The highs and lows of travelling during Covid

It took us such a long time to decide to make the trip to Greece, that even when we were on the plane, we were still questioning ourselves. We didn’t really feel comfortable until we had been in Greece for a few days and the sun, the people and the normalcy of life there calmed us down.

We can’t say we were right or wrong in our decision – I don’t know if that is quantifiable. We chose Greece because of their low Covid numbers and because of their government protocols. We asked ourselves how we would fulfill our responsibility to the Greek citizens to travel responsibly, and we answered by keeping distance, wearing masks, practising constant hand hygiene and avoiding crowds.

I think of navigating the world with Covid and compare it to driving a car. Every time I get behind the wheel, I am accepting the risks that it might not have a good outcome. A blown tire, sudden snowstorm, drunk driver, a moment’s inattention – all risky possibilities. I mitigate those possibilities by maintaining the car, wearing a seatbelt and driving defensively. I haven’t eliminated the risks, but I’ve lessened them and I drive almost every day without giving it a second thought.

So…the decision to travel was made, we arrived in Greece and then what? What was it like to travel during Covid? Short answer – the same and different.

I’ll start with the lows of Covid travel.

Loneliness: One of our great pleasures of travel is meeting people. We have a number of good friends we’ve met during travels and still keep in touch. Memories of pre-Covid travel include innumerable chance encounters, long chats, lunches and dinners with new friends.

We did find people willing to talk to us, but the conversations were shorter and more reserved, and no-one was inclined to suggest joining a table or sharing a bottle of wine, or meeting up later. As well, we did not meet a single Canadian, so we had brief chats with Europeans without feeling any connection. There was the one exception of a Parisian who was excited to discover we came from Vancouver Island. He is a diver and it is his ambition to come to Nanaimo and area for cold-water diving.

Sadness for the locals: We were struck by the resolute nature of the Greeks, and their wonderful hospitality in spite of the fact tourism is down by 75%. We were wondering if we would be the only guests in hotels or the sole diners in restaurants, and it wasn’t like that. There were people out and about; life going on. But Greece is hugely dependent upon tourism – how long can the small cafes, souvenir vendors, tour guides and boat operators survive? It was wrenching to have chats and encounters with so many Greeks and imagine they might not make it.

The highs of travelling during Covid:

No crowds!
Greece is one of many destinations that has become wildly over-touristed, and no, the irony of being a tourist and complaining that there are too many of us out there is not lost on me.

Santorini is a stunning island, but its beauty draws an inconceivable number of visitors – way more people than the tiny streets can reasonably accommodate. In high season, cruise ships drop between 11,000 and 15,000 tourists Every. Single. Day.

Pre-Covid, this would be a typical day in Santorini, with thousands of tourists inching along the alleyways, and thousands of cameras poised for the sunset shot.

Looking at this photo gives me the willies. I regard watching a sunset as a religious experience – it is a wondrous and solitary and reflective moment. I cannot imagine being crowded and jostled and anxious as hundreds of people around me chattered and whistled and clapped.

This was how Santorini looked during our visit:

Everywhere we went in Greece was similar. We could drop into any restaurant, easily find sunbeds on any beach, and not worry about finding a seat on the bus, ferry or plane. But yet, there were enough people around to feel like we hadn’t missed the party.

Greek hospitality (filoxenia)
The loose meaning of filoxenia means “friend to a stranger”, but there is a deeper cultural intention of extending courtesy and comfort to visitors. We found the generosity of people who probably could scarcely afford it this year to be overwhelming.
We visited very few restaurants that did not offer something on the house – a drink, some fruit, a dessert, and in the case of Crete – always raki.

Travel Similarities
There are certain precious elements that are common to almost all our travels, and we found them in Greece as well.

Discovering what we don’t know
We learned very quickly that our knowledge of Greek history and mythology was sadly lacking, but we knew that going in.

What I mean by “discovering what we don’t know” is that ineffable understanding that our tiny corner of the world and our tiny lives within that corner are not representative of how much of the rest of the world lives. Ours are not the only standards by which to live. When we travel, we learn that truth over and over again. That old saying about “not knowing how lucky we are” is true, but we also see that many people who have far less than us feel far luckier.

Getting rid of fear
I’m not a big fan of being afraid. Unless I’m being chased by a rhino, I consider most of my fears to be groundless, or at least manageable. The exhilaration of setting out on an adventure that may carry risk and require using judgement and common sense is one the biggest paybacks of travel.

Serendipitous book discoveries

I LOVE this one. When we travel, we only carry a couple of books with us, and hope that the book gods will provide. And they almost always do – in the shape of Take a Book, Leave a Book shelves in hotel lobbies.

The old standards – Ludlum, Grisham, romance novels – are reliably there, but so are the treasures. Books you’ve been meaning to read or authors you’ve never heard of turn up on the shelves – so exciting!

This time around, I picked up three winners – an old P.D. James The Lighthouse ; Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keene. I had not read the latter two authors and I’m keen to find more of their work.

Travel buddies
Since we are together 24/7, it is important to branch off and give each other space as much as we can. It also provides the opportunity to experience what is unfolding in front of our eyes without ongoing commentary (often mine, I confess).

This is a very dear sight to me – Stephen walking with hands behind his back, lost in his own thoughts.

Time slows down

Without the familiar prompts and requirements of home, time seems to shape-shift when we travel. Every minute of every day brings something new that demands our attention. Whether it is a beautiful garden to admire or a bus we just missed by two minutes, we are fully engaged. That engagement means that our time does not flow by unnoticed and our days don’t disappear into weeks.

If I could figure out how to bottle that essence, I would, but in the meantime, here are words to live by.

Our experience travelling in Greece during Covid has just made us keen to plan our next trip. We won’t be foolish – we have a couple of months to get through yet as the second wave rolls around the globe, but if there is an opportunity – we’ll grab it.

We have added anew page to our site – Financial Summary. We have started it with this trip, and will make a feature from now on.

It began because so many people have asked us indirectly (and very directly!) how we afford to travel as much as we do. It’s a natural curiosity and we’re happy to share.

We want to be mindful of travel costs so that we can continue to live this lifestyle – travel, pay our bills and home and continue to save.

This is Stephen’s bailiwick – he is the plotter and planner of all things fiscal, and he keeps us on track.

We consider ourselves to be budget travellers. We are not adverse to staying in a hostel, but more likely we will find a modest hotel or Airbnb. We eat at tavernas, family-style restaurants, or do takeout. We stop for coffee, or beer or ice cream. We will not miss museums and attractions, but take advantage of half-price or free days, if possible. In short, we don’t do without, but we don’t waste our precious travel dollars – they can go toward the next trip.

If you are interested, please check out our page “Financial Summary” at the top of our blog.

And now, we are on Day Six of quarantine. It is not so bad – we have lots of little projects to do, and daily activities – exercise workouts, studying Spanish, reading, catching up on Netflix.

The weather is cooperating – we are not being taunted with glorious sunny days. We came home to this – our view from our condo.

And we have a lot to look forward to – once quarantine is over, we will be heading to Vancouver to see our little grandson, Leo (and his parents!)

Thanks so much for following. We wish you all a healthy, happy fall-into-winter and hope to see you back on these pages before long.

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!