Wonderful Aegean beauties
Next morning around 9:00, we headed down to the ferry dock, which was about 10 minutes walk from our hotel, and confirmed there was a departure at 10:30AM. The ferry tickets cost about 17 Euros and it took one and half hours to cross. There was also a 'dolphin', a small high-speed catamaran, leaving at 12:30. It would only take half an hour. Interestingly it was cheaper than the ferry by two dollars. Normally a faster ferry would cost more money. Before departure Estrella was busy trying to get rid of all the Albanian money as it would be useless elsewhere. She went to a corner vendor and bought chips and gum etc. We also bought mini-croissants in a sealed bag made by a brand called 7 days. This company's products seemed to be available throughout the countries we visited. We usually had it as simple breakfast or snacks.
While waiting for the ferry, we met a young backpacker from Ireland. We started talking about all these expensive cars in Albania. It is true that Albania, which is relatively a poor country, seemed to have a large number of expensive cars. As mentioned, in the Tirana downtown, we saw a lot of big Mercedes and BMW SUV. Also many new Mercedes sedans, which are normally driven by rich people in North America, are fairly commonly seen in small poor villages in the middle of nowhere. Often you will find a new Mercedes parked outside a rundown house. This would lead one to believe that some of these were probably stolen. The backpacker said they were definitely stolen. After he found out we are from Toronto, he said he even saw one with Toronto license plate. I was not exactly sure whether he was kidding or not. This black-market situation is also true in Montenegro. He told us about this joke that the Montenegro tourism board was thinking of an advertising slogan that said "Welcome to Montenegro, your car is already here waiting for you".
We arrived at Corfu around noon time. There was a Princess Cruise ship docking at the pier. To our disappointment, nobody approached us to offer private room or hotel, except one guy driving a car wanted to rent us this private condo about 20 km from town. We decided to go into town and look for a place at a more convenient location. The ferry dock we arrived at is the new dock. We passed by the old ferry dock before getting to town. The first thing we did was locate the public bus station used by the Ktel bus company and bought bus tickets to go to Athens two days later. Ktel is a Greek bus company that provides buses between cities all over Greece. Then we went into town, especially the old town which looked much more Italian than Greek. Instead of blue and white stucco building, there is a more wrought iron and marble look. But it was a pretty old town, typically with a lot of souvenir stores and outdoor restaurants.
Turned out getting into the old town is the easy part, locating a hotel in town for the night was much harder. Without a tour book, we had no idea what was available and where they were. After wandering around for a couple of hours with our baggage and pretty much finished seeing the whole old town we still could not locate any hotel. The only one we saw was way more than what we wanted to pay. We started to realize that most of the tourists come to Corfu with tour packages. Their hotels would be big and self-contained and most likely located near beaches. We started to panic a bit. Then I remembered this big hotel, called Atlantis which we happened to pass by earlier before we reached the bus location. We went back to check and it was 75 Euros a night. But we were too tired to look for anything else. After checking in, we suddenly realized we should have tried the Pink Palace. By that time it was a bit too late.
We were debating whether we could pretend we do not like the room and tried to back out. At the end, we decided to stay put for one night. From our hotel, I called the Pink Palace, talking to a lady called Magda. She wanted to come and pick us up right away. But I told her we already checked into another hotel so she agreed to pick us some next morning at 8AM. Then we went back to the old town to have dinner. While eating at an outdoor cafe, we ran into the young Irish guy. He went by quickly and just waved. Not sure how and where he managed to find a place to stay. At the old town, we found an Internet cafe and Estrella booked a budget hotel in Athens near the Plaka area so that we have a place to stay two days later.
We checked out from our hotel early and waited outside for Magda. She showed up promptly on time and walked us over to the parking lot of the old ferry dock where she parked her car. The ferry dock was just across the street of the hotel. There was a ferry arriving from Italy and she expected to pickup several passengers. Magda was an interesting lady, very chatty. Quite a character. As we waited, she told us a lot about herself, like her job, picking up passengers from ferry or airport, the recent death of her mother, and getting married not long after. She said she loved fishing and even showed us a rowdy cartoon on fishing. When the ferry arrived, she managed to pick up two backpackers from Washington DC. They were in the middle of their two-month tour, coming from Italy overnight on the top deck. Most of the backpackers use the open-air top deck because the ride is free with the Euro-train pass. They both looked very tired, obviously did not get much sleep.
The Pink Palace is almost a half hour drive from town on the west side of the island. On the way to the Pink Palace, Magda told us stories about her husband. Before she agreed to marry him, he would insist they pay the restaurant bills separately while dating. One time he had to pay the whole thing because they ran into some friends and was too embarrassed to let Magda pay her share. But he got the nerve to ask Magda to pay him back afterward. Magda of course refused. She also told us she went to Montreal and Toronto for vacation with her brother. She went in the Winter-time, the only time she could get away. She said she fell down on an icy sidewalk and hurt herself. So she knew there is not much fun living in a cold place. During their trip in Canada, her brother left her alone most of the time because he was busy going out with the girls he had met before at the Pink Palace. So she went to California herself but returned to Greece via Toronto because she wanted her parents to believe she spent all the time with her brother. Very funny lady. She also told us now there are a lot of people moving to Corfu, to live and retire there, especially British. In Greece, similar to a lot of other countries, the road signs are bi-lingual, one in native language and one in English. The stop signs here actually say 'Stop' in only English. Estella got the impression that she is the daughter of the hotel owner but I was not sure.
The Pink Palace is supposed to be a youth hostel but it is more like a big hotel, catering to backpackers. They organize wild toga parties during summer when there are a lot of people. But at the time we went, it was relatively quiet. Maybe 30 to 40 guests. So there was no night parties anymore. The hostel consisted of several buildings, cascading from up the hill all the way down to the edge of water. We had a nice room in the main building up the hill a bit, with a balcony facing the ocean. Because we arrived early, we were able to get breakfast. Beside as much toast and coffee that you want, they also gave us fried eggs and sausages. Not bad at all. After breakfast, we went down to check out the beach. The beach name is Agios Gordios, pretty long and similar to other Mediterranean beaches, with brown sand and pebbles in some places.
On one end, there were some restaurants with beach chairs and umbrellas for rent. While sitting on a bench admiring the ocean, we saw a kayak paddling toward us and someone inside waving at us. To our surprise, it was Magda. She landed at the beach and showed us two plastic bags, one containing several foot-long fish and one containing a big octopus. Apparently after dropping us off, she went fishing and did really well. What an amazing lady! She was not kidding when she told us she liked fishing. She even drove us back to the hotel and showed us the house where she lived with her parents.
The hotel offered an all-day ATV tour starting at 11AM and ending at 6PM. Corfu was rather hilly there, so we decided to give it a pass. Since I wanted to sample more than one beach, we took a taxi to another popular beach, called Glyfata. The brown sand here is much better. The water as usual, was very clean, clear, and calm as well, not much fish and a bit cool. But perfect for swimming. The place was busy with tourists, mostly from the big hotel located at the beach. We rented two chairs and an umbrella and spent most of afternoon there, swimming and enjoying the beach. The rental came to 7.50 Euros. All these beach rentals could add up quite a bit. That started me thinking. If we ever going to a beach in Greece, should consider having our own umbrella and lounge chairs etc. Late that afternoon, I went to the hotel lobby to ask them to get me a taxi. It was a nice big all-inclusive hotel, with daily programs for guests who most likely came on a one-week tour package. Not much difference from those you find in the Caribbean.
Each of these half hour taxi trip to and from Glyfada cost over 25 Euros so it was a rather expensive beach visit but I had no regret because I just love seeing beaches. After getting back to the Pink Palace, we went down to take a good look at our own beach again. There is a mini boardwalk made of wood planks so that you do not need to walk on the sand. At one end, there were actually some nice restaurants along the waterfront. From the restaurant area, there was a road, winding up the hill with even more restaurants and mini markets, to the center of a very small village. I suppose visitors, especially families, would come here and rent an apartment. Then they would buy food or eat out here. Because the Pink Palace also provide dinner as part of the price. I guess the restaurants here would not like the PP very much. The dinner at the Pink Palace was served really late, at 8PM, so we had time to enjoy the beautiful sunset from our balcony.
The dinner was served in the dinning room next to the lobby. It was a three-course meal, with Greek salad and a slightly spicy soup. The main course was a chunky piece of veal served on a big plate of noodle. There was a gentleman sitting at the next table who seemed to be interested in talking to us. So we invited him to our table. He was a Austrian, 60 years old, retired and vacationing in Greece many times. That was his third trip to Corfu. But this was his first time at the Pink Palace. His main fun activity in Corfu was renting an ATV (all terrain vehicle) and drive all over the island, visiting remote beaches and taking pictures. He told us that it took him the whole day, exploring the northern part of the island the day before. Now he was ready to do the southern part. He liked Greece so much that he had even learnt to speak Greek. He also traveled extensively to other parts of Greece. He told us that Mykonos is so small that one or two days is enough. In fact, he was joking the island is so expensive now that the only Greeks who live there are the hotel and restaurant owners or workers. Even with such a small number of guests, some of the backpackers were still determined to stay up and party. At night we were woken up a couple of times from people's loud talking. You wonder how could some people be so inconsiderate. Good thing we were only staying for one night.
Our Ktel bus going to Athens left at 9:30AM. We arranged for a taxi to bring us to town at 7. This should allow us plenty of time because we were worried about the potential traffic jam once we got into town. This time we missed the breakfast. As expected, the traffic was pretty bad as we got closer to Corfu town. But it was not a problem with the extra time we had. The taxi driver told us that there are more Greeks living outside of Greece than there. He said something like 11 million living outside Greece and only 10 million inside. Estrella asked him about why most the houses had trees outside. He said the Greek like to grow what they eat and do it this way so that they know for sure that what they eat are fresh and organic.
When we got to the bus station, everyone needed to have their baggage weighed and tagged. Not sure why, because the person never wrote the weight or returned the claim portion of the ticket to reclaim the baggage later. It was a honor system that trusted that nobody would walk away with somebody else's baggage. We met two British guys, father and son, living at Corfu on a 50-foot sailboat. They were on their way to Athens to help deliver a 50-foot catamaran from Athens to Bahamas. That would take them a couple of months and sounded like a pretty exciting thing to do. I certainly wished I could go with them. The guy was British ex-navy and retired to Corfu two years ago. I asked the guy why he chose Corfu instead of other islands. He said Corfu has more greenery and trees, and is more like England than other islands. In fact, there are 10 thousand Brits living on Corfu so he had a lot of friends there. Looked like he picked a good place to retire.
Since Corfu is an island, the whole bus had to get on the ferry to get to the mainland and continue from there to Athens. We were hoping to get some seats on the right side where the ocean would be but everybody honored the seat number assigned. The bus was completely full, so good thing that we bought the tickets ahead of time. For the ferry part, we all got off the bus and waited in the lounge area and then reboarded the bus once we hit the mainland. It was a whole day trip. One thing about riding a long distance bus is you never know when it is going to have a rest stop. So we tried not to drink too much. Eventually we had a late lunch stop at 2PM. Greeks seemed to like late meals, lunches and dinners.
The road to Athens was along the coast and the scenery was pretty nice. Unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the bus. At one point, we crossed the Corinth canal. Good to be able to catch a glimpse of this famous canal. The bus pulled into the Athens bus station around 5PM, late afternoon. Most of the passengers lined up to catch a taxi. We caught a taxi to get us to the hotel. Since the hotel was located in a small street, the taxi driver had a hard time locating the place. He managed to stop at some Plaka outdoor cafe and yelled at the waiter to help him out. The hotel is literally right next to Plaka Beach.
Plaka is the prime tourist area, fully of souvenir shops and outdoor dinning places. After checking in, we walked out to the Plaka area and had a dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants. As expected, the place was packed with tourists. Most of the restaurants in the Plaka tend to be bit touristy. But at this one the food was actually quite good. Estrella was not feeling too good so she had a fish soup. I had a tasty Greek lamb oso buco cooked in a clay pot. It cost 9 Euros. Pretty reasonable. The weather in October in Athens is actually very nice and comfortable not as hot as in July and August when temperature could each 40 degrees C. That is why in the islands, the prime time is July and August. But in the city the prime season is September and October.
This hotel we stayed also provided breakfast, which consisted of hardboiled eggs, bread, fruit, tea, and coffee. The breakfast was provided at small courtyard in a eating area that was partly enclosed and partly outdoor. One nice thing about such a small breakfast area was it provided an opportunity for the guests to mingle. If you want, that is.
In our hotel lobby, there were some brochures advertising tours and island-hopping packages. So after breakfast, we talked to the receptionist and she tried to help us to work out the itinerary but at the end she decided to send us to a travel agent, Lisa, in Omonia Square.
We had three ways to go. The first way was to book a cruise that would stop at the islands we want to go to. One tour we saw was offered by Toronto's Nolitour. It spent the first few days, cruising the Eastern part, including Turkey and Rhodos. Then it spent a few hours in Mykonos, followed by a few days at Santorini and Crete. We decided not to take it at the time because it did not spend much time in Mykonos. Now we learnt from the Austrian guy that you really did not need much time there so it could be okay. The second option was to get our own hotel and ferry as we go from island to island. The last option was to get a travel agent to book all the hotels and ferry for us. The brochure advertised some package price based on the number of islands and number of days. But it was not clear if this was at a summer or winter rate. There could be quite a big difference because during low season, the hotel price could easily drop by half.
We kind of decided we would spend two nights at Mykonos, two nights at Paros, three nights at Santorini and three nights at Crete, which is the biggest island. Our hotel was pretty close to Syndagma Square but there was another subway station closer called Acropolis. The subway stations looked new because some of them were built in 2004 for the Olympics. We tried to catch a subway to Omonia Square. The Athens subway works like this: You buy your ticket from the vending machine and then you validated it before you enter the tram. It is almost like an honor system but they have inspectors randomly go into the subway and demand to see the validated tickets. At the vending machine, Estrella punched in for two tickets but only one ticket came out so she took it thinking it would be good for two. In the next stop, an inspector came in and demanded to see our ticket. So we showed him our ticket. Turned out the ticket was only good for one person. He took us out of the subway and wanted to charge me for riding without a ticket. Estrella explained to him the situation. Another guy who could speak better English came and took a good look at the ticket. They eventually let us go. According to him, there should be two tickets and we should pick up two tickets instead of one. Someone else probably had a free ticket from us. Anyway we decided we would just buy one ticket at a time from now on to avoid any future problem.
At the travel agency office, we found out Lisa was a young black lady from Kenya. She worked out the itinerary and showed us the hotels. Before she told us the final price, Estrella blurted out, Why not give us the price listed in the brochure. And she said okay right away. The way she said okay so fast, like within half of a nano-second, made me seriously suspect that we had just over-paid. We had just offered to pay for the higher summer price when it would be cheaper during the fall. But it was too late. The lesson to learn here is to be very careful about making an offer. What you are willing to pay may still be higher than the seller's price. Once the island-hopping part was settled. We went to Omonia Square which was packed with people and traffic. There were several sandwich shops and fast food. One was a McDonald's look-alike called Goody's and a sandwich place called Everest. Everest also sold spinach pies. From there, we walked to Syntagma Square to watch the changing of guards in front of the Parliament building.
Here is how it works as far as I could tell: Two guards are stationed at the front of steps. Every once in while they would march around. Maybe exchange positions. They do this to avoid the boredom of standing still all the time. Then maybe around every hour, an officer would bring out two new guards to replace the current one. During the change, the guards would do some weird synchronized high kicking. The fact that they dressed funny and with all this funny steps, certainly make them into a tourist attraction. It occurred to me that such simple man-made attraction can be done anywhere by any country. Especially those countries that do not have too many attractive sights to start with. All you need to do is have a bunch of soldiers. Give them some weird outfits and have them march around in weird steps. Then all the tourists would flock there. Instant sightseeing attractions. Cheap and simple to create.
Directly across from the Parliament, there is a pedestrian street with a real McDonald's at the corner. It was packed with people out for Saturday-morning shopping. There were many street vendors. Some selling nuts and donuts on a cart. Some had laid out fake designer purses and handbags on the pavement. The purse vendors were all black Africans. In addition there were several street musician groups, playing different kind of music. There was even a Zara department store. Whenever you see a Zara, you know it must be a prime shopping area.
Even though the street is pedestrian-only, occasionally, you would see a car or motorcycle going thru so I was not sure exactly how it was supposed to work. The street leads to an area call Monastiraki which has a flea market selling all kind of weird things. And from there, it connects back to Plaka. While taking a break in front of a church, we ended up talking to this retired Greek-American who left Greece since age of 15 and worked very hard for 50 years in restaurant business. Now he was retired and he came back to visit his relatives often. I asked him why he did not retire to Greece like some of the retirees. He said he could not live in Greece anymore and complained the new generation of Greek just wanted the easy life and they did not want to work as hard as his generation. He was even disappointed by some of his relatives. Anymore I supposed another reason for him not to come back to Greece was he lived in LA and Nevada, which of course was just as nice and warm as Greece.
From Plaka, we decided to visit the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis again, even though we had already gone there almost 30 years ago. There is this trail that leads up. Estrella said the trail used to be in much worse condition but I did not remember any of that. The Acropolis is a flat-topped hill located in the middle of the city, which is perfect for a temple. We got to the top where you could have a good view of the whole city. The magnificent Parthenon itself, built between 447 and 438 BCE had not changed that much since the last time we saw it except there were a lot of metal scaffolds, more than ever, used for the on-going restoration work. There was some signs telling about the renovation process. It basically said the work done before was not very good and they had to start over. It definitely gave the impression that the more they tried to preserve it, the more they screwed up. Then there is the famous temple of Erechtheion where six female figures called Caryatids hold up the roof. The whole place was very impressive, showcasing the ancient and great Greek civilization. I certainly enjoyed seeing it again very much but not as much as the first time. As usual, for me, it is the excitement of seeing something the first time that is most enjoyable and intoxicating.
That night we went back to Plaka and had an dinner at a nice-looking outdoor cafe. Since we had not really tried a real Greek Souvlaki yet, we ordered some souvlaki so that we could compare with those in Toronto. To our surprise, they were only okay but not as good as those we found in Toronto's Greek area. If friends asked how was the native food in Athens, I am sure I would tell them that those in Toronto is much better.
Exciting day today. We finally got to start the Greek island-hopping trip that we wished for a long time. Our first island stop was the famous Mykonos, which we had seen so many times in travel magazines. The ferry left from Piraeus, Athen's port, at 7:30AM. We asked the receptionist how to get there. She told us to take the subway to one place and then catch a bus. But according to the information Estrella had, the subway could go directly to the dock. This receptionist did not appear to know Athens that well, because I also asked her about the National Library and shopping mall, and she had no clue. I guessed she was Greek but she might just arrived in Athens recently.
Since this was a budget hotel, the owner also hired foreign backpacker to work there, especially for the midnight shift. There was one young Scottish guy that we ran into a couple of times. To be safe, we checked out of the hotel, around 5:30AM and tried to look for the Acropolis Station nearby. It was still very dark and the streets were all deserted. The dark deserted-before-dawn-street view looked quite different from its look during the busy and crowded daytime. Unfortunately it also meant there was nobody to ask. We knew it was not far because we went there before. At one point, we asked a lone policeman who could not speak English very well but he pointed us to the wrong direction and we had to backtrack.
The subway station was in fact located in a residential area. That was why it was so hard to find. The station should be about 10 minutes away but we wasted almost a half hour at this point. Then we saw three young guys walking ahead. I asked them about the subway. One of them could speak quite a bit of English. After talking to his friends, they decided to take us there. We did not have much choice so we followed them. Then we came another person. Estella asked him about the subway to confirm that we were heading the right direction. But the young guy heard it too. He was really hurt that we did not trust him. I could not blame him. If I was in his situation, I would also be ticked off too. He did not hide his feeling. He asked us why we would ask somebody else. He was so upset that he was no longer keen to bring us to the subway. He basically stopped and asked if we still needed his help or not. Then he pointed out two streets that taking either one should be fine. Did not expect to get into such awkward situation so early in the morning.
Eventually we found the station. The subway of course was not busy at that time but there were other people with baggage too so we knew they were all heading to the ferry. The subway station location at the ferry dock was very convenient. Just got off the subway crossed the street and we could see a row of big ferry boats waiting to take off. These big boats also took car and trucks. We got there before 7:00 and found a couple of good seats at the back of the ship so we could watch the loading activities. All the big ferry ships docked with their back or stern facing the dock. The back ramp dropped down like a drawbridge to allow the cars and ships to go in. Passengers were supposed to be at the ship a half hour before departure. Yet some of the people really pushed their luck. A few arrived just 10 seconds before the boat pushed off.
When we got on the ship, we were told, Mykonos would be the third stop. It would stop at two other islands first. The ship was pretty big but still it was hard to avoid smokers. Greeks seemed to smoke a lot. On Athen's billboards, there were big advertisements for Virginia Slim and Winston. A lot of people here definitely happily puffing away. Some of the die-hard fans even wrapped their own cigarette. We saw a young lady wrapping her own cigarette outside a high-end department store. No wonder on a local English newspaper, it said the Greek population is not as healthy as the rest of the EU. You know smoking and lack of exercise like everybody else.
On this ship, there were several groups of young Asians. They spoke Mandarin. From their accent, Estrella believed they were from Taiwan. After a couple of hours, we arrived at the first island of Ios for a brief stop. The boat speaker system broadcast announcements in both Greek and English. But most of the time, you really could not hear them very well. We saw a lot of people getting off, including one young Chinese couple. We were puzzled why anyone wanted to go to this not so famous island. And just before the ship's departure, we saw the Chinese couple hurrying to scramble back onto the ship. So this couple almost got off at the wrong island.
We made another brief stop at Silos. This time more people got off. The ship had much less people now and carried pretty much all tourists. So the Austrian was right. Locals don't go to Mykonos anymore. That is why Mykonos closes down earlier than other islands. Nearly 5 hours after leaving Athens, we finally arrived at the new ferry dock. At Mykonos, we were to stay at a place called Marki's Place. At the ferry dock, we found Marki, the owner, and his small bus. His hotel was actually right next to the dock. He told us he just got the fax from the travel agent the day before. In fact, officially his hotel is closed. Other than us the only other guests were a Belgian family. The hotel is a small family-run outfit. Probably had about 25 rooms. The building are typical with the design in this area, white low rise and blue trims.
I said to Estrella it would be much nicer if they would grow more bougainvillea. Marki told us he was having a party that night. His friends were coming to roast some rabbit. He said he was not too crazy about rabbit. He also invited us to join them Unfortunately I did not hear the invitation part.
The hotel was next to the new marina too, but it would take 20 minutes by car into town. Marki gave us a map and told us a small beach and restaurants to the right of the hotel. Outside the hotel there was a bus stop with a hourly bus going into town. Walking out, we saw several Filipinos milling around. We believe they were workers from some US cruise ship. We asked them about the beach nearby. Instead of saying "don't know", it appeared they pointed us to the wrong way into the marina. After getting stuck in the marina, we saw a taxi and hired it to go into town. By that time, it was almost 2:00PM. Estrella were really hungry. In the old town facing the small harbor, certainly there was no lack of restaurants. I've got to admit the harbor and the area facing it is much smaller than I expected. You could walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. Then on one end, you make a turn and you would see the Little Venice area and the windmills. Even though the place is smaller than I expected, its charm definitely lives up to my expectation. As expected, there were plenty of tourists. One waterfront restaurant was advertising a roast lamb special for 6 Euros, quite a good deal. We ordered two. But they gave us so much lamb that we could have easily shared one. We just could not finish all the lamb. In fact we were so stuffed with lamb that we did not order any lamb for the rest of the trip.
After lunch, we went to explore all the beautiful narrow streets behind. Some tourists like us had maps and some did not. But we all had one thing in common. We all got lost, map or no map. The map was no help because the street signs posted do not match anything on the map. Initially, it is fun to get lost at a place like this until you found you that often you were going in circle and seeing the same place over and over while missing a big area somewhere else. Like all Greek islands there are a lot of mopeds and ATVs for rent. I checked with one of the shops and the going rate is 15 Euros per day for renting an ATV.
Toward late afternoon after tired of walking, we took a bus to the famous Paradise Beach. It was a half hour ride from downtown, going thru rocky and hilly dry land. The landscape is mostly brown, very dry soil outlined by low white stone walls used to mark individual properties. Hardly any greenery at all. By the time we got to the beach around 5:00PM, the place was pretty quiet but there was some music playing from the bars. The sand was brown with a mix of sand and small pebbles. The size of the beach is a bit smaller than I expected. As it was getting late we decided not to swim and to go back another day.
The time we took brought us to the second-last bus back to town. Pretty soon a lot of people showed up at the stop. and way more than a bus could accommodate. We were getting a bit worried. Finally the bus came and the driver managed to squeeze everybody like sardines into the bus. By the time, we got back to the town, it was almost 7PM, dinner time, but because we had such late and full lunch that we could not eat then. We decided to buy some take out a Greek salad and eat back at our hotel.
Our room had a nice balcony, and from there you can see the marina and the cruise ship dock, and a couple of ships there. While we were having salad on the balcony, Marki's three friends arrived and went to his big kitchen, not too far from our room, and pretty soon, there were laughter, talking, and Greek music flowing out of the kitchen. Boy, I wished we could join them. What I did not know was Marki had actually invited us and Estrella for some reason did not want to go. I thought that was kind of odd to pass up the opportunity of attending a real Greek family dinner-party.
Next morning, we went to the kitchen for breakfast. The hotel had a pretty big breakfast room in the main building near the entrance, but that was closed. In fact, only our room and one next to us were open, the rest had been closed for the season. We saw Marki's wife when we went to look at the hotel ground. It had a nice small swimming pool that they kept it open for us. In the big kitchen, Marki's wife served us tea, bread, and orange juice. There was no egg or bacon. Then Marki came in. He said how about some eggs? Then he made some fried eggs with olive oil for us. The eggs were fresh from his chickens raised at the back of his hotel. And they looked quite a bit bigger than average eggs you normally see. At the back of his hotel, a little bit up the hill, he raised not only chickens, but turkeys and two big pigs as well. He said he would feed his livestock soon if we wanted to go with him.
After breakfast, he took some food scraps probably left over from the night before. We followed him to watch the feeding. Interestingly a group of baby chicks were flocking around a turkey instead of a chicken. Then he showed us two big pigs he had raised since Marki had bought them as babies at the beginning of the year. He said around late fall, he and his brother would get together and spend a couple of days to turn them into sausages and minced meat. No doubt the pigs would provide a lot of good meals. Marki also grew onion etc. so it looked like he could skip a lot of trips to markets with his own livestock and gardening. The two pigs he had looked very fat and friendly. When they heard Marki called them, they came over and waited to be petted and fed. It is a bit sad to know such cute animals would be turned into dinners later.
After saying goodbye to all the animals, we headed into town again. This time we took the hourly bus. In town there are two bus stops, one on each end of the town, with about a 20-minute walk between them. They were apparently run by two different bus companies, serving two different sides of the town. I usually like to check out more than one beach, so we took a bus and headed to another beach, called Agios Ioannis.
This one was quite nice, inside a deep bay, with some sailboats anchored in the middle. We stayed for about an hour and went back to town to have lunch and check some e-mail. In the afternoon, we went back to the Paradise Beach again. This time we planed to stay there and do some swimming. We rented two chairs and an umbrella for 8 Euros. That seemed a bit expensive to me. For some reason, Estrella was willing to spend the money. I guessed she wanted to lounge in style. Amazingly, next to our chairs, we saw the young couple that we saw earlier getting off at the wrong island, Ios, before arriving at Mykonos. We heard them talking to each other in Mandarin.
For some reason, Estrella did not feel like talking to anyone so I went over and asked where they came from with my not-so-good Mandarin. The guy told me they are from Shanghai, on a two-week vacation. The first week they spent at Qatar, and the second week in Greece. They would spend a few days on Mykonos and then a few days on Santorini. So it was possible we might run into them later on Santorini. During this trip we noticed a lot of young Chinese couples traveling independently. I guess as China is doing better and opening up, so a lot of young Chinese want to go and see the world and do it cheaply, exactly like the Western backpackers do.
The guy collected money for the chair, told us if we come in summer there would be a wild party every afternoon, exactly what we saw in Lonely Planet travel video. He pointed to a big outdoor disco. That would be where all the action is during summer. As the time, a young guy went by. He told us that is the owner of the club. He told us and a couple of ladies at the beach that we should come back next May if we really want to have a good time. Actually Mykonos tend to shut down quite early for the season because it is quite far North. Lucky for us it was still sunny and warm enough for swimming. Paradise Beach is also partially a nude beach. There were a few nudists there, but they pretty much stayed at one end of the beach to themselves.
One thing unusual about Paradise Beach is in the water, not too far from the beach, there a big flat piece of rock, just a couple of feet below the surface. Some people would swim to the rock, walk over it and then go swimming on the other side. The rock look almost like a coral because I could see quite a bit of tropical colorful fish, parrot fish for example, similar to those in Caribbean. The water itself was very clean and clear. Paradise Beach also had excellent facilities, there were change rooms and showers available. Everything was very well setup. No wonder it is a popular beach. Why waiting for the bus to go back, we saw 3 young Chinese couples riding mopeds zooming by. Since mopeds and motorcycles are very popular in China or Asia, I was not surprised that these people could comfortably rent mopeds and enjoy the freedom of exploring the island on their own.
Back in town, we tried to cover all the narrow alleys that we might have missed the day before. Out in the bay, we could see five big cruise ships anchoring outside. Mykonos was definitely heating up at that time of the day and was just getting very busy with all these cruise ships passengers. Most of the ships apparently arrive late in afternoon and then leave very late at night.
One picture I saw often in Greek travel brochures is people dining by the seaside with the table sitting right at the water's edge. That picture turned out, was taken on Mykonos. There is one small stretch of water that is sandwiched between 'little Venice' on one side and and the windmills on the other. So it is a beautiful spot to enjoy a meal and watch the sunset at the same time. When we first went by around 5:30PM, a lot of tables were still available but by the time we went back at 6, it was almost full. Because of several cruise ships in town that night, I was not surprised that the place filled up fast. since everybody had the same idea. We grabbed a nice table.
I ordered a fish fillet and Estrella had a pasta. The food, while relatively expensive, especially the seafood, was quite good. At the next table was an American family with some pretty heavy-duty camera hardware, with gigantic lens and big camera bags. I learnt from their conversation with other passengers that they were Americans day-trippers from the cruise ship. They also talked about skiing in Utah so they must be doing pretty good back home. At a nearby table, there were two Japanese girls having Greek salad and red wine for dinner. Most of the diners had cameras snapping away while waiting for the food to arrive. It is such a beautiful and magical surrounding in which to watch a sunset that it's no wonder Mykonos is so famous.
While dining, we saw a dinghy motoring in from a sailboat anchored in the bay, trying to land. But the engine died and they ended up having to paddle by hands. The passengers were struggling a bit in front of hundreds and hundreds of waterfront diners. We all gave them a big cheer after they landed. But one guy was yelling that he wanted to see their passports.
At night by 9PM, the whole waterfront was still teeming with cruise-ship passengers since all cruise ships left late at night. Reluctantly we had to return to our hotel room, and get ready for our departure next day.
Our ferry to Paros left at 10AM. Marki prepared breakfast for us in his kitchen and then took us to the old ferry dock near the old town. We got to Paros around noon-time traveling on a high speed ferry. The hotel was at the edge of the main town in the island called Parikia, about a 10-minute walk away, so it was quite okay.
We asked the receptionist about what to see. She gave us a map and showed us the seaside villages and some beaches that we could visit. Parikia downtown had a windmill in the middle of a round-about. Inside the windmill's base was a tourist office and I was able to get some travel brochures about Paros and Crete. The ferry dock and bus stop are all next to the windmill. That afternoon we took the bus to Naoussa, which is a charming fishing village with a lot of small fishing boats, outdoor cafes, and restaurants. Apparently, this place has a lot of night clubs and could get busy at night. Believe it or not New York Times now claims that Paros is the new party island replacing Mykonos.
There are some nice beaches in the bay near Naoussa but they require a boat ride so we did not bother. While near the harbor, a couple of photographers were hanging up some octopus under the sun and taking pictures. One guy told us that sun-dried octopus is supposed to be very delicious. To the end of this whole trip, we really did not get the chance to try this dish. Well. Maybe next time.
While waiting for the bus, we met two French couples. One guy sitting at the same bench as us was quite friendly and was ready to talk. Unfortunately he could not speak a word of English. Through our broken French and hand signal we found out they were from Lyon and worked in the auto industry. Lyon is famous for the cooking school of Cordon-blu. He had a good laugh when Estrella mentioned the academy. For some reason, there were quiet a bit of French tourists in Paros. In general, I notice most Europeans speak some English. The only exception would be the French and maybe the Spanish. The truth is, without speaking some English, it is actually pretty tough to go all around Europe on your own.
Today, we decided to visit another village recommended by the receptionist. It is called Aliki. It has a nice beach right in the middle of the village. The sand here was quite nice and the water as usual was very clear. There were a couple of restaurants by the beach but it was pretty quiet as expected since it was late in season. After some swimming, we went back to town and checked out the other end of Parikia. On our end, most of the restaurants were more like local taverns but at the other end, the restaurant were much more upscale with nice big lounge chairs and umbrellas along the waterfront. I could see this would be the place where all the trendy people would hang out during the busy season.
There was a sign pointing to something called Traditional Settlement. That turned out be where the narrow streets are. Usually such streets are full of boutiques, souvenir stores, and ice cream places. Unlike Mykonos, cruise ships do not stop here and since it was late season, the place was pretty much deserted and most of the places were closed.
That night, we went to a local tavern and ordered some stuffed squid, fried eggplant, and grill sardines for dinner. They were all very delicious. One nice thing about Paros is it appeared to have more beaches than other islands.
Again we take the high-speed ferry, leaving Paros around 10AM and get into Santorini around noon-time. From a distance, as the boat approached Santorini, you see a white strip sitting on top of the mountain, looking very much like a snow-capped mountain. Until you got closer, then you realized there were houses painted white, perching on the very edge of the cliff.
The ferry is located at the base of the caldera cliff at a place called Athinios. From the dock, you can look up and see the steep cliff pretty much go straight up, with a narrow road zigzagging up to the top. This is probably the only road that is wide enough for buses and cars along the caldera. That is why they built a ferry dock just below. Our hotel is located near the black sand beach of Perrisa. But to go to the towns of Fira or Thera, we needed to take a bus. Good thing there was a bus stop right outside our hotel. Santorini, like other islands, has regular bus services for both the locals and tourists. Here, all the buses end up in the town of Thera where the central caldera is. Pretty much anywhere else you want to go you would most likely need a transfer at Thera. There were a couple of Russian girls arriving at Santorini on the same ferry and staying at our hotel. At the bus stop, there was this Russian lady walking her dogs and she was giving advice to the two Russian girls. Having a dog, she is probably one of those who choose to have a long stay on this Greek island.
After arriving at Thera, we headed to the caldera right away. There are a couple of narrow walking paths running parallel to the ancient volcano's rim cascading down a bit down the cliff. From this trail, we can look down the beautiful cliff and see the cruise ships and other tiny boats below. With the two small islands in the middle of the sea-filled caldera, the view is just fantastic, definitely live up to expectations. The view is so amazing, it just about took my breath away as they say. We walked along the whole trail, admiring the spectacular views. At one point, you can see a trail winding down zigzag fashion to the base. This is the trail connected to the base at the bottom to where all the cruise ship passengers got tendered. There are three ways to the top: walking, riding donkeys, or there is also a gondola to take people up and down. Lining the outside paths are numerous hotels and restaurants hanging at the top of the cliff. The food and drink prices are more expensive. A Coke cost about 3 Euros. Away from the cliff, the path is lined with souvenir, jewelry, and local handicrafts shops.
The narrow paths were just packed with cruise ship passengers. We could see some cruise ship passengers did not want to pay for the gondola or donkey rides and decided to walk up. They were pretty exhausted and just about to collapse when they got to the top. Interestingly, there is even a Chinese restaurant serving genuine Cantonese food. We did not eat there but did check the price. A bowl of noodle soup cost about 7 Euros. That's a bit expensive but considering its location, it was not too bad. For dinner, we picked a restaurant overlooking the cliff so that we could enjoy the sunset during dinner. Luckily we acted so fast because most good seats were already taken.
Where we sat, on one side was the volcanic island in the center of the caldera and the cruise ships way below with the Sun shining over the horizon. On the other side is the cliff-top town of Thera. As the sun set gradually, the lights inside the town also started to glow. By 7PM, the sun was just about to disappear and the buildings lit up beautifully. So were the ships down below in the bay. It was a very spectacular view. I guess that is a good reason people want to come to Santorini.
The day before we went to Thera, in the afternoon while the Sun was shining on the cliff. Today, we decided to go back and look at it again in morning-time when the sun is shining into the water. We got there around 10AM and watched the sun coming up behind the town and cast its light into the water below. The light effect in the morning was very different from that of an afternoon. We also ventured into some new paths that we did not go the day before. At a couple of spots where I could sit and had a good view of the caldera, I just sat there and stared at the view for a long time, leaving Estrella to wander around for herself.
By noon-time, we hopped on a bus and went north to see another caldera view at the town of Oia. The layout of the place is a bit similar to Thera with beautiful restaurants and hotels hanging off the cliff edge. Some of the hotels even have small swimming pools. The caldera view here is also pretty impressive and I heard the town is also slightly higher than that of Thera. Still, I thinking Thera is more beautiful because you can see the volcanic islands and the cruise ships anchored below. In afternoon, we went to a rocky beach called Kamari and swam there. The beach does not have much sand. Mostly its just small pebbles. It was not as nice for walking on. But the small pebbles certainly do not hurt the feet at all. The place was lined with restaurants, shops, beach chairs, and even showers for people to rinse themselves after swimming.
Another place Estrella wanted to visit was an archaeological museum. Unfortunately it was closed, because, believe or it, previously part of the museum roof collapsed and killed some tourists. Instead we signed up for the next day for a day trip that would take us to visit the volcanic islands in the middle of the caldera, and a hot spring. Santorini offers several day trips that visitors can take so I could see that people could stay there for a week and have enough things to do. In the center of Theara town, away from the cliff edge, there were some small inexpensive outdoor eateries. One place we went, for 6 Euros, they gave us a Greek salad, a bottle of water, and a big spaghetti. The spaghetti was so big, it took two of us to finish it. It was a pretty good deal for sure.
At the lobby of our hotel while waiting for the tour bus, we ran into an Austrian couple. They also signed up a similar trip but with a different company. The bus came and picked us up at 10:00AM and took us to ferry dock of Athinios where we boarded a three-masted wood boats. For some reason, they used this kind of wood boat to visit the volcanoes. I suppose one reason is this kind were built to have a big open deck to accommodate hundreds of people. Several buses came and unloaded more passengers. From what we heard, there were three groups of people on that boat. Besides the English speaking, there were German and Finnish groups. So everything was explained in three languages. The boat motored between the town of Thera and the volcano.
From the water, you could clearly see the zigzag paths that the people and donkeys use to go to the top. This volcanic island is a national park and they charged 2 Euros per person to get in. The group hiked up to the edge of the crater following the tour guide. The tour guide said to us that this island is the newest one in the world.* And it was created as a result of a big volcanic explosion, causing the middle part of the original Santorini to sink and then this volcanic island popped up in the middle, resulting in this unique caldera rim formation.
(* But see Surtsey near Iceland.)
Most of the island is solid black rock, while some parts are grey. In fact, there were multiple eruptions over thousands of years. In certain parts, you can still see the smoke coming out and you can feel the heat plus smell the faint sulphur odor. After the hiking, the boat took us to a small bay where a hot spring is located. The boat anchored and the passengers who wanted to experience the hot spring had to jump into the water and swim toward the bay. It took about 10 minutes to swim to the point where you could feel the water slightly warming up. Estrella and I jumped into the water with hundreds of others. It was an interesting experience but not exactly what I expected. After the hot spring, the boat took us to the second volcanic island called Thirassia for lunch and a swim. We docked at a small fishing village located at the base of a cliff.
The place was not very well developed. But there were several waterfront restaurants. We ordered an octopus kebab and a tomato-ball dish which we saw on menus all the time but had no idea what it was. The balls came but they did not look like a ball at all. They were really flat fried tomato fritter. It was tasty and the price was quite reasonable. The octopus kebab was quite good too. From there, you could have a good view of Thera and Oia. The water was crystal clear and some people fed the fish with bread. But the fish we saw were pretty small. Here there is another zigzag path that you could hike to the top of the cliff. A couple went to the top and almost did not make it back in time. Good thing the guy told his wife to leave everything with him and race ahead to stop the boat from leaving. Back at the Athinios, near the ferry dock, you can see a big area that was circled off with buoys. That was the location where the Greek cruise ship Sea Diamond sank earlier. It hit the reef near Thera and took on water. Then it was towed to this location and sank. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was pretty exhausted but it was a fun day.
To-day is our last day in Santorini but the ferry did not leave until 4PM. So we still had the whole morning and part of the afternoon to finally check out the big black sand beach Perrisa behind our hotel. It took about a 15-minute walk just to get there. It was a very long beach so we made a left turn and walked a while along the water before we hit the part with plenty of restaurants and beach chairs with umbrellas. There is even an Internet cafe. So we used the cafe to move some files out of the camera. Then we rented an umbrella and chairs to relax at the beach. The sand are pretty black and it gets darker when wet. From what we read, black sand are supposed to be much hotter than the white sand but I did not really notice any difference. The weather was still quite nice and there were people swimming. But we decided to take it easy and not go swimming anymore. After having a nice late lunch at one of the beachside restaurants, we walked slowly back to our hotel and waited to be taken to the ferry. The Austrian couple was also taking the same ferry to Crete, our next island.
Again we took a high speed ferry. Estrella had a strategy. She wanted to jump in as soon as possible so that she could get the front row seats. The idea of getting front row seat is so that you could look out and see where the ship is going. This way you would not get seasick that much. Unfortunately, not all fast ferries have the same design. The one we took before had some front window so you can see where it is heading. But this one the front part was completely enclosed. Also people seemed to follow the seat assignment. According to our seat assignment, we would be in the middle of the boat, not being able to look out at all. Luckily, I was able to find empty window seats that were not taken. Anyway, it was getting dark soon and that was not much to see outside anyway.
The high-speed boat took about 3 hours to get to Crete, the last island in our island-hopping tour, to a town called Iraklio. By the time, we got to Crete around 7PM, not only it was dark, it was also raining heavily. All the tourists scrambled to get out their rain-gear and tried to get their bearing. Once you got out of the ferry dock area, all the new tourist arrivals were kind of lost, not knowing where to turn. The only people there were mostly taxi drivers and they were not keen on giving direction because they really wanted you to ride with them. So far the hotels we stayed always had someone pick us up from the dock except this one in Crete. The travel agent told us they did not provide pickup so we would have to find our own way. From the map it was supposed to be within walking distance of the dock.
So a bunch of us who did not want to take taxis were heading out together, either looking for a 'nearby' hotel, like us, or looking for the bus stop to take them to their hotel. It was not exactly easy to try to read a map in the dark with hardly any street light, in the pouring rain, while dragging the luggage. Eventually we all went our own separate way. We made a right turn, according to the small map we had and tried to find some one in the dark street for help. The streets were all pretty quiet at the time. We must have asked about 10 people along the way, pretty much just about everyone who was still outside at that time of night. They were all very friendly and amazingly all seem to know the hotel or the street of the hotel. We even accidentally went by the bus station that some were looking for earlier.
The way to the hotel had numerous twists and turns, also involving gradually climbing up the hill. Yet each of these kind folk managed to show us part of the way. It worked out more or less like this: one guy would show us one turn and then next guy would show us the next turn. Miraculously about a half hour later, with the help from all these unconnected individuals, and one turn at a time, we managed to arrive at our hotel located in a nice pedestrian street where all the shopping and night action stuff were. Now I realized why everyone knew about this street. We were soaking wet by the time we checked in. The luggage also got a bit wet but it was not too bad. To our surprise, we ran into the same Austrian couple from Santorini. They just took a taxi straight to the hotel. I supposed we could have shared a cab if we knew we would be staying at the same hotel. It just never occurred to me to ask them about their hotel because I thought the chance of that would be pretty small. The only thing we knew was they would only stay for one night at Iraklio and then head to southern Crete. Outside our hotel was a Virgin record store and not far away there is a Zara department store. And there were numerous sandwich shops and restaurants there. So it was very convenient.
Luckily the rain stopped but it was a bit windy This hotel also included breakfast. It was similar to those in other hotel. The breakfast included coffee, bread, jam, and hard-boiled egg. The first place we went to visit was the Palace of Knossos. Here was the start of all the Greek civilization, according to the signs. It was a massive compound with numerous stone ruins that was discovered by an archaeologist called Evans. Based on the fragments of ruins he found, he managed to reconstruct some buildings. This certainly made the place a bit more interesting to look at rather than just piles of rocks only. He was even able to recover some paintings to show how the people looked like at that time. The place was pretty busy with tourists. While there, we saw a tour group of sailors in navy uniforms. They were probably from an Eastern European country but we were not sure.
That afternoon we headed out to a beach as recommended by the manager of the travel bureau. It was a pretty nice big beach but it was completely deserted, except one lone fisherman. We sat for a while on the chairs of a cafe that was already closed, watching the big waves pounding the shore. Getting into the water was completely out of the question. Finally the weather has caught up with us. Even though Crete is the most southern part of Greece, it would be too late in the season to do any more swimming.
Crete is a big island, so big that it could easily be a country by itself. I am not surprised if they think they own the rest of Greece instead of other way around. From what I read, Crete not only started this whole ancient Greek civilization thing, it also produced the best olive oil and some famous Greek politicians. Another thing that nobody talked about it much anymore was during World War 2, thousands of German para-troopers died in the process of taking over the island and thousands of Greeks died trying to defend it. It was occupied by the Venetians during the late-medieval period. So this place has a lot of history.
Today, we planned a trip heading east to visit two other major cities of Crete, Rethymno and Chania. Chania is the most eastern city in Crete and Rethymno is between Iraklio and Chania. The weird thing about Greek names is often there is more than one way to spell them. I suppose the names were translated phonetically from Greek and different people translated them differently. We thought the bus company would let us buy one ticket and stop at two places and we were hoping to stop at Rethymno first on the way to Chania, but the bus company only allowed us to stop at Rethymno on the way back. The bus ride to Chania was a two-hour ride along the northern side of Crete, with nice ocean view most of the time. The bus station of Chania is in the middle of town and rather small but it managed to accommodate 30 big buses. They were packed in so tight that they had to shuffle every time a bus came or went.
We went into Old Port, which had a nice bay harbor protected by a stone breakwater with a light-house. At one part, there were some horse carriages to carry tourists around. There was this weird round-top building that looked a bit like a octopus. Inside is an art gallery. The port itself was quite pretty and as usual full of outdoor cafes and restaurants. There are several side streets where leather goods and souvenirs are sold to tourists. We had a nice spinach pie at an outdoor sandwich shop for lunch.
In the afternoon, we got on the bus to go to Rethymno. While we got on the bus, I recognized two guys from the breakfast room of the same hotel we stayed at on Santorini. What a small world. They were a bit surprised to see us too. Along the northern coast, there were some nice beaches and even some big hotels. I suppose if you came with an all-inclusive package, you might end up staying at one of these big hotels.
The Rethymno bus station was even smaller but it was at the ocean's edge. There was a big castle not far from the bus stop. Rathymno also was once a Venetian port but it was much smaller than the one in Chania. Almost all the sidewalk surfaces were completely blanketed with outdoor restaurants. You literally had to walk between tables to get from one end to the other. Of course this gave a chance for the waiter to bug you for business. So it was not very nice. Another thing about this place is you could not even see the sea, given the high wall surrounding the small harbor.
By late afternoon, Estrella was not feeling well, so we decided to go back to Iraklio. One thing weird about the bus was when we first got on it, the bus driver checked to make sure we had tickets but another guy got on the bus later and checked the tickets again. I guess checking tickets twice would make sure nobody could slip by and ride for free.
That night, Estrella still felt bad and did not want to go out at all so I went out by myself to bring some dinner home and also to check out the night scene around our hotel. Our street connects to two separate squares. The big one has a big traffic circle where you find all the bus stops. In the middle of the circle, there are benches where people could sit and rest. There are also restaurants and even a cinema. A very busy square. The other end of the street connected to a smaller square. This one has an old fountain anchoring the middle, with numerous outdoor cafes surrounding it. The city hall is also located there. At night, this square and the street next to it was packed with trendy people enjoying the evening. Some stores even stayed open quite late. I always found it very enjoyable to be able to walk around at night at a place like this, doing a bit of window shopping and a lot of people-watching.
On this our last day in Crete, we planed to check out the rest of the Iraklio. Down by the old harbor, there is a gorgeous Venetian fortress.
After breakfast, we just headed to the smaller square with the famous fountain. One of the old Venetian buildings had an exhibit about the famous Greek painter El Greco. He was from Crete and because he spent so much time in Spain, the Spanish more or less treated him like a native. But they found it hard to pronoun his really long Greek name (Doménicos Theotokópoulos) so they called him El Greco or "The Greek". An American film company just finished making an movie about him. The exhibit displayed a lot of shots from the movie, most of were about the village life and an archbishop that had something to do with his life.
From the fountain, we continued on a pedestrian street down to the harbor. There were many buildings with Venetian balconies showing the heavy influence of Italian architecture. The old port is within walking distance of the new ferry dock. It had a long pier that jutted out into the bay, protecting the small fishing boats inside the harbor. The fortress is situated on the harbor and it cost two Euros to go in. The lady cashier there just collected and "pocketed" the money. There was no ticket nor a receipt given back. Looked like a system open to abuse, given that there are hundreds of visitors going there everyday. This lady could be easily leading a lifestyle well beyond what her salary could support, as the saying goes. Anyway the fortress was very well preserved and restored. On the first floor, there were several large chambers for storage and gatherings. Some openings were made on the ceiling to allow some sunlight to come in. One chamber even had a large collection of ancient cannon balls. On the top, you could look out to the brilliantly blue southern Aegean Sea all the way out to the horizon, meeting the brilliantly blue sky. The view is spectacular but somehow I admit this kind of scenery usually do not show up very well in picture. Around lunch time we went back to the square for lunch.
Then we popped into this beautiful church at the side of the pedestrian street While we were there, there was a bunch of small kids led by a teacher on a field trip. There were also several street kids, mostly Gypsy, playing popular Italian songs with their small accordion for money. They actually played very well. But we were not sure why they did not go to school instead.
By 6PM, we headed to the ferry dock and got on board an overnight ferry to get back to Athens. The ship is pretty big like those mid-size cruise ships cruising in the Caribbean. We had an outside cabin to ourselves. I was hoping the ship had a library so that I could exchange my book but the waiter told me there was no such thing. It also has Internet access but that is rather expensive. 7 Euros for an hour. Before getting on board, we bought some sandwiches since we did not know if the ship served meals and whether it was expensive or not. The ship was not too busy, probably only about a quarter full at most. It had two dining rooms. One for sit-down meals and one for self-serve. But both appeared to be closed. So we ate our reserve sandwiches.
The ship eventually departed by 7PM. At 8, the PA system announced the two restaurants were finally open. Looks like Greeks prefer to have their dinner late. Unfortunately we also had already eaten our sandwich. I went to check the self-serve restaurant anyway. The food they served there was actually very nice and reasonable. They had salad, fish, seafood, and pasta. For 10 Euros, you got a big plate of spaghetti big enough for two. It surprised me a bit to find that the most reasonable and authentic Greek food is probably on a local cruise ship like this one. If we had known ahead of time, we would have dinner there for sure.
Anyway, there was this appetizer dish with nice big chunks of octopus swimming in olive oil and oregano. It looked so good that I had to try it. Since Estrella still did not feel well and did not want to go to the restaurant, I asked the waiter for take out. He said just take the whole tray with me. So I wandered down the ship with this nice plate of octopus to go back to the room and share with Estrella. Some people were looking at me and wondering why we were doing our own room service.
That night, the TV was showing a soccer match between Greece and their usual rival, Turkey, played in Istanbul and a lot of Greek passengers were closely watching the game on a couple of big flat-panel TVs in the lounge. The Greek players were dressed in white and blue while the Turkish team wore red, the colors of their national flags. Our room even had a small TV so we watched the game in our room. At the end, the Greek team won by scoring one goal. Turkey almost evened the game toward the end but the attempt hit the goal post. With this, Greece eliminated Turkey and moved on to the European semi-finals. There was no riot or anything like that in Istanbul. Good to know that.
We got back to Athens around 6 in the morning. While waiting to depart, the ship's stewards even served the passengers coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. A very nice gesture.
Since Estrella wanted to visit Kalambaka to see Meteora, we went out to check the travel agents nearby to look for a package. Eventually we signed on for one at our hotel reception. It was a two-day trip but it did not leave the next day, as we had hoped, but the day after. That was fine with us. In the afternoon, we went to check out the Hadria gate right next to our hotel. In the same complex, there were the remains of a big temple with several tall impressive columns. And with the Parthenon sitting on top of the Acropolis at the background, it was quite an spectacular sight.
From there we went to the first Olympic stadium ever built. It made of shiny white marble. Unfortunately, we could not go in and could only see it from outside. Next to the stadium is the big city garden. We wandered through the quiet garden and ended up in Sytama Square.
As usual, they were changing guards again. But we saw a bunch of riot police getting ready for action and a big student demonstration, involving hundreds of university students. By talking to a young lady, we found out there were protesting against the removal of free education. We sat in the shade and watched a bit. The students were distributing flyers and threw them around, some up into air. At the same time, there were several city cleaners picking them up as soon as those flyers landed on the street. The clean-up was definitely extremely efficient. The mess was cleaned up faster than the students could create it. Some flyers were scooped up even before they could hit the ground. Boy these cleaners were really efficient.
In the afternoon, we went to check out the Central Market. There were numerous butcher shops all selling the same stuff. In a different section, there were seafood stores, selling all kinds including octopus etc. We also found a little eatery at the back of the market. The seafood soup looked pretty delicious. I always like seafood soup such as the French bouillabaisse. I figured we should go back later and have some. So we went back that night. The fish soup came in two plates. One plate had a big chunk of fish. Not sure what kind, but it was delicious.
We took the subway to the Olympic stadium. There I saw the same subway inspector who gave us a hard time earlier, seemed he just caught another person, a local this time. From the moaning and whining of the person you know he was extremely unhappy to be caught. Even though Athens just hosted the Olympics in 2004 and built some nice new subway facilities, there were absolutely no mention at all about this event in any promotional material that we came across. No exhibit, or stadium tour, or anything related to it. The so-called city tour never bothered to stop there. Instead of being very proud of what they have done, it was almost like the city was trying hard to forget the whole thing. Weird. The only thing that we saw was a subway station labeled as the Olympic Station. At least with the subway, we should be able to get to the site by subway. So this morning, we went to check it out. The whole area was fenced off by a wire wall but there was a gate that you could go thru. A security guard sat at the entrance but he did not seem to care about anybody going in or coming out and the place was quite deserted. We went in and found a lot of white modern structures. There was a velodrome for cycling, swimming pools, one indoor and one outdoor, and, of course, the main stadium. Unfortunately all these were closed and locked up. Could not go in and have a look. The only ones that were open were the two swimming pools because some students were training inside. I supposed if the city or someone organized a stadium tour, a lot of tourists would probably sign up for it.
After the Olympic site, we went to check out the National Library, thinking maybe there would be English books for us to read. The library was located in a pretty impressive building. But it was also closed. I guessed because it was a Sunday afternoon. So, no surprise. We looked around a bit and Estrella ended up talking to a lady at the back of the building. Turned out she was a library employee. She welcomed Estrella and confirmed that it would be open next morning. Well. It was no use to us because we would be leaving next day. The street where the library located was a wide street, with some big department stores. The two main department stores in Greece are Hondo and Attica. Attica, which is very upscale, is located here. Nearby, there were some book stores that also carried some English books. I bought a book there as I was running out of things to read.
While crossing a side street, a guy on motorcycle drove his big bike right up to in front of us and yelled out loud "Welcome to Athens" and gave us a big smile and a thumb-up. This amazing guy, seeing a tourist, probably decided to do his share of making visitors feel welcome. Boy! Talk about friendly locals.
We got up early to join the tour that would take us to Delphi and Kalambaka. Delphi was an important religious center of ancient Greece. Its center had a temple for Apollo with a spring. There were numerous temples and treasury ruins that attracted visitors. Kalambaka is a town where the Meteora are located. The term Meteora is used to describe some Greek Orthodox churches that were built on top of some huge standing rock formations. The bus took two hours to get to Delphi.
From there we had a couple of hours to spend on the site but most of the time, we just followed the tour guide and the group. The huge complex was built on a hillside, so it was a bit tricky to climb up. There was an huge ruin of the temple for Apollo. In the old days, the oracle stayed at this place, and people from all over Greece would come here and pay for advice. After visiting the site, we went to see the museum. It was amazing to see so many well-preserved carving that were made thousands of years ago.
Our bus had two groups. One group was on a day-trip to Delphi and one group was on a two-day trip that would continue to Kalambaka. At the end of the Delphi walk, we were transferred to a smaller bus and join a third group of people who were on a four-day tour. It definitely sounded a bit complicated but by combining and splitting these various people, the tour company managed to save themselves having to run some duplicate bus runs. Now I realized why this trip was only available on certain days.
When we got to Delphi, it was a bit cloudy but on the way to Kalambaka, the cloudy day became windy, then rainy, and then it was pouring rain. The windshield was badly fogged up and the driver could barely see through. The defogger was broken, so for two hours, we were driving, in my view, in a fairly scary condition, going through dark and winding roads with a cliff-edge on one side. Not sure why the driver wanted to risk the lives of a busload of tourists. At one stop, we made a short shopping stop at a store that showed us how the Greek Orthodox icons were made. Icons are colorful religious paintings mostly made on wood panels.
By the time we got to Kalambaka, around 7PM, it was dark and raining and cold because Kalambaka is a bit high-altitude. From whatever I could see thru the foggy bus window when the bus going thru the town, that this place was a major tourist destination with numerous hotels and restaurants. We could have gone out and roamed the town a bit. But with the bad weather situation, we decided to stay put.
That night the dinner was included at the hotel restaurant. We shared a table with two other couples from our group. One was from Calgary, Canada and one from Melbourne, Australia. The couple from Calgary were both ex-teachers. The wife retired recently and the guy had retired a few years earlier. They were on a 5-week tour of Greece. This was the beginning of their trip. After this they would meet up with some friends and go to visit the islands. It was a bit surprising that people would come so late in season to see the islands. Since we just came back from the islands, we knew most of the places were starting to shut down and swimming was most likely out of the question by now.
The Australian couple were much older and I would call them ex-Europeans. The wife was from Greece and the guy was from Italy and they had met in Australia. So they ended up speaking English to each other. The wife came to Greece to visit her only sister in Athens who was not feeling well. She said Greeks, including her sister, tended to talk so loud and fast she could not stand them anymore. Interesting even though Australia has a large percentage of Greek population, she said she never socialized with them. I did notice she was speaking English to the Greek store salespeople. One of them was a bit puzzled and asked her why she did not use Greek.
When the Ottoman empire invaded Greece, the Greek Orthodox priests retreated to the countryside. Some of them found these huge rock pillar in Kalambaka and decided to build monasteries on top of them. Some of these look really spectacular with cliffs dropping straight down all around the buildings. The setting was so exotic and stunning that it was featured in a James Bond movie. Part of "For Your Eyes Only" was made at and in the Holy Trinity Monastery.
Our biggest concern that morning was whether the sky would clear up or not because if it was foggy and raining then, we would not be able to see the full view. We were kind of lucky the day before when the rain did not come down until after the visit to Delphi. Again we were lucky, as the rain stopped, with some cloud and sun. The tour took us to visit two monasteries. In the old days, the only way to get to these monasteries was by sitting inside a basket and someone at the top would turn a winch to haul you up. We saw the winch mechanism used for this purpose.
Since some churches were bombed out during the second world war by Germany, part of these had to be rebuilt but some of them were really old. One thing about the Greek Orthodox church is the interior wall is usually covered completely with detailed colorful paintings and icons. And of course, all these paintings have stories and symbolic meanings.
The tour guide was an older Greek lady. I think she just talked too much. She told us so much details and took so much time that we hardly had any free time left to explore on our own. There were many tour groups and the church chamber were not very big so we often had to rotate in one group at a time. Her explanation tended to drag on and on describing every single symbol of the painting. I ended up saying to myself "who cares".
One thing about our driver was he was so dark he looked more like Indian than Greek. He had a big collection of CDs. He played them when on a long drive. Some of the easy listening music would put you to sleep. While it was okay to soothe passengers, I was quite concerned that it might put him to sleep too. Also he always wore his dark sunglasses even when it was cloudy and rainy outside, going thru mountain winding road. This all made some of us a bit nervous. Also when we had to meet back at the bus at certain time, the driver and tour guide would always be late and the last ones to show up. Instead of them waiting for us, we always ended up waiting for them. No doubt they were running on 'Greek time'.
By noon time we finished seeing Kalambaka, and intended to use the afternoon for the long drive home back to Athens. During the stops, we found out there were several Canadian couples in the group. Beside the Calgary one, there was one from New Brunswick and another from Ottawa. The rest were either Australian or American people. Our bus stopped at Thermopylae. This was the place that, in ancient times, 300 Spartans and their allies stopped the mighty Persian army, for a while anyway. That was a movie made recently about this but the tour guide told us it was not made in Greece at all. Of course we all knew it was a semi-animated movie made indoors in a Montreal studio. One place we stopped had a thermal spring that came from the side of the mountain. The legend said that the Spartan soldiers took baths there before the battle. The other thing by the roadside was a big statue of Leonides who was then the king of Sparta, who led his army to defend the place until they were all killed. According to the legend, before his final battle, he told his wife to marry somebody else and raise a lot of good kids because he knew he would not be coming back.
Finally, time to go home.
Our flight leaving Athens to Toronto via Munich was scheduled to be at 5AM. Given that we needed to be at the airport two hours before boarding time, that meant we would need to be at the airport by 3AM. If we were to stay at a hotel, we could only sleep for 3 to 4 hours only. So we decided to forget about a hotel and just spent the night in the airport. There was a regular hourly bus going to the airport from Syntagma Square, so it was very convenient.
During breakfast, we shared a table with an Malaysian-Chinese couple. They lived and worked in Scotland. They were both architecture students. The guy already graduated and working while the girl still had a couple of years to go. We ended up talking about the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We told them we went to see the Falling Water house in Pennsylvania. According to them, the very first house they studied was Falling Water, so they were quite impressed that we had seen the place. They gave us their e-mail address and invited us to go see them if we ever went to Scotland.
That morning after breakfast, we checked out and were tempted to do some last-minute shopping or go over to the National Library. I even found a mega indoor-shopping mall near the Olympic stadium. But it was tricky with all the luggage. The hotel charged for storing luggage, so that was why we did not want to leave it there.
Instead we decided we were too tired and did not really want to move too much anymore. We just went over to Syntagma Square and had lunch at one of the outdoor cafes. There were some street vendors, all Africans, selling fake designer handbags. We saw them before on the first day when we arrived Athens. They all carried their merchandise in big duffel bags. Whenever they found a nice sidewalk, they would spread a big piece of cloth and pour out their contents for sale. The problem was the police would come and chase them away. For some reason, the cops would simply get them to leave rather than arresting them. So these vendors, besides dealing with customers, were always busy on the lookout for police. These two motorcycle cops walked by and the vendors all took off. After the police left, they would come back to exactly the same spot. It was kind of funny, like kids chasing pigeons. Sometimes a group of vendors, all holding their big duffel bags while standing at one end of a street, while the two cops were standing at the other corner to see who would make the first move. I noticed occasionally they even smiled at each other.
Estrella spent most of the morning chasing these mobile vendors to see if she could get a bargain. At the end, she found a small purse that she liked. While at the Square, we saw a group of Green Peace activists trying to talk to the people. They all worn orange t-shirts, the Green Peace uniform. These were all young university students. They seemed to want to talk to people getting out of the subway and most of the people were just too busy on their way to somewhere to talk to them. But they ignored the easy target, the bunch of people sitting right at the square. I eventually went over to ask them about what they had. They showed me some pictures of windmills and told me they were hoping to promote wind power in Greece.
Meanwhile a young Bulgarian approached Estrella to sell her some home-made candy from a basket. Estrella bought two from him and gave him two Euros. We ended up talking to him for a few minutes. His English was actually very good. He told us he just came back from India where he had studied philosophy for a couple of years. He was in Greece to make some money before going back to India to further his studies. He said every EU citizen could go and work at any other EU country, provided they could find a job. I asked him what he was going to do after finishing his philosophy studies. He said he was not sure. I certainly hope this young man knew what he was doing. By 6PM, we hopped on the bus and headed to the airport. The airport was pretty big and new, probably built for the Olympics. But it was not as fancy as others we have seen.
We had a few Euro coins left and hoped that would be enough for dinner. We found a McDonald's upstairs that offered a one-Euro hamburger and a one-Euro salad. They looked like loss-leaders to me because they were actually pretty good deals. The next challenge was to look for some chair sets with no arm rests so that we could stretch out. Estrella found one but it was occupied by an older couple. We waited nearby and hoped they would leave. But they just refused to move the whole night. And by the time we actually left, around 4 in the morning, they were still there occupying the chairs that Estrella had eyed since afternoon. Pretty amazing.
Another amazing thing was these two guys we saw at the Santorini hotel and them saw them again at a bus stop on Crete. They were at the airport too. They did not speak English but we figured out they were Finns because they were getting on a flight to Helsinki.
Finally by 3:00AM Thursday, we checked in and reluctantly said goodbye to Europe, especially to one of the most photogenic countries in the world, Greece.
© Dave Cheng 2008