, I don’t think anyone really minded. For Ithaca—as the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy writes in his famous poem by that name—represents the gift of a “beautiful journey.” If the island itself disappoints, you’re still “rich with all you’ve gotten on the way.”

Travel Dynamics International; 800/257-5767; traveldynamicsinternational.com; 12-day Journey of Odysseus Mediterranean cruise from $7,995 per person.

Contributing editor Daniel Mendelsohn is an award-winning author, critic, and translator. His two-volume translation of C. P. Cafavy’s poems will be published this May in paperback.

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