September 17, 2013

The Greek Islands

It some ways Greece has a split personality. There is the mainland, which undeservedly gets very little credit. Then there are the mind-boggling 6,000 islandsof which only 227 are inhabited. We spent a little less than half of our time in Greece island-hopping among 4 of them.

We started on Hydra, a lesser-known island for most Americans that is both charming and in close proximity to Athens.

There are no cars on Hydra, so everything is transported by wooden wheelbarrows and the team of donkeys that hang out down by the harbor. 

They each wear different kinds of beaded headbands, which I thought made them look like hippie donkeys.

Hydra was a quiet, but super cute place to wander around and get lost in the tangle of backstreets. The little town was full of character, as demonstrated by my photographic series of doors.

We took a nice hike along the gorgeous blue water to a (pebble) beach with little thatched umbrellas.

And we ended our night atop the town acropolis (the generic word for high-point) watching the sun go down and the town’s lights come on.

For the grand finale in Greece, we flew 30 minutes south to the country's largest island, Crete.

As soon as we stepped off the bus in Chania, regarded as Crete’s best town, it was like BOOM! Europe! One of the defining features of Europe that I have always appreciated is its level of energy…especially at night. But up until Crete, we felt like the energy level in Greece had been somewhat low. Chania delivered, with mostly Europeans dining in the squares, strolling along the waterfront, shopping in the back lanes, and socializing until late hours.

Chania is also a hodgepodge of interesting Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman architecture. In one block we’d pass Italian-style architecture and then all of a sudden a minaret will pop up out of nowhere.

For our 4th wedding anniversary on Crete, we had made plans to hike one of Greece’s most famous trails: the Samaria Gorge.

The gorge is a 16ish kilometer (10ish mile) downhill hike. I write that so indecisively because – like we’ve never encountered before – every single guidebook and information source completely contradicted the other. Even the kilometer markers on the trail were inconsistent. Whatever…it took us 5 hours to get down.

Because the Samaria Gorge is so popular, we ended up hiking it with about 5,000 of our closest European friends. Over half of them should not have been allowed on that trail, and we honestly felt like ants marching for the first hour or so. It was also a very technical hike, so I felt like we had to spend too much time looking down and not enough looking up at the beauty around us.

The good news is that by the time the hordes started to space out, the gorge got better with every turn. It was more beautiful than we had even expected.

The weird part is that the hike is supposed to culminate in an exciting section called, “The Iron Gates". This is where the gorge is only 13 feet wide while the walls soar upwards 1,000 feet above the valley floor. But I'll tell you what...13 feet looks pretty big in person, and there were ugly drainage pipes ruining the moment. So in summary, here’s what I would say about the Samaria Gorge: terrible beginning, great middle, lackluster end.

Since it’s a one-way hike, the trail funnels to a little town called Agia Roumeli where cold beers and yummy gyros await. 

It was here – on the southern shore of one of Europe's southernmost points – that we realized just how close were were to Libya and Egypt. So close in fact, that we swam laps in the Libyan Sea. That one will go down in the memory books! I have never seen water that looks so blue from just above water level.

Crete is a humongous, dry island. 

We did it a severe injustice by only spending 2.5 days there, which is embarrassing to admit to any European. Still, it's one of those places that I thought I might never make it to in my lifetime. I feel grateful for the small amount that we did get to see. That said, it was too dry and arid for our island tastes and we would probably not recommend it. There are better islands in the world.

Before arriving in Crete we were told by Greek locals (including the Chief of Police) that we just had to go to Falasarna – "one of Europe's best beaches," they all said. But here's the thing…that's not saying much. If you've read my blog before, then you know my thoughts on European beaches. Just because there's actual sand doesn't make it a beach worth going to, in this San Diegan’s opinion. Now Crete does have a beach called Elafonisi, which has pink sands. The issue is that it’s so far away, and we simply didn't have time to trek across Crete’s desert oasis to reach it. 

So we left Crete with only that one regret and boarded a 2-hour ferry ride to one of our most anticipated destinations: Santorini.

Santorini isn’t just one island, but an archipelago of 5 islands that sit in a flooded volcano crater called a caldera. The main island rises up from the caldera with steep multi-colored cliffs that are topped with Santorini’s iconic villages. 

I knew that by the time we were motoring into the caldera on the ferry, we had already broken our cardinal rule of travel: our expectations were way too high.

Santorini is much bigger than we expected and it’s a classic example of the importance of development. This island is so dry and arid that it wouldn't even be on the map if it weren't for the cliff-hugging villages.

We stayed in the crown-jewel of Santorini’s villages: Oia

Situated on the very tip of the island, Oia is a linear town with just one major walking street that takes you past expensive jewelry shops, rooftop restaurants, and the most manicured hotels you’ve ever seen saturated in one place. With steep staircases and lanes tumbling down the cliff side, it gets confusing as you try to figure out what is public vs. private property. One thing is abundantly clear…that really nice and expensive hotel that you’re staying at? It’s easily not the nicest.

Before arriving in Santorini I had a romantic image in my head that topping the whitewashed buildings would be 50+ sparkling blue domes like this little gem.

I'm going to break it to you…there are no more than 5 or 6 blue domes in each town. All of the iconic pictures you see are basically the same ones taken at different angles. It takes an hour for that realization to set in and for you to come to the conclusion that no you’re not missing something. Case in point, these are the exact same domes:

I was also pretty surprised that the “whitewashed” buildings of Santorini were looking pretty dirty. I'm sorry, but for as much as this island lives and dies by the tourists rushing in to see its manufactured villages – and for as much as they're over-charging for accommodation – I expect every single one of those builds to be gleaming white. I want every blue dome (all 5 of them) to be sparkling in the sun. I want the windmills to have their sails intact. The hotels do a great job of immaculate upkeep, but the common spaces – which are the most iconic – look neglected.

So maybe the whitewash and blue domes weren’t exactly what I had hoped for, but still, you cannot deny the beauty of Santorini’s caldera setting. 

We did an epic 2.5-hour hike along the caldera ridge from the large island’s main town of Fira to our town of Oia. 

Fira gives you a better visual perspective on the ring-shaped caldera while Oia is prettier with more of the classic Santorini images. The hike allowed us to see some of the lesser known towns named Firostefani and Imerovigli that sit in-between their more well-known bookends. There were no people, the views were incredible, the hotels look even nicer than those in Fira and Oia, and I'm sure they're much cheaper. If I were going to stay on Santorini any longer than 2 or 3 days, I would choose Imerovigli.

One day as we were strolling around Oia trying to dodge tour groups, we scoped out a secret spot that we were sure no one else knew about. It was an old abandoned hotel that happened to be situated at the base of a highly coveted blue dome. In traditional Nauman family fashion, we went back at dusk to enjoy a bottle of wine.

This picture was taken right as the owner emerged from his house to mumble something in Greek that we can only imagine was a “throw your hands up in the air / tourist are taking over my life” kind of moment. This leads me to my next point…I couldn't help but feel that this community has sold its soul to tourism.

Over the course of 2 days on Santorini we saw 14 brides. 12 of them were Asian. I have no idea which Greek Orthodox cathedral they were actually getting married in. Maybe they just flew here for the pictures.

It was extremely common to see tourists crawling on top of roofs in order to get their perfect pictures. Granted we were busted for the exact same thing during our wine picnic, but we honestly believed that it was an abandoned building. When there are more tourists than locals, the unbalance give the tourists a feeling that they have a free pass to do whatever they want. It’s not sustainable for a happy community.

You tend to only think of Santorini during the day (with its abundance of whitewashed facades and blue domes, right?), but we found one of the best aspects of Santorini to be nighttime. The cruise ship crowds are gone and the town’s lights come alive. We happened to be on the island during a Greek Orthodox holiday and were treated to multiple fireworks shows from towns sprinkled around the caldera. Oia really glows at night as the villas’ white lights come on and each hotel’s swimming pool tries to shine a brighter blue than the one next to it.

So would we recommend Santorini? Absolutely. But keep those expectations in check.

Our fourth and final Greek island was none other than party-central Mykonos.

Because we’re more "drink a bottle of wine on an empty stomach before dinner” kind of partiers, we were a little nervous about whether we had made the right decision to come here. The real lure was to see the windmills, which did not disappoint.

I really liked Mykonos more than I thought I would. I have never in my life been to a city where I was more lost. I’ve also never seen Steve so turned around before. The town is a literal maze…town planners first laid it out to deter would-be invaders from taking over. Trying to follow a map is pointless. It’s much more fun to just walk in circles.

These island people have also perfected the technique of blatantly fake faux stonework. We first caught a glimpse of it in Santorini. 

But Mykonos takes it to a whole new level, literally covering their entire maze of streets with faux stone painted on…wait for it…real stone. Why would they go to all of this trouble? I have no idea, but somehow it works.

We were in Mykonos for only about 30 hours and so we rented an ATV and rode around town hunting for windmills and eventually making it to a beach named not just Paradise, but Super Paradise. The water was blue, the fish were biting Steve's ankles and the ground was sandy enough.

We were really enjoying ourselves…until everyone directly around us started taking off their clothes. It wouldn’t have bothered us so much if they were European, but they were definitely American and most certainly enjoying their moment of liberation. It figures we would have a run-in with an American nudist colony on vacation in Greece. Special thanks to the group “Only Shoes” for making us wish our final day in Greece could be forgettable.

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