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Greece by small ship

Party or Greek history? On this small ship, it's the latter

An image of island hopping and booze-fueled partying with jet-setters might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of cruising around Greece, but think again. You can cruise the birthplace of Western civilization in a bit more thoughtful manner, without leaving the Peloponnese, traveling by ship the way the ancients did.

That doesn't mean you need to leave the partying behind. But it does mean that you can explore these icons of ancient history — Olympia, Delphi, Epidaurus — with an expert alongside to provide the context that brings the ancient stone ruins to life. You'll even get a lecture the night before to prep you.

My husband and I decided on a small-ship experience with a spring Variety Cruises departure that would give us more than the usual guidebook information about the sites we would see.

We made our way via the 49-passenger Galileo around the Peloponnese, the geographic region in the southern part of Greece that was attached to the mainland until 1893, when the Corinth Canal was built. On and around the Peloponnese, and amid massive groves of olive trees, are some of the most familiar place names in ancient history: Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games and the Temple of Zeus; Delphi, for many centuries the cultural and spiritual center of the Hellenic world; and Mycenae, linked with the Homeric epics the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey."

At Olympia we saw archaeologists working as we entered the site. It is believed the games began in 776 B.C., but as we entered the place where races had been run, tourists were making steady action along the track. As we had learned at the lecture the night before, the columns still standing were of the ionic variety, with the curved scrolls at the top.

Delphi, on the slope of Mount Parnassus, was considered the center of the Earth in ancient times and where people would travel to hear messages from its famous oracle. Today the archaeological site includes remains of two sanctuaries, dedicated to Apollo and Athena, in a stunning setting. Look closely and you'll see inscriptions carved into the stone 2,000 years ago.

The hilltop citadel of Mycenae, mostly dating from the second millennium B.C., is familiar to students of Homer's "Iliad" as the seat of the mythical King Agamemnon, commander of Greek forces in the Trojan War. Much of the site was excavated in the 1870s by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who sought to prove the historical truth of Homer's tale. The truth remains shrouded in myth, but today you can see the massive stone Lion's Gate and the enormous domed "beehive tombs" that are impressive enough as architectural feats accomplished 1,000 years before the Parthenon was built.

Less famed, perhaps, were two of my favorite stops on this trip: Monemvassia and Nafplio. We found ourselves in Monemvassia, a castle town founded in the sixth century, on Easter Sunday (Orthodox and Western Easter coincided this year) a holiday more important to the Greeks than Christmas. We spent the afternoon drinking wine at a rooftop restaurant and waiting for a chance to see an ancient tradition still performed on Easter Sunday: the burning of an effigy of Judas.

We joined the crowds in this impossibly picturesque town, where the stone pathways create a maze that connects houses, hotels, churches, stores and restaurants, and even passes through some private courtyards where, on Easter, families had gathered to roast lambs on spits.

Children came early to the town square to have their photos taken with the doomed Judas, which looked a bit like a scarecrow. Locals climbed out on stone rooftops, waiting for the action. An official of some sort got it started with a cigarette lighter, and the crowd cheered and shrieked as flames moved up from the feet and eventually to the head, where a firecracker popped, igniting more screams before laughter and eventual applause. It didn't seem gruesome at all, more like a carnival.

Nafplio was the first capital of the newly independent Greece, between 1823 and 1834, but it traces its history to ancient times; some of its soldiers participated in the Trojan War. Today it's a quaint medieval town with cobblestone streets and a large square lined with outdoor cafes. Above the town is the Palamidi Castle, carved into the rock, and just off the coast is the rocky islet fortress known as Bourtzi.

The 26-cabin Galileo was small enough that we could get to know most of the passengers and yet big enough to accommodate the nightly lectures previewing the next day's excursions. A 157-foot-long, steel-hulled motor sailer renovated in 2007, the Galileo was comfortable and outfitted in gleaming dark wood that gave it a clubby feel. Our cabin with a window on the upper deck had a double bed and full-size bathroom, and was relatively roomy but still tight. Pack light and you'll have more space in your cabin.

ctc-travel@tribune.com

If you go

The tour: We arranged our tour through AdventureSmith Explorations (adventuresmithexplorations.com) on Variety Cruises' (varietycruises.com) 8-day Antiquities to Byzantium trip. The cruise is offered in March, April, October and November. We traveled in late April, and the weather was ideal for touring, but the ocean water was not warm enough for swimming. We were told that October dates would have similar air temperatures but warmer ocean water.

Rates for the best-cabin category in 2015 are, generally, $2,100 per person double occupancy for March and November dates and $2,700 for April and October dates. Meals are included; shore excursions are extra. Unlike mega-ships, there's often not a lot to do on board if you don't participate in the excursions, so make sure you know the charges before you book.

Before and after: Athens isn't on the itinerary, but the cruises begin and end there, and it's best to book a couple days before or after to spend time in the city and visit the Parthenon. Athens has many hotels in all categories. We were very happy with the budget-friendly Attalos Hotel, which is in a good location near Syntagma Square, with a rooftop bar that has a view of the Acropolis. Rooms in this 3-star are spare but clean and quiet. But the best thing is the price: Rates for a balcony room with Acropolis view in midweek in October are about $100 a night. (attaloshotel.com)

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