FTnaxos

Naxos, the peaceful retreat

I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a caged beast more than I did while waiting in Santorini’s poorly-ventilated and overcrowded departures building in the ferry port. Hundreds (if not more) of people shoving themselves inside to escape the midday sun and wait for a ferry that would arrive to the port 15 minutes after we were scheduled to depart. It could be worse, I thought, as I figured we’d be hopping on to the ferry in a just a few minutes. Nope. We had to wait a further 45 minutes while the massive ferry heaved several hundred to a couple thousand people, and a long line of vehicles from its bowels. The ferry, the Blue Star Delos, was much larger than I was expecting (it fits 2,400 passengers and over 400 vehicles), but otherwise was more in line with what I was expecting from a ferry ride. Not a high speed catamaran as we’d previously taken, it would take about two hours to cover the less than 50 miles distance to Naxos. It was a much more enjoyable journey than the previous ferry however, as there was plenty of outdoor seating where you can relax and watch the neighboring islands pass by.

001ferry

Welcome to Naxos Chora!

Arrival in the ferry port deposits you directly in the island’s main town of Naxos Chora. The old town is watched over by the large 13th century Venetian Kastro (castle/fort) that sits at the apex of a small hill on which the old town district inhabits. It also proudly showcases an unfinished Temple of Apollo placed on a small hillside that juts into the sea next to the ferry port. Chora isn’t as pretty as Chania’s old town; it’s simply a small town with both old and some modern aspects (although still unlike the modernity of Heraklion) that is located on a quiet island in the Cyclades where the cruise ships pay no mind. Even during the busy hours, Naxos Chora was the least crowded town we would visit during the trip. Naxos itself is also the largest island in the Cyclades, with the most fertile land, and the highest summit, making it a perfect stop for some peaceful outdoor activities, away from the crowds we’d experienced in Santorini and the inevitable crowds we would soon meet in Mykonos.

052chora

Temple of Apollo, with Chora in the background.

Chrora, with both Cycladic and Venetian elements, was similar to the other towns we had visited, in that we were greeted by a mess of narrow (and sometimes very low-ceilinged!) pedestrianized lanes lined with restaurants, shops, and cats. At the center and top of the old town lays the Venetian castle, which is open to visitors as a small museum that can be toured (and free shots of ouzo are doled out at the end). The old town is a nice little spot, but hasn’t as much going on as the other towns we had visited to keep you entertained for an extended period of time.

005chora

More narrow lanes and low ceilings in around the Venetian Kastro.

However, the rest of the island more than makes up for whatever entertainment Chora may be lacking. Naxos is large (for an island in the Cyclades) and offers up ample outdoor activities to keep you busy for a much longer while. It’s definitely a place where you are wise to rent your own car. I don’t know how well-connected the bus system is (and I don’t believe there were a lot of taxis), but Naxos is best taken in at your own pace, leading you wherever your interest or curiosity may take you.

011mtzeus

Start of the trail to Mount Zeus at Aria Springs.

Heading up to Mount Zeus (Mt. Zas) and scoping out the Cave of Zeus was definitely a priority. Mount Zeus, the highest peak in the Cyclades, tops off at 1,004 meters, and a somewhat strenuous hike, but the Cave of Zeus, on the way up, is much easier to reach. Following the road from the interior village of Filoti, you’ll drive a bit of a ways up the mountain, before the road ends at Aria Springs and you’re left to get to steppin’. The Cave of Zeus is not terribly far form where the road ends, but it is not always a simple stroll. While you are first lead along the mountain on a stone path, that soon comes to and end and leaves you to scramble up large rocks and through thorny bushes to finally get to the cave. You should get there in under 30 minutes, and once reaching it, you’ll simply see a door-shaped entrance in the mountainside. The cave itself may be quite remarkable, but I couldn’t tell you. It’s very dark inside (obviously, it’s a goddamned cave) and we did not think to bring any sort of flashlights. And your iPhone or Blackberry screen isn’t a good substitute. It’s very cool inside the cave though; a good chance for a breather if you decide to keep on going to the mountain’s summit, as we did.

013caveofzeus

Cave of Zeus: Nothing to see here…if you don’t have a decent flashlight.

If you’re going to head up to the summit in the summer, I would definitely recommend starting as early in the morning as possible (we started around 10am or so, but earlier would have been better). From the cave, it will take you over an hour to reach the summit, and the hike is steep and lacking shade, with the sun beating down very strongly on you. After a few steep scrambles – and always through thorny bushes – you’ll reach a ridge, which is much flatter than what came previously, leading you to the summit. Once at the summit, you can look down on all of Naxos, with a fine view across the Aegean and various other islands such as Paros, Little Cyclades, and Mykonos. On a clear day (it was hazy the whole time we were there), you can very probably see as far as Santorini.

020mtzeus

The path to the summit would not remain so easy and straightforward for long.

After scrambling back down, it was definitely time for a dip in the sea, and having surveyed the beaches from on high, we decided to check out Plaka beach, a 4km stretch that seemed easy to get to, yet not too busy. We entered at the southern end, which had one beach hotel/cafe/bar at the start, but then went quiet. As we walked down the beach we’d occasionally come across sunbathers (of whom more than a few were totally nude. This is a popular nudist beach, particularly at the southern end, so if nudity is not your thing you may want to go elsewhere.) but so far, this beach was the emptiest we’d come across in the islands. It was a pleasure.

023plaka

Quiet Plaka with the island of Paros in the distance.

At the southern end, you are also very near to the beach at Mikri Vigla, a neighboring beach where the windy conditions make it a popular spot for windsurfers. From our loungers on Plaka, it was easy to spend a very relaxing afternoon with views of Paros, which practically looked close enough to swim to, and all of the water sport action going on at Mikri Vigla.

025plaka

Looking towards MIkri Vigla.

Leaving Plaka, and driving back towards Chora, we passed two of the island’s most popular and active beaches: Agia Anna and Agios Prokopis. While we chose not to stop at them, these beaches looked pretty happenin’, with rows of sunbeds, and a line of tavernas and bars along the beach, pumping out music and drinks. With crowded Santorini in the past, and unrelenting Mykonos coming up, it wasn’t something we were interested in at the moment, but definitely would add a bit of variety for a longer holiday when the mood strikes for less relaxation on the beach and more fun.

Naxos is large enough, and has enough beaches, that you could easily spend days driving around testing them all out. And that is exactly what we set out to do on another day, checking out beaches as we drive from Chora on the west up to the northern tip of the island, and then much of the way back down south on the eastern side of the island. Here’s what we saw:

Abrami: A small pebble beach about a 30 minute drive from Chora that originally attracted me because I had read that it had “hot waters.” The (sea) water was not hot (to my great disappointment), and I didn’t find any hot springs around, but I think the latter must have been somewhere – I just didn’t know where exactly to look. The beach was surrounded by cliffs and stunning rock formations that formed a small cove within the already-calm beach. There was a small village nearby and only one home (or hotel?) on the beach.

034apollonas

Apollonas

Apollonas: This beach and fishing village is located on the northern tip of Naxos, and moderately busy. The white sand beach is lined with a handful of tavernas. Up the hill and across the main road from the beach you can visit an old marble quarry, where a kouros of Dionysus or Apollo can be seen.

039moutsouna

Moutsounas

Moutsounas: What used to be a busy port (there used to be a lot of mining in the area), is now a rather sleepy beach village. The small beach is as calm and crystal clear as you’d expect, and has a couple beachside tavernas serving up freshly caught seafood. We stopped for lunch here, where I ordered a dish of “small fresh fish and vegetables.” I thought I would get a single, small, fresh local fish grilled up with some veggies, but not quite the case. The dish arrived and I was greeted by vegetables, yes, but also about two dozen tiny freshly-caught local fish. They were lightly fried and meant to be eaten in a single bite, head and all. For the first few, I removed the heads before eating, but figured I should just man up and eat the whole damn thing. It was just like a crispy little fishy thing. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. The entire time I was eating, all I could think of was this song (scroll to 2:20 mark for the music to start):

Panormos: We were under the impression that this was supposed to be a rather empty beach, but a newly constructed asphalt road seems to have put the kibosh on that. Located towards the southern end of the island, and about a 30 minute drive from Moutsounas, this is just another nice little beach. We decided not to stay long due to the number of people on the beach (which was still very quiet in comparison to beaches on the other islands) but there was a prehistoric acropolis within short walking distance, so we checked that out. Greece: so many archeological sites, so little time!

043panormosacropolis

Prehistoric acropolis at Panormos

Psili Ammos: Between Moutsounas and Panormos lies Psili Ammos. This actually seemed less like one long beach, than a longish beach with a series of small coves around it. When driving to Panormos, we noticed how empty it looked, and decided to stake out a cove of our own for the afternoon. There were more than a few to choose from, and it was incredible being able to have a beach entirely to yourself in the Cyclades during peak tourist season!

047ammos

All mine, suckers!

NAXOS PHOTO ALBUM

FTsant

Santorini: a beautiful island to visit once

Our journey from Crete to Santorini was to be via ferry, and I was looking forward to it. As I would discover, each ferry ride would be quite different from the others. In this case, we were on a large (800 person) high-speed catamaran, the creatively-named “Highspeed 5″ from Hellenic Seaways. This high speed ferry would get us from Heraklion, Crete to Santorini in just under two hours. I was expecting to waltz around the boat and look outside, etc., but I was wrong. This was not terribly different from a plane ride in that we were basically stuck in our seats, away from windows, with no access to the outdoors (I was thinking/hoping there would be outdoor seating). So it was a pretty dull two hours, and there’s not much to be said for it. The people watching was OK.

Brown Santorini (and the town of Oia).

Brown Santorini (and the town of Oia).

Upon arrival in Santorini, I wasn’t sure what to think. I knew it was too early to form an opinion, but honestly, I was not impressed. The ferry port was kind of grotty (but it’s just that: a port and nothing more, and certainly not like, nor meant to be like, the pretty old Venetian harbours we had previously visited in Crete and Nafplion), and the taxi ride up the caldera and into the  main town of Fira, where we were staying, didn’t really showcase anything fantastic, either. Honestly, all I saw was a somewhat run-down, brown island (I assume it would be much greener in other months, but in high summer much dries out and dies under the sun in the Aegean). I was a touch worried.

006fira

One of bajillion pretty little churches scattered all over Santorini.

Once we got dropped off in Fira, and had to briefly explore the area to find the hotel, I was feeling more optimistic about the place. It certainly did look pretty with its views and white buildings clinging to the caldera’s edge, lined with pedestrianized streets that were mostly just a series of (often smooth and slippery) steps up and down. This warning on a map was not to be taken lightly:

Seriously.

Seriously, no high heels.

Having arrived late morning, the town was packed. The sort-of main square in Fira next to the large Orthodox Cathedral was overflowing with tour groups from the cruise ship (ships? I don’t recall) docked below. As the days passed, I found it interesting the difference made when there were no cruise ships docked below. The town, while still busy, had a calmer feel to it and traveling herds of people were nowhere to be seen; evenings had a similar feeling, as it seemed like most people went back to their ship by then, which often departed between dusk and late night. I remember one day – the day we went to Oia, unfortunately – there were three cruise ships! Oia was inundated for the sunset (they all seemed to leave immediately after, though). A quick search reveals that up to five cruise ships are allowed to dock at Santorini each day. Guess I should just be thankful we maxed out at three.

007fira

Fira on the caldera’s edge. Note the super yacht on the lower right.

Fira ended up being better than I had expected it to be. I had read some mixed reviews about Santorini’s main town that made me feel a little apprehensive (Oia sounded to be the superior area to stay in), but I stuck with it knowing that it would be our best connection to spots around the rest of the island, given the fact we weren’t planning on renting a car in Santorini. The town is a fairly large network of narrow, pedestrianized walkways lined with innumerable shops, restaurants and tavernas, bars, and hotels. It’s a really nice area to explore; in additional to the town itself, you are consistently met with incredible caldera views along the cliffside. After the first day though, we avoided the town until evening, in part to get away from the crowds, but mostly to explore other parts of the island. Anyway, how much can you walk around one town until it gets boring?

016fira

A Fira sunset

Sunset and evenings in Fira were fantastic though. Each evening included lazy sundowners with caldera views (and maybe a little shopping – I picked up some great items in a clothing shop of a Greek designer/design collective called Heel, and a funky chunky malachite ring at local jeweler’s boutique, Puesta Del Sol) before heading off to a late dinner of always tasty Greek grub. And then usually some more drinks to round off the night. A club called Enigma is a chic little spot for some dancing, if you’re in the mood for a very late night out. The people working in Santorini were very friendly, and each evening was an absolute joy. It is here we also discovered Retsina, a unique but delicious (although I have the feeling it’s something most people will either love or hate) type Greek white wine that dates back 2,000 years. We weren’t exactly sure what made it taste the way it does, although ventured a guess that it was infused (or something) with thyme. Not the case, I just found out. It actually gets its flavor from pine resin that is added in during fermentation. Interesting. As for the food: it was all pretty (very, really) good, but nothing as outstanding as what we had tried in Crete. We did have one dinner that was a bit more memorable in Oia, however it was also a more modern/creative take on Greek cuisine.

037fira

Our bottle of Retsina came with a confusing label.

Unable to ignore an archaeologic site of ruins, our first morning’s journey had to be to Ancient Thera. This was the Hellenistic center of Santorini, and is perched atop Messavuono mountain, between the beaches of Kamari and Perissa. You can drive or ride a donkey to the top, but we chose to walk. It’s not an awful walk up, but there was almost no reprieve from the sun beating down on you, and more than anything, it took its toll. The wind is also pretty bad, and from this point forward, my hair spent the next week and a half trapped inside of a bun. The relentless island wind was such a jerk with its infusion of sand and sea salt and wreaked endless havoc on my locks.

025ancthera

You get an OK view with your seat in Ancient Thera’s theater.

027ancthera

Perissa from Ancient Thera, atop Mt Messavuono.

Once you reach Ancient Thera, you’ll have a pleasant stroll through ruins that include an agora, a basilica, and theater that has been built into the side of the mountain. Also: amazing views (Santorini gave good view, definitely the best views of all the islands that I visited) of distant Cycladic islands and the surrounding beaches of Kamari (a bit more resort-based and built-up) and Perissa (a little quieter, although far from quiet or empty). It was a very nice site of ruins, but I had to question why they built it atop a mountain (so much effort), when they could have frolicked on the beach? I’m sure there was a very good reason, but my modern, lazy mind just can’t compute.

029ancthera

Marking a church around the corner on the way down Mt Messavuono. On the islands, churches were very often very inconveniently located.

Our walk back down the mountain – with a quick stop off at a mountain side church – brought us to Perissa beach. From the ruins, I could see that Perissa was a black sand beach, so I was a little worried about how hot the sand might be, but upon arriving I could see there was little to be concerned about. Narrow boardwalks were worked into the beach to keep you off the sand, until you got close to water or your generously shaded lounge chair. The lounge chairs packed the beach, and each are rented out by the restaurant/bar set up behind them.

Perissa black sand beach on Santorini (the site of Ancient Thira lies atop that mountain)

Perissa beach with Mount Messavuono somewhat chopped on the right.

Overheated, thirsty, and hungry, we didn’t browse locations for long, and ended up getting beach seating with the Magic Bus Gastro Pub. I loved it so much; it was our go-to for each trip into Perissa. The owner, Niko, was fantastic, as were all of the employees. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly (but not overly so) and it was very enjoyable and easy to let the hours pass there. The restaurant/bar itself was pretty neat, decorated colorfully and comfortably – very much a chilled-out island spot. If in Santorini, I can’t recommend this place enough, it was a highlight! Much like every other Aegean beach, the water was gorgeous, calm, crystal clear, and full of little fishes. At one point I was happily relaxing in the water musing over all of these things, when some asshole fish came up and bit me in the stomach! No real damage was done, but I waved the annoyance away; my pleasant reverie had been shattered. The jerk came back for more! I practically had to run away from it. Sushi revenge, I suppose.

051redbeach

Red Beach from the path leading to it.

I suppose we could have done more beach hopping (from Perissa we could have caught a water taxi to Kamari, for example), but we were so happy at Magic Bus in Perissa, we weren’t that bothered about it. We did, however spend a morning at Red Beach in Akrotiri, which won the award for most beautiful beach during the trip. The aptly-named beach sports a narrow beach of red sand, and dramatic red cliffs of volcanic rock surrounding shallow, clear azure waters. It’s a bit more difficult to get to as you need to clamber along a short path along the cliffs to get to the beach, but it is worth it. This beach, however offers much less as far as bars or restaurants go. I think on the far end there was a small snack bar, but that’s it. It does get very packed, though, and by late morning, was not longer a relaxing location to be. You can also catch a water taxi from here to the nearby white and black beaches.

057redbeach

Not a far walk from the lounger to take a dip.

Near these beaches is another archaeological site, Akrotiri, which was still being excavated. It was a fairly good-sized site (with a building built around it) of a settlement that was destroyed in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago (not unlike Pompeii). The volcanic ash has preserved it pretty well, to the point where we were able to see pottery and some furniture. And even though it has not yet been fully excavated, you can get a pretty good idea of the town as you walk around it. There also were apparently a lot of very well preserved frescoes, but we didn’t get to see them as they had been moved to a museum in Fira – which we tried visiting on our last day, but was closed due to a strike. Shame.

040akrotiri

The rooms within the walls of this seemingly-spacious home were cramped.

046akrotiri

Preserved pithoi and what not.

One of the last places we visited was Oia, which I heard was the “resort town” of Santorini. Oia is certainly the image that pops into your head when you think of Santorini, or when you see photos from the island. While Fira is this to a pretty good extent, Oia is the spot for picturesque whitewashed caldera-edge buildings, painted with bright blue rooftops. It was smaller than Fira, and seemed slightly more upmarket, but with its small size (and the three cruise ships currently docked!) people packed the space and walking around it wasn’t always pleasant or leisurely. It was particularly bad when we arrived, because it was nearing evening, and the cruise shippers had also just been let loose from their buses to watch the famed sunset. We had heard that a restaurant called Nectarine (now Ambrosia) was excellent, but we quickly discovered it was booked for the evening.

072oia

The whitewashed walls and blue rooftops of Oia.

Eventually, we wound up at Red Bicycle, which also had a promising menu of modern and creative Greek cuisine, as well as a nice list of Santorinian wine – yes please! A gorgeous sunset with delicious wine was had, and then we were on to some food. We started with sushi dolmades wrapped in vine leaves with smoked salmon, and white grilled Santorini eggplant. The “sushi” was very different from the sushi you’d normally think of, but at least as delicious. I believe it also included orzo instead of sushi rice, finally topped with milk cream. For my main, I chose fresh fagri (white snapper) a la Spetsiota with garlic emulsion. Very good, very fresh. And not a massive portion, which was nice for a change. I topped it all off with mille-feuille with masticha cream and grilled apricots. Yum. I love to eat.

075oia

Our postcard perfect view from dinner at Red Bicycle.

All in all, Santorini was fabulous. It was always one of the three places I’d ear-marked for a honeymoon (also: Bali, now visited; Moorea in French Polynesia, still on my need-to-go list), but I’m glad I never honeymooned there – or saved it for one, more accurately. I don’t know why, it just didn’t quite match what I was thinking for for that (in retrospect, I think Mykonos more closely matched what I was thinking of).

058oia

Cruise liner triple threat.

Definitely visit Santorini; it’s a great place to go once. Without disparaging the place (I did love it), of all the islands, it had the least return value for me. It’s beautiful to see once and explore as best you can in the time that you’re there, but I don’t know how much stimulation a return visit would offer. Crete was huge, with lots of nature and outdoor activities, as well as a variety of towns and villages. We barely scratched Crete’s surface. Naxos also is large (for the Cyclades) and, again, offers lots of outdoors activities if you’re the type that likes to hike etc. It also had loads of gorgeous beaches and coves, many of which are nearly to completely empty, perfect for a relaxing beach holiday (although there are still a couple of popular beaches to party at, should the mood come up); it’s the sort of place where it would be nice to own a beach house. If you like to party, dance, and/or shop extravagantly, Mykonos is all too easy to return to again and again (I plan to) to immerse yourself in a certain over-the-top lifestyle – and even there you’ll find very different personalities from beach to beach. Santorini was very nice indeed, but other than its unique caldera setup and stunning views, I did not feel that it stood out to offer any entertainment or activities I couldn’t get from the other islands in better variety or quality.

SANTORINI PHOTO ALBUM

FTcrete

I’m down with Crete

Crete really took me by surprise. I’m ashamed to admit that if not for the boyfriend’s suggestion, I probably wouldn’t have put it on my list to visit. Thankfully, he was there to steer me in the right (and delicious – Cretan cuisine is second-to-none that I’ve tried anywhere else in Greece) direction. I am so glad that I visited Crete and hope that should you ever visit the Greek islands you heed my advice and not leave Crete off your travel itinerary.

First of all – it is a big island. If you want to explore it fully (particularly if you’re keen to hike around), you could easily spend a week or two or three there. Outside of the walks to be found in gorges and mountains, there are a slew of beaches to discover. Unfortunately, we spent only three nights there, in Central and Western Crete, but I left feeling I had a good taste for it, and a definite interest to return for more some day.

The one thing I didn’t care for in Crete was its capital, Heraklion. It’s not completely awful (in fact it was a nice change of pace from Dubai, in any case), but in comparison to pretty much anywhere else I’ve been in Greece, nothing about the town itself really makes it stand out. However, due to its port which will connect you with ferries to the Cyclades and its close proximity to the ancient site of Knossos, it is unlikely you’ll avoid it entirely. Spend a night there, get out of it what you can, then move on to another part of Crete or another island entirely.

We were there as our flight arrived in Heraklion (although there are other airports in Crete, including Chania), and so it served as base for arrival and a jumping-off point to visit Knossos and then move on to Western Crete.

So, after an afternoon and evening wandering around Heraklion, we rented a car and got the hell out of Dodge first thing the next morning to try to beat the crowds to the Palace of Knossos. We didn’t beat them. And this would be a running theme through our entire trip around the islands. Crowds were a fact (ugh, and the cruise ship crowds were the worst); you can’t beat them, nor do you want to join them, so you simply must learn to live around and avoid them best you can. We had chosen to visit not just during high season, but peak season (“peak” is generally the last week of July through the first to second week of August), so it was simply the price we paid to spend two weeks escaping from the oppressive Dubai summer and Holy Month of Ramadan. It was worth it.

crt13

Throne Room @ Knossos with gryphon fresco

But back to Knossos. If you’re in Crete, it’s one of those key things that you really can’t pass up. Despite the criticisms on Arthur Evan’s excavation and interpretation/restoration methods, Knossos’ place in Grecian mythology and history is such that a visit to the archaeological site is impossible to be anything less than interesting. You’ve got the mythology of King Minos, Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur (along with his Labyrinth), and the complex’s long history dating back to construction starting in 1700 BC and moving on to become the center of Minoan culture. As you walk through it, checking out frescoes and peeking down stairwells of what was a large and multi-storied structure and avoiding bus groups and seeing storage rooms full of pithoi, it’s nice to think about what it would have been like to inhabit this place. The grounds are extensive (1,300 or more rooms, I believe) and the views of the surrounding area are particularly beautiful. The palace even had plumbing, and a flushing toilet in the queen’s chamber (astounding in any case, but especially when you consider that thousands of years later in today’s modern world, you’ll find places that have yet to sort that out).

crt11

Ruins with a view. And symphony of cicadas.

After Knossos, we headed west to our base for the next couple nights, Chania, a couple hours drive away from Heraklion. Midway between the two however, was Rethymnon, another old Venetian harbour town where I had considered staying instead of Chania. Not wanting to ignore Rethymnon entirely, it was perfectly situated for our lunch stop that day. After trying to find a place to park for ages (this is a thing in Crete’s old towns – they are mostly pedestrianized in the old town and harbour areas, but the maps don’t show that and so you drive around thinking you can take all of these roads to where you want to go but you can’t) we finally made it in and after walking through the town’s old Venetian fort and streets lined with shops and cafes, I found Rethymnon to be much nicer than I was expecting. I started to fear that I had made the wrong choice in choosing Chania over Rethymnon for our Western Crete base.

Avli restaurant in Rethymno  & my favorite meal of the entire trip.

Avli restaurant in Rethymnon & my favorite meal of the entire trip.

Taking a tip from Lonely Planet, we stopped for lunch at a place called Avli, which was said to serve fresh farm-to-table Cretan cuisine. While we had many great meals while traveling through the islands, the food we had at Avli was hands-down the best. Everything was extraordinarily flavorful and interesting, while not being being so creative as to overpower the fact that it was Cretan above all else. In a bid to not eat too heavily (and already realizing that portions served all over would be large), we decided to share a couple starters and one entree only. I regret this decision, as the food was so amazing, I am a bit bummed out that we missed out on trying another dish if we would have ordered an entree each, like usual. The meal began with fantastic fresh bread served with a side of creamy potato salad. I’m a big fan of potato salad (or anything potato, really) and I think I’d go ahead and say that this was the best potato salad I’ve ever tried. The potatoes were extremely soft (almost mush but not quite) and in a creamy gravy of what I seem to recall being Greek yoghurt, olive oil, thyme, and garlic? Whatever it was, it was amazing. For our starters, we ordered the Avli salad (lettuce, arugula, apple, pear, avocado, pine nuts, and roquefort vinaigrette), a creamy concoction of fresh veggies and fruit, and a plate of wild mushrooms, again in a creamy sauce (apparently, we’re really into creamy stuff). For the entree we had Fouriariko, which was free range kid goat cooked in honey and thyme. All you had to do was look at the meat, and it fell off the bone. It was truly fantastic. I’m usually hesitant when it comes to goat, but this was stunningly done.

Happily fed, we made our way to Chania, where the roads in the town were even more frustrating to navigate than those in Rethymnon. After about an hour of driving around in sheer confusion, we finally parked wherever we could and walked to the hotel, so they could advise where best to park. Advice: if you’re driving around Rethymnon or Chania, do not make the mistake of thinking the map you’re holding is accurate. It may be somewhat accurate, but only for those on foot. What it doesn’t tell you is that many of the roads/town areas are completely pedestrianized. Our hotel was in the middle of the pedestrianized area, but we didn’t know that and man did we try in vain to try to park near to it.

crt32

A nice view from the leafy rooftop of the Nostos Hotel

Difficulty to reach aside, this was my favorite hotel from the trip. In the middle of the Old Town, the small boutique hotel is in a fabulous 600 year old mansion (must have been lovely to have lived in) with an airy rooftop and terrace that has nice views of the Venetian harbour. Our room was actually more like an apartment, with a kitchenette and bedroom on a loft level. I loved it! The walls did seem a bit thin, though, as I was woken late one night by the neighbors returning, and you could hear them all too clearly.

crt53

Grape vine and bougainvillea lined streets of Old Town, Chania

It was also across the street from a fantastic Turkish-inspired restaurant, Tamam. The food here was excellent, but so was everything that we ate in Chania. This place really knew good food. I haven’t a bad thing to say about it at all. Chania was great in so many respects: an endless parade of delicious restaurants (particularly on the side streets off the harbour, where it seemed more touristic), simple cafes, chic bars perfect for sundowners set alongside beautiful sailboats and yachts, lots of little boutique shops, and easy access to hiking and beach areas outside of town. Earlier that day, I was worried that I may not like Chania as much as Rethymnon. Those fears were quickly laid to rest as I explored Old Town’s narrow lanes and picturesque rows of shops and houses. I can’t recommend Chania highly enough; it’s definitely the sort of place I wouldn’t mind living.

crt37

Chania’s Venetian Harbour, lined with restaurants and bars

A large part of the reason for staying in Western Crete was so that we could more easily access gorge hikes and some beaches. Samaria Gorge is the most famous and popular hike in the area, but we decided to opt out due to the large crowd it attracts in high season (thousands each day). Apparently it is popular for good reason, but I’ll just have to return and find out for myself another time. Instead, not too far away from Samaria, we opted for the Agia Irini Gorge walk. It was still beautiful, and we only saw about a dozen people the whole time were there.

Agia Irini Gorge: not a straightforward walk down a flat, rock-less path.

Agia Irini Gorge: not a straightforward walk down a flat, rock-less path.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked a gorge before (although it’s not terribly unlike a wadi at times) and I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was not entirely prepared for the steps up and down and all of the rocks. Rocks that weren’t quite boulders, but they weren’t pebbles either. They were too large to be insignificant, but too small to be something you either avoid or climb over. I thought you’d just like, walk down the middle of the gorge, not clamber up and down the sides of it. Anyway. I still enjoyed it. Even with the never-ending soundtrack of the screaming cicadas. In Pennsylvania, I’m quite used to hearing cicadas and locusts, but the cicadas of Crete were unlike anything I’ve experienced. As soon as you leave any city/town area and get near trees, the noise is almost overwhelming, and you really do need to work to speak over them.

Sup, awesome tree

Sup, awesome tree

After the walk, we were in need of some beach time, so headed to nearby Sougia. Sougia is a very small, very quiet beach on the Libyan Sea with a few little hotels and cafes/bars beachside. While it was certainly one of the quietest beaches we visited throughout the islands, I did not much care for it. It was a black pebble beach, which in theory sounds lovely (and does look nice), but man does it do a number to your feet. The midday stones are hot, the stone size, again, is not small enough to be insignificant (I’d say they were palm-sized?) and while they’re smooth, they’re still a bit difficult and painful to walk on bare-footed. The water looked beautiful; I couldn’t wait to get in. It was freezing! I was not expecting the water to be so cold, but, well…it was. And that’s about all there is to that story. The water was colder than I expected everywhere throughout this trip, but I did kind of eventually get used to it.

crt43

Chania sunset from a bar in the Venetian harbour. A nightly ritual I could get used to.

After a final evening and night in Chania, we had to make it back to Heraklion very early in the morning to catch a ferry to our next island – Santorini.

CRETE PHOTO ALBUM

mykharborFT

Best holiday ever…or was it?

As a kid, I was in awe of Greece. Its vibrant mythology and history had me totally hooked, probably more than anywhere else in the world. Upon finally visiting Greece (Athens and the Peloponnese) a few years back, it did not disappoint. In addition to the incredible archaeological sites, the country itself was beautiful, filled with amazing people and food. It quickly became, and has remained one of my favorite places that I’ve ever visited.

After this 2-week excursion around the country’s islands (Crete, and a few of the Cyclades) I’ve no hesitation in naming this my absolute favorite holiday ever, and the country in general, as my most beloved spot in the world. I love Greece. It has never failed to live up to and usually beyond my expectations.

That being said, I can always find fault somewhere and Greece was no exception. Here are a few of my complaints:

  • “The islands are too brown.” (My very disappointed to response to catching a glimpse of the Cyclades as we flew from Athens to Crete. Clearly, I was expecting Bali in the Aegean or something even though I am well aware of what the Grecian landscape looks like.)
  • “The sun is too bright.” (Sitting at a nice harbor-side bar in Chania before sunset, I had really had enough of that annoying sun being in my face non-stop.)
  • “I’ll try the olives. But I won’t like them.” (Despite the fact I love olive oil – particularly Greek – I hate olives in my food. I thought I’d be generous to Greece and actually try to eat their olives. Result: I still don’t care for them.)
  • “I don’t like when they fold the napkins and put them in.” (THIS style of napkin holder was present at the tavernas and cafes around the islands, and it’s just such a nuisance to get a single napkin out.)
  • “This walk would be better if it were flat. And without rocks.” (About 15 minutes into the Agia Irini gorge walk in Crete.)
  • “Ew. My free booze is too strong.” (You are often served a complementary digestif at tavernas: in this case it was grappa.)
  • “It’s kinda cramped, though.” (Not impressed by the excavated rooms in the home of a prominent/wealthy citizen’s home in the site of Akrotiri.)

And here are some panoramas I quickly snapped with my iPhone. It will probably be a little time until I can get through all of my proper photos and blog up some gibberish to post here.

(click on each to view in much larger size)

crete-chania-pano

the Venetian Harbor in Chania, Crete

Fira, Santorini (see - the sun is too bright!)

Fira and caldera view, Santorini (see – the sun is too bright!)

Perissa black sand beach on Santorini (the site of Ancient Thira lies atop that mountain)

Naxos Chora from the Venetian Castle in the fort

Naxos Chora from the fort’s Venetian Castle. The ruins of a temple to Apollo can be seen on the far right.

On the summit of Mount Zeus on Naxos. The islands of Paros, Little Cyclades, and Mykonos in the distance.

On the summit of Mount Zeus on Naxos. The islands of Paros, Little Cyclades, and Mykonos in the distance.

mykonos-sparadise-pano

The mid-day scene at Super Paradise beach – absolutely crazy. (again with the too-bright sun, though)

Sunset from Little Venice in Mykonos Town

Sunset from Little Venice in Mykonos Town

FTbeyoglu

Four(ish) Days in Istanbul – Beyoglu

DAY 3. (cont’d from *click*)

I left off as we were on our way out of Sultanahmet, and on our way to Beyoglu. It was still pretty early in the day – 10, 10:30? – and figured we had plenty of time to metro over to our next hotel in Beyoglu, and then head back out to catch some ferries for a timely lunch in Ortakoy.

Thankfully, the hotel – The House Hotel Galatasaray – was able to check us in nice and early and with an upgrade t’boot. I had initially tried booking the penthouse suite, but there was no vacancy, so they offered me their best suite – the executive suite – at the penthouse’s cost. I was still a bit disappointed because I am a sucker for open-plan living spaces and exposed beam ceilings, but the upgrade was still pretty nice!

hhg01

I’ll have a full review of the hotel to be published very soon, but it suffices to say that that The HHG makes for an excellent boutique hotel stay. It’s Ottoman-chic, intimate and full of character, with friendly staff and very comfortable rooms – an added quirk was the stand-alone “pod” shower located in the bedroom, which every time I got inside I felt I was about to get beamed up somewhere. (It was a great shower, though, and did not at all suffer from not being located in the bathroom.)

hhg03

I loved the ornate moulding details on the ultra-white walls and ceiling, which normally wouldn’t be my style but after my stay there I think I would rather like a room in my home to be similarly styled. The hotel also featured a lovely rooftop lounge with fantastic views over Beyoglu and of the Galata Tower and even the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia across the Golden Horn. Added bonus? The best breakfast we had in Istanbul.

Ever thinking of the next meal, we quickly headed back out to start catching some ferries to have lunch in Ortakoy. This would prove to be a confusing, frustrating and seemingly endless journey.

We first tried to catch the ferry at Karakoy (Beyoglu), where we missed boarding by a fraction of a second. Instead of waiting for 12 minutes or whatever it was for the next ferry, we made our way across the bridge to Eminonu (Sultanahmet) where thankfully, we just made it on to a ferry bound for Uskudar, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. OK. So, the ferry ride is pleasant, you’ve got nice views all around, and particularly of the Topkapi Palace, and later on a different ferry, the more modern Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas.

006

Dolmabahce Palace

So, we arrive at Uskudar, and just miss the ferry to Besiktas. Argh. OK, should be another in like 10-15 mins, let’s just have a sit and wait. The kebap sammiches from the port vendors were really tempting, though. But no, I want to sit down and eat something proper at a cafe in Ortakoy. We’ll hop on the next ferry and be at Ortakoy in no time for lunch, I say reassuringly to my stomach.

003

Uskudar ferry terminal on the Asian side of Istanbul

Ferry to Besiktas arrives. We choose to continue sitting and ignore it, as if it’s going to be docked there for another 20 minutes. Soon we notice people running to catch it, and figure maybe we should go, too. So, run over to the terminal, I shove my token in the slot for the gate to let me through; I am denied, and the token is spat back out. The boyfriend (already through) inexplicably reaches over and grabs the spat-out token, takes it and starts running for the ferry. I can’t get through to the ferry, I have no extra token. Like, dude, what about me! I literally yelled, entirely confused at this point. So, he runs back with the token, I shove it into a different gate and we just make the ferry by the skin of our teeth.

Beyoglu and Galata Tower from the ferry

Beyoglu and Galata Tower from the ferry

All right, here we are in Besiktas! Only one more ferry to Ortakoy and food! So close. And yet so far, as I was soon to find out. We would find no ferry to Ortakoy here. We searched and asked and searched and asked some more, but no ferry was to be found. It was a supremely confusing situation; there should have been one there! But there wasn’t, so we walked the rest of the way to Ortakoy. It wasn’t too far, but it wasn’t too close, either. It was a nice walk, there were some pretty sights, but I’d rather have been on the ferry. Upon finally arriving in Ortakoy, which was a very nice little spot directly on the Bosphorus, I finally got my lunch (more kebap) and we also noticed that no ferries were arriving there. Not a clue as to why, but it made me feel a bit better to know that we hadn’t simply overlooked the Ortakoy ferry in Besiktas. Instead of walking back to Besiktas ferry terminal, we grabbed a taxi, and started the journey back to Karakoy via Uskudar.

In Uskudar the trouble started again, when we confused Kadikoy with Karakoy and got on the wrong ferry. Because of course. So, all the way down to Kadikoy we go, but thankfully from there at least we don’t have to go back to Uskudar, and are able to hop on a ferry going to Eminonu and Karakoy.

034

Fish sammiches getting served up near the Eminonu terminal

What an ordeal. The ferry rides were nice, but I had had enough and I’m not about to get on another ferry anytime soon (just kidding! I have to get on about a million ferries to get around the Cyclades in Greece in a month’s time).

Mid-afternoon at this point, we made our way back to the general area of the hotel, and decided to stroll down the popular Istiklal Caddesi, a street lined with shops, hotels, cafes and bars. And it was rammed with people. Apparently it’s always very busy, but the protests in nearby Taksim Square were attracting even more people. The nearer you got, the more filled the avenue became, and large groups of people were chanting unintelligible things. It was however, not an unsafe atmosphere, and there were loads of children running around in the Guy Fawkes mask. Once we got to Taksim Square, it was so full of people there was not much to do but turn back around.

Busy Istiklal Cadessi would only get busier

Busy Istiklal Cadessi would only get busier

That evening we attempted another stroll down Istiklal only to find, not surprisingly, that it was probably twice as crowded with people as before. Wanting somewhere a bit more peaceful to relax for the evening, we retreated to a cute street we had noticed near our hotel, called Cezayir Sokagi. It was a steep, thin (pedestrian-only) street lined with grape vines and cafes and exactly the sort of thing I like to find when I’m traveling outside of Dubai, because it is so unlike anything I can find here.

016

Grabbing a table outside, we considered our options for the evening supper, and decided on the nearby restaurant, Cezayir, which I had heard is very good. This, too, will be included with my coming hotel review, but I’m happy to repeat myself to say that the menu was delicious and the outdoor garden seating was perfect for an early summer evening. Portions were (overly?) generous, and the Cezayir kebap entree of beef tenderloin with sweetbread, and the traditional flour dessert were standout dishes.

DAY 4.

The previous day had been really, really long. My body finally decided to let me sleep in (until 8:00am!) but because it was our final day, and had to be at the airport that afternoon, we wasted little time getting out of the hotel to explore the neighborhood some more. Istiklal Caddesi was mercifully quiet and it didn’t take long to make our way down to the Galata Tower.

Galata Tower on the far right

Galata Tower on the far right

The tower was built in the 1300s, but was the only building I entered during our entire stay that actually had a lift. I was shocked, and had been fully expecting to have to force and whine myself up endless stairs to make my way to the top of it. But no, it was surprisingly modern inside. The top offered really fantastic views of Istanbul, as it was by far the tallest building in the general area. If you’re not afraid of heights (the walkway around the top of the tower is thin, sloped and there’s no solid wall) it’s definitely worth checking out for the views alone. And that’s all you’ll get really, because other than a touristy cafe inside the top of the tower, there’s nothing else you’re able to explore inside.

With the neighborhood so empty (although with each passing hour it got considerably more crowded), we eventually made our way down to a much calmer Taksim Square. For the duration of our stay in Istanbul, there had been little to no police presence in Taksim and Gezi, so the atmosphere – from what I could see – was almost more festival-like than anything. There was lots of music (Pink Floyd, natch), vendors selling trinkets, people kicking the ball around with their dogs and lots of people happily climbing on and/or getting their photos taken next to blockades and graffiti’d buses (also posing as blockades). It was weird.

ts06

ts13

The place was trashed though. Stores must have been making a mint from selling spray paint because everything was covered in it (and in support of every cause, not only saving Gezi Park or anti-government: anarchist symbols, gay rights, pro-feminism, legalizing marijuana). The buildings in the square as well as down through Istiklal Cadessi, the overturned cars, the buses, the makeshift blockades, the streets and sidewalks – everything was graffiti’d.

ts16

Bricks and fencing had been ripped up to create and add to the blockades. I was already feeling bad for the people who would eventually have to clean it all up. I had also been wondering, hm, how/where are all of these people occupying the place going to the bathroom (I ask the important questions) and my answer was given to me in the lines of port-a-potties, which were utterly macabre. Their stench, it was difficult to get away from.

ts17

It was interesting to be sure, and from a purely aesthetic point of view I enjoyed the look of the graffiti’d vehicles, but there was no reason to stick around (and it was getting more and more packed with people). The last few hours of the trip were much better spent at a comfortable and quiet table back in Cezayir Sokagi with wine, roasted vegetables and kebap.

017

Missed Part 1, about Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood? Read it here.

PHOTO ALBUMS: BEYOGLU & THE HOUSE HOTEL GALATASARAYTAKSIM SQUARE