Santorini: the Icing on the Greek Cake

IMG_2406We tore ourselves away from our lovely little hotel in Naxos (pronounced Nachos) with its blue and white veranda, where we had fresh orange juice and coffee by the pool. And stood in line like cattle with hundreds of other tourists waiting for the Blue Star ferry to take us to Santorini.

These ferries are comfortable with nice sitting areas, restaurants and floor to ceiling windows. Why is the water here so blue compared to the grey waters of our Pacific? Is it simply the reflection of the sky? When I google for this, I am told it is because the Aegean Sea does not support algae growth… Interesting.

Greece_GRE.aiThe 3 hour ferry ride took us to the the island of Santorini. The crescent shape island is part of a circular chain that, together, used to form the round top of a volcano until, some 3,000 years ago, the top blew, the crater edge was formed and the crater itself filled with the sea.

Now the island rises sharply out of the sea. Picture 2/3 of a bundt cake, 1/3 cut away and crumbled up, cinnamon coloured. Then picture white icing dripping over the top and edges. That is Santorini. The white icing is a thick layer of Greek adobe style houses, walkways and churches, all desperately clinging to the edge or else they’d tumble into the sea on either side. 

We had seen Oia’s (pronounced E-Ah, like the call of the donkeys you can ride here) sunset walk on documentaries but it was pretty awesome to walk there in person. The walk way is narrow, slippery marble and lined with souvenir shops. We ignored the tourists and drank in the amazing views of steep rocky cliffs straight down to the sea.

IMG_2436We had coffee overlooking the blue sea on both sides with the iconic white churches with their blue domes along the path. I noticed a lovely little hotel right there along the sunset walk. When I googled it later I found out that rooms there start at 800 euros a night. Holy… who stays there? We are very happy with our little hotel with a blue pool and tiny kitchen. At a fraction of that cost!

The best part is that our room, booked through AirBnB came with a free car. Usually, I don’t trust that word “free” but when I checked prices of nearby rooms without a car they were indeed about the same price. It’s wonderful to have a car here since there’s quite a bit to explore. We drove to Oia on the opposite side of the island and explored some back roads. Kees bravely turned left when I suggested it, plunging down a narrow, winding road that brought us down to the east side of Santorini. Low and behold we found our way back to the town of Perissa where we stay, via a nice supermarket. 

We walked a stoney path to a small blue and white Greek restaurant and savoured every moment on the patio as the sun set and Greek guitar music played. The steep hillside has twinkling lights along a path that leads to a tiny white chapel carved into the rock. I feel like Meryl Streep will come around the corner any moment, singing Mama Mia!

IMG_2443Santorini is half the size of Salt Spring Island where we live. But, according to the statistics I can find, it has 125,000 permanent residents and up to 2 million visitors per year (in 2014). Salt Spring has slightly more than 10,000 people and does host a fair number of tourists but not nearly that of Santorini. We often feel that the island “is full” in summer when traffic glogs the main roads, the market it crowded and there are not enough accommodations for all the visitors. No wonder then that Santorini is really coping with huge problems. There is not enough water, the roads are full of potholes and overnight places are at a premium (I heard about houses on the caldera going for 5000 euros a night – who would pay that?!).

There are small metal signs attached to shops and homes that says “You are visiting here but we live here, please respect our privacy and property”. I sure hope it won’t come to that on Salt Spring but perhaps it is time to look at how similar tourist attractions cope. According to recent headlines “Amsterdam is now actively discouraging tourism”. There might be lessons learned there about promoting places to visit, no matter how difficult that might be if you only focus on the money to be made.

IMG_2430Leaving Santorini, we took the Sea Jet ferry. Blue Star Ferries was a lot nicer, with space to walk and nice sitting areas. Sea Jet is much like an airplane, with assigned seats and no place to walk. It was a long 6 hour journey back to Athens. All of the islands along the way looked identical: brown barren rock, almost no vegetation and very dry. I’m sure there are more beautiful islands in northern Greece. We did enjoy coming here and seeing the sites but all in all I had pictured Greek islands very differently from what we saw: interesting history, lovely people, great climate but dry and rocky, no shade and barren rock.

Our hotel on Naxos: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/2912686?eal_exp=1527871304&eal_sig=bad764eae73e61fae3bed9b899fde1dd2ce2d27a2f8e50d289d0320b2a320e39&eal_uid=7636528&eluid=0&euid=7171522b-06d4-4506-9bfb-cacba5a494bd

https://www.bluestarferries.com/en/  

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For my illustrator friends: this is believed to be the first piece of art ever to be signed by an artist.

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How do you operate a washing machine in Greek?!

All photos ©margrietruurs

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It’s All Greek…

Listening to Greek spoken all around me, I find that it sounds like a blend of Italian, Spanish with a hint of Russian. I can’t get over the signs with Greek announcements. No idea what they offer but the length of the words is fascinating.

Names, too, are longer than names elsewhere: Constantinides Oikonomopoulos is an example of a common name. Our guide for the day has shortened his name, for the sake of tourists, to Cosmos but it was four times longer than that.… Our driver’s name is Nikos. That one I can remember.

IMG_2356We leave the hotel again at 5 AM. This the taxi actually does take us to the port of Piraeus and the ferry actually does sail today.  The nation wide port strike is over. The ferry blows me away. ‘Greek ferry’ always conjured up images for me of the overcrowded ferries in Burma, where people vied for every square inch on outer decks to spread their mats and huddle along railings with their basket full of vegetables, roses, tobacco leafs and roots. The Greek ferries, however, are towering cruise ships. Shiny floors and glittering chrome everywhere, smiling men in uniforms welcome us aboard and point us towards comfy chairs in air conditioned lounges. BC ferries take note! Leather chairs and cozy sitting arrangements everywhere, shiny clean windows from floor to ceiling, even in the bathrooms. A few elderlyIMG_2359 Greek women stretch out on a couch, snoring away. An Orthodox man in black robe and cap stumbles by, leaning heavily on his carved cane. But most are tourists swaying under the weight of their enormous backpacks, or dragging wheelies up the gangplank. We sip hot coffee as we glide on a blue sea towards our first Greek island: Naxos.

And soon it appears, a cluster of bright white houses huddled along the shore of a brown rocky island, bathed in bright sunlight.

Our hotel, booked through AirBnB, is perfection. Not a luxurious or glamorous hotel but a lovely small Greek family hotel. The bright white apartments have the typical Greek blue doors and shutters and surround a sparkling blue pool. Dark red bougainvilleas cascade over balconies. Even the doves on the powerlines are brilliant white.

We have a cool white room with light blue furniture and a kingsize bed. There’s a plate of fresh grapes and peaches waiting for us. The hotel owners even pick us up at the ferry with our name on a sign. We’re impressed and it takes the hassle out of finding out how to get to the hotel in 34º heat.

IMG_2366Close to the hotel is a large supermarket so we stock up on staples, freshly squeezed orange juice, jam, coffee. Kees walks to the bakery each morning to pick up fresh croissants. Ah… what a treat. We eat on our own balcony in the shade by the pool. And swim… 

We explored Naxos on foot. We walked all the way from our hotel, through winding streets full of little restaurants, coffee shops and stores, to the old town. Old Town is a labyrinth of streets no wider than a meter or so. The white washed walls leans against each other. Wooden balconies cling to the stone in desperation. They are constructed of what looks like driftwood and stones and must be many hundreds of years old. We climb steadily on steep streets or staircases until we reach the catholic church at the top. A stone tower makes it look like the old fortress it once was. Along the way we see many cats who slink in the shadows. IMG_2374

Back down, we spot the sparkling sea and the large, iconic rectangle called Temple of Apollo. It looks exactly like the rectangular frame of the National Geographic covers and is all that is left standing of an ancient temple. We walked out onto the rocky spit and walk around it for a good view of Naxos through this ‘frame’. Then we walked back all the way along the shore, where crowded tourist shops and sunscreen slathered tourists vie for space. We eat perfect moussaka under the stars. Back in our quiet little resort, we are the only ones in the pool. What a perfect spot. The only problem here is that we don’t want to leave… IMG_2398

Oracles and Miracles

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Road to Delphi

I wonder if the Oracle of Delphi could have predicted that we would show up, unplanned.

We got up at 5 AM (!) to follow our days in Athene with a ferry ride to our first island: Mykonos. We had carefully researched and selected three of the nearly 2,000 Greek Islands. Our choices were based on geography: they had to be near Athene because of our limited time. We watched travel shows to find a variety of size and landscape. 

As we had arranged with our AirBnB hosts, we left the key on the table and pulled the door locked behind us. We stepped into the still dusk alley and walked over, with our luggage, to a hotel around the corner from where we hailed a taxi to take us to Piraeus, the busy harbour of Athens. 

“No ferries!” announced the taxi driver, “National strike!” I had heard rumours of a one day strike on Monday but this was Tuesday. Surely our ferry would take us to the island? But no, inside the hotel our fears were confirmed. So if the ferries don’t go, you can’t reach the hotel you booked. And thousands of other tourists can’t leave so hotel rooms will be at a premium. What to do?

In cases like this I find that the ‘Serenity Poem’ always works: ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or, in the words of our Greek guide we would meet later: “things ghahppen that will ghahppen”.

First we decide to ensure that we have a place to sleep in Athens for the next two nights and book a hotel via Orbitz. No problem.

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Delphi

Then we take a taxi to that hotel, leave our luggage (because it was only about 8 AM, too early to check in), use their wifi and walk to the travel agency through whom we had booked our Greek ferries. Thank goodness I had decided that booking it myself was too complicated. We always book everything ourselves but this time we are grateful we didn’t. AFEA Travel was amazing. They wasted no time in cancelling our first ferry ticket, hopefully to get a refund. They contacted our hotel in Mykonos to confirm we couldn’t make it. They re-booked a ferry for a few days later from Athens to our next island: Naxos. And then they booked us for a full day excursion to Delphi. All is well again. We are grateful that so many people here speak good English and that all we encounter are kind and helpful. (www.afea.gr)

That night we marvel at the sight of the Parthenon, as the sun set over the Aegan sea, and look forward to a totally new plan: learning all we can about oracles and mythology.

I love being in the very place where Zeus ruled the world, where Apollo reigned and where Hercules flexed his muscles. History is tangible here, the ‘story’ part of the word being especially applicable. Everything is stories.   Where we come from, what it looks like, how it was. Even the language is rich in history and meaning.

Did you know that you speak Greek every day? Words like forum, gymnasium, marathon, spartan, stadium, atlas, even the word phone all come from Greek. And well known brand names, too, like Nike, Amazon and Olympus all come from Greek.

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Delphi is the ‘navel’ of the earth

On the way to Delphi, our guide tells wonderful stories about battles with giants and cyclops, about gods and their confusing offspring, one of them marrying his own mother. Delphi is a two hour drive north of Athens on the mainland, in the mountains and was believed to be the navel of the flat earth. We drive through green fields, sparse forests and picturesque villages. 

Delphi was a bustling place about 2,500 years ago. The original artifacts that have been found around the remaining ruins are now housed in a nearby museum. The marble statues, gold decorations and bronze castings are impressive and represent the humans who lived and worked here so many thousands of years ago. 

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Oracle of Delphi….

The Oracle was fascinating. Apollo ruled here as god and the female oracle was believed to be his direct connection to the people. I find it much better to buy into this belief than to think of the more realistic alternative: the woman selected to be the voice of the gods, was kept high on methane and chewed intoxicating leafs. Her incoherent mumblings were interpreted by three poets who tried to relay them as sensible, poetic lines.

Really? The future of the world was determined by a woman who was stoned and by three men who liked words?

But despited being high, the Oracle was apparently able to predict future events. She was consulted, and proven to be correct, by many travellers from far away. The way she predicted what would happen, make it sounds like Delphi was a kind of CNN or BBC headquarters of the ancient world.

However, they had a kind of a blanket statement that meant ‘use these predictions at your own risk’ – whatever the Oracle told you, you had to use your own common sense to interpret it. One god was told he would destroy a mighty land. He did, but hadn’t realized it was his own land…

No matter how you look at it, the Oracle of Delphi is an impressive part of the history of mankind. 

What I find particularly fascinating, having traveled to many interesting places, is that all peoples throughout history, in far flung places, seem to have come up with very similar stories. The cave paintings of Australia’s aboriginal people, the stories of the Aztec, those of the Haida, the carvings at Angkor Wat, all resemble similar stories. Here in Delphi we learn about a Greek myth about rain that washed away mankind except for two whose task it was to repopulate the world after their boat stranded on a mountain top and the rains receded….

Perhaps the saddest story I learned today was the fact that Aesop lived here. He was a slave but earned his freedom by his amazing storytelling powers. We saw names of people carved in marble, listing those who obtained their freedom, apparently his name was recorded here, too. Aesop happily went on telling stories as a free man. Until the Greeks decided they did not like the tales he told and pushed him to his death from a mountain top. So much for freedom of speech and censorship.

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From Athena to Zeus: sightseeing in Athens

IMG_2119Even though we are pretty experienced travellers – Greece is my 52nd country – planning our time in Greece has been daunting. In most countries or cities there are a few major attractions that you know you ought to see. 

But the sights of Greece are pretty overwhelming… In a country with this kind of history, what do you want to see in a few days? And how do you get around?

Our base for planning this trip was a three day conference in Athens. We decided to follow the conference with two full days in Athens to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon and other major sites in the city. And then we would select 3 islands for a taste of island hopping.

We checked out a pile of Greece guides: Lonely Planet and other books, Rick Steves’ DVD’s, fly over DVD’s that showed all the attractions. And we got even more overwhelmed… How do you decide which islands to visit when there are 1,800 islands?

IMG_2209We decided to determine the Athens sightseeing once we got there, which turned out to be a good move. In the books, I couldn’t even find out the difference between The Acropolis and The Parthenon. Maybe that is obvious once you’ve been here, but not while you are planning… We needed Athens 101 advise…

We started by booking an AirB&B close to the conference center. It turned out to be walking distance, easily reached by Metro from the airport, and very close to the heart of the city. For less than half the cost of a hotel room, we had 2 rooms and a kitchen in a very quiet apartment building: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/19603934 Next door was a lovely taverna where we sat outside on the balcony under the grape leafs to enjoy wine, Greek salad and freshly grilled chicken for 11 euros.

We soon learned that the Metro is easy to use: you buy a 90 minute ticket for E1.40 and clear maps show you how to reach your destination, from the airport to the port of Piraeus and many stops in between. Two stops from “our” Metro station was the Acropolis and the old city part called Plakka. https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/athens/combo-hop-on-hop-off-classic-tour-of-athens_29715

The Metro is fast, efficient and cheap. The ticket machines have buttons for many different languages that talk you through the process. But beware: pick-pockets hang out in the Metro. A friend from Canada had his passport and wallet stolen on his first short ride!

To get a better idea of the attractions and their locations, we bought a two day pass for Athen’s Hop-On Bus. For 14 euros we could ride unlimited and get guided walking tours. First we took the bus and simply stayed on it for the two hours it took to drive its loop around the city. Map in hand, that gave us a clear idea of what was where and what we wanted to see. 

IMG_2156Then we strolled all over the myriad of cobblestone alleys that is old  Plakka, enjoyed lunch on a shaded green square (it was 36º each day in September!) and watched the changing of the guard at the Government Building. We didn’t realize til later that we were very lucky to see this on a Sunday: the guards wear their traditional Greek outfits with white skirts only on Sunday. We walked through the National Gardens and visited the stadium where the first of the modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The next morning we left our apartment early. Rather than take the Metro (2x 1.40 euro) we took a taxi which dropped us off at the path that leads up to the Acropolis for 4.50 euro. Taxis are cheap in Athens, and plentiful. Most of the drivers speak English. They have to use their meters and will give you a receipt.

In the cool of the morning we set off to walk the slopes of the Acropolis. You need to buy a ticket to do so. The 20 euro ticket was the most expensive we paid for any admission in Greece but also contributes to the mind blowing renovations of this thousands years old attraction. We learned that The Parthenon is the iconic rectangle of pillars on top of the mountain. The entire site, including smaller temples and what used to be a city, is referred to as the Acropolis. IMG_2218

Going early in the morning helped to not have crowds in our photos. We were able to take many photos without hordes of tourists obstructing our view. We walked all the way around the top of the mountains and enjoyed reading the interpretive signs. We were back down by 11 AM and then went to the modern, air conditioned Acropolis Museum. This houses many of the original statues and tableaus that were removed from the Parthenon and are being renovated here. Gorgeous museum with great views of the real site. Entrance fee is 5 euros. If you go later in the day, it is a good idea to buy your ticket online to avoid wasting time by standing in a long queue: https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en

After lunch in Plakka, we took the Hop-On bus to the National Library. Unfortunately it was closed due to a move.

When visiting Athens, be sure to wear comfortable, flat shoes. You’ll do lots of walking, up and down hills, and the sidewalks are often broken and uneven. They are also very slippery because much of it is slabs of marble or smooth tiles.

IMG_2271The Greek word graphein means “to scratch, draw, write”. Wall writing is  found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans. No wonder then that Athens is the capital of graffiti! I have never seen so much graffiti in any city! At times it seemed that every available square inch that can be reached from the sidewalk, is covered in paint. Often this graffiti is art – but it does seem a bit much when every wall, door, lamp post and sign is covered in swirls and letters. IMG_2275

Food is expensive in tourist areas like Plakka. But as soon as you venture into a regular neighbourhood where locals live, there are plenty of little supermarkets and fruit stands. You can buy amazing tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and grapes. And of course Greek yogurt and cheese is the best for a simple, affordable lunch.

One of my favourite nights, so far, was spent eating on the rooftop of a hotel and watching the sunset. Slow as molasses, it turned the Parthenon from yellow to orange to pale beige. Then we watched as, slowly, the lights came on and the ancient temple towered over the city in orange and green light.

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