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.

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.