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In Greece, Every Cruise Is a Classic : Visitors to the islands are exposed to blue skies, whitewashed villages--and a semester's-worth of mythology and history.

July 11, 1993|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch write The Times' biweekly column, Cruise Views. and

ATHENS, Greece — In early summer a tumult of crimson poppies spills over the hillsides of Greece as vivid as the blood from the tragedies that befell the mythological House of Atreus, and the gods and mortals of Homer and Sophocles are seemingly everywhere, staring with their sightless eyes past the Daedelus Rent-A-Scooter sign in Iraklion, on the island of Crete, or the Iphigenia Restaurant in Mycenae, south of Corinth on the mainland.

When you booked your Greek Islands cruise, you may have thought you were heading for the Aegean version of a lighthearted Caribbean sailing--secluded coves and sunny white sand beaches. You probably didn't expect to get the equivalent of a college semester of classical history before making a dent in your tube of sun-block.

But each island (there are 1,425 of them, 166 inhabited), has its pantheon of mythic heroes and blood-gushing tragedies, all of which will be revealed with varying proficiency by a series of graduates of what we began, sometime in the last 10 years, to call the Athens School of Incomprehensible Guides. We have made many Greek Islands sailings in the last decade, usually seven-day round trips out of Athens, our latest outing being this spring aboard Seven Seas' Song of Flower.

Like Odysseus, the Greek hero made popular by Homer's epic poems the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," one sails around the blue Aegean and through the Dardanelles into Turkey's Sea of Marmara looking for the classical and mythic. Much of each day is spent in port, and most ships visit at least one if not two islands a day, pairing up Delos and Mykonos, for example, or Crete and Santorini.

It is essential to get to Delos as early in the morning as possible, before the polyglot flocks arrive, and just as obligatory to see Mykonos in the late afternoon from a sidewalk cafe, a milky glass of ouzo at hand, watching the sunset melt into twilight and then into darkness as distant lights twinkle and the sea turns black.

Delos is uninhabited but filled with the ghosts of ancient heroes and heroines. Only the acid-green lizards, slithering along the rocks among the ruins, and the crouching stone lions, golden beige in the sun and gently worn down by generations of visitors climbing on their backs, populate the landscape. Five of the lions remain from the original nine or more that were carved of marble from the neighboring island of Naxos in the 6th Century BC. Protected by ropes that make them off-limits only to law-abiding adults, the lions face the site of the sacred lake where the goddess Leto (or Leda), pregnant by Zeus when he took on the guise of a swan, gave birth to the full-grown Apollo and Artemis.

After Delos, Mykonos, to the east, is a riot of colors--bright-blue trim on dazzling whitewashed houses scattered against the parched hillsides like a spilled box of sugar cubes, a shock of red geraniums and fuchsia bougainvillea, overblown roses in neon pinks, corals and yellows. Gnarled men and women in black sit out in their chairs in the late afternoon, their eyes closed against the glare and the giggling, prowling mobs of Euro-youth.

We settle down in a cafe near the harbor where a roasting lamb turns on a spit, and when we point to it the waiters bring bowls of olives and fat fava beans in tomato sauce, salads with chunks of red onions and crumbly feta cheese, thick slices of bread, platters of lamb and fried potatoes, a bottle of astringent red wine. Four of us feast for less than $50.

On Crete, Greece's largest island with its stunning variety of architecture and terrain, we are guided to the 4,000-year-old Palace of Knossos by our guide Marinella, who speaks as if by rote while staring through the windshield of the bus at some indeterminate point on the horizon. Perhaps she is visualizing the Labyrinth of Knossos as it once existed, or perhaps she is merely contemplating what to fix for dinner.

From the outside, what remains of the massive square structure, some of which has been reconstructed, is reminiscent of a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but the mythical architect of this 1,200-room labyrinth was the skilled artisan Daedelus. According to legend, it was constructed to house the Minotaur, a monster with a bull's head and a man's body, to whom seven young men and seven young women had to be sacrificed every year.

While Knossos is quiet today, the side streets of the capital of Iraklion bustle. In the morning market, Greek Orthodox priests in black cassocks and black hats browse among the vegetables, a blind lottery salesman hawks tickets, a rosy lamb carcass with tufts of hair on the tail and ears is garnished with a bouquet of pink carnations stuck in the rib cage, and a fishmonger repels flies with a flourish, spraying his fish with insect repellent.

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