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Mediterranean banishes gray days of winter

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If you're tired of the gray days of winter and spring, think ahead to the sunny Mediterranean. This sea is indeed magic. Surrounding this body of water are the remnants of the major civilizations of ancient times; the Greeks, Romans, Etruscans and Turks.

The lineage of these people still lives on the sunny shores of this sea today, and there must be something magical there. We have traveled to these places several times and are always impressed with the laid-back, good-natured attitude of the Mediterranean people, their easygoing friendliness and the relaxed way they live in the shadow of history on every side.

They love good food, good wine and good music, they sing and dance spontaneously and are generous in their invitation to join them. They are fun people.

Probably the best way to first sample these cultures is on a cruise of Greece, the Greek Islands and Turkey. We'll try to give you a brief sample of one of these cruises and some of the sights and delights they offer.

Most cruises will start in Athens and end in Istanbul, or the other way around. We'll start in Athens, where often you'll have two or three days to explore the city before boarding your cruise ship.

Athens is crowned by the Acropolis, a tall rocky hill in the center with the ruins of the Parthenon and its associated temples and theaters.

This site will give you an idea of the grandeur and artistic skill of the ancient Greeks. The Archaeological Museum also holds myriad objects of this period.

Syntagma Square holds the Capitol buildings, guarded by soldiers in their unique skirted uniforms. The Plaka, or old city, bustles both day and night with shops, restaurants and night clubs with typical Greek music and dancing. You will board your ship in nearby Piraeus, the port for Athens, and usually sail in the late evening.

You awaken the next morning in Santorini harbor, a huge bowl-shaped body of water and on one side, more than a thousand feet above you, shines Thera, the main city of the island. You may choose to ride up to the town on tiny donkeys up a winding path or on a more modern cable car.

Thera is a city of whitewashed houses and churches with bright blue or red domes, and always the view of the harbor and your ship below.

The following morning, Rhodes is at ship-side. This ancient city was once entered through the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes and was the headquarters of the medieval Knights of St. John. Their Grand Master's Palace still stands within the city walls, and there are some spectacular ancient Greek and Roman ruins. In the countryside, giant stone windmills dot the landscape.

Mykonos is often the next port of call. Like Santorini, whitewash and bright colors are the style, and a long stretch of wonderful shops and sidewalk cafes line the harbor. Enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee or an ouzo (the national drink) in the sun and chat with the people of this peaceful island.

Kusadasi will be the first port in Turkey for many cruises. Although Kusadasi is a pleasant city, the real purpose of the stop is to travel a short way inland to the ruins of Ephesus.

Much time and effort has gone into restoration of this city, formerly the home of 200,000 Romans, where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians. The library, the baths and the amphitheater are only a few of the fine examples of the architecture of the period. A short way up the coast is Dikili, the port for ancient Pergamum which once rivaled Ephesus for power and wealth.

Here is an Acropolis and the Asclepion, an ancient medical center dating from 131 AD where Galen, Rome's celebrated physician, treated patients.

Your final port will be spectacular Istanbul, the natural gateway between East and West and a major trading center for centuries. Once the capitol of the Byzantine Empire and called Constantinople, she is a city of mosques and minarets, of palaces and towers, and a modern business center.

The Grand Bazaar is an endless maze of shops and stalls selling everything imaginable, and where bargaining is a must.

Americans visiting Istanbul for the first time often offer the opinion that this is the first city that really struck them as "foreign" because of the Byzantine architecture on all sides.

Your cruise now over, and after a day or two in Istanbul, you must board your jet for home. But you will not forget the evenings in wonderful restaurants, the afternoons at sidewalk cafes and quaint shops and the stroll through history that you have experienced, to say nothing of the experiences aboard the wonderful ship that has sailed you smoothly, wined, dined, bedded you and spoiled you for this week of odyssey.

And you will, we predict, regret leaving the sunny, pleasant worlds of the Mediterranean Sea.

(Linda and Dr. Don Overend are co-owners of Ozark World Travel, a full-service travel agency serving the Springfield area since 1976.)

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