November 27, 2014

From Here to Serenity

I see seas of green, Red bougainvillea, too.
I see pure white churches, with domes of blue
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue, houses of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think, “Mykonos: what a wonderful world.”
hellip;sung by Louis Armstrong,
shamelessly adapted by Karen T. Bartlett

My luxury cruise ship, crystal Serenity, is gliding away from the Greek isle of Mykonos, one of the prettiest islands in the ancient world. A violet sunset has begun to drape herself like a shawl over the shoulders of stacked marshmallow-cube houses, domed churches and whitewashed windmills. The throaty strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World drift from unseen speakers somewhere above my balcony.

Over the 12 days of my Byzantine Odyssey cruise, there will be seven such departings. In months to come, this song will have the power to transport me instantly back to the Greek cities of Mykonos, Athens, Rhodes and Corfu; to the romantic canals of Venice and glass fournos of Murano; to the Turkish bazaars and mosques of Old Constantinople (Istanbul) and other places steeped in antiquity.  

Just seven hours after I stepped onto Mykonos, its rocky silhouette is fading into the distance as we slip back into the Aegean Sea. Still, I’ve just fulfilled a lifelong fantasy, to pick my way through its labyrinth of narrow stone lanes and vernacular architecture dating back six centuries. It’s just as I imagined.

Mykonos is one of the Cyclades Islands, home of the mythical Greek god Apollo. Hercules and Poseidon, god of the seas, slew giants here, tradition says, and the colossal granite rocks that make up the island are their tombs. Everything on this sun-baked tropical isle is white. Clothing is white. Churches are white. Houses and tavernas, hotels and government buildings are white. Crimson-red and Aegean-blue are permissible, but only on shutters, doors, domes and wood trim.

My love affair begins at a weathered red fishing boat, obviously retired, sitting high and dry on a pile of granite rocks on the waterfront. Lettered on its side is “Babula’s Taverna,” a last, almost sad, chance at usefulness.

I’m so drawn toward a tiny white seaside chapel in the distance that I almost miss—in striped shirt, braided black cap, silver hair and all—a man who fit to a T the Authentic Greek Fisherman image. If this guy came right out of Central Casting, then the original settlement, called Little Venice because it hangs over the water, is the ideal movie set. Indeed, it has attracted its share of luminaries, including its most famous, Jacqueline Onassis.  

Because it’s still early, few tourists have arrived to clutter my fantasy. Pots bursting with geraniums line pristine staircases. Massive bougainvillea vines spill down walls. Some streets are so narrow that pedestrians must walk single file. A cook is peeling potatoes at the back door of the popular Nikos Taverna, and a lone pink pelican, well over 3 feet tall, struts between the still-empty tables of another taverna.

Am I seeing right? Yes, it’s a pelican. Definitely pink. A man with a little boy in tow laughs out loud at my exclamation of surprise. It seems that half a century ago, a local fisherman rescued an injured pink pelican on the rocks, named it Petros (meaning “rock”) and brought it home. For more than 30 years, Petros was the town pet. When it died tragically, the townspeople grieved so deeply that Jackie O and a zoo in Hamburg, Germany, each sent a young one to carry on the legacy. Irina, Petros II and another rescued stray called Nikolas roam freely around the ancient town.

I’m guessing my new friend this morning is Irina. After posing for a dozen or more photos, she aims a sassy peck at my camera, displays her formidable 8-foot wingspan, fluffs her feathers as only a girl can do, and turns her back on me.

I wend my way through the pretzel-maze of streets, designed to confuse the 18th century pirates who tormented the island. I’m sure I’m going in circles, but then I turn a corner, climb a hill and find myself facing a spectacular row of whitewashed windmills. At the crest of another hill is the dazzling stucco complex of the town’s most famous church, Panagia Paraportiani. It’s white on white, built on the stone ruins of the Kastro (castle) dating back to the 1400s, and the only spot of color comes from some blue pillows on a bench and a blue door that exactly matches the Aegean sea. This is what heaven must look like.

My plan was to check out remote Agios Ionnis, the beach where romantic scenes were filmed for the movie Shirley Valentine. But the next available island bus is headed for the famed, hedonistic Paradise Beach, party central among Greek beaches, so I hop aboard. Alas, there are no naked Greek gods to ogle, nobody yet dancing on the tables, and no sign of Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek) dancing in the sand. Still, the bus ride through the hilly countryside, dotted with churches and chapels—and roadside memorials resembling churches and chapels—is worth the 3-euro ticket. There are more than 400 churches scattered around this tiny island.

Back in chora (greek for “the town”), I take respite from the blinding sun in tiny upscale boutiques, art galleries and a shop displaying stunning silver jewelry. Lunchtime has completely slipped by. Some authentic spanakopita (rich spinach pie) would taste really good, or I could trek up the hill to the glam Belvedere Hotel, where Nobu Matsuhisa, the world’s most famous Japanese chef, has a five-star restaurant.  

But here’s the thing: Nobu himself happens to be among my fellow passengers on this Byzantine cruise. We’ve already had some nice chats, and tomorrow I have reservations to dine at Silk Road, his signature restaurant onboard Crystal Serenity.

Also, my sumptuous, penthouse-level stateroom comes with my own personal tuxedoed butler, Danzyl, who has learned that the way to my heart is through his silver tray laden with cold lobster, chocolates, Mediterranean pastries, or anything else that suits my whim of the moment. Each afternoon between teatime and dusk, I press a button, say a few words and Danzyl appears. For this, I can wait another hour or two.

Besides, the clock is running down, and the last shuttle will soon depart for the ship. I stretch out the stroll back along the waterfront. The cafés are filling up now. The Beautiful People are just beginning to emerge, although the legendary nightlife of Mykonos won’t begin till after midnight.

Back at my starting point, I happily note that I was wrong about that old red fishing boat. She’s still very much in the workforce. Now, basking in her cool shadow are a dozen wooden tables (blue), set with checkered cloths (red). And strung from her mast is a septet of fresh-caught squid… a commercial, no doubt, for the calamari dishes at Babula’s Taverna.

I’d love to pull up one of those blue chairs and watch the sun set over the Aegean Sea.

But Louis Armstrong is waiting, and Danzyl is probably at this very moment filling a bowl with ice for my chilled lobster. Tonight is the formal captain’s reception, and later there’s dancing till the wee hours on a choice of three dance floors.   

Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.