Greece: Splendour among the ruins

Rod Emmerson

THE ancient city of Ephesus cuts a benchmark in the history of Greek and Roman civilisation.

Once a thriving port of 250,000 people, today it lies in well-preserved ruins, silted up and now 9km from the sea in the Izmir province of Turkey.

Like most Aegean and Mediterranean sites, its only occupants are cats.

Our ship, the Azamara Journey sits docked at its replacement port of Kusadasi, a 40-minute bus trip to the south. Gallipoli is 800km north.

For tourists and amateur historians, this is where you will find the best example of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine architecture. The Temple of Artemis, the Library of Celsus, the Basilica of St John and a cascading list of grand structures stand testament to the city's historical importance. To drop a few names, Alexander the Great, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the emperor Hadrian once strutted its streets.

For religious buffs, Ephesus is where the Seven Sleepers slept; it's one of the Seven Churches of Asia in the Book of Revelations; the Gospel of John is thought to have been written here; Paul wrote Corinthians 1 here and Mary, mother of Jesus, is said to have lived here until her Assumption.

Popes Benedict XVI, Paul VI and John Paul II have all made celebrated pilgrimages to the House of the Virgin Mary.

In recent years, concerts by Pavarotti, Sting, Elton John, Jose Carreras, and Diana Ross have been staged in the ancient 25,000-seat Grand Theatre. Collectively, it's a classic setting for what follows.

We've just found our seats high at the back of the former Bouleuterion, now Odeum (or former senate meeting amphitheatre and theatre) and the view is surreal. Not-so-distant ancient Roman columns spike the air and the rapidly setting sun is washing them in a soft lemon yellow.

Rod Emmerson

Centre-stage at the Odeum stands our ship's captain, Johannes Tysse, and he has a captive audience. The remarkable engineering in this small Roman amphitheatre takes immediate effect, as I can see and hear him as clear as a bell.

Dressed immaculately in full uniform, and with his refined Norwegian accent, he welcomes us to an exclusive two-part concert by the celebrated Camerata Izmir Orchestra which will perform pieces by Bach, Boccherini, Handel, Borodin, Mozart, Gardel and Brahms.

Tysse reminds us that this is only the second time they have conducted an event here. Before this you must go back more than 2000 years. He's preaching to the converted as this is no doubt the reason so many have joined this cruise.

Seated to my left is New Yorker Ed and his companion - both have been anticipating this event for some time. Combine this historic setting with a private classical performance and you have an experience Azamara passengers will dine on for years to come.

Among the applause, Bach's Air on the G String launches a truly memorable night. A treat followed the concert - the Izmir Arts Theatre provided us with a short montage of events that would have been the norm in this particular amphitheatre in its heyday. You need only to listen to the chatter back on our coach to realise this has been a resounding success.

But this is just one event that Azamara Club Cruises has up its sleeve. The goal is to provide passengers with a variety of lifetime experiences built around meticulously researched destinations and one-off experiences.

Captain Tysse openly admits they are given considerable elbow-room to experiment. He once sent crew members to retrieve a chunk of a large passing iceberg that was later crushed and served in cocktails.

The favourite that is still the talk of the cruise world was once stopping the ship to go fishing, to the delight of all passengers. The catch was later served in the ship's restaurants.

Another we experienced first-hand. While dining, in the various restaurants, the captain interrupted us on the ship's PA system to advise us that we were missing a superb Mediterranean sunset. He then suggested we remain seated while they put the ship through a slow 360 manoeuvre so the sunset would traverse the full complement of ship's windows.

I like his style and sense of Mills & Boon romance. This simple tactic was the equivalent of handing every woman on board a bunch of roses. It's all well-rehearsed and he is no doubt sitting on a black book brimming with ideas large and small, yet to massage the senses.

My advice? Sit back and enjoy an Azamazing journey.

Even better if Captain Johannes Tysse is at the helm.

Rod Emmerson travelled to Ephesus courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises and Cathay Pacific.

Topics:  cruise greece

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