Archive for October, 2007

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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Oct 08 2007

The Top 10 Greek Products We NEED in the U.S.

Published by under Crete,Greece

10. Xboy
Who needs Xbox? For the mere price of 20 Euros, you can have your own Xboy! Is it made by Microsoft? No! Is it a working game console? I doubt it! Is it really just a brick in a box? All signs point to yes! Merry Christmas, Junior!

GameSatation 2
9. GameSatation 2
Sitting right next to “Xboy” in a sleazy electronics shop in Hania is something called “Gamesatation 2.” I really wanted to ask what is actually inside the box, but the store owner chased me off when he caught me taking these pictures and laughing.

8. Gerani Lemonade
Just like lemonade, but with one crucial difference: it’s carbonated! It’s bottled in Greece, so I’ve been drinking it like crazy in case I can’t find it elsewhere in Europe. I tell you this: When I return to the States, all my Country Time lemonade will be made with carbonated water.

chocolate croissant
7. Chocolate Croissant
OK, so these are really only in Greek bakeries in order to appease the hordes of British tourists. In other words, you would be right if you protested that these aren’t really Greek at all. And if you did so, I would say that I’ll eat a chocolate croissant every day of the week if I want to, and no one will ever keep me away from them again, so you just need to BACK OFF!!!

6. Oregano Chips
This sounds sort of weird/unappetizing, which is of course the reason we bought them in the first place. As it turns out, it’s like Sour Cream and Onion chips and Old Bay chips had a delicious chip baby. They favor Sour Cream and Onion chips slightly more though, so I guess that was the mother.

5. Gyros
The ultimate late night snack. I’ve always liked these in the States, but I didn’t know gyros until I tried “Mike’s” on the Hania harbor. Mike knows gyros. Take one homemade pita, and fill it with slow roasted pork, fresh tomatoes, spinach, tzatziki sauce, and the ultimate coup de grace: french fries. Also, it turns out that everyone who tried to tell me that “gyros” is pronounced “yeeros” was right. Gyros ate my dollars?

4. Loukoumades
Beauty in simplicity, which means that you can make these yourself tonight in a few easy steps. Buy some biscuit dough, roll it into balls, and fry it up in a pan. Once it’s looking like golden doughnut holes, cover it in honey and cinnamon. Presto! You just made loukoumades, and that sound you hear is me trying to force my way into your home to steal every single one.

3. TonTon
To be fair, Greece has to share the credit with Denmark for this particular product. Half Greek, half Danish, 100% pure legendary explorer. In the time it takes you to eat your mortal breakfast, TonTon has discovered at least three new ancient civilizations. Whose residents were tinier than Thumbkin. And who tell him the secrets of the galaxy when no one else is around. For more on TonTon, you should probably read this story.

2. Raki
Ouzo is the more famous Greek spirit, but raki is distinct to Crete. You could buy raki in brand-name bottles, but why bother when everyone is willing to sell you their own homemade version at half the price? Raki is made from fermented grape skins, which gives it a wine-like taste. The cool thing about this wine-like taste is that it is exceptionally good at hiding behind the distinct taste of burning. But the people of Crete are tough, and any day when they aren’t drinking raki before noon is a day that they must not have been awake before noon. This can also be attributed to raki.

1. After a full day of consumer electronics scams, oregano-flavored everything, and of course, TonTon, there’s simply nothing quite like…


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Oct 06 2007

Conquering the Gorge

Published by under Crete,Greece

There are two things that Ben and I are definitely not: 1. in shape (motivating myself to walk down the one flight of stairs in my apartment building instead of taking the elevator was an event) and 2. early risers (one memorable day in college Ben woke up at 7 pm, thought it was 7 am, and slept until the next morning. Seriously).

So it was a bit out of character for us to get up at 6:30 this morning to hike 17 kilometers through a giant gorge. This is especially true considering we hadn’t gone to bed until 2:00 in the morning last night. As yesterday was the Danes’ last night in Hania, we’d promised to meet them one last time at The Point. After several failed attempts to catch the early-morning bus to Samaria Gorge, we vowed to have only one beer, say goodbye, and call it a night at a reasonable hour. Unfortunately, Tom and Sandeep have never “called it a night” before early the next morning, so even though we were miraculously able to stick to our one-beer maximum, we didn’t get home until much later than planned. It was difficult to leave our new friends, since we’ve had such a great time with them over the last two weeks. I know the life of a traveler means all new friends are of the make-them-and-leave-them variety, but not being made of such tough stuff, it was with much reluctance (and tearful hugs) that I said goodbye.

starting the trek
We arrived at the bus station this morning out of breath, having had to run to make it on time, and grumpy, as our favorite chocolate croissant vendor was closed at that ungodly hour. We accomplished the mammoth task of buying a bus ticket and boarding the correct bus in record time. This bus from Hania took us up the mountains into the village of Omalos, where the start of the gorge hike is located. (PS: I will say the one good thing about getting up early is that watching the sun rise over the mountains was gorgeous.) (PPS: you know the only thing scarier than driving through the Lefka Ori in a car? Driving through them on a bus with a crazy Greek at the helm!)

The Samaria Gorge is located near the southern coast of Crete and, at 17 kilometers, is apparently the longest gorge in Europe. I don’t really have this whole “meter system” thing down yet, so I’m not sure what that translates to in miles. You could tell me it was 3 miles, or you could say it was 50, and I’d probably believe you. I think a sign said it was around 10 miles long.

The first part of the trek consists of steadily hiking down the mountain into the ravine. By “hiking” I mean “sliding” as many of the rocks were quite slick and the paths can be steep. We quickly became jealous of the gorge-veterans who’d brought walking sticks. One particularly awesome old guy brought two walking sticks and wore a helmet in case of rock slides.

Near the mouth of the gorge lies the namesake village, Samaria. The inhabitants of Samaria were kicked out (or “nationalized,” according to the posted sign) when the gorge became a National Park, but a few buildings and chapels remain.

the gorgeThe gorge itself is incredible. It almost seems like a rocky riverbed (which, I think in the winter, it is), with two enormous cliffs rising perpendicular to the ground on either side. For most of the hike, the gorge remains reasonably wide, but towards the end it narrows and reaches a point no more than three meters across (called the “Iron Gates”).

It was at this point that Ben and I began applauding ourselves for “conquering the gorge!” That turned out to be premature as it was at least another 3 km walk to the nearest village where we could catch a ferry back.

We have some bad news: we did not discover a kri-kri on our road trip. We had suspicions that our kri-kri friend was merely a goat when we saw an actual kri-kri in the Hania city park zoo. Our fears were confirmed when we consulted our guidebook, which informed us that we’d run across wild mountain goats. So the search continues…

goatI, for one, am quite impressed by these wild goats. Occasionally on our hike we would hear the sound of falling rocks from above. Resisting the urge to throw my arms above my head as if that could save me from descending boulders, I’d look up to see a goat perched on the cliff side. In a gravity-defying feat, these goats would scale completely vertical rockfaces with ease. That also put our “conquering the gorge” claims into perspective.

Some helpful hints for those considering the Samaria Gorge:

  1. Wear good shoes! Our athletic sneakers felt inadequate at times.
  2. If you’re coming from Hania, take the bus from the city bus station. It’s less than half the price of those tourist offices offering a “guided tour” of the gorge. Here’s a guide: walk.
  3. Don’t do it backwards. I don’t know what kind of crazy person would attempt to ASCEND the gorge, but I know people do. I can’t see it happening without serious injury.
  4. Bring a small water bottle and some snacks. The have springs along the way to refill.
  5. The gorge isn’t open year round, but I would go early or late in the season. We had about half a bus load of hikers starting the trek at the same time, and we still ran into some traffic jams along narrow parts of the trail. I can’t imagine what it’s like in peak season when they have up to five bus loads three times a day from Hania’s bus station alone. Plus, it would be unbearably hot in the summer.

Our days in Hania are winding down, and we’ll be traveling within the next couple days to the city of Iraklio on Crete, where we’ll stay for a few days before sailing out to other islands. Keep you posted!

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