Hydra: From Cohen to Covid.

We have not encountered one single Canadian during our entire trip and when we told people where we were from, they often repeated, “Ca-na-da” as if we were curious specimens from a long-forgotten tribe.

In Hydra, we feel redemption. We have a Canadian brother, Leonard Cohen, who bought a house here in 1960 for $1500 at the age of 26. He was almost-famous then and Hydra became his home for much of his 20’s – a home he shared with his famous girlfriend and muse Marianne. His home sits empty now but is still owned by his family. Naturally we made the pilgrimage.

Right around the corner is the Four Corners grocery store. I’m quite sure it enjoys a bit of spill-over business from tourists curious about Cohen’s haunts.

Hydra’s reputation as a bohemian hangout in the 60’s changed as the rest of the world changed and by the 1980s, the money had arrived. Yachting and sailing were a huge draw and Hydra became an attractive and convenient (1 1/2 hours by hydrofoil or catamaran) getaway for frazzled Athenians.

The artists are still here, but real estate has gone up since Cohen’s day and waterfront cafes are a bit more spendy.

Still, the wealth is understated and does not define the essence of Hydra. Most locals and tourists have the same steep climb to get to their home or hotel room.

The island of Hydra is compact, very hilly and extremely photogenic. it also has the distinction of being entirely car and motorcycle-free, so it is incredibly quiet and blessedly free of diesel exhaust.

The one exception to the non-motorized rule are garbage trucks. Otherwise, people get around by walking, sea taxis or by mule or horse. The term “donkey” has been widely and erroneously used, probably because it has a better ring to it than “mule.” In fact donkeys are somewhat rare on the island. Mules are the sturdy little pack animals that carry everything from cargo to luggage to people up and down the hills.

The muleteers all ride side-saddle – not sure why unless it is easier to jump on and off that way.

When the cargo boats dock, mules are lined up to transport goods and/or to drop things off to be delivered off -island.

Although I was all set to carry our bags, our host strongly advised that we hire a mule. We are so happy we did – this fellow carried ours and another family’s luggage up the hill.

Our host Katarina met us at the ferry and after several hot and sweaty twists and turns up 300 steps ( at least that many – I counted later), we finally arrived at our place – almost to the top of the hill, and behind this red door.

We discovered that walking up and down many, many steps twice a day was not as difficult as we had imagined. The locals fly up and down without a thought and we followed suit. We got lost a few times, but only briefly, and always there was the reward of a new corner to be discovered.

Some of our discoveries:

Hydra Town’s crescent-shaped harbour is the main draw for tourists, locals, diners, walkers and boaters.

The three flags, from left to right are: Hydra, Greece and the E. U.

Bicycles and boats

The harbour at night.

Shopping on Hydra appears to have two price points – mid-priced tourist stuff and high-end quality goods. Greek textiles are absolutely beautiful.

This shop offered some wardrobe inspiration. As you sort through your collection of monochromatic, summer-into-fall linens, you may want to add bold jewellery .

The oldest pharmacy on the island – founded in 1890. I spoke to the pharmacist, the grandson of the founder. He was just days away from retirement and was passing the business on to his son – a 4th generation pharmacist. I congratulated him on his retirement and when I commented that he must be very proud of his son, he just shrugged with a smile.

There are many restaurants to choose from right in Hydra Town, as well as a number of tavernas that can be found along the coast and in the other tiny communities.

As is often the case, waterfront restaurants can be pricey and hit-or-miss. It was worth exploring a street or two back to find something a little more interesting.

We discovered one of our favourite tavernas at Vlychos Beach – a beautiful beach area about a half hour walk away. This was the view from the taverna.

Our host spoke perfect English, French and German, as well as Greek, of course, and he was very keen to show me around. I got a tour of the kitchen and met his mother Marina, who has been in front of that stove for a good many years.

This was the beach close by, as viewed from the cliff above on our way down to the village. In ordinary times, there would have been four times the number of umbrellas. Delicious swimming, but starting to get cold.

If anyone knows what this tree is, please tell me. I asked the men sitting underneath, and they said “ariki” or “atiki”. I have Googled to no avail.

On a hike to another beach in a tiny area called Mandraki, we had lunch at this taverna.

The food was okay, but the whole experience was hilarious. We were served by a rather brusque woman, which is not unusual, but it was her husband who made our visit memorable. He stalked the terrace with a squirt bottle in hand, trying in vain to keep the cats away. When that project proved unsuccessful, he turned his attention to the inhabitants of the sunbeds below. As the sunbeds are free to taverna customers, he wanted to make sure that everyone would be coming up to eat. For most of our meal, he was either yelling down to the indifferent swimmers or terrorizing the cats.

The small village of Mandraki, (pop. 11)

Accommodations in Hydra range from Airbnbs of varying size, quality and price to a handful of luxury properties, as well as a few established older properties that offer good value.
The Sofia – a small and stately old hotel, at a palatable price of $150 a night.

If you have a bit more to spend, the Hydra Four Seasons is discreetly tucked away down the coast, accessible by an hour’s walk or a private sea taxi. A room there is surprisingly reasonable – currently being offered for $170 a night at late autumn Covid prices.

It is well-appointed, staff are professional and attentive and the grounds are beautifully landscaped, but the hotel itself was unassuming and simpler than I would have imagined for a Four Seasons.

Our main objective for being here was to investigate Plakes beach, which is open to the public. Unfortunately, the weather had turned quite windy and chilly and nobody was venturing in the water. We were disappointed, as we hoped for one last glorious swim before heading home.

We stopped for coffee on the terrace, and enjoyed the company of this little character.

Once she realized she was not going to get the attention she was seeking from Stephen, this little cat jumped over to my lap and stayed there for about half an hour.
One of the staff came over to make sure she was not bothering us and that is when we found out she belonged to the hotel owner and her name is Alice.

One of the things I miss with our travelling life is having a pet. I have been so taken with the cats of Greece. With the exception of a few tough old toms, most of the cats are quite petite and friendly. They appear to be well-fed. These two little kitties lived just around the corner from us – if it was possible I would have cat-napped them.

The walking and hiking on Hydra is simply breathtaking. We missed out on seeing the many monasteries and churches on the island, as that would have involved hiring a mule or horse for the day, but we saw a lot travelling under our own steam.

Most of the paths were either cobblestone or concrete, and very easy to follow.

We followed the coastline.

We also walked high up into the hills overlooking the villages.

We walked over an ancient old stone bridge that led us down to a beach.

And we could have walked for many more days – Hydra was a perfect way to end our Greek adventure.

I am writing this from Athens; sitting in our little suite overlooking the Acropolis. The weather has turned – it is cool, drizzly and dull – which makes leaving Greece easier to bear. We get up tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. to catch a 8:00 a.m. flight home – 24 hours later we open our door in Nanaimo. We will then have two weeks of quarantine.

I have one more blog posting – our thoughts on travelling during Covid and Stephen’s financial summary.

Nafplio: Greece’s Most Romantic Town

Most marketing material bills Nafplio as being one of Greece’s prettiest and most romantic towns. It is not an exaggeration – perhaps a little more care went into this town as it was the first capital of the new Greece state, between 1823 and 1834.

Nafplio was the last stop on our tour of the Peloponnese. It is tucked into the eastern edge of the peninsula and is just a two-hour drive from Athens.

The main tourist draw is Old Nafplio, which is small and hilly – it lies beneath the shadow of the Palamidi Castle and is surrounded by the sea.

We arrived in our usual semi-hysterical fashion, with Stephen driving and me gasping beside him. We are no longer 100% trusting of GPS, so when we were instructed to turn right and then left and we found ourselves on what seemed to be a narrow pedestrian-only walkway, we fell into a tiny panic. Also, our pension was nowhere to be found. Luckily, someone steered us in the right direction – a momentary parking spot right beside this strangely haunting piece of street art.

Our charming pension was housed in a 1860 mansion, with the interior staircase slanting at a crazy angle and each massive guestroom decorated with antiques. All wonderful, except on the street just below us was a cafe that turned into a very noisy bar at night. We were not able to keep our windows thrown open for fresh air and for the first time in Greece, we slept with earplugs. The host seemed sympathetic, but then as she reminded us, “But with The Covid, the bar closes at midnight.” Maybe she mistook us for night owls.

Still, it was the only tiny fly in the ointment – Nafplio is very easy to love. The town shows well-preserved examples of Venetian and Ottoman influences in the architecture and just strolling the streets was a pleasure. It is impossible to get lost – you go up some steps or down some steps or you end up on the seawall – sooner or later you find yourself back where you started.

Nafplio has a large number of high-end designer shops, craftsman workshops and just plain charming storefronts.

Ice cream and handmade pastries are elevated to little art forms in Greece. I love the colours, the design touches and the beautiful signature fashioned from iron.

One of a kind artist’s shop.

Smoking is alive and well in Greece. At first, I was put off by the idea that our next-door neighbour would thoughtlessly light up while we were still eating, but I had to learn to roll with it – smoking is everywhere. And if you can’t beat ’em – you may as well have a fancy little shop to buy your cigs.

If your foyer is looking a little unfinished…

A lovely juxtaposition of pottery shop and cafe.

Nafplio has a number of studio/workshop/shops that offer a glimpse into the trade as well as the finished product. This shop showcased a carefully curated selection of handwoven items, small pieces of jewellery and fine leather bags. A large loom was in the adjacent room.

Hand-made leather shoes and sandals are quite common in Greece, and in many cases are surprisingly affordable. This gentleman’s workshop was right beside his store, so we had the chance to watch him for a bit.

Nafplio has no shortage of restaurants, cafes and bars, with everything from the usual laminated-menu mediocre waterfront tourist traps to the family-run tavernas to the so-cool coffee bars to the design statements.

The family-run taverna – bright colours, ubiquitous slightly uncomfortable rush seats, line-up of ouzo.

Design statement. Tattooed chef involved .

Perfect little snack stop.

The hang-out. Such a joy to be in a warm climate where it is possible to sit outdoors most of the year. Many of the Greeks we have met are real talkers – passionate, opinionated and knowledgeable. I think it begins with the coffee hangouts.

Some scenes from walking around town.

Most homes are well-maintained, freshly painted and photogenic.

Plenty of small parks, squares and monuments dedicated to Greek heroes.

Building on the right in a clear state of decrepitude. Building on the left is the stately Byron Hotel.

Building restoration is going on all over old Nafplio. With one look at that caved-in roof, I would have written this off but a crew showed up daily to try and put it together again.

View from our pension window.

Nafplio operates as a port, with everything from the humble fishing boat…

…to the more distinguished ride.

Speaking of distinguished rides – in the highly unlikely event that I will ever own an Aston Martin in my lifetime, this is not where I would park it. We lived in fear of scratching or denting our little Opel Corsa – how does the owner of a luxury automobile cope with the traffic, tiny streets and unruly drivers of Greece?

You need this beast to get around – the European version of the North American camper van.

And so… on to the Palamidi Castle. It dominates from its command position 216 metres above town. If you were so inclined, you could reach it by foot – by climbing 999 steps. Or, you could drive for eight minutes from the port.

We chose the latter and saved our strength for exploring the eight bastions that hug the hill and are connected by a single wall.

The Palamidi Castle was built between 1711 and 1715, and was considered one of the greatest examples of military architecture. It was used as a fortress, and then a prison, with rooms for prisoners facing life imprisonment and death.

View of the city from the Castle.

We had read about the Arvanitia Walk – the seawall walk that encircles the peninsula.

We began our stroll – a beautiful walk along the water.

And then we came to this sign. None of the brochures bothered to mention that the walk is gated and locked at both ends, due to rockfall hazards.

We consulted a gentleman who was nearby, who assured us that he walks there every day. “If there is problem, the government will not pay. Walk fast.”

So, we did as the Greeks do, slid in on one side of the locked gate and carried on.

We came back later in the day to swim at this beach. It was a 6 on a scale of 10 – we have been spoiled.

There are a number of important archaeological sites within an hour’s drive of Nafplio. We chose one – the magnificent amphitheater of Epidavros.

This site of the ancient theatre of the Asklepieion was used as a therapeutic and religious centre, dedicated to the god of healing, Asklepios.

It was built in the 4th century BC and due to its excellent acoustics and the condition of the seating, it is used to this day for performances, especially for the annual Epidaurus Festival.

It was awe-inspiring to enter this amphitheater. Once again, we thanked our good fortune to be here during these times of Covid and not have to fight with huge crowds.

As we entered, a group of German tourists had lined up in the centre. The leader started up the music, the group held hands and began to sing. We all watched – wanting to listen to this impromptu concert and experience the famous acoustics.

Alas! A sharp blast on the whistle, the young woman entering stage left, and the group was shut down – no unauthorized concerts allowed.

After such a magnificent experience in the intact amphitheater, the rest of the archaeological site felt a bit of a let-down.

Although – I did take this as a sign:

For over a week now, I have had water on the ear (not sure of the correct term), after our three days on the beach at Santorini. I thought it would just disappear (it hasn’t), I bought drops for Dry Ear (they haven’t helped), and I am wondering if my current sensation of having my head wrapped in cotton is what hearing loss feels like.

On top of that, I tripped over my own feet a few days ago and did a graceless fall to the floor that resulted in swelling on my right foot. Bad back for almost two weeks, water on the ear, swollen foot – are the healing gods trying to tell me something? As for Stephen, so far, so good – he may have an ingrown toenail.

We have five days left. We are in the Athens port Piraeus tonight – catching a ferry to Hydra tomorrow for our final adventures.

The Peloponnese: and now for something completely different

Every place we have visited so far has felt somehow familiar; images we’ve read about or seen of a Greek island or the Acropolis or Athens. But nothing prepared us for this other side of Greece – the Peloponnese Peninsula (“the best part of Greece“), according to our Santorini host.

This peninsula is positioned south and east of Athens and like much of Greece, is mountainous and surrounded by water. Unlike other parts of Greece, it is green and lush and forested.

We picked up our rental car (a silver Opel) in the Athens port of Piraeus, where our ferry from Santorini landed. After a rather hair-raising escape from the city (uncooperative GPS leading us the wrong way up hilly one-way streets), we were soon sailing east along excellent toll roads.

We then found ourselves on equally excellent mountain roads, on our way to Olympia. Forests of deciduous trees and such a green landscape – definitely a different climate here.

And then we got lost – our GPS misled us, and ignoring our better instincts (sign pointing straight to Olympia), we dutifully turned right and followed a pretty road that we thought might be a shortcut. After three kilometres, it announced that “You have arrived.” Well, heck – sitting in the middle of a forest that was clearly not Olympia – now what to do? Luckily, a car pulled up behind us. He set us back on our way, but not before asking us if we wanted to go mushroom picking with him. Another time perhaps!

Sure enough, 20 minutes later, we pulled into the photogenic town of Olympia, and met the host of our Airbnb, Kostas.

He was passionate about his town and its obvious main attractions, and began quizzing us if we knew anything about Olympia. “Um, it’s the site of the ancient Olympic Games?”, I offered lamely.

Sorry, Canada, for letting the team down – yes, of course, it is the site of the ancient Olympic Games, but it is so much more than that – it is one of the most important religious centres of antiquity. Zeus, the father of the the Olympian gods was worshipped here, and the area is steeped in history and mythology. SO much to study and learn when we get back home.

Undeterred, Kostas went on to tell us many fascinating things – some of them possibly even true. The town of Olympia has 600 souls, and 100 of them are policemen. “To protect our precious antiquities.” Hmmm…

Tokyo has the dubious distinction of missing out twice on their Olympic bids. Their first Games were to be held in 1940… and then WW II took care of that. Their second Games were to be held in 2020… and COVID-19 happened. True story.

If you have ever admired the perfectly round marble buttocks of Michelangelo’s David, they were in fact fashioned after the rounder female form. Likewise, the statue of Hermes, anatomically correct in the front, has the enhanced rounder butt in the back. Is this true? Judge for yourself.

The ancient sculpture of Hermes and the infant Dionysos, 340-330 B.C.

The Olympia Archaeological Museum was where we began our exploration of the area. It is a magnificent museum, filled with many treasures and sculptures.

The statue of Nike of Paeonios, offered to Zeus. 421 B.C.

Statue of a bull. 2nd half of 2nd century B.C. The detail was remarkable – you can see the muscles and sinew and skin of the animal.

We spent over an hour wandering the museum and then headed for the archaeological site of the ancient Games. Since so many archaeological sites are bald, hot and treeless, we were prepared to be fighting for a patch of shade.

But no, this was the first sight that greeted us:

I apologize for being a little fuzzy about some of the sites. There were many sites that looked just like this one.

The Philippeion was the only circular building, encircled by a colonnade. Restoration on this finished in 2005.

The entrance to the Stadium. How remarkable that these stones simply balanced one another to form the arch. We watched this little girl as she and her family wandered the site. She was in her own little world, jumping and running, so we imagined she was absorbing what she was being told about past glories.

She made her way through the same arch that ancient Olympians had entered, centuries ago.

And then she ran this track – she made it the whole way around. We cheered her on from our shady perch on the grass.

These young men cheated. They trotted for a while, then stopped for a Usain Bolt photo.

Nero’s house. He lived here during his participation in the Olympic Games, The mosaic floors and baths are still in good condition, although they are roped off from visitors.

The Temple of Zeus was destroyed by earthquakes of 522 and 521 A.D. Partial reconstruction was carried out for the Athens 2004 Olympics.

It was easy to wander these grounds and imagine how it must have looked in ancient times. Although one day was enough time to see everything, we could have spent another day in this beautiful area.

But, time to move on to the medieval seaside town of Momenvasia. It was founded in 583 and from the 10th century developed into an important trade centre.

While it is possible to stay right on “the castle”, we stayed at a hotel about a kilometre away on the mainland.

This was the sunrise view from our hotel room:

This ancient town is almost exactly as it was centuries ago. The island structure is a steep cliff, with the buildings built on one side, on a large plateau that is just one kilometre long and 300 metres wide.

In 1971, Momenvasia linked to the outside world through a causeway and tourism began to develop after that. Although you can park your car on the road outside the fortress, the town itself is entirely car-free.

The name Monemvasia is derived from two Greek words – mone and emvasia – meaning “single entrance.”

Everybody and everything comes through this one tiny entrance – visitors, hotel guests, clean laundry, food, alcohol, bags of ice. Everything comes out as well – departing guests with their luggage on dollies, great bags of garbage and recyclables – it is quite remarkable to comprehend how it all operates.

The walls and remains of Byzantine churches are from the medieval period.

This cross-in-square church was built in 1703 upon the ruins of two Byzantine churches. It never actually functioned as a church – it was once an armory and then as a primary school.

To wander through the tiny alleyways of this town is a magical experience. Red tiled roofs, cobbled lanes, old houses, arches, ruins, piles of old stone, stray cats, pots of flowers – it could be the 6th century.

You are never quite sure if a public laneway ends with private property.

One of many ruins on the island.

A small patio in front of one of Momenvasia’s delightful hotels.

One of a few open spaces or squares.

Some alleyways barely wide enough to walk through.

The lighthouse, built in 1896

Two views of the town, as it appears hugged into the hill.

We finished our time in Momenvasia in dramatic fashion. On our last night there, we woke up to a fierce thunderstorm, which we watched from the comfort of our balcony. The sky put on a quite a show – pitch black, then lit up. The water pounded on the shore, and every once in a while, we would see headlights of a car making its way carefully around the curves of the road.
By morning, the road had dried, the sun was out and we were on our way to our second-to-last destination – Nafplio.

The many faces of Santorini

When we thought of Greece, images of whitewashed buildings trimmed with blue doors and shutters, spilling down hillsides into a turquoise sea came to mind.

In other words, we thought of Santorini.

And yes, Santorini is one of those places that turns out to be exactly as you had imagined it. Blinding white beauty offset by the deepest blue skies and seas, scrubby olive trees and the odd pop of pink bougainvillea.

Anyone in Santorini who has invested in white paint stocks must be thanking their lucky stars. White is the exterior colour of choice, although there is the odd outlier:

We took the fast ferry from Crete to Santorini – a smooth ride that took less than two hours and cost us an eye-watering $220. I would say that I will never complain about B.C. ferry prices again, but of course that is not true.

Greek island hopping ain’t cheap – it will cost us $400 to get on and off Santorini.

We boarded the ferry with masks on and Covid-19 sheets filled out.

There were just a handful of vehicles and the passenger deck was about one-third full. The ferry was spotlessly clean and very comfortable.

Santorini has a reputation as being the “honeymoon” island, as well as being wildly over-touristed and expensive. While there are so many islands to choose from, we thought this would be an ideal time to visit Santorini, when the cruise ships are grounded and international travel in general has all but stopped.

It turned out to be a good decision. There are still a number of tourists here, but the numbers are way, way down, which makes accommodation, restaurants and beaches more accessible and relaxing.

The two main towns are Oia in the north and Fira mid-island. Fira is the main transportation hub for ferries, buses and the airport, so we picked a place that was a 15-minute walk to Fira, but away from the crowds.

We booked a cute little studio, with a small garden – olive trees, yellow eggplant and herbs. This is our front deck:

The sunrise behind our place:

And yet… the peace and quiet we were hoping for has eluded us. Our delightful host welcomed us with a plate of mezes and two glasses of wine, but forgot to mention that there is a daily meeting of the stonemasons all around us. When she was showing us around, we asked about the construction site and she looked surprised and assured us it was very quiet.

At 7:30 each morning, five or six cars rolled up and workers walked past us (as we sip coffee on the deck), to begin work. The concrete mixer started up, the hammering began, and our peace and privacy was gone. Most nights a pack of stray dogs howled and barked intermittently. However, it is all part of travel, so we just (tried to) shrug our shoulders in European fashion and carry on.

We had way more to enjoy than to complain about. One of the attractions of Santorini, other than taking hundreds of photos, is to do the caldera walk.
The island is curled like a shrimp, and inside the curl is the crater of a drowned volcano. The sheer cliffs that rise up from the sea form the caldera, and both Oia and Fira sit astride the caldera ridge.

The distance between Oia and Fira is 10 km. and those who are interested in walking along the caldera can do so by following a footpath that runs through both towns as well s two other small villages and whose terrain varies from cobblestone to paved to concrete to dirt. The scenery is outstanding, but in 30 degree heat and under a Santorini sun, be sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. There are at least three or four significant climbs – the last kilometre or so I kept myself going by dreaming of the iced cappucino at the end.

Sights along the way:

Looking out over the caldera from Fira

View from Fira

Black rock wall

View of Oia in the distance.

Another view of the ridge to the left, on the way to Oia.

Walking along an ancient path

You can rent this old stone mill – a unique Santorini experience.

Images of Oia. A traditional windmill at the north end of the island.

One of the many blue-domed churches on the island.

And again…

Apparently – the boat-builder’s house.

A heart-warming sight.

A plea from the residents. Over-tourism has taken such a toll on this island. While we feel grateful to have had the opportunity to see Santorini without hundreds of people in front of us looking for the same photo, what is the answer?

A common sight this year on Santorini. Since Greece did not open until mid-July, (they normally open for tourists mid-April), a number of businesses decided to sit this one out.

We saw so many hotels that were closed for the season. Someone explained to us that if it was a small family operation, it was possible to open and survive. The larger hotels had significant challenges because of their staffing requirements. This huge complex below looks like a brand new build. We wondered if Covid will finish it off before it starts.

People gotta shop. There are the usual throng of same-same souvenir shops, but Santorini has a discerning clientele and many stores exhibit distinct personalities. You can’t argue with the message here, but I was also drawn to the rope sandals.

Shoes loom large in my imagination. I used to have a sizeable collection, but between culling out for our “house-free” period, developing our current lifestyle that almost never includes heels, and beginning to appreciate the value of comfort over style, I now admire from a distance.

LOVE these shoes, but I just have to laugh. They have someone else’s name on them.

Simple. Understated. Timeless. Expensive.

Back to the understanding that Santorini is expensive. Pretend for a moment that you are young and beautiful and rich. This is your place. You will arrive with luggage that someone else will carry down four flights of cobblestone to your luxe suite that opens to the sea. You have outfits. You dine at 9:30.

Marketing is targeted to people like you, and presumably Cirque du Soleil performers who have been temporarily sidelined.

But that’s okay – there is room on Santorini for everyone and sunsets are what we are all here for.

Santorini is a small island and it is possible to get around easily by bus. “Easy” is a relative term. The buses go everywhere and operate on time but we have found bus drivers in Greece to be, almost to a man, aggressively rude and unhelpful. We asked our host, “Do they hate the tourists?” No, apparently, they hate their lives. This is a government job that provides just enough pay and security to tie someone to it for 30 years, but the drivers tend to have shifts that have enough time off to complain and smoke, so after a number of years, they have become uniformly bitter. When a driver shows kindness, the passengers experience a grateful reaction that is akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

On our third day here, we discovered Kamari Beach – a 20-minute bus ride to the east side of the island. Black pebble beach with a stunning backdrop and sublime swimming. All intentions of visiting other parts of the island vanished. Isn’t Greece all about the beaches? We decided – so far, in our travels, nothing compares to the beaches of Greece.

Pick an umbrella and sunbeds. Unpack water, towels, book and glasses. Wade into the clearest, cleanest water imaginable. Swim for a while, then float on your back, then simply bob in the water, then swim again. It doesn’t matter how far out you swim, you will always see bottom – 30 ft., 40 ft., 60 ft.

We spent three fabulous days on this beach (blue towel on the front right is Stephen) .

And that is our Santorini experience. We’re very glad we came here and we’re very grateful we had the chance to experience it the way we did. We suspect it is less interesting than other Greek islands and possibly less Greek.

Next up – eight days on the Peloponnese Peninsula.

Heraklion: our last port in Crete

Heraklion has a few things to recommend it – some fabulous restaurants, terrific shopping and the extraordinary Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It is also a short drive to traditional mountain towns, wineries and a number of important archaeological sites.

Crete’s largest city is an industrial and economic centre and a transportation hub. Direct flights from other parts of Europe arrive here and ferries leave the port to a number of islands.

Heraklion is neither beautiful nor is it homely – it is a city built to serve its residents and move tourists around efficiently. The stone walkway out to the beautifully restored Koules Fortress protects the harbour and provides a perfect evening stroll.

View of the city

Perfect place for quiet contemplation

Maybe a less perfect spot to fish? The buckets did not appear to fill up, but perhaps that is not even the point.

This is the closest we have come to a sunset in Greece. Everywhere we have been so far, the sun has sunk slowly over the mountains. Santorini will be a different story – their sunsets sliding into the sea are famous.

Our friend Linda jokingly asked about the beer-strewn beaches and the marauding gangs of thugs in Greece; she couldn’t believe it is as beautiful as we have portrayed it.

And yes, Greece is that beautiful, but of course I have curated the photos.
Most of our experiences have been really wonderful and most of what we have seen has been memorable. Greece is touted as being a very safe country and we have felt entirely at ease the entire trip.

But…Heraklion has felt a bit different. As soon as we arrived in town we began to search for our apartment. Laden down with bags and following our GPS instructions, we noticed a jittery young man watching us closely. He approached a couple of people who brushed him off, and then he disappeared.

On the same street, we saw this young man, a motionless and pious statue. We saw him again a day later; it was as though he hadn’t moved.

Begging on the streets is common – we have been approached by a number of women with children, and more disturbingly, by young children alone.

These three young boys are a fixture. They approach diners, usually without success and play accordian and sing. Little Greek Oliver Twists.

And then there is this poor fellow, having a nap by the Lion’s Square Fountain.

So there you have it, Linda – veering off slightly from the sunny skies and balmy beaches. I’m curious that we did not experience evidence of homelessness or poverty or begging before this, especially not in Athens.

Our new home in Heraklion is a modern, well-furnished apartment located right in the heart of things, but very quiet at night.
This is our view:

Some street scenes close to us. A pedestrian shopping street.

Tiny alleyways

Typical street with parked cars on both sides and traffic moving through with inches to spare.

Stately banks and municipal buildings

Church of St. Titus

The coffee scene in Greece is a pleasure. We stopped here for lunch and these gentlemen were sitting behind us, nicely dressed and not short on conversation. The man in the blue suit got up to leave first; his suit impeccably pressed and his shoes well-shined. Showing up every day – words to live by.

We have eaten very well in Heraklion. We treated ourselves to a nice meal at Peskesi, which is a well-regarded farm-to-table restaurant that highlights Cretan products. We enjoyed a bottle of good local red wine and shared salad, a long-simmered chicken with olives and a dish of snails cooked with tomato and zucchini, which are a Cretan speciality. Service was fabulous and they in turn treated us to raki and a dessert of halvah with shaved almonds and honey. How I wish I had photos to show you, but the colour contrasts weren’t sharp enough (shades of brown and green).

Another restaurant, o Mago, was half the price and just as delicious. Aromatic salad of local herbs and risotto with araki pork and sundried tomatoes. Again, no photos, except for one of the outside tables.

I am including this photo because I find this trend delightfully quirky. Greek women are very body conscious; tops are cropped, dresses cling and pants hug the hips. While there are no shortage of heels and wedge sandals, a common sight is to see a woman with a tiny mini-dress and shoes just like this pair. Sneakers with big thick soles – with the right attitude they look sexy.

Random street art

And now – on to the big stuff – where it all began.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is the world’s largest and most significant collection of artifacts from Minoan civilization. It is a modern 1930s building that houses artifacts from Neolithic to Roman times; many of them salvaged from the Knossos Palace, just south of the city.

The museum is stunningly laid out and well interpreted. We spent three hours there, and here are just a few of the highlights:

Kamares Ware – a luxury product of the Minoan export trade – 1900-1700 BC

Exquisite Minoan craftsmanship. Stone bull’s head enhanced with seashell, rock crystal and red jasper. Used to pour libations. 1600-1450 BC

Burial urn. The dead were likely trussed in a fetal position to fit into these large urns. 1700-1450 BC

Fresco depicting Bull-leaping. This was a spectacle in which young athletes of both genders made a dangerous leap over the horns and back of a charging bull. Contests were usually held in large stadiums.

The next day we grabbed a bus out to Knossos Palace, which is about 20 minutes south of the city. It is a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains and olive groves. We spent a fascinating couple of hours wandering the site.

Knossos has a rather troubled history as the first palace was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC and then rebuilt and partially destroyed again between 1500 and 1450 BC. It finally burned down 50 years after that.

Earliest traces of inhabitation go back to 7000-3000 BC. It shows an advanced level of technology attained by the Minoans through the structural and architectural features.

Original excavation began in 1878 by Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, and continued between 1900 to 1930 by British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the entire Palace. As you will see from the photos, many of the frescos have been vibrantly painted and restored to look new, which caused some considerable controversy at the time.

Everything we read about Knossos Palace urged us to arrive precisely at 8:00 am or else arrive the last two hours of the day. Any other time would result in a crush of tourists, long line-ups and sweltering heat.

Because of Covid, we hedged our bets and arrived around 10:00 am. No lineups and no crowds at first, and then the tour buses arrived. Still, it wasn’t bad – it was possible to dodge the groups, keep our distance and enjoy the sites.
None of the groups appeared to be bothered with distancing among themselves, particularly this group.

We met up with them about 15 minutes later. We were taking refuge in the shade at the site of the Theatral Area.

They arrived and made a beeline for us, rightfully wanting to share a bit of shade but literally crowding in beside us, with inches to spare on either side. We made a bit of a huffy show about getting up to leave, but it had no effect.

Since that was our only negative experience with crowds, it is hardly worth mentioning, other than to note that everyone, even tour companies, have a different idea of social distancing.

We arrived in Greece with a pitiable amount of knowledge about Greek history and Greek mythology and we are learning as we go. This much we know is true: we must return to continue our education.

Now, we are off to Santorini tomorrow morning for five days. Prepare for a long posting!

The road less travelled – exploring Crete’s east coast

We are just finishing seven glorious days at Anemone Apartments, about 85 km. west of Crete’s most easterly point. This is our holiday-within-a-holiday; a full week to set up camp and relax. As our host Nikos advised us, “you must stay still in Greece and just enjoy.” Stellar advice when you have the luxury of time and have stumbled upon this heavenly place.

This is the view from our deck. That little blue car is our super-cheap rental car. Steve discovered an offer we couldn’t refuse – 56 Euros ($90) for one week. We asked for a Fiat Panda, but got a rather lived-in Suzuki, complete with a hole in the rear bumper and multiple dents. However, it is mechanically sound and practically drives on fumes, so we’re happy.

Our place is centrally located to most of Crete’s eastern and southeastern attractions, and best of all, is a 15-minute walk to Voulisma Beach – golden sand and crystal water.

Our apartment is so charming – spread out over two floors, with kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and bathroom and three decks. It is decorated in an old-fashioned Cretan style – paned windows that open up to the fresh air, and embroidered wall hangings on the white plastered walls. But this is where we spend our time:

Sunrise from our bedroom balcony:

During these less-travelled times, we are paying just $52 a night for our apartment, which is about 20% less than normal and that has been typical for all of our accommodation so far.

Stephen keeps track of our expenses, in order that we might stick to our budget and continue along in this lifestyle! As many of you have (discreetly) inquired about how we afford this, Stephen will prepare a cost breakdown that we’ll share once our trip is over.

There is a large rocky outcropping right in front of our place, that is filled with olive trees and sandy roads. We went exploring and discovered a tiny little beach; one of hundreds just like it on Crete – calm, protected and utterly private.

Olive trees – I idly wondered how many olive trees there are in Greece. Millions? Tens of millions?

Greek olive oil is one of my favourite things – you could almost drink it. Clean, sightly grassy, so pure and fresh. I am definitely switching to a Mediterranean diet once we are home again.

If I wasn’t already laden down like a pack mule with my overstuffed backpack, I would be bringing back olive oil, leather sandals, textiles…

The trees are such a characteristic of Crete – everywhere we go the air is fragrant with the scents of thyme, oregano, lavender and cypress.When I think of Crete I think of a landscape of short, gnarly branches, piles of boulders, sunbleached paths and the sea.

Agios Nikolaos is a small city about 10 km. from here. It is similar to other Cretan cities, with streets that rise up from the harbour, filled with cafes and shops and many churches. We found it less interesting that Chania or Rethymno, but worth a few hours of browsing.

The city centers around Lake Voulismeni, which feeds out to the sea. It provides a lovely backdrop for a stroll around the shops and restaurants that ring the lake.

One of a number of small lanes lead to the lake.

Agios Nikolaos is built on seven hills, which means your hamstrings will get a good workout if you are here for any length of time. A number of staircases are painted with murals.

Crete is so mountainous that it is inevitable that you will find yourself on switchbacks just getting to the next village. The roads are well-paved and well-engineered and at least on the east side of Crete, much less-travelled.

Far fewer tourists make it to the east side of Crete, even in normal times, so it is possible to navigate steep mountain roads comfortably.

We drove to Kritsa, one of Crete’s oldest and most photogenic villages, cantilevered off the steep mountain slopes. The area produces award-winning olive oil and specializes in women’s crafts. There is a women’s collective and many of the shops are filled with their textiles and embroidered goods.

A statue immortalizes the beauty and patience of the women’s work.

and the real thing:

Some street scenes:

From Kritsa, we drove to the Lasithi Plateau, an elevated plain in the mountains, in search of the iconic stone windmills.

The drive was simply breathtaking; our goal was to reach the Lasithi Plateau after driving a 23-km. loop through 18 traditional villages. We throughly enjoyed the drive and the villages, but when we arrived at our destination (GPS), we were completely confused. No signage, and the road we were encouraged to turn down became a rocky, rutted narrow path. We turned around and decided that, having seen a number of windmills already, we could call it a day.

But not before we stopped at this crazy place for lunch.

Mariana and Onasis an otherworldly oasis just off a series of switchback roads, and utterly festooned with vegetables. Pumpkins, gourds, squash, clusters of tomatoes hung by the hundreds from clotheslines. Stephen managed to whack his head on a pumpkin while attempting to enter the restaurant.

We enjoyed a beautiful lunch – everything grown from their garden and enhanced with local olive oil.

Fresh tomatoes, zucchini stuffed with rice and topped with local yogurt and little cheese pies.

Then we met the owner Onasis, with an uncomfortable-looking Stephen in his clutches.

He told us he smokes five packages every two days and proudly declared he is 75 years old. (No argument from us.) He asked Stephen his age and challenged him to run 100 yards (“If you win, I will give your wife 200 euros.”)
The challenge had no legs, so we all kept our dignity, but left with a good story and a bag full of his apples and tomatoes.

Then there are the goats. They are a fixture on Crete and although I tell myself I like goats, I am not 100% comfortable around them. When we stopped to take a photo of this fellow, he perked right up and began to head toward me with a resolute trot. Would he head-butt me? Bite me? I lost my nerve at the last minute and jumped back into the car.

Another goat encounter a few days later also ended with some nerves. We were driving through a small herd of goats, and this one was close to my side of the car. It is probably safe to say these characters get handouts from the tourists and he seemed so tame, but once he started snapping his teeth at me, we moved on.

And Greek beaches! If there is a bad one, we haven’t been there yet – they are uniformly crystal clear and utterly turquoise.

This beach at Mirtos on the south coast on the Libyan Sea was practically empty.

The beach at Vai is so distinctive as it is located at the far eastern reach of Crete and is surrounded by a huge palm forest. Vai, which is a local word for the branch of the palm tree, is part of the UNESCO geopark in that area and the palm grove is unique to Vai.

Beaches in Crete are quite democratic. If you choose, you can rent two sunbeds and an umbrella for 10 Euros, or at certain beaches, you can take the VIP package for 15 Euros (as shown in the top photo) – 2 sunbeds of higher quality, on the first line of the beach, with a lockable cabinet for your valuables. You can also bring your own towel and umbrella and stake out a spot anywhere – for free!

On the way to Vai beach, we stopped at the Holy Monastery of Toplou, one of the most important monasteries on Crete. Currently a sanctuary and a place to provide solace and direction, the monasteries operated as bastions of resistance during the 200-year Ottoman regime and during the Nazi occupation of WWII.

The monastery and surrounding gardens and grounds were beautifully preserved and maintained.

Tomorrow we arrive in Heraklion for four days – still lots to explore before we leave Crete.

Hiding from a hurricane in Rethymno

As we make our way east along the north shore of Crete, we had planned just a three-day stop in the small, pretty city of Rethymno. At first, the weather forecast of rain and thunderstorms for our entire visit was nothing more than a disappointment. “We’ll go out between downpours – how bad can it be?”

When we found out that a rare “medicane”(Mediterranean hurricane) had done significant damage to some of the northern mainland and a couple of the Ionian islands and was headed for Crete, we took notice. However, lucky us, Crete got a pass from the worst of the storm. Our first night in Rethymno was rainy but the rest of our stay has been ideal – big dramatic skies and cooler temperatures. We have had the chance to see everything we wanted to see in the area, although weather closed the local beaches.

Rethymno is a delightful, smaller version of Chania – charming old town, narrow alleyways, Venetian and Ottoman influences and the harbour and lighthouse as a focal point.

We lucked out with our Airbnb – a spacious one-bedroom apartment on the top floor, with a broad balcony that overlooked the rooftops.

The view from our balcony looking down to the street below. We heard muted music and people’s voices, but otherwise, it was very quiet. And so clean: this morning we woke up to the sound of a street cleaner who was slowly moving along the road, vacuuming up cigarette butts and bits of garbage.

It seems the common denominator in every village, town and city in Greece is a large and well-cared-for cat population. They are neither friendly nor skittish – they just exist as part of the landscape; something I find quite endearing.

Laneways are another enchanting feature of Rethymno; you can get turned around, but never totally lost. All roads lead to a central square or the harbour or the main shopping street, so the challenge is just deciding whether to turn left or right.

We had fun watching the little boy trying to figure out his bike and was doing just fine until his older brother came along to help.

A typical small cafe tucked into an alley.

I loved these plant hangers. I know they fall into the “harder-than-it-looks” category, but I would love to try nailing together a number of small, flat boards and construct one of these for our balcony back home.

You know when you have set certain expectations for a recommended tourist site? The Rimondi Fountain was described as being a dramatic stone fountain set in a square. Visitors were urged to drink the fresh spring water from the fountain “to ensure your return to Rethymno”.

Well, I must have had an image of something along the scale of the Trevi Fountain, so we actually walked right past this once before we asked for directions and made our way back.

Other confused tourists were also dutifully snapping photos, but it was an underwhelming site. Even worse, there was no tap for fresh spring water, which I hope does not jinx our chances of returning.

All other sites in Rethymno more than made up for this. Some, like this modest building, just told a simple story.
During the 17th century, this building was one of two public baths (or hamams) in Rethymno, built by the Turks. It was a functioning hamam until 1925, and then became a bakery for many years. It was extensively restored and from 2000 on, was designated a protected site and became a hamam again.

Turkish architecture features prominently in Rethymno. Unique features include upper storeys that project out over the street by perhaps an additional two to three feet and are embellished with heavy wood and latticework.

This is a common site in Reythmno – the juxtaposition of original buildings beside renovated ones. The newer builds are still faithful to the architectural features of the old – just with better windows and more secure railings.

Rethymno is filled with many notable mosques and churches. I apologize for the lack of proper identification of the church – I took so many photos, and now am completely confused. They are all a variation on a theme, though – solid, understated elegance.

Neratzes Mosque

This mosque fronts onto a square that is flanked on one side by a park and on the other side by this mural. We walked out of the square into a neighbourhood that was filled with graffiti – all of it in Greek, with the exception of the obligatory “Fuck the Police“, but the tone had changed. Far less Instagram-worthy, not intended for tourist eyes, it was a lot more reflective perhaps of the struggles many Greeks have lived with for years.

Food has played an important part in our stay in Reythmno. The day we arrived, we hit the streets around 3:30 or 4:00, and before long, it began to rain. We took refuge in this restaurant, and snug as could be, we sat under the awning and watched the world go by (run by?), as we enjoyed snacks and beer.
We enjoyed it so much, we returned again last night for dinner.

Before our arrival, I had read about RakiBaRaki a number of times. It was fabulous – every dish an inventive variation on traditional Greek mezes. I ordered mussels in ouzo, and Stephen had a charcuterie board with pork belly, eggplant salad and a flavoured cream cheese. Heavenly food, and sadly, my photos did not turn out well, but this is the restaurant.

It is common in Greece to have Menus for 2, to allow diners to try a variety of dishes. We ordered the Mixed Mezes, which offered six dishes – tzatziki, green pepper stuffed with rice, eggplant with beef and cheese, chicken with lemon and wine, beef and onions and horta (wild greens). Delicious and impossible to finish. We can’t eat like this every day – all the walking we’re doing will not make a dent. Also it doesn’t stop there. Complimentary fruit, desserts and/or ouzo arrive on the table after every meal.

Coffee shops abound – everything from the tiny Greek coffee stands to the larger coffeehouses. Coffee fredo is big here – iced cappucinos that are a perfect excuse to grab a waterfront table and get out of the sun for a bit.

There are even Starbucks in Greece, but honestly why would you bother when you could check out this coffeehouse?

Remember worry beads? They are very likely making a comeback during these trying times, and there are at least a couple of tiny stores in Rethymno that specialize in them. Gorgeous beads made of polished wood or semi-precious stones or a tiny set of beads to attach to your key chain.

I could go on about the amazing shopping – the gorgeous linens, the colourful prints, the authentic artifacts, the polished olivewood, stunning leather bags, fabulous shoes and inventive jewellery. And that is just what you could pack in a suitcase. Therein lies the rub.

We are both travelling in our usual fashion – with carry-ons that are already filled to the brim. If I start buying things now, I have another month to schlep everything with me, so I am trying to resist and hoping that what we are finding here will also be available in other parts of Greece, closer to our departure time. Next time – I’m bringing a full-size rollie.

Rethymno’s waterfront is quite different from that of Chania, although it is Venetian in style.

The Egyptian lighthouse is part of the harbour, but does not enclose and protect it. The sea is wide open beyond that.

These intriguing concrete sculptures are part of the harbour. I couldn’t find any information about them, but I assume they are intentionally decorative as well as providing a significant barrier in rough weather.

The Fortezza, which holds a place of prominence on the hill overlooking the sea, was built in the 16th century by the Venetians to protect its citizens from Ottoman invasions. After the surrender to the Ottomans in 1646, it retained much of its character and the number of residents increased dramatically.

When the Germans occupied during World War II, it was used as a prison and dormitories. After the war, much of the Fortezza was demolished and since then there has been great effort to restore and maintain the remaining buildings.

We spent over an hour wandering the site, made all the more pleasurable due to the lack of crowds and the cooler temperatures.

We began by walking up one of the bastions to gain an overall view of the Fortezza, the city and the sea.

Once the Fortezza was seized by the Ottomans, they built this mosque. Today it is used for exhibitions and music events.

The incredible mosaic ceiling of the mosque.

The warehouse complex that consisted of three domed covered and two uncovered spaces for food and tanks.

The Twin Building that was used for storage and is now used as an exhibition venue.

St. Theodor Trichinas’ Temple

And so our short, but sweet time in Rethymno has come to an end. Tomorrow we hop on a bus to Heraklion, then grab a rental car for one week as we begin to explore the east side of Crete.

Getting lost in Chania

Well, not really lost – just momentarily misplaced. Chania (pronounced hon-ya) is all about discovering the alleyways and back lanes. Without our cellphone, we would have had a tough time finding our Airbnb, Xenon Apartments. We’re on the second floor, with the balcony.

We’re staying six nights in Chania, which is a beautiful, evocative small city on the north-western end of Crete. The Old Town is a series of laneways and narrow alleys that criss-cross up from the Venetian harbour and show a number of influences – Jewish, Turkish and Venetian – in the architecture.

Just around the corner from us is a building that was built in 1650 by Jews who were brought from Spain by Venetians during their occupation of Crete during the Middle Ages. It was originally a soap factory but is now a restaurant.

We also visited the only surviving synagogue, Etz Hayyim, which was re-built in the mid-90s. After Crete’s Jewish population was wiped out in 1944, the synagogue fell into disuse, but today is full restored and is open to all visitors. We were not allowed to take photos inside the synagogue, but this is a shot of the exterior grounds.

Other religious edifices are prominent, of course. The Mosque of Kioustsouk Hasan, which is now an exhibition hall, is a standout on the harbour.

The Agios Nikolaos cathedral is one of a number of Greek Orthodox churches in Chania.

It flanks the leafy Splantzia Square, where the Greek prerogative seems to have a foothold; men of all ages sit and gossip and drink coffee.

Chania has been a fantastic introduction to Crete – we are re-learning the art of slowing down, sipping our drinks and savouring our food.

While there is no denying the appeal of Greek food, after a while the palate is screaming for something a little lighter, a little cleaner, a little different. We discovered a fabulous vegan restaurant called Pulse, owned by an Irishwoman who has lived in Crete for 27 years and has successfully resisted the urge to eat lamb.

Last night’s dinner, overlooking the water: Stephen had a Superfood Salad

I had ravioli stuffed with polenta and garnished with fennel.

The Venetian harbour – ground zero for people-watching, eating, drinking and endless strolling. It is flanked by the Firka Fortress on one end:

…the Grand Arsenal at the other…

…and the Egyptian lighthouse that protects the harbour.

More harbour scenes – at dawn…

…and at dusk.

Although the marina was full of yachts, catamarans, luxury cruises and glass bottom boat rides, there was still room for the trusty Greek fishing boats.

So now that we’ve walked the promenade, let me take you through some of the alleyways. They are filled with cafes, tavernas, small inns, sweet little shops, and photogenic doorways and balconies.

and finally – this little fellow. He is a friend of our apartment’s proprietor, and his very proud young parents watched as we stopped to talk to him.

We had a bit of a setback in Chania – we had to cancel our plans to hike the Samaria Gorge. It is listed in all guidebooks as a “Must-do” – an all-day event that involves a very early bus ride to the trailhead, followed by a 16-km. hike through an outstanding canyon landscape, dropping from 1230 ft. elevation to the sea on the south shore of Crete. This was one of the things in Greece I was most looking forward to; I even bought new hiking shoes!

Two days ago, my back gave out on me; an episodic event that can be brought on by bending over to tie up my shoes, and results in a paralyzing vice grip on my lower back that is the mother of all muscle spasms. Every two or three years or so, I am in the grips of one of these hellish things; I think this one may have been brought on by the many hours on the plane, followed by my excitement and a failure to pace myself.

Luckily, I have found a therapeutic cream that has really helped, but certainly not enough to tackle a full-day hike. So very disappointing.

Stephen has been a trooper about it all – “in sickness and in health”, I guess. We could still do the beaches and Crete has bragging rights to a couple of beaches that consistently make it on the “World’s Top Beaches” lists. We chose to go to Elafonisi Beach – an exquisite beach on the south shore, about an hour and a half drive through the mountains.

We rented a little white Peugeot, and began the drive with a tiny bit of trepidation. The reputation of Greek drivers as impatient speed hounds aside, we also have a long history of getting tragically lost, so driving in foreign countries carries its very own adventures.

But not this time! Armed with our cellphone, and very comprehensive road signs, we soon found ourselves high up in the mountains.

The road conditions were terrific – mostly like the photo above, although with a bit more twist and turn.

And if you had a sudden irresistible urge to drink and drive, there were a number of raki shacks along the way.

And then, the reward.

Crystal clear water; warm enough but still refreshing, mountains as a backdrop and best of all – no crowds. Absolute swimming bliss. Elafonisi used to have pink sand, but apparently over the years so many people have taken home vials of sand as souvenirs that the true pink tone has changed and softened. An admonishing sign is posted – yet another thing of beauty on this earth we have failed to protect.

Tomorrow we head east for a few days in the small town of Rethymno. We’ll be in Crete for over two weeks, maybe longer. See you again in a few days.

We’re in Greece!

We have been desperate to hit the road again, but it was not an easy decision to travel internationally during Covid. Canada still has non-essential travel advisories in place, which means if things flare up and borders close, we are on our own. Travelling by plane carries an element of risk, as does staying in hotels and Airbnbs. We are decidedly in the higher-risk age group. And yet…

Greece has maintained very low Covid numbers and when cases started to climb recently, officials clamped down immediately with curfews and hefty fines and jail time for egregious offenders. The government has put strict protocols in place in all public spaces, and will cover costs if tourists should become ill. With tourism down by 70%, this is a small window for travelling in Greece without being besieged by hordes of other tourists. Social distancing is actually possible. So is getting a table at a restaurant.

Once we discovered that a company called MediPac offers travel insurance that covers Covid, we were in. We flew quite seamlessly with Air Canada from Nanaimo/Vancouver/Toronto/Athens. If only flying was always this pleasant. No crush of cranky economy passengers waiting to board. No middle seat companions on any of the flights and since the Toronto-Athens flight was just one-third full, we each grabbed a full row to stretch out and sleep.

Upon arrival in Athens, we zipped through customs in minutes and walked through this empty airport to catch the metro to downtown.

Travelling by metro was also easy, although with reduced seating, we stood for the 45-minute ride. Seats are cordoned off for distancing and everyone wears masks. I’ve never thought of Greeks as being particularly compliant people, but boy, there is no fooling around here. Mask-wearing is non-negotiable and is required in all public indoor spaces – period.

We are in Greece for six weeks; beginning our trip with a few days in Athens, then flying to Crete for 18 or 19 days. We’re playing it a little by ear from there – planning to visit Santorini, then back up to the mainland to drive around the mountain villages and seaside towns, with a brief stop in Hydra before heading home again.

It feels wonderfully normal to be travelling again, although we have noticed two distinct differences from past trips. Fellow tourists are almost overwhelmingly a) European and b) young. So far we have not fallen into an easy banter with anyone except for bored waiters. Tourists are keeping to themselves.

Athens is much nicer than we had imagined – cleaner, quieter, less chaotic and very walkable. However, with the exception of a very few parks, there is a noticeable dearth of green space.

We’re staying at an Airbnb in the Plaka neighbourhood, which is a charming older area close to the Acropolis, with twisty narrow lanes, bougainvilleas and tons of cafes and tavernas.

Our first night in town, we were feeling spacey from 24 hours of travel and grabbed the first tourist-y restaurant we saw, lured in with the promise of “drinks on the house.” Most restaurants will give you something complimentary – ouzo, dessert, fresh fruit – which I find touching and remarkable in cash-strapped, tourist-hungry Greece.

We kept it simple with a Greek salad and souvlaki and for a tourist restaurant the food was surprisingly good. It was lovely to sit outside and let it wash over us that we were in Greece.

We were fading fast and when we asked for the check, our waiter appeared instead with two more drinks. “On the house!,” he announced to my rather ungracious, “oh no“. ( We did manage to finish them.)

We discovered that central Athens is compact, made up of several fascinating neighbourhoods and is extremely walkable. This sweet little part of town, called Anafiotika, is just up the road from our place.

It is a cluster of about 40 whitewashed homes that lie right in the shadow of the Acropolis. It is just beautiful and unlike the rest of Athens – more reminiscent of buildings found on the islands. Although it is touted as a tourist attraction, I felt a bit uneasy walking through such a small, intimate neighbourhood. These are people’s homes and we were walking within inches of their open windows.

We spent the day exploring and enjoying the many contrasts of Athens. It is a city steeped in history, but also shaped by modern influences.

Greece is famous for its many stray cats – this little one lives around the corner from us, and is obviously well-fed.

The Monastiraki Flea Market is what I wish I could find back home. Every conceivable treasure, piece of junk or genuine antique can be found here, although many vendors appear to have lost their mojo.

Just around the corner from the dusty old relics of the flea market came high fashion.

A Gaga-worthy gown for the alternative bride.

The neighbourhood of Psirri is known for its lively atmosphere and sense of style. We stopped for lunch at a cafe which had hung laundry across the street as a design feature.

Our lunch was made all the more memorable by Stephen’s gusher of a nosebleed, which is off-putting at the best of times, but particularly troublesome during Covid. Stephen is prone to nosebleeds in altitude and extremely dry air, and we think that all the plane travel with a mask on, combined with a sudden drop into 30+degree heat, may have brought it on.

Our server handled us with great tact and empathy, providing yards of paper towels.

If you look carefully at the photo below you’ll see my friend, clutching an ice pack.

We came upon this crazy sight – a “Mary Poppins” tea party/fantasyland cafe embellished with an eye-watering amount of fringe, flowers, and froth.

Athens has a significant street art scene, and although we did not make it to the more bohemian neighbourhoods, we still stumbled upon some notable examples.

An upscale shop sold curated pieces – tea towels, mugs, T-shirts – with quotes from famous Greek philosophers. I’m not sure that I agree with any of them, especially Socrates. “I know nothing?” What a distressing realization to come to – surely a few things have stuck by now? Still, they bear discussion, and beat the heck out of talking about Trump.

A typical example of the little architectural surprises that lie tucked away down side alleys.

Our friend Joe has a keen appreciation for ancient Greek history, and he advised us to brush us a bit before our trip, as it would be otherwise overwhelming. – very good advice indeed. I am woefully ill-educated about Greek history and mythology, and so will not attempt to give you any background on ancient Greece. There is such depth of info available elsewhere – I’m bringing you our experiences and observations.

Obviously the Acropolis and numerous other sites in Athens are the whole point – they hold a command post from many vantage points in the city and inform the tenor of the town. It is decidedly a cool thing to walk in modern-day Athens with the juxtaposition of the Hadrian’s Arch against a flow of cars and motorbikes.

This morning we sat in a shady cafe with our iced coffees and looked out over the Roman Agora. The metro tracks run right in front.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, tucked in from a major thoroughfare.

Yesterday we devoted to the Acropolis Museum in the morning and the Acropolis in the afternoon. The museum is sensational – filled with hundreds of statues, many of them almost intact, and thousands of pieces saved from the excavation at the Acropolis. The exterior is all the more remarkable because it had been fully excavated, and then it was decided to situate the new museum on top of the site. Giant round concrete pillars were carefully placed and the excavation site was then filled in with gravel and sand to protect it while the building of the museum took place.

We took our time trekking up to the Acropolis; even at 5:00 p.m., it was still hot and sunny. We passed the Theatre of Dionysus on the way up and had the good fortune to listen to an orchestra warming up. We’re not sure if there was a performance later – it seems unlikely, although there would be lots of room to distance theatre-goers.

On the last leg of our trip up the hill, we followed behind a gregarious and chatty Frenchwoman, who carried on a steady commentary.
As we reached the summit, she announced, “Et voila!”

The Parthenon is the focal point of the Acropolis, and it is in a steady state of restoration, which distracts but does not take away from its grandeur.

Lesser sites include the Temple of Athena Nike:

The 360 degree views from the Acropolis are stunning and the Parthenon is such an iconic image; it would be impossible to come to Athens and miss seeing them.

But both Stephen and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; we were more taken by the juxtaposition of ancient ruins like the Agora while wandering around the city than by the Acropolis itself.

I have to confess that I have a very short attention span for tramping around ruins in scorching sun, or for admiring ancient exhibits in a museum. I stare and stare at crumbling rock or pottery shards and I just cannot conjure up images of life thousands of years ago.

Tomorrow we fly to Crete for at least a couple of weeks and we are so looking forward to experiencing that side of Greece – the mountain villages, hiking trails through gorges, the olive groves and the amazing beaches.

A Year of Living Precariously

While it would be high drama (and wildly misleading) to suggest our last year was “dangerous”, it was marked by constant change, joy, loss, grief, and now, with Coronavirus dominating the news, “precarious” does not feel like an overstatement. The whole world is precarious.

What the heck is going on? If our original plan three and a half years ago was to “leave ourselves behind”, we’ve done that in spades. But the world is no longer cooperating and the rules have suddenly, totally changed.

So let’s go back to when we last chatted, in August. We had finished our travels in the Yukon and were anxious to get back to Vancouver to see our grandson. (For those of you who already know this story, just scroll down to the coronavirus part.)

When we first started travelling full-time, friends warned us that things would change with a grandchild. “You’ll travel less”, they said. “Hmmm,” we said. (secretly believing otherwise.) Now, we’re not so sure. Our Leo is a pretty compelling draw, and we’re not sure we want to leave him for months at a time. Plus, we really like his parents.

I could show you dozens of photos, but I do know better. Well okay, let me add one more – our creative daughter-in-law’s first Hallowe’en outfit.

So, yes, we are smitten grandparents – the kind who show photos of their grandchildren to complete strangers.

Leo was our first big change of the year.

The second big change was our decision to sell our trailer. We put a lot research into deciding what type of RV would suit us and the Escape trailer seemed to be it. Made in British Columbia, lightweight fibreglass body, well-designed, and virtually problem-free, this was the ideal introduction to RV-ing for newbies.

Our challenge was we never got the hang of backing up. One day we would wheel right in to our campsite like pros and the next day we would wrangle it for what seemed like hours. Our other challenge was we felt like we were taking up major real estate on the road. We didn’t feel free, we felt hindered. We were “dragging ourselves behind.”
At some point, we will look for a smaller unit – a truck camper or a van. We knew our upcoming travel would be overseas, and figured it might be a couple of years before we would hit the road again. So we handed our trailer over to an excited new owner and we have many very happy memories to tide us over until the next time.

The third huge, unthinkable change was the death of my mother in October. At 89, she was a force to be reckoned with, full of life and brimming with health – we all thought she would go on forever. She and my dad came out west from Ontario in September to meet their great-grandchild, and this is the last photo I have of her before she died.

My parents had to cut their trip short because my mother was not feeling well, and two weeks later she was gone.

The months since then have been a blur of shock and grief and sadness, as well as the busyness of helping my dad get settled into his new life. We all continue to cope with a world that does not have my mother in it.

Also, we are facing the unpalatable reality that we’re next up to bat. Not yet old, but no longer young. So how do we make the most of our valuable time remaining?

Our fourth big change was our decision to put down roots and buy a condo. For the past few years we had been balancing our travel time with housesitting and renting Airbnb’s and for a while that worked very well.

Increasingly though we were feeling the need to come “home” between trips. We knew we didn’t want to buy a house, with all the yard work and maintenance that required – we wanted a comfy roost we could lock up and leave without worry. At some point, I think, I want to have a garden and house plants and a bit of a yard, but for now, we want to continue travelling as much as we did before, but come home to our “stuff.”

We decided to buy in Nanaimo – central to our friends on Gabriola and Vancouver Island, family in Vancouver and an easy walk to downtown and the ferries. We bought this condo in September, but spent the next three months in Ontario with my dad. We’ve only been living here and setting up our home since early January. We began with an inflatable mattress and two camp chairs and by now we are getting close to being furnished. The “stuff” collecting has begun once again, but this time, we are choosing everything very carefully and minimally. It has been fun feathering our nest.

This is our condo building in Nanaimo – we are the corner unit on the second floor.

And now…to travel. We had planned a trip to South America this past winter, but of course those plans were shelved. We did get away for two weeks in February to Puerto Morelos, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Heat, colour, fabulous swimming and snorkelling, and great food. It didn’t feel new, or demanding or even exciting, but it was a tonic and exactly what we needed.

In April, we were going to drive down to Portland to visit friends. This summer we were planning to drive through the northern United States, up into Ontario and visit family and friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Next winter we were planning to go to South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos and Peru. Now all of that is up in the air.

Everything has changed – who knows what the weeks and months ahead will bring? Will we be allowed across the U.S. border in April? What will our road trip look like this summer? As for South America – another big question mark, even so many months away. We are all adjusting our realities on a daily basis.

We have two sets of friends who have had to cut their trips short and come home, and another who is stranded in Peru for the next two weeks. Our son was supposed to have left on Monday for Thailand – he cancelled that trip just last week, as the news became more urgent.

Covid-19 – it’s not unscary. Don’t watch the movie, Contagion, by the way – it’s not going to help your state of mind. It is immensely prescient.

We’ve been madly hand-washing, have become acquainted with the term “social distancing”, and have been postponing get-togethers with friends for at least the next week or so. We ran into an old friend today at the grocery store – someone we hadn’t seen in five years. We began this awkward hug-not-hug dance, until we gave up and took the chance on an embrace. We stopped for coffee at our favourite spot, normally packed, and today with just three other tables. Wherever we go now, we feel “germy.”

Worst of all, at 67 and 70 years of age, we don’t fit into the “frail elderly ” category, but we are considered vulnerable.

So what do we do? We go for walks in the many glorious parks around Nanaimo.

We’re reading, watching Netflix, keeping in touch with friends and family and waiting it out. Waiting for, if not better news, at least something more definitive.

Future travel – unreservedly, yes! As soon as we get the all-clear, we’re booking our trips. Not for one minute to minimize what the entire world is facing, but let’s face it, if one goes down, we’re all going down. It’s a new world order and what we knew to be true two weeks ago is no longer the case.

When we get back on the road, what will have changed? Small businesses gone? Significant health risks attached to travel that can’t be ignored? Environmental damage that can’t be ignored? None of us know.

In the meantime, we are doing as we’re told, being responsible citizens and trying to find the light and look for the humour.

Funny sign on a Nanaimo liquor store: ” Free roll of toilet paper with every six-pack of Corona.”

Stay healthy, dear friends. With any luck, we will be chatting again soon.