Athens and the Greek Islands...
Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
23Trip End Jun 21, 2005
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a.k.a. The Incredible's Odyssey
Which beg's the question what story is the Movie "O Brother Where Out Thou" based on?
PS Dave wins the drink for the most comprehensive answer to our King Tut question!
April 20 - May 10
After our mis-adventures in Egypt it was with a huge sigh of relief when we hit European soil... after clearing customs to a smiling, friendly agent who didn't ask for $, I did my best Sally Field impression literally running down the airport clicking my heels together - "They like us, they really like us..." (only you Oscar watchers will remember her infamous acceptance speech of the same)
We had noticed the last couple of times we used Mark's credit card in Egypt that it wasn't accepted...thinking it was just another unfriendly ploy to get cash we didn't pay too much attention. When it happened in Frankfurt, we decided to check it out and found out it was frozen. Not a great thing when you're spending money like a drunken sailor! :) Apparently some unscrupulous dude had run up >$5000 in charges in less than a day. Thank God MasterCard caught it or we could have been in serious trouble. The bizarre thing was here we have been traveling around the world since Oct and where is our card compromised....Quebec, Canada - HUH? How they got the number is a mystery, but alas we needed to establish a home base for a few days to enable MasterCard to courier out a new card. Athens it was, and it was a great place to just spend a few days cleaning up (haircuts, shopping etc) and getting some decent internet access. Not to mention get Kayla back into a regular schoolwork routine....her education in Africa was amazing but not tons of formalized 3R's.
Athens itself is pretty much just a normal city of ~4M though the old quarter is really quite special. Plaka has fun shopping and amazing restaurants at every turn on their narrow cobblestone streets
The most difficult thing was deciding which of the 1400 Greek Islands to explore - we had originally allocated ~ 1 month to this phase of our journey but after meeting some 'trusted advisors', we added Turkey. Now we've got a dilemma (I'm sure you're all feeling really sorry for us :). Santorini was our first Greek Isle stop and what a great 1st choice! Just coming up to it on the ferry was so great...this huge volcanic island of barren black rock offset by the stark white architecture seemingly carved into the cliffs. Once on the island, you enter these magical little towns atop the caldera where the white buildings seem even more spectacular framed against the sapphire blue sky and deep blue sea. It was one of those postcard moments when we looked out from our deck - check out the pictures of this place, it's absolutely spectacular. It is apparently regarded by many as the most spectacular of the Greek Islands and I can see why...what a great start to our Greek Isle tour
The highlight of our Santorini leg was most definitely meeting 'Mama'...she was the whole family's fav so I'll leave the descriptions to them tho' I will add...."We LOVE you Mama, you sexy bum!"
A definite benefit of being in Greece at this time was a) no crowds b) good prices and c) it's Easter. We had heard that Greek Orthodox Easter is something special and so asked Mama her advice on which island would be best to experience it on. She retorted "you no want no touristy thing - you stay at my sister Helen's in Kriti (Crete) ....you're a gonna looove her". I knew that if she was anything like Mama, her prediction would most definitely come true.
So off we went to Crete and decided to tour the Palace of Knossos, ancient ruins from the Minoan culture, before heading off to Helen's. Now don't get me wrong, it was cool but the place is as notorious for the horrible restoration efforts from the early 1900's as for the incredible architecture of the Minoan people
After that we set off for the now infamous Helens, not too sure what to expect for the whopping 25 Euro/nite price that Mama had 'negotiated' for us. To be honest, my expectations were not high. Imagine our surprise to pull up to this beautiful set of suites, overlooking the sea. And "Aunt Helen" (as she quickly became to the children) was every bit as fabulous as her sister....just another one of those amazing gifts we've received on this journey. She was so amazing to us, took us in as part of the family to celebrate Easter "the right way", toured us around, cooked for us, did our laundry, had toys and treats for the children, arranged things for us and was just generally unreal. Mark kept saying it was like being at Grandma's house. I'd have to agree...she instantly had taken the children into her house for treats, had long heart-to-heart talks to me about beating cancer, not giving up etc. and would completely hassle Mark about his propensity to sleep-in in the mornings. "Are you a gonna sleep all day?!" She couldn't relate at all....she'd have the laundry done, the house cleaned and food cooked all before 7 am, and she's 71 years old
Crete is the largest Greek island and offered us much variety to do. We went up to the Samaria Gorge and had an amazing hike and fabulous picnic in a huge tree. We went to some beaches and explored the amazing countryside. It really was a lot of fun to explore when we weren't just hangin' out in Aunt Helen's garden enjoying the beautiful views out over the water. Helen (and Mama) had lived in the US for years and we found out that her son had just published an amazing book on Greek philosophy, complete with all his own artwork and poetry. We were thrilled to be able to purchase one and even more amazed when she had him come over to share his views with us. What an engaging man....we could have talked with him for hours, but alas Aunt Helen decided his anti-western views were becoming too pronounced and 'ran him off. It never ceases to amaze me the incredible people we have met on this trip.
Greek Easter really is something special... it is their most important festival of the year and they take it all very seriously. The gazillion churches are decorated so beautifully with fresh flowers and candles everywhere. Every place has different traditions, some starting with a Last Supper on Thursday night. On Good Friday in many areas they recreate the procession of the cross. On Saturday at midnight they hold a service to celebrate Christ's ressurection, complete with fireworks, candle processionals and partying until the wee hours of the morning. Sunday is the feast day, where everyone barbeques whole lambs. We took a drive thru the mountains that day and the smell of BBQing Lamb wafting through all the villages was amazing....and oh did it taste good! We really felt blessed to be here during this time
But alas it was time to move on and tho' our bus left @ 5:30 in the morning, Aunt Helen was up to send us off with hot coffee and "lectures" about not dressing the kids warm enough and eating more before we left etc. She really was special....the kids still are talking about how much they miss "Aunt Helen".
Next stop, the most famous island - Mykonos. We were pretty convinced it would be over-hyped and be a letdown after our wonderful experiences on Santorini and Crete but we loved it, too. The same stark white architecture as Santorini with the infamous windmills thrown in and a Venice-like town perched over the water. In high season, apparently this place is absolutely bonkers but it was pretty magical this time of year. We enjoyed our time, mostly just hangin' out and exploring the maze of streets thru Mykonos Town. Toured the whole island one day (which took all of about 2 hours) and imagined how busy those beaches must be when over 100,000 partying fools descend upon them in the summer. We laughed that there would have been a time when that would be right up my alley, but gratefully I've outgrown the party-til-ya-puke days. For any of my old pals...the party atmosphere of this place reminded us of a warm 'Sunshine Ranch' with better beaches - those were the days
Patmos was a 'must stop' on Mark's list and though I admittedly had no expectations, was thrilled with our experience there. So laid back and quiet, just a beautiful contrast to the more commercialized islands.
One of the coolest experiences for me was hiking up this old stone path to the town atop the hill where this castle-like monastery was built in 1088. As I walked the steep path, I thought of it as a Pilgrimage Path where many before me gone and I couldn't help but akin it to a metaphor for my own life. Steep and rocky at times, but when I stopped to look out the landscape around me was absolutely amazing. I'm really striving to do that - to focus not on the steep challenges of life but to take the time to just absorb the incredible beauty in my surroundings today, be it family, friends, adventures, all that is good in my life. Don't mean to get too philosophical, but I had a lot of really meaningful, spiritual experiences here.
When we went to the Cave of the Apocolypse, I was completely moved. At first, I must admit I was a bit put off. Here is this amazing cave where God and the apostle John had some pretty serious chats about the future - after all it is where he wrote the Book of Revelations. But what do we find there, the cave is now filled with all these religious, ornate stuff - pictures, altars, cloths, books, etc everywhere. There are actually indentations in the rocks where John rested as he received the revelations and even those now have silver gilding around them....what's that all about? It completely reminded me of the difference to me between religion and spirituality...many times on this trip it's become so glaring to me how religiosity can really mess things up, even to the point of war
1. Food...another theme in our posts. We will remember countries by the quality of their food!
2. Each of the islands...Santorini - a magical, laid back island, Crete - diverse, beautiful island, Mykonos - something for everyone. Patmos - a quiet, spiritual island
3. Meeting so many great people: Mama and her amazing friendliness and food; Aunt Helen - thank you for taking us under your wing; Clint & Gloria - our new friends from California that we serendipitously met up with; the owners at Petros Hotel in Patmos, the lovely family from Martha's Vineyard....and many more
4. Hiking the Gorge, Kriti
5. The views everywhere
6. The Cave of the Apocolypse at Patmos and my own "Pilgramage Path"
7. Shopping and a haircut in Athens....after a month in Africa, I was feeling very UNcivilized!
8. Agio Sofia Cave....very cool spelunking!
1. SMOKING everywhere!!! Even in the non-smoking things (which were rare!!) like a bus we took, the bus driver simply opened his window and lit up. No such thing as a non-smoking section in restaurants and to compound the horror, they just throw their butts everywhere. Disgusting.
2. Environmental nightmare - how can a progressive country be so lacidasical towards litter? The EU is even cracking down on their abuse
3. Dog Doo - taking the littering to a whole new level, everyone has pets and no one cleans up after them. YUCK!
SIDEBAR: As I reflect back on Africa, one of my greatest regrets is that we saw it pretty much from a 'tourist perspective'. One of the best parts of this journey has been exploring the people, the cultures and understanding what makes their community - spiritual, cultural, family values & issues. I don't feel like I experienced that in either Tanzania or Egypt. It is in Africa that I felt the strongest weight of human oppression - the AIDS pandemic, the poverty, the political issues, the dehumanization of females. It weighs heavy on my heart and is something I need to explore more to understand how I could possibly make a difference. I am also very aware that a there are limits of what you can subject a 4 and 7 year old too and think that we struck a good balance in terms of increasing cultural awareness without overwhelming with inappropriate traumas. I hope to make a trip back for more altruistic purposes in the near future.
1. The Acropolis and wandering through the Plaka area of Athens
3. The Islands, they have all been different and they have all been amazing
4. The relatively reasonable prices and low crowds (being here prior to the busy summer season is a huge bonus.)
5. Mama's Restaurant and Mama herself (her real name is Irene) on Santorini
6. Auntie Helen (Mama's Sister) on Crete
7. Running along the cliff's that form the edge of the Caldera on Santorini
8. Wandering the virtually empty little streets of Chora on Patmos
9. Finding a Starbuck's on Mykonos (Bonus: Wireless Hotspot!!!)
10. Blue Ginger Thai Restaurant on Mykonos (you can only eat Greek food for so many days in a row, no matter how good it is.)
11. Patmos - my favorite island of all the one's we visited, that said they are all great.
12. The Cave of the Apocalypse where John received the visions from God for the Book of Revelations - Amazing!!!
14. The never ending postcard photo ops on each of the Islands
1. Smoking everywhere! The Red Eye ferry to Patmos was probably the ultimate smoking lowlight as people could smoke everywhere, it was just plain gross.
2. Lack of environmental awareness - littering is an epidemic in the Greek Islands or so it seems. The litter can will be two feet away and people will just toss their garbage on the ground or dump it on the side of the road or worse on Mykonos they seemed to be building a man made island along the old port by dumping truck load after truckload of soil into the sea. The only problem is that soil was not the only thing in some of the loads. Some had rotten wood, plastics of all sorts and who knows what else, much of which was then washing up on shore between the Old and New Ports. What the heck is that all about!!!!
Well I don't know exactly how to start this section out
After that was all taken care of it was time to hit the Greek Islands - first stop Santorini. Now to be honest I had no idea what to expect of the Greek Islands. I had heard great things and had some idea of where I wanted to go based more on hearsay than any real research. As it turned out Santorini was a great Island to start with. Fira the main town is basically built into the cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea and the huge volcanic caldera which collapsed and is now part of the sea. It is totally spectacular with over 600 stairs from the Old Port to the center of town, if you were so inclined to walk it. Today most people I assume take the Gondola up from the port or if you want in interesting experience you can take a donkey.
I have highlighted my recommendations for eating but Mama's deserves some additional verbage - as soon as we walked into Mama's I knew we were in for something special. Mama, (her real name is Irene, pronounced I ree nee) is an amazing person and a character like none other
I would like to try and describe Mama but I probably won't do her justice. Suffice to say she is about 60 and has the energy of a 25 year old and she just never stops talking and everyone who walks into Mama's immediately feels like they are the most important customer she has ever had. It is truly amazing to watch and to listen to. She calls herself the "sexy bum" and feeds you free pancakes after you've finished your heaps of food "so that you can get fat and ugly so she can be the most beautiful person in the world"... and on it goes.
Tyler was particularly taken with Mama, it probably had to do with the French Toast, tons of Syrup and the lollipops that were dished out after we were done eating. Anyway after breakfast at Mama's we were officially banned, by Tyler, from eating at any other restaurants on Santorini. So, we ate dinner at Mama's that night and it was again amazing food but sadly for us Mama only handles the breakfast and lunch crowds at least that was the case that day
After Santorini we were off to Crete which Shannon covered pretty well so I won't duplicate the effort. I will say that I was less taken aback by the attempted re-creations at Knossos than both her and Kayla. For me it was interesting to contrast the current (well preserved) conditions of the ruins with what they may have looked like in their prime. Now some of the techniques used were clearly questionable but the attempts to show the glory of the Minoan Culture in its prime did not, in my opinion, take too much away from the experience. I guess that is the neat thing about the Egyptian ruins, there are sections that you can with, just a little imagination, see just how amazing they must have been in their prime.
I will also second her comments related to Helen, she was an amazing host and we could not have been treated better and her recommendations be it for a rental car or a restaurant were fantastic
Shannon also pretty much nailed Mykonos as well and I have filled in some comments in the food and accommodations section. The only other thing I'd add is that we had met a couple from California while in Knossos, Clint and Gloria, and had kind of hit it off with them. We knew they were following a similar plan and kind of hoped we might run into them again somewhere along the way. As fate would have it Tyler and I were heading up a little side street in Mykonos Town in search of Shan and Kayla and low and behold there they were walking straight towards us. I could see Clint had recognized Tyler and I had recognized them so we had a quick chat in the street and then wandered on chatting and looking for Kayla and Shannon. We finally hooked up with Shannon and after some additional discussions made arrangements to meet them for dinner the next night.
Dinner was fantastic and the adult companionship was very much appreciated by both Shannon and I, although I think Kayla was a bit put off that she had to play second fiddle and was not as active in the conversations as she might have wanted to be. The conversation was lively and thought provoking, the food was fantastic and the company exceptional. Clint and Gloria if you read this we just want you to know how much we enjoyed meeting you both and hanging out with you
Then it was off to Patmos. The only ferry ran on Fridays and on this Friday left at 11:50 pm. That was harsh enough but this particular ferry ride was made even more painful by the fact that everywhere you went people were smoking. It was so harsh and not the most enjoyable 4 hours we'd spent on a Greek ferry. The ferry arrived in Patmos around 4:30 am and by the time we tracked down a taxi and got to the hotel it was 5:30 am. From here on Patmos was all up hill, literally and figuratively. The folks at The Petra Hotel greeted us warmly at 5:30 am and got us settled quickly, skipping all check-in activity until after we had a chance to catch a few Z's.
We awoke to a wonderful view of the Bay and the Sea outside our windows and our host and hostess at Petra were the best. There hotel is in Griko a little village 5 K from the hustle and bustle of the port town Skala. Which was just fine by me. I loved the fact that I could sit on the balcony at night and here the waves and the crickets and nothing else. The best part for me though was the fact that they are located a couple hundred meters from the old Byzantine path leading up to Chora and the Monastery. We hiked this trail up to Chora two days in a row and for me it was just so cool to be walking along this old path paved with stones that had served so many others over the centuries.
The highlights of Patmos other than the paths and the peace and the tranquility are of course the Monastery and The Cave of the Apocalypse. It was so cool to wonder around the Monastery and to see the treasures that are on display. It made me also wonder what other treasures it holds that are not on display for the public
After grabbing lunch on a patio overlooking the valley and the port town Skala we set off down the Byzantine road again this time to The Cave of Apocalypse. I, like Shannon, was also taken aback by the religious trappings that adorned the Cave. It seemed to somehow take away from the place rather than add to it but that said the cave has been well taken care of and protected and once I got past what man had added I was able to just sit in awe of where I was. I was sitting in the Cave where John had some very serious conversations with God about the future of our world. The result of which was of course the last book in the bible, Revelations. I mean you could see where he had rested his head, the hand hold he had used to help himself get up. It was amazing to realize that in this cave, that I was sitting, sat a man who knew Christ and who was divinely inspired to right the Book of Revelations!!! I have never understood the pilgrimages people make to places like Jerusalem or Rome etc. but I now have an appreciation of how special a pilgrimage of this type can be if you just let yourself go with it. I don't know how else to put it, my words seem insufficient so I will stop here. Suffice to say it was one of the spiritual highlights of this trip for me.
That seems like a fitting place to also leave Greece as our last island was Samos but all we did there was transit through on the way to Turkey.
Greece and in particular the Greek Islands have been, for me, a very, very pleasant surprise!
Must Do's, Places to Eat and Where to rest your head in the Greek Islands:
· Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, Patmos - we recommend any and all of these places
· Mama's Restaurant on Santorini - both a must do and a great place to eat breakfast and if you like dinner as well...
· Walk along the roads (or run ) that run along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Caldera on Santorini
· Samaria Gorge on Crete
· Visit the Monastery in Chora and The Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos
· Wander the Paths of Patmos (the old Byzantine roads)
· Stay in a cliff side hotel on Santorini, but be prepared to get your daily Stairmaster workout in :)
· Wander around all the narrow intertwined streets of Mykonos Town
· Visit Knossos - sight of Crete's best and largest Minoan Ruins
· Visit the beach at Elafonisi - the drive is great and so is the beach (too windy the day we went but worth the drive none the less)
· Just walk about the various towns you encounter and drink them in, each island and each town has it's own personality
Places to Eat:
· Mama's Restaurant!!
· Dionysus of Atlantis
- Nikolas - it seems like everyone will steer you towards Nikolas whether it is your hotel owner or Lonely Planet. So we went, and in our opinion it is over rated. The place was constantly busy, the service good, the food average and the owner in a word "crabby". Personal opinion, there are better places to eat on Santorini.
· Maria's in Stalos (just down the coast from Hania/Chania/Xania) I bet you can't eat here just once. Try Maria's own Cabernet from her own Vineyard, it is a winner. We had 4 Bottles in total, two over dinner and two we took away with us.
· Ippokampos Ouzeri - right on the water in Iraklio
· Nikos Taverna great Greek and Seafood (the mixed seafood grill is delicious and huge)
· Have a Crepe - the choices are endless but it seems to be the thing to eat on Mykonos
· Blue Ginger Thai Restaurant sits above Mykonos Town - worth a walk or short drive
· Jimmy's Balcony or the Balcony in Chora - just down from the Monastery great place for a drink or lunch with great views
· We stayed in Greko where the restaurant options are limited, but there are two on the way to Petra Beach we ate at the second one (the one closest to the beach) it was great, we also ate at one right on the harbor in Greko, it was average. Our hosts at the Petra Hotel also run a restaurant during high season and I can only imagine it would be a great choice.
Places to Stay:
· Sirocco Apartments - great views, great rooms, great location though the hospitality factor could be better
· if you're heading towards Hania and you're looking for a great place to stay with maximum hospitality stay in Stalos at Alector Rooms. The owner Helen is Mama's (of Mama's Restaurant fame) sister and every bit the character her sister is. She is a wonderful woman who goes out of her way to ensure you have a wonderful time. Our stay included a personal tour of the Village she grew up in, picking Oranges in her nephews Orchard, a trip to her brother's bakery and hook ups for travel agents, rental car and of course Maria's for dinners
· Cavo Tagoo - a great hotel just out of town between the old port and the new port, great rooms, great view, great staff. Location is a bit dicey as you have run the gauntlet of Tour buses, Taxis and Local Drivers on your walk to town and in places there is not a lot of room, recommend it none the less. A bonus was their breakfasts which were included with the room, the best breakfast buffet we encountered.
· Petra Hotel in Griko. This was my (Mark) favorite hotel for a combination of reasons. They have a beautiful hotel, in a quiet, beautiful location. Rated as one of the top 50 Hotels to stay in Greece for a reason! It is built into a hillside overlooking the natural harbor and did I mention how quiet it was. The owners are magnificent people who's attention to detail made our stay special. Highly recommend the Petra Hotel to anyone visiting Patmos. It is also close to the trail head for the Byzantine path that you can take from Griko to Chora to visit the Monastery and Cave of the Apocalypse and if you so desire continue on down to the Port town of Skala
Tyler: Seeing the ocean
· Meeting "Mama" and her yummy French toast and orange juice
· Auntie Helen cuz she gave us treats and eggs and was so nice to us
· Egg Cracking at Easter
· seeing all the statues
· hiking the Gorge and having the picnic
· seeing all the cats everywhere
· it was funny when Kayla fell into the water when she slipped on the rocks
· I liked the pink pelican with red eyes in MickaMouse (how Tyler pronounces Mykonos)
· buying Mommy a mother's day egg and she liked it really good
· climbing Adventure Rock
· not getting sea sick on any of the ferry rides
· my '20 mile run' with Dad
· winning Kayla in Backgammon while Mom & Dad did Interet
· lighting candles in the churches
· ...and everything...
· Acropolis & Ancient Agora
· the history
· Mama, especially her French Toast, freshly squeezed OJ and she let us cook in the kitchen for all of our breakfast
· The Cave hotel suite in Santorini
· Knossos was cool except for the bad restorations
· Aunt Helen was the BEST in the West cuz she cooked us Easter dinner, made us Easter eggs to crack (and I won!!!), gave us treats ALL the time, let us cook with her cooking dough
· Hiking the Gorge and our picnic in the tree
· Falling in the ocean
· Buying my new necklace with money I earned from massaging Mom and Dad
· Meeting Clint and Gloria and having dinner with them
· Hiking and "killing the poker-butts" (thornbushes)
· Touring the Monastery and the Cave
· Going on the super fast ferry
· Getting ice cream
· Meeting new friends - on a ferry ride and at a restaurant and other places
· sleeping thru the earthquake on Crete...I'm not scared of earthquakes anymore cuz it didn't even wake me up (Editor Note: it was a 4.5 our last nite in Crete)
· Girls Day with Mom, we did manicures, pedicures, makeup, hair and had special drinks...I loved it!
Tyler: didn't get to ride the quads cuz mom and dad said it was too cold that day
· What I didn't like about Knossos was they didn't use real authentic stuff, they used cement and colored in all the paintings. Egypt was better for this.
· losing to Tyler in Backgammon