Mediterranean Sun Dance-1987
Follow our round-the-world honeymoon adventures as we depart the searing heat of the Indian subcontinent for an idyllic holiday in Italy and Greece.
Birthday Sea Cruise
A staff member at the Athens Hotel Rio said we could stow one of our bags during our tour of the Mediterranean, as we didn’t wish to drag along all the souvenirs we’d purchased in Asia. We stowed one of our packs and travelled with the other/
We decided to cruise to Santorini, one of the most beautiful island in the Aegean. Our original plan was to visit Andros, Lesbos, and then on to Turkey, but Darren and Carol wanted to rent a house on Santorini, and the thought of living in our own quarters for a change was enticing. This day marked my 31st birthday, so it stood to reason we’d be celebrating on the boat journey.
We caught the subway (free before 8 am!) Pireaus, secured tickets on the MV Limnos, a rather small vessel, but fine on this a calm day. The port was the usual symphony of ferry boats of all shapes and sizes, heading from and toward virtually every corner of the Greek Isles. As we sailed out of Pireaus, past the outer harbour cluttered with cargo ships anchored, waiting to load or unload. Soon, we were beyond the waking city, as, we rounded the point at the ruins at Cape Sounio, one of the most oft-pictured sunset photos in Greece.
Darren agreed my birthday afforded the perfect opportunity to imbibe in cold beers. As it was only 9:30 am, I decided to hold off until 11 am. It was a beautiful day, and we sat on the deck, remarking how great it was to be alive, touring the Greek Isles. Our boat called in at several ports, allowing us to capture glimpses of island life: Siros, Paros, Naxos, Ios, Felagandros and Sifnos, obviously a milk run.
The ports were typical Greek: white stucco buildings climbing up the dry hillsides, churches crowned in blue domes, small fishing boats bobbing in the port while weather-beaten sailors worked on their nets, cafés lined the quayside, the men enjoyed their raki and ouzo, and the strains of bouzouki music wafting across the harbour.
Our vessel was a roll-on, roll-off, and at every port the scene repeated: the boat backed into the harbour, dropped anchor, and eased up to the slip. Ropes were tied fast to the dock, cars and people would roll off and then on. This was accomplished with much yelling and scurrying about by deckhands, who performed their tasks great ceremony.
Some 13 hours after departing Athens, we pulled up alongside the steep cliffs of Santorini. To our surprise, the boat didn’t dock at Oia, our destination, and we transferred to a tiny tender being loaded with goods. After a short journey to shore, we were deposited at the bottom of a sheer cliff.
We climbed over 300 long stairs to reach the town. Elaine and I were quite fit from our Boot Hike in Nepal and lugging our packs three-quarters of the way around the world, so we ascended to the top easily; it was quite another story with Darren and Carol. Darren had consumed about 18 beers on the boat, the brewskis made the climb much more difficult. Elaine carried his bag full of sweaters to ease his burden, but it was some time before he made it to the top.
Paradise With A View
Our dream of renting a house was immediately dashed. Every place was rented by forward-thinking Euro’s, so we had to settle for a modern hotel for the night. The next day, we explored Oia, but the only available house was expensive, too small for our group.
So, we crossed the island by bus, following a road that dangled over steep terraced cliffs. The houses and churches, with their brilliant white and blue paint, decorated the volcanic landscape like frosting on a cake. Santorini, called Thira by the locals, is a series of small islands. A dormant volcano ly in the middle of the bay, its last eruption on the day of my birth in 1956, wreaking havoc on the locals. The fertile volcanic soil produced a good quality grape, resulting in a fairly decent wine.
Of course, the driver swung the very comfortable bus (by Nepal standards, even featuring legroom!) along the narrow road like Mario Andretti. Mad bus drivers had become the norm for us, and happily, we arrived in Thira, a bustling tourist town. I had been to Thira nine years earlier, and couldn’t believe the changes. Now a port-of-call for cruise ships, the streets were lined with expensive restaurants and boutiques. A cable car had been installed at the base of the sheer cliffs, to shuttle the throngs up to town, by-passing the 700 steps and the traditional donkey ride, opening up the town to a whole new class of tourist: the sexy senior citizen.
Thira was as stunningly beautiful as it remembered, with houses set into the cliffs stacked one on top of the other like a house of cards. A breathtaking view of the harbour and volcano was afforded from the top of the town, an image of the Greek Isles often seen in travel ads and brochures.
Our plan was to head to the black beach at Perissa, where I’d partied my brains out for three weeks in 1978. The ride continued along a very scenic route, and I was glad have arrived at one of the most scenic island in Greece. Soon, we were deposited in the square at Perissa, somewhat changed from my last visit. Instead of four cafes on the beach and free camping under the pines, there was a host of restaurants and small pensiones, and a huge campground. The legendary Black Sand Beach Club (members and non-members only) was closed, but several discos had opened in its place.
Most of the new pensions were built to complement the architecture of the region, so we didn’t feel as we had landed in a high-rise tourist tap. The beach attracted the Eurail set on tight budgets, so most restaurants were reasonably priced.
We easily found a comfortable hotel room, as we were hustled by a lady and her daughter as soon as we stepped off the bus, pretty tame as compared to Asian touts. After getting comfortably established, we hit the beach for fun in the sun. The volcanic sand was jet black, and very hot on the feet in the blistering sun. When I went for a swim, the water was a bit cool, and somewhat polluted, unlike the crystal clear snorkeling that was available on my last stay.
I’d watched a documentary by Jacques Cousteau on the status of the Mediterranean, and was shocked to witness the pollution occurring in these once pristine waters. Beaches along the Italian Adriatic Coast had to be closed that summer due to pollution, and I recalled the words of Claude Levi-Strauss, written in the early 1950’s:
Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, …demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our filth, thrown into the face of mankind.
Despite the floating detritus, we managed to enjoy ourselves on Santorini. We’d both lost an incredible amount of weight in Nepal and India, so we hoarded supplies from the shops: fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes, salami, cold wines and yogurt, enjoyed at picnics on the beach, while fishermen worked on their nets.
In the evening, our favourite haunt for dinner was Retsinas Café, great food, music and a relaxed atmosphere. Stuffed grape leaves, pizzas, spaghetti bolognese, stuffed peppers, pizzas, lamb chops, fried calamari or snapper, mountainous Greek salads with several varieties of olives, and huge chunks of feta cheese, complimented with Santorini wines and Greek beers, rounded out with baklava or other sweet pastries for dessert. In typical Greek fashion, we were invited into the kitchen to inspect the pots on the stove, next to the trays set out for public viewing.
After a huge feast, we’d stroll along dirt trails and fieldstone walls, gazing at shepherds tending their flock, as in a biblical scene. Donkey brays echoed around the nearby canyons, and the fields, golden in the setting sun, provided perfect photo opportunities. Many of the locals seemed unaffected by the tourist crush on the island, and shouted a friendly “Ella!” as we walked by.
One morning, we dragged our butts out of bed (we quickly re-adapted to late mornings once again) to climb the steep rock face that separated Perissa and Kamari Beach. At the top of a fairly easy trail was the ancient city of Thira, dating back to the Minoan Era. This site housed over 25,000 people at its peak, but not much of the architecture survived.
Below us, the two beaches spread out, and I was very surprised to spot high rise hotels on Kamari Beach, including swimming pools. The Mediterranean was a brilliant blue, and we understood why this was a favoured location for the ancient city. Invaders could easily be spotted from this perch, and forces could be sent to counter-attack.
Other excursions on Santorini included an afternoon jaunt into Thira to hobnob with Euro tourists and watch the sunset. We enjoyed a fun afternoon, wandering up and down the narrow lanes, free of automobile traffic. We sat a cafe overlooking the sea, with a sheer drop straight down into the water some 1,000 feet below.
Darren and I sat drinking beer, while Elaine, Carol and Pam (from California) went shopping. We were soon joined by Jim, from Detroit, across the river from our hometown, and walked up to the square to hang with tourists. Jim was staying in Athens with his sister, and had flown into Santorini for the day. His goal was to get a good buzz on, and he kept buying six packs pints of cold Henningers, Amstels and Carlsbergs. We become quite intoxicated in the square, watching tourists in their pressed shorts, t-shirts, Greek hats and cameras milling about. Sunset turned out to be anti-climatic, as we were too pissed to appreciate it.
The Turkish Express
After a week of drinking and eating, it was time to quit Santorini and head to Turkey. The island had provided a well-needed rest, but it was starting to take a toll on our meagre funds. After a final dinner at Retsinas with Carol and Darren, we boarded a bus for the port to catch an overnight boat to Rhodes, where we’d connect to Marmaris, Turkey.
At the bus stop, we met a Canadian couple, Ken and Taya, also headed to Turkey. After a short ride, we were forced to walk for half an hour down a switchback lane to the port, tucked into the bowl-shaped cliffs of Santorini; a brilliant sunset over the cliffs made the short trek memorable.
On the previous day, the winds had begun to blow, and the seas were quite rough. When we reached the bottom, the waves were whipping up a fury, and we could not phathom how we would embark, as the Greeks simply tie the boat to the dock.
At around 10 pm, the Lindos tried to dock, while our vessel the Golden Vegena bobbed like a cork in the middle of the harbour. The Lindos had one hell of a time backing into port, and the mighty ship pitched more than 15 feet in the water like a kid’s toy. It was a wild sight, as if in a movie.
Soon, we stopped laughing, when we saw passengers trying to disembark the Lindos. As the swell descended, about five people jumped off the lowered cargo gate. Many slipped and fell on the wet deck as they scrambled from the bouncing vessel. Watching with horror from the shore, we felt certain someone would be crushed by the giant cargo gate. The crowd seemed completely disorganized, and the captain experienced great difficulty keeping even with the dock. Somehow, all the passengers, including several senior citizens, managed to disembark with only a few minor scratches and scrapes.
A large crowd at the dock queued to board both vessels. We were informed that neither vessel would be loading passengers that night, but would re-attempt to dock at 5:30 am. This left about 300 travellers stranded at the dock, with one hotel and eight rooms. Of course, no options was offered by the shipping company.
Some travellers returned to Thira for the night, to catch five hours of sleep. We found a vacant rooftop, and spread out our mats and sleeping bags in a mostly futile to grab a few hours sleep. It was bitterly cold as the wind howled all night. I awoke at first light and watched the return of the Lindos to port. The seas had calmed, although still on the choppy side, and passengers and vehicles embarked with little ceremony. Soon, the Lindos sailed away, to be replaced by the much larger Golden Vegena.
We boarded, then found shelter to lay down for much needed sleep. At our first stop, the island of Anafi, I climbed up top to take in the view. Anafi is a stunning little rock, with the town, gleaming white in the early morning light in stark contrast with the brown hills, set high on a hill overlooking the harbour, quite like Thira, only smaller and less touristic.
After a few more hours of sleep, then up top to lounge on comfortable chairs and soak up some rays, a little cool in the ever-present winds. Soon, Crete was visible on the horizon, and we pulled into port at Aghios Nicholias. The sight of snow on Crete’s mountains reminded me of my three week stay on the island, almost nine years before to the day.
It was a long boat ride to Rhodes; we sat on the deck watching the sunset over Kassos after a delicious chicken dinner in the boats’ cafeteria. Watching the boat glide into port was sport for us. The crew seemed like keystone cops as they clambered to tie her up. In Crete, the ramp had ripped a big gouge out of the dock, as they’d lowered it too soon, At Kassos, six or seven crew members were arguing with each other while the boat almost backed into two fishing boats tied to the pier. We crept closer and closer, until we were within ten feet of turning the small craft into toothpicks. As the fishermen desperately tried to untie their boat, the behemoth crept towards their slip, until it stopped, pulled out and properly backed in to its well.
At Karpathos, women dressed in brightly embroidered black shawls, babushkas and shoes disembarked. Karpathos is an interesting off-the-beaten-track stop; the locals speak a dialect traced back to at least 1,000 BC. At 11 pm, we decided to try to get some sleep. By 4 am, we spotted the lights of Rhodes, birthplace of Homer, and pulled up to the dock at 4:30 am, some 14 hours later than we’d anticipated. At the port, we discovered there weren’t any boats to Marmaris, Turkey the next day. As we didn’t want to spend money on a room as there was only a couple hours left in the night, we found a small park near the ancient walls of the city to rest until daylight.
On a beautiful Sunday morning, four of us lumbered into the main town square. The town was completely deserted, and then some cafes opened, so we enjoyed a coffee in the clear spring air. Soon, we were approached by a women, who must have seen our packs, and she led us to a pensione down a quiet lane. We all went straight to sleep for the duration of the morning; I was still swaying to the rhythm of the boat as I dozed off.
Although Rhodes was extremely popular with Euros, and particularly Swedes and British, on this Sunday, the town was quiet and deserted. Ancient Rhodes was quite a fascinating city, its strong fortress walls, built by the Crusaders in the 15th century, circled the old city. The place had the feel of a medieval palace, as much of the construction work by the Crusaders remains intact.
So near to Turkey- Rhodes once was a possession of that country from the 16th century until after WWI, (Turkey and Greece continue to feud over land) - there were several mosque towering above the skyline. The Turkish arabesque architectural influence is minimal excepting these mosque, as the local architecture they found when as conquered the island largely suited their needs. Narrow streets meandered in every direction, and we purposely got lost- a great way to explore the old city. We followed the Street of the Knights, with its ancient inns, reputed to be one of the best preserved medieval lanes in Europe.
Eventually, we found our way to the ancient harbour, the Mandriki, famous for its statues guarding the entrance, three windmills along the pier and the Crusaders fortress. A long row of tall wooden ships graced the harbour, including a few hand-made beauties from Turkey, so common across the bay at Bodrum. We sat on the beach drinking cold inexpensive Henningers in the noonday sun.
That evening, Elaine and I discovered an old cafe and bakery frequented by locals. We dined on delicious bean soup, fresh bread and green salad. Next door, a “très chic” restaurant catered to the wealthy tourists.
The next day, we checked out of our hotel and headed down to the Jewish Square for a pastry and yogurt breakfast. To our amazement, the square was loaded with tourists, as if several jets had landed that morning. Obviously, the high season had begun, and we were glad to be leaving Greece behind.
We’d enjoyed our stay in Greece, the so-called “cradle of civilization” (we could dispute this claim when compared to some of the temples we’d seen in Asia). In Greece, as in other countries we visited, religion is the glue binding people. On every island, the highest hill in town was often reserved for a church, black robed priests with their long flowing beards a common sight. Many older women dressed in black, and we learned this was due to a death of a relative or spouse; black was to be worn for one year out of respect for the dead.
If the churches were the spiritual foundation of Greek culture, tavernas were its philosophical underpinning. In a male-dominated culture, tavernas serve as meeting place and backgammon centre. It was not unusual to witness priests indulging in a little ouzo with the boys, as early as 7 am. The waiters were actors in this Greek drama, as they dodged left and right with their drink-laden trays. Disastrous crashes were rare, as it was usually drunken patrons who toppled bottles on the floor.
The Greek lifestyle seemed destined to make alcoholics out of tourists, as drinks were abundant and very inexpensive. So many things to drink and so little time: beer, wine, ouzo, the pine-scented retsina, Metaxa, the Greek brandy, rated by stars according to quality, very delicious. A certain amount of will-power was required, and I barely remembered my last trip to the islands two years earlier as in alcoholic haze. One night on the island of Andros, two traveling companions and I had consumed 42 pints of Heineken, and yet were served a bill for $21, or $7 each!
Even those who seldom drink decide to imbibe the milky ouzo or its stronger cousin, raki. Temperate tourists howling at the moon shit-faced after a few ouzos. My research into the ouzo-raki phenomenon had ended in a three day hang-over 10 years earlier, and so I avoided it like the plague.
This mix of religion and taverns meant Greece was one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe. As its beaches became more crowded, another paradise spoiled by its own success, tourist expanding their horizon.
Next Stop: Along the Turkish Coast