The Greek Islands! Where do I start? How about with a Greek culinary delight? The Cappuccino Freddo. Cold espresso on ice topped with steamed milk so thick it seems like whipped cream. Ask for it with a little or medium sugar and it’s delicious. (On my return to Edinburgh I discovered that Starbucks had introduced their version. I decided not to give it a try.)
We met our Explore group in Athens and spent the first day getting acquainted and exploring the some of the old city, which was quite awe inspiring.
The Explore group was larger than our Amalfi group, and consisted of three couples, two mates traveling together and eight solo travelers. All of the participants were from the UK except Sam , one Australian and our half German half Dutch guide Anke. It was a little more overwhelming getting to know everybody, but everyone was friendly, and many of the group had been on numerous Explore tours, including one woman who was on her fiftieth tour with Explore! There were a few northerners and indeed a couple of blokes from West Yorkshire which was a nice reminder of all things West Riding. For me the accent reminds me of our visits there with my dad’s family, and how he would always slip back into the West Yorkshire way of speaking. After this trip I talked to a few southerners who now live in Scotland. Both said they found folk from Yorkshire a bit intimidating with their dry, even dour sense of humor, and the affectionate insults which they had a hard time discerning as good humor. I can see why that might be now, but for me it’s almost comforting.
This group was also incredibly well traveled. I kept overhearing conversations about experiences like camping in the Serengeti, hiking in Madagascar, volunteering at wildlife refuges in Namibia. When we asked one group member if they felt that the average Brit is this well traveled they said not at all, although a large proportion of Brits do travel abroad for their holidays, albeit on more mainstream package tours etc.
Anyway, our second day we rose very early, packed everything into the bus and headed for the port of Athens. The ferry line we used mostly to get to the islands was Blue Star ferries (when they weren’t on strike. We were warned that we might not be able to leave Santorini for Naxos because of a pending strike. The guide said not to worry as there were other alternatives. All in all being stranded for an extra day on Santorini didn’t sound too unpleasant. ) Anyway, these ferries are pleasant and fairly large ferries with space both inside and out to relax. They have comfortable “air” seats to nap indoors on, and the outdoor spaces tended to have a large proportion of smokers and on occasion got a bit stuffy, as they were protected from rain by a roof. Most of the time we managed to make ourselves comfortable. The ferry took us to the first island in the Cyclades group that we were to visit: Syros. This was only our fifth day in Greece, so we were still getting used to the people and the culture. We did notice right away that people were generally very friendly. There were some interesting rules that were aimed at helping the poor, one of which was that a bottle of water could cost no more than 50 cents no matter where it was sold. That didn’t apply to sparkling water though.
After a long boat ride of about 5 hours and a 45 minute bus ride across Syros we arrived around lunch time at the village of Galissas where we would be staying. We were greeted by the hosts-owners of Hotel Francoise, where we learned our first Greek word: Kalimera! Good day! They welcomed us with wine, olives and bruschetta. I couldn’t believe that this little hotel had a swimming pool.
But we found out that this is typical of hotels in Greece. The pool seems to be almost a given, and it probably has to do with the hot temperatures in summer. The hotels that we stayed in had often quite picturesque common areas like the pool/bar while the rooms were much simpler. They often had a balcony, too. Often the furniture in the rooms was a real mish mash. The beds with one exception were comfortable. We quickly had to learn a new habit: putting toilet paper in a specially provided bin and not down the loo. It took a while to bring this into our conscious minds!
So we embarked on our first afternoon in paradise by ordering Greek salad, and then having tea by the pool. Later I would swim. This little village of Galissas was an ideal location. It was quite small, with a secluded bay and beach, several restaurants and cafes and a shop. Since it was away from the main town of Hermopoulos it had a the feel of a rustic beach retreat.
Our second day in Syros after a group walk we were given two free hours by a lovely beach with some cafes looking onto it. That was our chance for our first swim in the Aegean. It was a lovely curving beach with loungers and the type of umbrella you get in a cocktail, but life-size. The water was definitely warmer than Lake Michigan in July, but not yet like bathwater. It was exciting realizing that this was our first time swimming in Greece! The beach scene on this island provided all the essentials, including beachside changing huts, chairs in the shade and the café owners were friendly and hospitable. The feel was not at all sophisticated or snobby. Two days later we had a beach day in Gallisos and enjoyed swimming there. Even in this small village there was at least one really good restaurant, where we went one night. The owner took a lot of time describing their creations in English, and a lot of their produce was “locally sourced”. That particular night we ate beetroot risotto and couscous with prawns.
The 1 – 2 euro cover charge per person for bread and water that you encounter in some European countries was met with annoyance by some members of the group. Anke was very diplomatic and very patient in attending to the group’s varying attitudes to social niceties like this. Also, she really wanted to encourage us to eat one night “family style”. She would order a bunch of dishes and we would all share and then split the bill equally. The group never agreed to do this!
One dynamic that seems to arise in a group of this sort with an identified leader is for group members to act in a more helpless manner than they ordinarily might. In a sense we do get catered to, but it can be taken a bit too far. This gets played out in negotiating the details and how a particular plan impacts individuals and their own hang ups. Some people are quite happy to go along with the planned walk or activity as described by the leader and on the itinerary. Others express the need for much more detail asking many questions that may not be relevant to much of the group, even wanting the guide to “sell” them a particular optional excursion. By now you will have realized that neither Sam nor I were annoying to anyone, in fact we were model travelers and group members!
One of my own minor challenges is travel sickness, and this was one area which fellow travelers were very respectful to each other about. One of my fellow sufferers on more than one occasion saved me a seat up front. It was strangely nice not to be the only one on a trip who had this particular problem.
One of the pleasures of our time in Syros was returning to our lovely little hotel to the ever responsive host and his family. They didn’t cook for us at night, but they were always on hand to provide refreshment, tea, squeeze fresh lemonade and be generally exceedingly friendly. One of the local tour companies took us on a tour, partly by bus and partly on foot of Syros.
We got to explore the main port town of Hermopoulos, first from its highest point where the streets are so narrow that no cars can enter, taking in the two most renowned churches, (one Greek Orthodox, one Catholic that stand opposite each other high up looking over the town),then down to the large town square surrounded by shops, restaurants, an old theater, and government buildings. We found a lively courtyard where many restaurants had tables out, and that was where we ate dinner.
The Greek Island Wanderer tour is not a walking holiday per se but there were quite a few walks offered during the two week tour. While in Syros we did one coastal walk from the town of Vari in the center of the island to the coastal village of Azolimnos where we swam, and one more strenuous one to St. Stephanos’ cave, which is a sea cave with a chapel in it, that is accessible via a very steep stony path.
We left Syros around 9 in the evening and arrived at Paros close to 11pm. After a drive to the village of Drios we were welcomed by our new host with a midnight glass of local wine. He also let us know that there was a very big mosquito problem and equipped us all with anti mosquito plugs with a special type of tablet to insert. We didn’t know that we were supposed to change this every 24 hours so the next night we were bitten a lot and the following one we scoured our room for them and the air conditioning seemed to keep them away somewhat. The accommodation was in little villas and was quite spacious, if basic. The restaurant that was in the hotel was excellent, and the staff all very friendly and helpful. The pool also was charming and we spent part of a rest day sitting beside it and swimming.
In Paros our main walk was along the Byzantine road. The path was very good, and well maintained, and we ended up in the village of Prodromos where there was a beautiful beach and where we ate lunch at a local café. It was interesting ordering lunch.
The waitress gave us the menu, but also told us what was being served that day. Consequently some of us ordered from the menu, only to be told that the item wasn’t available. It turned out that what was available was what our waitress had described. We had stuffed tomatoes and Greek salad. Let me say that in terms of vegetarian fare that is healthy Greece in my opinion beats Italy. They had a whole variety of vegetable entrees and side dishes available, most of which were either vegetarian or suitable for vegans, and there were many kinds of salads made with very fresh ingredients. Italy does have a wealth of vegetarian pasta dishes and pizza, but as one fellow traveler told us before we got to Venice, “ you’ll put on 3 kilos your first week in Italy” and we did! After lunch we walked along the coast back towards Drios. A mile or so from Drios we walked along the Golden Beach, which is Paros’ most stunning beach. Sam and I decided to let the others continue, while we enquired about snorkeling at a water sport place, and after that had a swim followed by beer, both being most refreshing after our long day’s walk. Unfortunately the weather didn’t look good for snorkeling. We did read that the Cyclades weren’t all that good for snorkeling because the marine life there is not particularly rich.
Before leaving Parros we spent some time in the port town of Parakia. That was a lovely town but it was a very hot day, so we went in search of cappuccino freddo and read our e books. The boat ride to Santorini was less pleasant than the other rides because of the heat and somehow it was much more crowded than all the other trips, perhaps because the island is probably more of a tourist attraction than any of the others in that group. As we approached Santorini we became aware of its appeal. It consists mostly of a crater of what is left of after a volcano erupted in Minoan times. It is striking because of its steep cliffs, and interesting rock formations, as well as the bright glare of the white houses, that make up the villages clustered along the cliff tops. The port that we arrived in is relatively new, replacing the old port in Fira. It accommodates more easily the ferries and cruise ships that arrive there daily. The road zigzagging up the side of the cliff which led to the village of Megalochori where we staying was not for the faint-hearted. Because of the hordes getting off the boat, there was a traffic jam and all vehicles were inching up the hill at a snail’s pace, which left this traveler with way too much time to gaze out of the window and contemplate the drop to the port below.
Sam had planned for us to go on a catamaran cruise around Santorini, and we were able to book one for the next day. Fortunately it was not going from the new port, but from the old port, and the descent to it was not as frightening as the one the previous day. This cruise was perhaps one of my favorite days of the whole vacation. The weather was lovely, a slight breeze but warm…perhaps 70 F/20 C, and the catamaran was a very nice size, quite large, with a very friendly and personable crew. We were to spend about 6 hours on the boat, cruising around the inside of the crater and stopping at various points to explore. The first stop was near to some thermal springs that flowed out into a narrow inlet. We were let off the boat and swam about 60 meters into the inlet. We could feel the hot springs intermittently throughout the inlet. Because of the minerals the water was a rusty brown color. I don’t normally like swimming in water above my depth but there were quite a few others in the water too, and I felt quite safe, and the water was pretty calm. Sam stayed on board, and cheered me on!
The second stop was off “Red beach” which is a well known spot at the southern tip of the island, and is known not surprisingly for its Red rocks and pebbles. We stopped and swam off Red beach, and this time I hung out with a noodle and felt generally buoyant and happy. Lastly we stopped off White beach, which is not accessible from the shore, and which is of course distinguished by its white rocks, and snorkeled. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, but it felt very peaceful with my face in the water, hearing my breath coming in and out, and watching a few shoals of smallish blue fish swimming about. The other guests included a couple of families with kids, and their enjoyment of the water added to my pleasure. The water was quite cold, but it was very refreshing. After this we were treated to a “barbecue” lunch, which the crew cooked on the boat, and afterwards we had apples dipped in cinnamon and honey, and baklava. The whole time in between stops, we wandered around the boat, or lay on the two wide trampoline like expanses at the front half of the boat and enjoyed the sun. To Sam’s great delight the crew actually put up the sails for the last part of the ride back to port,as the wind had risen. That day things fell easily into place, and therefore it was possible to fully relax and enjoy the amazing scenery, the feel of being on the water, and the congenial atmosphere on the boat. It felt possible to really be in the moment. The remaining time on Santorini was spent exploring Megalochori and another typical village called Pyrgos, as well as visiting the Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, close to the Red Beach. The villages were charming, but overall we felt that Santorini was too crowded, even in May, which is not the high tourist season. So we weren’t too sorry to leave Santorini, and were glad that our best time had been spent enjoying it from the water and not ducking motorbikes and tour buses.
As it turned out our resourceful tour leader had found us an alternate way of leaving Santorini with another boat company which would take us to Naxos. This boat was to take all day rather than half a day, which meant our time in Naxos was a little curtailed. However, the trip was lovely, and because the boat was smaller than the Blue Star ferries, it actually felt a little less overwhelming, and not as easy to get lost! There was one deck outside and up and one inside and down, also with very comfortable “air seats” conducive to napping. We were excited to reach Naxos, especially as it is a favorite of our Chayley,(who had lived there for a year in her youth) and Murray and Jonny who visited there a few years ago. We didn’t get to travel much on Naxos, but we did get a feel for the place. Our hotel was just 200 meters from St. George’s beach, at the less crowded end. It’s a beautiful beach, long but fairly sheltered. Close to the entrance to the beach is a bar called P A R A D I S E. That is written on its roof and you can see it from the other side of the bay. It is aptly named. All you really need to do is sit there with your cappuccino freddo and just look out and watch the waves. Sam and I spent our first day on Naxos walking down the beach to Naxos town, exploring the old part of it, the Castro, and then coming back down via the beach where we had plenty of choice of sun loungers and I swam, before returning to the hotel along the beach past P A R A D I S E.
Next to that bar is another bar where our group spent our last night on Naxos. We started off with a drink in the “Sunset bar” on the first floor with fantastic views of the bay. One of our party, a postman from London was celebrating his 50 birthday so treated us all to a drink. We watched the sun set and then went downstairs for a lovely dinner. The wind had picked up that day, so some of us wrapped ourselves in blankets to keep off the chill.
We would have liked to have had more chance to explore Naxos. The group excursions from Naxos were to Mykonos, and Delos which we didn’t take part in, but they did add to the island count for our fellow travelers. On our way back to Naxos port we stopped in a café called Rendezvous that Chayley had recommended. There were about 8 of us, but the hosts were very gracious and treated us to free desserts with our coffees.
The ferry ride back to Athens was again very pleasant, but we definitely felt some regret at leaving the islands behind. It was a relief that we had a bus waiting for us at the port, as the embarking and disembarking in Greece had always felt a bit chaotic. We had agreed to have one last dinner in the old quarter of Athens, and Anke found us a lovely place with a view of the Parthenon. We walked up flights of stairs where people were dining, to a rooftop restaurant where we could look down at the whole area. It was a Saturday night, so everyone was very lively, and we could see in the downstairs part of the restaurant the traditional Greek dancing, and the musicians who were accompanying them. They also came up to play for us too. Even though we hadn’t seen very much of Athens, this outdoor celebration gave us a sense of how, in the words of Zorba the Greek, Athenians live life “out loud”.