Archive for the 'Greece' Category

Oct 20 2007

Last day on Santorini: Red Beach, fish heads and Nutella

Published by under Greece,Santorini

Although we’d heard that Santorini doesn’t have the best beaches in the Cyclades, that didn’t stop Ben and I from immediately seeking out any potential beach area upon arrival. Our obsession with the beach borders on unhealthy – something about not being expected to do anything but lay around or read all day. Our distinct skills and talents are appreciated in such an environment, so it’s only natural that we would gravitate towards it. Ben excels at sleeping, and I am really good at doing nothing. In fact, in the two months leading up to our trip, instead of exercising prudence and planning for our trip, we went to the beach four times.

Perhaps it’s just me being swept up in the novelty of black sands, sheer cliffsides and large volcanic rocks underneath clear, blue waters, but I’ve found Santorini beaches to be breathtakingly beautiful. (I also strongly urge everyone to visit the Greek islands in the off-season. Where our guidebook has warned of intolerable crowds, we’ve found to be pleasantly spacious.)

IMG_0998Our last day in Santorini was spent at Red Beach, a tiny cove of a beach that you have to climb up and over a rocky peninsula to access. While most of the rock and sand that covers Santorini is black, Red Beach gets its name because, well, it’s red. Apparently the particular isolation of this beach enabled many of the men-folk to feel comfortable walking around in the buff. While I’ve become accustomed to topless women of all shapes and sizes wandering around Greek beaches, it was quite a shock to my American eyes to see fully-grown nude men splashing about in the ocean. On many occasions, I had to stifle a giggle and the urge to elbow Ben and whisper “dude, that guy’s naked!”

We decided to stick around Red Beach through the evening, catch the magnificent Santorini sunset over the ocean, and eat at one of the fish tavernas along the shore. Dining in Greece is a different experience than dining the States. Most of the selection is determined by what’s in season and produced locally, and the menus change often. Particularly in the islands, seafood is a large part of the Greek diet and the menu selection at local fish tavernas is entirely dependent upon the catch that day. Many times, the tavernas will display the day’s catches in crates out front, from fish to squid to shrimp, so you can select what you want to eat before they cook it. Other restaurants will take you back into the kitchen to show you the evening’s selections. Since I’m used to seeing my food without eyes or heads and after being nicely filleted and cooked, this method of meal preparation took some getting used to. Especially when the chef is slicing and dicing a raw octopus on a table near where you’re eating. But you never doubt that the food is fresh!

Upon being seated at the taverna, the owner walked over with a bowl in his hands. I braced myself. “You have fresh fish special?” he asked, lowering the bowl so we could peer in at the small, silver, possibly squirming fish he was presenting us. Ben and I looked at each other, wondering how to ask the many questions we wanted to ask. He took our silence as “Yummy! Of course!”

“Okay, you have fresh fish I fry in olive oil. And Greek salad.” he said, retreating to the kitchen. While I was reassured that yes, our fish would be cooked, I was less certain that they would be served without heads.

And I was right. The owner had fried the entire fish in olive oil, bulging eyes, and all:
Dinner is served.
Bon appetit?

It actually turned out to be quite good. Yes, we ate every single one! And Ben was gentleman enough to decapitate the fish before putting them on my plate.

The highlight of the evening came later, when we decided as a celebration of our last night on Santorini, to splurge on dessert (again). In our wanderings of Fira, Ben and I chanced upon a shop called Loukomadopolis (for more on loukomades, see Ben’s previous entry) – which the sign translated to “Dumpling Town!” Upon striking up a conversation with the owner, we discovered they have Nutella-filled loukomades. Seriously. For the uninformed, Nutella is like chocolate-flavored peanut butter. They sell it in the States, but it’s very cheap in Europe, and I pretty much eat it out of the jar with a spoon for every meal.

Ben wanted to take a picture to document the awesome dessert. But when he saw me covered in Nutella from head to toe with my face inside the box, licking the chocolate remains from the bottom with a gusto I don’t care to describe, he changed his mind. “Not your finest moment,” he said, shaking his head.

We arrived in Naxos by ferry yesterday evening and are setting off today to start exploring the island.

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Oct 19 2007

Kamari Beach + Liars, Jerks, and Thieves

Published by under Greece,Santorini

I’m glad I’m able to write this entry while I’m still heated. Right now I’ve got bones to pick with: 1. Lonely Planet, 2. Santorini’s Volcan Wine Museum, 3. Santorini’s KTEL Bus Lines operators. However, the day started off on a good enough note, so I’ll back up and begin there.

Brittany on the black sand of Kamari BeachOn Wednesday, we caught a bus to the eastern shore of the island, to check out Kamari Beach. And I’m happy to say that all the legendary reports from Kamari Beach are true: its sand is actually black. Presumably, this is because it is made up volcanic rock from one of the island’s many explosions. Bad news for those on the island thousands of years ago, but good news for us! Not only is the black sand beautiful, we quickly appreciated the fact that its sand grains are more like tiny rocks than what I’d normally call “sand.” This bestows it with the under-rated benefit of not sticking to your body/towel/possessions. We laid our white towels out on the black sand all afternoon, and watching every grain fall right off when we picked the towels back up hours later was a novel experience.

Of course, laying out on Kamari Beach wasn’t all we had on tap for the afternoon. We knew from our Lonely Planet guidebook that there is a wine museum located about midway between Kamari and Fira, on the KTEL Bus line. This particular museum is advertised as illustrating the history of wine-making through the use of animatronics, which was really all I needed to hear. Brittany kept talking about some other things we could see or do at the museum, but all I could really think about all day was getting to watch aging robots in traditional Greek dress creakily demonstrate the grape stomping dance. With any luck, to the accompaniment of accordion music. But much like Icarus, my vision must have soared too close to the sun, because it was all about to come crashing down in flames.

Problem 1: Lonely Planet is a liar
I’ve refrained from blasting Lonely Planet for similar grievances so far on this trip, but consider the camel’s back broken. Lonely Planet advertises its overpriced Greek Islands guide as providing definitive insider’s information on the different sights you’ll encounter. Among other things, this includes the prices you will expect to pay for admission to any of its recommended attractions. The problem here is that Lonely Planet has either chosen to publish 1994 prices in its 2006 edition, or their “expert guides” are simply making up numbers.

We didn’t bring a lot of cash with us on our daytrip, since Lonely Planet promised that the Volcan Wine Museum’s “highest” admission price is 1.70 euros per person. Imagine our surprise when, after being dropped off by the bus at the wine museum in the middle of nowhere, we found the admission price to actually be 5 euros per person. Now don’t get me wrong: 5 euros per person is an entirely reasonable admission fee, which I would be happy to pay in exchange for animatronics. But since we were counting on a price of 1.30 per person, we barely had 5 euros in cash between us.

Stranded at Volcan Wine Museum
Stranded in the middle of nowhere

Let me reiterate that this museum is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest ATM would entail a 2km walk. And the bus that only passes this stop once an hour had just dropped us off. Thanks to Lonely Planet’s decision to distribute grossly inaccurate data as “reliable advice,” we were effectively stranded. We had no other choice but to leave the museum, and sit at the bus stop for the next hour, waiting to be rescued from our ill-judged decision to trust Lonely Planet guides.

Problem 2: The Volcan Wine Museum curator is a jerk
When we first met the curator, he was all smiles as he quoted his price of 5 euros per head, which he told us would include a tasting of 3 different wines, as well as an audio tourguide device. Since Lonely Planet’s quoted price was off by 500%, we didn’t have the 10 euros in cash. So I explained our situation, and posed a reasonable request: could we pass on the wine tasting and audio guide, and simply view the museum at a reduced rate? His response: “One price” and he immediately turned his back to us. I tried to follow up, “Well, is there a cash machine anywhere nearby?” Curator: “Nope,” as he immediately turned again and quickly walked away. He left us standing right there knowing full well how far off the beaten path any visitor must come to find his isolated museum.

Arriving at Volcan Wine Museum: a happier timeTHANKS VOLCAN WINE MUSEUM. You may have won the battle, but I’ll yet win this war. And that war is called The War of Me Lambasting Your Establishment on my Website, then Search-Engine Optimizing This Page So That Everyone Searching For Your Museum on Google Will See The Truth About the Sort of Business You Run.

Problem 3: Santorini’s KTEL Bus Lines Operators are thieves
Well, maybe not all of them. But the one we dealt with on Wednesday sure was. When we caught the bus from Kamari Beach to the Wine Museum, the operator charged us the full price for a ride from the beachall the way to Fira, rather than the reduced rate ticket for a half-trip. We even asked about the cheaper ticket (which we’ve used before) since we were only taking half the trip to Fira, and he denied any such ticket existed. Fine. We kept our full-price tickets after disembarking at the Wine Museum, and when we got back on his bus an hour later, we showed him the same ticket for a ride from Kamari Beach to Fira that he’d sold us that very afternoon. Now we would simply like to complete that ride. He wasn’t having this, nor would he even let us pay the reduced price ticket THIS time. If we wanted a ride back to Fira, we once again had to pay the FULL price for a ticket from Kamari to Fira. This sat about as well as you can imagine, and it didn’t get any better when we later saw him slyly slipping money from his KTEL change belt into his personal backpack. Well done.

P.S. And just for the record, Lonely Planet misquotes the price for a KTEL bus ticket on Santorini by 1300%.

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Oct 16 2007

Searching for Santorini Vineyards

Published by under Greece,Santorini

We had planned to check out Santorini’s black sand beaches yesterday, but upon waking up, we were slightly discouraged to find that the weather had suddenly shifted from tropical/balmy to arctic/hurricane. This was our first encounter with Greece’s legendary westerly wind, known to all locals as “Meltemi.” When Meltemi strikes, he does so without warning, and we’re currently studying the sacred local art of planting your feet to avoid being blown into the volcano. Since there’s usually no point to reasoning with Meltemi, we decided to instead spend the day checking out some of Santorini’s vineyards.

Walking to KamariOne interesting factoid about Santorini is that its roads don’t have names. This makes finding any destination on the island a true adventure. Even the guidebooks are able to offer no more help when describing an attraction’s location than: “near [insert town].” The only thing to do was to hop a bus to the first town near a vineyard, called Megalohori, and proceed to walk around the island until we saw anything resembling a vineyard.

The first promising sight was a homemade roadside sign marking “winery roads,” complete with colorful pictures of grapes. Upon further inspection, I would suggest to the town of Megalahori that “winery roads” be re-named to “ditch that goes around the back of a shed, then immediately dead-ends at a closed garage.” Needless to say, our journey down “winery roads” was a short one.

Santorini wine tastingFortunately, we found success further on the outskirts of town. Here was Antoniou Winery, which is built right into the sheer cliffside overlooking the distant port below. In years past, this strategic location allowed the winery to pipe wine down the cliff to the docked merchant ships. The pipes are no longer in use, but we explored the winery’s subterranean catacombs, and enjoyed a wine tasting on a patio overlooking the mighty caldera.

We left Antoniou, and soon found a second vineyard a short distance down the road: Santo Wines. However, our timing was poor, as we seemed to arrive right in the middle of a union meeting out front. We squeezed through the crowd to enter the visitors’ lobby, and found that the winery tours were cancelled for the day. Much like “winery roads,” we found ourselves leaving soon after we arrived, but not before purchasing some moderately overpriced mini-bottles of dry white wine.

The next stop on our wine tour was only an inch or so away on our map, so once again we set off on foot. What I hadn’t considered was that one inch on our map = several kilometers, and the circular patterns on the map between us and the next winery = mountain. And this explains why it was sunset when we finally arrived at what had now become our final destination of the day: Art Space Winery.

Santorini Art SpaceThe Art Space is actually a series of caverns, which are used to both display art, and produce and sell wine. We arrived right around closing time, but the proprietor was kind enough to walk us through the cave gallery anyway, which turned out to be beautiful. I never actually learned the proprietor’s name, so let’s just call him “Wade.” Wade became increasingly jovial and talkative as the tour progressed, and by the end, he insisted that we come try his many different varieties of wine. We tasted the difference between vintage years of his reds and whites, but the highlight was a drink he introduced as “rain water.” He thought for a moment, then added that we might know it as “moonshine.” The rain water tasted more like fire water to me, but I still had no idea what we were in for…

After taking our shots, Wade informed us that our sample had been distilled one time, and he mischievously asked if we’d like to try rain water distilled two times. We couldn’t really turn that down, so 2x distilled rain water went down the hatch. My review: ouch. Now Wade had a big grin on his face, and he pulled a third bottle from the shelf. This, he told us, was rain water distilled FIVE times. Brittany and I looked at each other, but the decision had already been made for us. We looked back to see Wade laughing and filling our shot glasses once more. I don’t know that there’s a way to describe what 5x distilled rain water is like. My throat burned, my eyes watered, and the taste lingers cruelly. After we completed his challenge, Wade gleefully added that 5x distilled rain water is 86% alcohol. Or, 172 proof. I said, “that ain’t legal in the States, brotha!” Or, I might have, if my vocal chords had been operational.

Thankfully, you don’t need a voicebox to wave down a passing bus, so we made it back home to Fira safe and sound. We live to fight Meltemi (assuredly) and rain water (hopefully not) another day.

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Oct 14 2007

Santorini: First Impressions

Published by under Greece,Santorini

As Ben has pined for Knossos, ever since I saw a photograph of Santorini in all its white-washed glory, I have longed to visit the island. And so Santorini was the logical next stop on our Greek island-hopping adventure.

SantoriniThe island has not disappointed: Santorini is intense. It is, first and foremost, intensely beautiful. I sat here for about thirty minutes trying to write a paragraph describing the island’s beauty, but no words I can think of seem to do it justice, so I’m hoping our pictures speak for themselves.

Santorini’s history and geography are dramatic as well, for one major reason: it’s a VOLCANO. I was not aware of this fact until a few days before our arrival in Santorini when I started to read up on the island in our guidebook, which warned that we may be woken up at night by small tremors coming from the dormant — but not dead! — volcano on which Santorini lies. Needless to say, I was concerned. My concern escalated when I looked into the island’s past.

The island was inhabited around 3000 BC, after the once-active volcano became dormant. Around 1650 BC, a series of earthquakes and eruptions caused one of the biggest explosions in the history of our planet: 60 cubic kilometers of magma spewed into the atmosphere. The explosion sunk the entire center of the island, forming the (now fabulously beautiful) caldera, which was filled in by the sea. What was once a round island is now more like a crescent moon. (Side note: this explosion, which caused tsunamis as far away as Israel, is conjectured to have been the downfall of Crete’s Minoan civilizations.)

This is not the end of Santorini’s dramatic story. A brief highlight reel: a thousand years later, an explosion separated one end of the island. An islet popped up in the middle of the caldera thanks to volcanic activity soon after that. In 1570, the south coast collapsed. In 1707, an explosion created yet another islet. In 1956, an earthquake destroyed both major cities on Santorini.

And yet people keep coming back! It’s as if everyone here is either anxiously awaiting the next catastrophe or in complete denial. Our guidebook says the inhabitants are remarkable for their “resilience and insouciance.” I call them plum crazy.

Although I may not live here for fear of liquid hot magma engulfing my home, Santorini is a spectacularly beautiful place, and amazed me the moment I stepped off the boat.

arriving in SantoriniWe arrived in Santorini having taken a “superfast” ferry from Iraklio. Reduced ferry schedules in the off-season forced us to take the high-speed boat, despite the price, as the slow ferry didn’t leave Iraklio until next week. We did appreciate the twice-as-fast boat ride. We did not appreciate twice-as-much seasickness.

Upon arriving at any port in Greece, you will be confronted by domatia (room) owners holding signs and frantically yelling, trying to get you to rent from them. It’s a high-risk-high-reward game Ben and I have been playing: we could call ahead and make reservations, guaranteeing us room in the cheapest local hostels. However, waiting until we arrive and negotiating with the peddlers might result in a higher quality room for an even better price. We might also get scammed by someone who claims their rooms are “very close to town.” Or end up paying three times the hostel price.

In Santorini, we got lucky. We quickly met Stavros, a native Santorinian and domatia-hawker, and haggled him down to a mere 22 euros per night (the cheapest hostel here is 15 euros per person!) for a room in Fira, the island’s largest town. As much as I loved Billy Crystal, Jr., this room seems gecko-free and (miraculously) has wifi!

Other first impressions:

  • Santorini is expensive! Even grocery store prices here are jacked up compared to those in Hania.
  • Everyone here speaks English. All the tourists speak it (there are even Americans here!), every single Greek speaks it, and they laugh at us when we approach them and try to converse in Greek. Whereas in Crete it was nearly a necessity to speak a few Greek words, in Santorini it’s an anomaly for any tourist to attempt it.

OiaWe spent our first day in Santorini in the town of Oia, a ten-minute bus ride from Fira. Oia is the face of Santorini: when you see a picture of Santorini, it was taken in Oia (pronounced ee-ah). Oia perches on the edge of a black volcanic cliff that plunges into the caldera. We also decided to descend the cliff to visit Oia’s port, Ammoudi — a decision we regretted soon after we began climbing the 300 stairs back up the mountain. Today we plan to tour some of the island’s wineries – the black volcanic rock that covers the island apparently makes the soil fertile and ideal for grape growing!

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Oct 13 2007

Knossos: Dreams Do Come True!

Published by under Crete,Greece

Mark yesterday down as one of those days that significantly increases the level of happiness I’ll enjoy on my death bed. Crete has been my most-desired travel destination for at least ten years, all because of one site: the palace ruins at Knossos. After a month on Crete, we finally visited Knossos on Thursday, and it was a dream come true for me.


Knossos Palace
Knossos was home to the Minoans, who first built the palace here around 1900BC, and were the ancestors to those people that we commonly think of as ancient Greeks. The palace they built on Crete was a labyrinthine home for what could really be called a self-sufficient town. Its sprawling, maze-like blueprint gave rise to Greek legends of a true Labyrinth on the island of Crete. And the Minoans’ reverence for the bull ultimately gave birth to the tale of the Minotaur who inhabited the Labyrinth. I’m happy to say that the description of “maze” fits Knossos quite well. It took me all of ten minutes to become lost in the ruins, without a clue how to get where I wanted to go. I’ll be the first to admit to becoming lost in a supermarket more than once, but that took me at least twenty minutes.


Knossos columns
One thing that sets Knossos apart from other ancient sites is the fact that it isn’t all white. That is, you quickly notice that many columns and walls are painted deep red, gold, and black. This is because the original archaeologist who uncovered the site, Sir Arthur Evans, wanted to bring the civilization to vivid life, for all modern visitors to see. And in fact, his reconstructive decisions have become a major point of contention among archaeologists and other scholars. At the risk of condemning myself to ridicule from certain members of the archaeological field, I appreciate Evans’ decision to re-paint and re-build sections of the site as they would have once looked. While certain renovations were purely based on conjecture, his work goes a long way toward immersing you in what Knossos must have felt like in its prime. And those certain archaeologists who disagree are the boring ones anyway.


Knossos plumbing
The Minoans were way ahead of their time in terms of technological achievement, which has led more than one historian to propose that Knossos was the basis for the stories we have all heard about Atlantis. One highlight that you can easily see today is a subterranean plumbing system. A system of underground pipes carried water away from the palace, which allowed for its royalty to enjoy the first “flushing” toilets, with the water being poured down by hand. Another cool first for Knossos is known as The Royal Road, which led out from the palace toward trade routes and the like. The Royal Road is remarkable because it was Europe’s first road!

The only disappointing aspect of the site is that you are not able to view its famous frescoes in their original locations. But even this is OK, because they are on display in the Archaeological Museum of nearby Iraklio. When we visited (Oct 2007) the Museum was still in the throes of a several years-long renovation, which has forced the majority of the building to close to the public. Fortunately, the Museum has graciously set up some of its best pieces in a single large room, which you may visit in the meantime. Less graciously, they still charged us the full museum admission price for the one room.

No price is too great, however, to see the frescoes and sculptures that were found at Knossos, and have adorned the covers of art history textbooks ever since.


Knossos Bull Jumping Fresco
Final verdict: It’s worth going to Iraklio just to visit Knossos and the Archaeological Museum. And in fact, that’s probably about all you’ll want to do before you’re ready to leave the city. We found Iraklio to be grimy and dull, and a major step down from Chania*. Also, its youth hostel is about as spartan as you can get. If you’re lucky enough to not travel alone, it’s worth it to shell out the few extra euros and share a room in one of the cheaper hotels. Actually, perhaps we should start putting up reviews of accommodations somewhere on this site.

I leave you with this exciting note: we arrived via ferry today on Santorini, where we will be spending the next 5 nights! Found a nice hotel (with a pool!) in Fira, and October being the low season around here, we were able to substantially negotiate the price down to backpacker-level. Will begin much-anticipated island exploring ASAP. Keep you posted…

*After about two days in Hania, we figured out that the most widely accepted English spelling is actually “Chania.” But we didn’t really feel like going back to edit our entries, so we just ignored it. Perhaps one day we’ll go back and edit our spelling. But since we’ve now written lots of entries about Chania, I feel like going back to edit them even less.

Video Tour of Knossos from the Central Courtyard:

The Palace at Knossos from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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Oct 10 2007

One last note from Hania…

Published by under Crete,Greece

EurosAteMyDollarsFor starters, I’d like to thank the U.S. dollar for continuing to weaken. As our Russian-turned-Canadian friend Sasha was happy to inform us, the value of the U.S. dollar has now fallen below that of the Canadian dollar for the first time in nearly forty years. We now have to pretty much multiply all prices in euros by one and a half to get the dollar value. Can’t complain — we knew what we were getting into (see website title).

In happier news, we added a Map & Itinerary section to our site! Our itinerary is far from determined and in constant flux, but we’ve given a good general idea.

This afternoon we’re saying our official goodbyes to Hania and catching a bus to Iraklio, Crete, to fulfill one of Ben’s lifelong dreams: to see Knossos. Knossos was home to the Minoans, one of Europe’s first civilizations. Their maze-like palaces spawned the myth of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.

After a couple days in Iraklio we’re taking a ferry to Santorini. The next month will be spent island and city hopping, until arriving in Italy in November. Updates to follow as we locate sporadic internet access points!

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