Greek Idyll

Rioting in Greece? Sign me up!  I want to join the government workers in an “anti-government” protest.  Defend the right to retire at age 50 with 14 monthly pensions checks a year! Should my sign demanding more free money be in English or German?

Actually, nothing so juicy: I’m redeeming my almost impossible to use US Air miles for a ticket to Athens, the furthest place they fly.  I’ve been to mainland Greece twice; this time I’ll try some islands.

The outbound flight is rather pleasant, but only because I am sitting up front in business class. Two good movies enroute: Invictus and Temple Grandin. We arrive in the morning, but not early enough to be on one of the ships I see streaming from the harbor as the plane descends.  It’s over an hour to the city from the new airport (which  had just opened the first time I was here).  I go directly to Pireaus, the port adjacent to Athens, and a hotel.

The ferry to Santorini leaves at 7:30 AM. It’s a large ship with multiple lounges and restaurants and three decks for vehicles. After stops at the islands of Paros and Naxos, we arrive at the main town of Fira. The mid-afternoon sun illuminates the white buildings clustered atop the black cliffs that form the volcanic caldera surrounding the harbor.  And, as you can see, the water is blue, blue, blue.

A quick history lesson: Santorini was a significant outpost of the Minoan (pre-Greek, based on Crete) civilization that was blasted away in a huge volcanic eruption that rocked the ancient world around 1600 BC.  The island, then known as Thira, was later resettled by the Greeks but never regained its former importance.  It acquired its present name (Italian for “St. Irene”) when conquered by the Venetians in the 1200s.

Day-trippers from cruise ships comprise the bulk of the visitors; most do not venture further than a few blocks inland.  Fira is almost a mandatory port of call, and on a typical day two or more arrive. The ships’ tenders dock at the base of the cliffs; from there you can walk up 588 numbered stairs to the town, ride a donkey the same route, or travel by cable car.  At the top one is rewarded with an expansive view of the circular sweep of the harbor; at its center is a small island with the still-hot crater of the volcano.

The town  -- indeed the whole island – is geared to tourism.  After the view, there is not much to do besides shop, shop, shop, and eat and eat.  Those conventional diversions are of little interest to me; I would rather be mobile.  On such a small island you don’t need a car, and there’s no place to park, .  Lacking a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license, I get the next best thing: an ATV.  For ten euros a day, the island is ours.

The next day we ride to the ruins of ancient Thira, impressively sited atop a steep hill. Sure glad we don’t have to walk. I should have known that an admission charge of only two euros means that there’s nothing worth seeing: all that’s left of the city is a bunch of rocks outlining the foundations of the barracks, temples, houses, and other buildings.  There is a commanding view of the airport and the modern resort town below.  Overlooking us from an even higher hill is a monastery seemingly bristling with radio antennae.


That was the morning.  In the afternoon, a drive the long way/scenic route to the town of Oia.  (The island is tiny – 28 square miles -- so nothing is very far, and it’s all scenic).  Once you leave the few blocks where the cruiseship passengers range, Santorini is surprisingly rural: vineyards, olive groves, and blue-domed churches.


Oia, like Fira, is perched atop the cliffs surrounding the caldera.  VERY photogenic, so in addition to shopping and eating, you can wait for other people to move out of the way of your pictures.

The decision to stay another day is helped by a nationwide general strike that has halted all ferry service.  (The merchants on Santorini are far more interested in harvesting tourist dollars than in political theater.)  We start with a ride to the lighthouse at the southern tip of the island.  Numerous stops, including the archeological site of the Minoan city from which eye-popping frescoes have been rescued (but which is closed), make it a full day. 

There are black sand beaches, white sand beaches, and even a red sand beach, but I’m not disposed towards sunbaking.  More to my liking is scaling the winding road to the top of the mountain at the center of the island.  At the top are a monastery and a NATO radar station (hence, all the antennae) and grand views over the length of Santorini.

I was intending to depart on the overnight ferry, but the strike has delayed its departure to 5:00 AM the next morning.  We get up in the middle of the night and drag ourselves down to the dock to be present the recommended 30 minutes prior, and then wait two hours for the boat to show up.  It’s another huge ship, but this time almost empty.  After couple of intermediate stops we reach Rhodes in early afternoon.

Unlike Santorini, which prior to the modern cruise industry was but a spot on the map, Rhodes has been an important place since antiquity.  The Colossus that straddled the harbor was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  It was home to the crusader Order of the Knights of St. John until they were expelled by the Turks and decamped for Malta (where they went into the falcon business).  The Italians took it in 1912 along with the rest of the Dodecanese (literally “twelve islands,” but there are 150 more), relinquishing them to Greece in 1945, part of the price of being on the losing side in war. (Arabs take note.)


The old walled city is both a tourist attraction and a living city.  Some of its structures date from medieval times, others from Ottoman rule, and ancient ruins are scattered throughout.  Largely because the streets are too narrow for vehicles, much of it is a pedestrian zone.   The dominant structure is the Knights’ Castle, which has the formal, Harry Potteresque title of Palace of the Grand Masters.  Outside the walls is the modern city that, like Sicily and Albania, is a good place to spot surviving examples of Fascist-era architecture.


The first afternoon is spent just walking around.  The next morning we visit the castle, which was rebuilt by Mussolini as the governor’s residence and palace for the King of Italy. Very impressive, though the interiors are largely empty except for Roman sculptures and floor mosaics taken from the island of Kos.  Two museums inside hold artifacts from and exhibits about ancient and medieval Rhodes.


Like Santorini, Rhodes is a popular port of call for cruiseships: each one discharges upwards of a thousand day-trippers.  They mob the streets, but by late afternoon when the ships’ horns blast out their thirty minute warnings the old city is again quiet.


The city of Rhodes is located at the northern tip of the eponymous island. The second most visited attraction is Lindhos, a town about halfway down the coast.  We catch a bus for the hour-long ride south.  What a tourist trap!  The hilltop fortress looks impressive from the outside, but after getting nicked for six euros entry, I find that, in the words of Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.  Repeated attempts to stabilize and preserve the crumbling ancient ruins were botched and replaced by a totally new reconstruction that looks like crap.  Maybe visitors in a few hundred years, when the new stuff begins to blend in, will admire the effort, but I don’t.  The consolation prize is a nice view from top.  The town below, which consists of tacky souvenir shops, is another zero.


I hadn’t planned visiting Kos, but now I am interested.  According to the schedule, the ferry to there leaves at 5:00 PM.  We trundle down to the pier.  Surprise!  New departure time: 8:00 AM, so another night in Rhodes.  That’s OK, I like where we’re staying.

The ride to Kos is only three hours.  (I suspect it took longer in ancient times.)  Ruins of the ancient agora and other buildings occupy much of the central area of Kos town, while sandy beaches and low-rise hotels stretch along the coast.  The Dodecanese is the island group furthest from the Greek mainland, hard up against Turkey.  It is only a short hop to Bodrum, and many do it as a day trip.

Kos was home to Hippocrates, whose Asklepion was both a medical center and a shrine to the god of healing.  The town is touristy but attractive, a mixture of Turkish, Fascist, and modern buildings and ancient ruins.  Across from the seafront medieval castle is a tree reputedly planted by Hippocrates (it is very old, but not that old.)  Although we experienced some brief sprinkles while on Rhodes, the weather is once again perfect: sunny, dry, and about 80°.


The first afternoon we spend on two feet.  Enough of walking, we need wheels!  The next day we rent bicycles and pedal (uphill, ugh!) to the ruins of the Asklepion.  After that, the Roman Odeon (rebuilt by the Fascists) and a Roman villa reconstructed over original mosaic floors.  An early dinner precedes the 7:30 PM ferry to Patmos.

Patmos is on the tourist map for one reason: there in a cave St. John had an apocalyptic vision and wrote a book about it that became a best-seller (see Revelation 1:9).  The cave has been a shrine since the early days, and the first basilica was built on a hilltop above it in the 4th century, followed by a monastery.  The current fortified, pirate-resistant version dates to the 11th century.

Off the cruiseship beat, the island is quiet and low-key. It tends to attract visitors of a religious bent.  Apart from a few tour groups, there is hardly anyone else here. We stay in the harbor town of Skala at the narrow waist of the island, a short walk uphill in a nice hotel with terrific views in two directions.

Patmos is even smaller than Santorini, less than half the size, but that doesn’t mean we want to walk it.  Another ATV rental provides the solution to lethargy.  Eschewing the pilgrims’ path, we zip the three miles up the mountain to the monastery.


The monastery is huge, but only a small portion is open to visitors.  Since I doubt that many monks remain in residence, I suspect that most of the complex is simply shut down.  The surrounding town of Hora also provides a worthwhile wander, although it too seems to be on hiatus.


We spend the rest of the day driving around the island.  For such a tiny place, it is amazing how many diverse and scenic vantage points the hilltops offer.


I am ready to move on, but have to wait another day for a ferry.  Service within and among the Dodecanese is frequent, but less so to the Northeast Aegean group.  (We are heading in a line toward Lesbos, from where I will fly back to Athens.  I would have taken an overnight ferry, but the port workers in Pireaus are scheduled to be on strike the day I need to return.)  In the morning we make like pilgrims and walk (ugh!) to the Cave of St. John; the afternoon is down time.  The sunsets are good.


The ferries thus far have been huge ships.  This one is dinky (but cheap), with hard benches on an open deck.  After several intermediate stops at tiny isles, we dock at Pythagorio, a small resort town on the southern side of Samos.  The main town and port, Vathi, a/k/a Samos town, is on the northern side, so we take a bus over.

A long walk up a steep hill yields a delightful pension with a commanding view of the harbor.  It's comfortable, cheap and clean, clean, clean.

Samos, the legendary birthplace of Hera, was a rich and powerful center of Ionian civilization..  Aesop and Pythagoras hailed from here, and the Heraion was a major cult shrine. Artifacts from three thousand years of settlement are on display in the archeological museum, where pride of place belongs to a fifteen-foot high kouros.  It was found at the Heraion in 1981, and, in keeping with current curatorial ethos, was not shipped to Athens. 


We rent another ATV and set off on a loop tour of the island. The coastline is studded with vacation accommodation; the interior is largely empty.  There are nice views, but no killer attractions.  The ruins of the Heraion are a yawn.  The former capital of Karlovasssi has some restored old mansions.  I buy my first souvenir: a Pythagorean self-limiting drinking cup (if you’re interested, an illustration and explanation is on wikipedia).


A day and a half here is enough and all that the schedule allows.  Our ship sails in the morning.  I leave Samos with a major question unanswered; why is the adjective “Samian” and not “Samoan?”

As we dock at Mytilini, capital of Lesbos (a/k/a Lesvos), I am preoccupied by a new challenge: how many Lesbian puns can I or should I pack into of my trip report?  Should I let myself be egged on by the graffiti spray-painted on the statue of Sappho facing the waterfront?


Overlooking the harbor is a medieval castle and a statue of Miss Mytilini (or whoever).

Mytilini is a regular city, not a tourist destination.  That means instead of working everyone spends the day in the cafes that line the waterfront.  The 45% youth unemployment rate is manifested by the congregations in the public squares.  There is a seedy charm to it all.

Everywhere we’ve been honors a three hour siesta, and Mytilini is no exception.  When we arrive in the afternoon everything is shut up tight.  It being Sunday, only a few spots reopen that evening.  There are two museums that are supposed to be good, but they are closed on Monday.  There are day trips to Turkey, but we are not so ambitious.  The island is too big to easily get to anywhere else, so we spend our only full day wandering about the city.  Mytilini is noted for its bakeries and confectionaries, which are very good, and for its alcoholic specialty, Lesbian ouzo, my other souvenir.  After dark, the waterfront is lit up.


That’s it.  My two weeks are up.  A morning flight to Athens, then twelve hours to Philadelphia, and then back to Jacksonville.  This whole trip only cost me $800, including airfare.  The Greeks did not have a god of thrift (current events prove that), but if they did, he would be pleased.

Trip date: May 2010