October 2, 2011 Greek Islands and Nepal:
While walking through yet another airport, wrapped in a kakauphanie of noise and security irritants, amidst other cranky and tired humans, I thought about what it is that drives me to go on another long journey. Is it my profound curiosity to learn about other cultures? Is it a yearning to challenge my mind in a completely unknown setting such as Nepal? Why do I enjoy exploring solo new environs? I left my country (USA) in an exhaustive state from both illness (curable) and preparation (sleep and a more relaxed mode will cure the latter), but in high spirits, knowing that a mixture of these aforementioned elements will keep me in an explorer's mode over the next two months.
ITINERARY: First stop, Athens, to meet a delightful group of three couples, to lead them on a soft adventure tour of some of my favorite Greek islands: Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, and Symi.At the end of this tour, I will fly from Athens to Delhi, India; and then on to Kathmandu, Nepal where I will volunteer in an office at the Patan Academy of Health Sciences.
October 2, 2011, ATHENS: My poor travelers were all on Delta, arriving from different USA locales, and each was delayed by Delta cancellations for 1-2 days. Not one will ever fly Delta again! We are, however, assembled and spent a short morning visiting the new Acropolis Museum.An elegant dinner the evening before, at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Acropolis, reminded me again how the stark beauty of this ancient site can be so moving.
As a want-to-be cultural anthropologist, the magnificence of this structure, built in mathematical precision between 447 and 438BC, makes me yearn to know about the men who labored to build this Doric beauty.Was the stone cutter a slave, or was he paid for his skills? What was in his lunch box? Where did he sleep? Was there a water boy delivering sips to hot and weary workers? Did Ictinus and Callicrates, the architects, first create drawings, and if so, with what instruments?Were there any women involved in the construction of this site? Did they arrive each day with sustenance for their men? There needs to be more time in my life to research these matters.
Athens was quiet. No apparent riots over its economic woes, no apparent street scenes over pending decisions of the EU to further bail out Greek debt. Only when we returned to the Athens Airport did we find public discourse in the form of an air traffic controllers' slow-down. Our flight from Athens to Santorini was delayed for one and a half hours.The magical island of Santorin pushed aside our potential angst, and the drop-dead stunning five-star Canaves Hotel where we are spending three nights brought peace and joy to our travel-weary bodies.
We are staying in the quiet artsy town of Oia, located on the Caldera's precipice (The Caldera is the body of water created from an implosion of a volcano in 1600BC), at the far eastern endof this 18 kilometer-long agrarian and touristy island. What splendor! The Hotel, re-constructed and modernized in every comfortable way, was built out of the shells of former fishermen's cave dwellings.If the fishermen could see it now! Each of our suites has a living room and a nice bathroom. A loft bedroom and private terrace allows us to see from our comfy beds the magnificence of the caldera below. Every square inch of both the Hotel and this beautiful cliff-side white-washed town is most romantic.
A blurb I wrote long ago about Santorini and the Caldera:Santorini was once a large round island with an active volcano at its center. In 1500 BC the volcano imploded causing the loss of the Atlantis civilization and much of the center of the island to submerge into the sea. What remains from this colossal eruption are one large horseshoe-shaped island (Santorini) and several smaller islands, together forming a ring around an enormous bay. In the ensuing centuries fishermen dug caves into the cliffs for homes. Sea captains built topsides more luxurious mansions. Today the traveler finds this magical island transformed into a paradise of restored homes, artisan shops, small hotels, piles of ancient ruins, and commanding views and sunsets to swoon over. This extraordinary island deserves its praise.
I stopped by a small shop to purchase a beach cover-up and off-handedly asked the shop-keeper how his country's financial situation was effecting his business and his family. Did I get a tirade back! "Do you know, Madame, that this all the fault of those Germans! The Germans totally destroyed Greece during WWII, and never paid one Drachma to help us re-build our country. No one helped us, and we were the only complete country in Europe to resist the Germans with all our heart and soul. Greece had to borrow huge amounts of money to rebuild. Our other enemy, Turkey, continues to threaten to attack us if we start drilling amongst our Aegean islands that line Turkey's coast where lies large potential oil and gas fields. Consequently, we continue to pour money into our military, buying weapons, tanks, fighter jets; building war ships, and paying soldiers to guard our shores. This is money that could be better spent on social issues. This is why we are broke! And the Americans side with the Turks because the USA is selling weapons to Turkey!"A totally new take on Greece's fiscal problems. Don't shoot the messenger!
A bit of humor after that ½ hour, one-sided conversation. I saw a beautiful girl splattered with tattoos. One of my traveling companions told me that those tattoos on women are called "Tramp Stamps".
October 3: We set sail today on a 70' Catamaran for a six-hour sail around the Caldera, stopping at different protected harbors to dive into the clear, clean Aegean.Perfect weather, great swimming, and a delicious barbeque meal with wine and ouzo.A late dinner down the cliffs in a tiny fishing port topped off a wonderful day.
October 4: A tour of Fira, the largest town on Santorini. With five huge cruise ships disgorging thousands of day trippers, we went to two excellent archeological museums and fled this over-crowded, junky place to return to peaceful, beautiful Oia.
Forget about bargains in Athens and Santorini! Every meal, bottle of wine, and transport vehicle are so outrageously expensive.I walk around in disbelief. Example: I found a lovely cozy restaurant for dinner this evening, The menu looked good, prices commensurate with what I envisioned to be a decent rate per person.An entre runs between 22-32 Euros per plate at this upscale restaurant.A bottle of wine runs between 40 and 90 Euros a bottle.The foods were actually exquisite and the wines so-so.
The Euro today is 1.33 Euros to the dollar. This is better than when it was 1.45 a couple of months ago. But when this bill arrived at the end of the meal, I graciously flipped!Add 16% vat tax, 15% service, and 3% transaction fee for using a credit card, wine, salads, no dessert, no coffees. The bill was 750 Euros = $1012.50US for seven persons = $145 per person. So don't rush to Santorini without pockets' full of cash. Crete will be saner, I know from experience.
This wildly beautiful island of Crete is one of the most diverse in Greece. Long and mountainous, it marks the southern boundary of the Aegean Sea and was of great strategic importance throughout ancient history. The island is littered with the remains of all the great powers from the region including the Bronze Age Minoan civilization whose palaces at Knossos you will visit (1700-1450BC). Crete is fertile and is today the major supplier of market garden produce to mainland Greece.
October 5: Leisurely morning breakfast around the cliff-side pool before going off on a 2.5 hour hike up to the ruins of the ancient city of Thera. Once an important naval base of the Aegean (3rd C.BC - 145C. BC), this Hellenistic-Roman city and fortification sit 300 meters high on a promontory facing three sides of the deep blue Aegean. When visiting eastern Mediterranean ruins, I am once again reminded that these early civilizations were sophisticated, learned,had vast, wide-ranging trade routes,knew the value of education and the written word (The Phoenicians invented the alphabet and mathematics). In this particular 4th C. ruin we viewed remnants of toilets, household and city sewage systems, bathing facilities; a gymnasium for athletics and competitive games; temples for religious and academic pursuits; establishments for governance and trade. Who are we to think that we are so worldly and above all others?
Speaking of governance, there is a Strike Day today. All Greek airports are closed - no international or local air traffic anywhere. The airports are silent, the streets are missing taxis, and the garbage is piling up.The high-speed ferry we were to take this afternoon to Heraklio, Crete, was delayed by two hours. No matter. We finally sped across sixty miles across a smooth seaf to Crete, drove an hour and a half west along the coast to the Venetian (1300 AD) city of Rethymno, and landed in another one of my most favorite hotels, Hotel Veneto, a charming 14th C. inn run by an old acquaintance of mine. We dined in a candlelight courtyard, charmed by our romantic surroundings, excellent wines, and superb gourmet foods.
October 6-9, Loutro, Crete, a tiny fishing village accessible only by foot or by small boat.
The south coast of Crete is topographically and culturally the most interesting region on Crete. The Sfakian people, with their independent spirit and pride of land, made up the bulk of the resistant fighters for many warring centuries. During World War II, Allied soldiers were forced to retreat from the Battle of Crete and were evacuated by ship out the back door from the little port of Hora Sfakia. This rugged, steeply mountainous land has a beauty and history all its own. Its narrow roads twisting towards the sea are not for the feint of heart!
We drove from Rethymno on the north coast, across the high, mountainous spine of Crete, and careened down twisty narrow roads to Sfakia. From this small fishing village we boarded a water taxi that skimmed us west along this god-forsaken, steeply mountainous and rocky terrain to the picturesque village of Loutro.
It is difficult to imagine how, in 1941, British troops scrambled to escape from the German soldiers through this tree-less, stony and steep terrain.The fiercely independent Cretan resistance fightersguided the retreating Allied troops onto small craft and ferried them across the way to Libya.
Here for three days, we lounged around our simple hotel's quay-side café, dove into the aqua sea when the spirit moved us, and sipped rakki with our grilled fish dinners. We hired an outboard to take part of the group up the coast to another small beach, while the rest of us hiked there for two hours over very rocky, rugged cliffs. See photos for the rest of the story.
We are feasting daily on coffee frapes, fresh salads, fish, souvlaki sauce over local grilled lamb, great breads, peaches from the nearby trees, and good simple wines from the inlands of this rugged island. We are a simpatico group enjoying the beauty of Loutro.If you are planning a trip to Crete, do not miss this idyllic, little-known gem of a quaint, remote and picturesque spot - this is the real Crete!
Saturday, October 8: A long but beautiful drive east, along part of the rugged mountainous south sea coast of Crete. We then turned north across the higher spine of the island to the capital, Iraklion. A visit to the ruins of Knossos and the Archeological Museum. An evening flight from Iraklion to Rhodes where we landed in a rain storm and have had inclement weather ever since. No worries there are plenty of things to see and do, even in downpours.
Following the death of Alexander the Great (334BC), Rhodes sided with Ptolemy in the wars between his successors, prompting one of his rivals to lay siege to Rhodes City in 305BC. The siege failed, and, inspired by the victory and growing success as a trading center, Rhodes came into its own as a Hellenistic power center. The Romans, earthquakes, and invasions of Goths and others caused a downhill slide until the arrival of the crusading Knights of St. John who used the island as their main base from 1309 until 1522. The Knight's of St. John's legacy is a fascinating, moated and walled city -- a warren of narrow streets, flying stone archways, turrets, palaces, and huge gates.
Monday, October 10: Took ferry to Symi, a truly lovely dot of a mountainous island surrounded by azure seas.
The small island of Symi, only a few miles from the Turkish coast, is not ruin-rich but offers instead a picture of Greek island life. Greek doorways filled with potted flowering plants, vines and a cat or two are picture perfect. Venetian mansions, built by wealthy ship builders and sponge merchants, scamper steeply up the harbor hillsides. The harbor town is one of the prettiest in all of Greece. Its artistic shops, beautiful neo-classic architecture, narrow streets, and waterfront cafes are all on a small scale. The natural beauty of the mountains, craggily seascapes and the 360 family churches dotting the landscape all contribute to this very special Greek island.
Monday - Wednesday: Frequent fits of rain did not diminish our exploration of this beautiful island. We explored with a guide the back alleys and the hillside Venetian-styled houses (built mostly during the 18th and 19 centuries), and learned about this island's history and culture.Once covered in trees that helped the locals gain wealth through ship building, the landscape is now a hardscrabble pile of volcanic rock that only a goat can enjoy. There are modest attempts at vegetable and fruit gardening, but not without back-breaking work as a stone cropper.
One day we rented two cars and drove ourselves all over the sparsely- inhabited back regions, driving on narrow precipitous roads that made one's stomach flip over at nearly every bend. Vistas of incredible coves and small rocky fiords winked at us from far below. We dined at wonderful Greek tavernas that hugged the harbor amid the twinkling lights of the many yachts tied quay-side, enjoying the great fresh Greek foods that we've learned to love.
Thursday, October 13: An early morning ferry back to Old Town, Rhodes, found us in the middle of another 2-day strike. Another slow-down of air traffic controllers will slow our entry into Athens airport on Friday morning, but I am sure we will all be there in time to make our connecting flights. I fly Friday to Istanbul to spend the day with my Turkish guide and great friend whom many of you know, Nur Tezel, before catching a night flight to Delhi. Stay tuned for my Nepal blog which I will post in another week.
Dashing out our inn's door for yet another great meal of grilled fish and Greek salads! Yassus!