ATHENS – The three of us pile our assortment of bulging bags into the trunk of his 70’s era Mercedes and squeeze into the back seat together. His taxi is impeccably spotless, the soft dark leather seats recently massaged with scented oil. You can tell he smokes in here while he’s waiting in line at the airport taxi-stand. Sometimes he waits for hours to make a few euros for his family.
“Since the crisis,” he began. So many sentences begin this way in Greece “I am luck to have a job. Normally I am teacher, but driving cab is good for now. I am luck.” His dark hair was well groomed and his shirt neatly pressed. He held his head high. He was proud of his car. Normally we would take the metro or bus to save money but we decided to take a cab as it was dark when we arrived in Athens and we only had a vague idea how to find our apartment. “We are luck too!” I told him “Luck to have you help us find our way.”
With his quirky mannerisms Stephanos told us how difficult life is in Greece now. “Example given, since the crisis, many have left, many business close down, no work.” He starts almost every sentence this way. “Example given, I work now fourteen hours each day, seven days week.” Still, he takes the time to help us find our cheap rental on a narrow one way street in a just-slightly-dodgy part of town. Most of Athens looks very tired ‘since the crisis’ and the occasional section is downright dangerous. Some parts of town, like most big cities, you roll up your windows, lock your doors and don’t stop. Every second or third shop or business is abandoned, garbage is piled up on most corners with nobody to pick it up, wild cats roam everywhere, graffiti is rampant and there is a feeling of emptiness. A forlorn mood. We never would have found our apartment, in the dark, with just the Greek street signs to guide us, dragging our packs down the deserted streets without his generous help. “I am luck.”
ACROPOLIS – “I don’t really care if you take my tour” he grinned from the platform of his Segway in a syrupy American drawl “I just want to show you something cool.” He pulled a pen out from under the band of his baseball hat and drew a wiggly line on a glossy map for us to follow. “Keep on walking up the hill here, past the pink house, behind the Taverna keep left and you’ll see something surprising.” We couldn’t resist. There in the shadow of the magnificent Acropolis at the centre of the enormous dirty sprawl that is Athens we found a tiny quaint Greek village. Our first of what would be many. White washed walls, blue doors, stray cats, bougainvillaea, the works. He was right. It was cool.
From there we descended a series of narrow cobble stoned stairways to find a little network of Tavernas with young people sitting on precarious patios the size of picnic tables drinking (what else but) Greek coffee. We chose a small table and ordered our first Greece salad. Ahhhhh. after weeks and weeks of pasta the salad was an oasis of freshness. It wasn’t the ruins of Zeus’s Temple or even the unfathomable Acropolis with it’s towering Parthenon. Nope, it was that thick slab of local feta dappled with big juicy capers, drizzled with fresh pressed olive oil and oregano. The oil comes in huge square cans from the family farm. All the relatives go home ‘to the village’ for the ‘season’ to gather and press the olives. They work hard together and share the proceeds. Those giant cans of oil pressed each Fall last the year.
Our smooth and efficient waiter also tells us that everything we have we owe to Greece. Democracy being the biggest contribution. “Everything is Greek” he humbly states. Not so much a puffed up brag as a quiet fact. Roads, systems, government, modern thinking, philosophy, ideas, art, feta cheese. All of it, Greek. Well in that case…thanks….for everything.
CRETE – When you rent a car, should there be towels under it absorbing mystery fluids? Should the gear shift come off in your hand? Should it wobble above 60km/h? Yes? Okay, good. Greek driving is mysterious and dangerous. But like many things (everything) once you get the feel for it you’ll be fine. Here are a few tips. On the highway simply drive on the shoulder. I mean, it’s a good as a slow lane isn’t it? Pass constantly. Don’t worry if there is a blind corner, a heard of goats or oncoming traffic. Just go ahead and pass whenever you feel like it. Never wait your turn.
“If it sounds like bacteria, it’s probably Greek” grins Alexandros who has rented us his lovely bright apartment overlooking Chania’s old town and the Venetian port behind it. He is a very slim, shy, bearded young architect who never eats food before noon. “Only coffee, maybe five or six.” His hands shake. We are sitting in a sunny courtyard in the old town where we have agreed to meet for coffee. His thoughtful face is almost totally covered by his bushy beard. The Greeks can grow a beard! His long dark hair is pulled into a tight hipster man-bun and his glasses have turned dark in the late morning sun. I take his picture and show him. “You kind of look like a terrorist” I tease him. “Thank you” he answers with his sweet philosopher’s smile.
When we first arrived in Chania Alexandros took us to a small local restaurant that he said was ‘not touristic’ and our love affair with Greek food took hold. Simple, fresh, local and prepared with care. Salads, soups, stews and seafood all made fesh with just a few ingredients. There is very little pre-packaged or processed food here. In Crete you cannot escape a meal without being given dessert, whether you like it or not. Sweet baklava dripping in honey and nuts, thick yogurt drizzled with honey or deadly moist almond cakes. You will also be given a shot glass of ‘Raki’ and be expected to knock it back. Raki is the Greek equivalent of Grappa. Clear and strong, it could easily remove your nail polish.
Alexandros tells us about several monasteries we should visit and some beautiful wild beaches to explore. He tells us that most brand new architects are expected to work at a big firm for 12 hours a day and earn about 700 Euros or $1,000 Canadian dollars per month. Life is tough ‘since the crisis.’ He is struggling to not do this and is trying to find small projects here and there to keep himself and his girlfriend, also an architect, afloat. Right now she is working on Santorini doing a research project. He tells us all about the history of the volcanic activity in the area. “You’re a bit of a geek” I laugh. “Yes,” he answers ‘thank you.” I hope we see him again.
We hiked a few gorges ( but not the famous Samaria Gorge as it was sadly was closed until May 1) filled with wildflowers, goats and fresh running streams. We drove down to see the expansive pink sand beach of Elafonissi and hiked down into the gorgeous Balos beach which lies at the end of a dusty gravel road and a long stone stairway. We found ancient but still functioning monasteries with strolling black draped monks and even discovered a few giant caves complete with stalagmites and stalactites. Some of these caves have tiny chapels built inside and are naturally formed cathedrals. Inside one of these giant caves a group of tie dyed hiker/worshippers arrived and began singing together. Their echoing chants and moans built to a crescendo until a few of the members of their sect were reduced to tears. Hauntingly weird but cool. We listened to a LOT of Joni Mitchell.
SANTORINI – As we crested the narrow marble paved pathway and caught our first glimpse inside the crater or “Caldera” of Santorini I burst into tears. I don’t even know why? The view of the pristine white homes and blue domed churches clinging to the steep hillside was just so beautiful that it overwhelmed me. Or maybe it was PMS. Many have tried to explain the singular beauty of the Village of Oia and it’s image appears on millions of postcards and calendars but until you have arrived there you can’t really know it’s grace. I had no idea. Several people had described Santorini as ‘perfect’. These people could easily pass a lie detector test.
We rented a ‘cave house’ from a lovely engineer named Tina. When we got there I cried again. A small but very strong man named Timo had easily carried our heavy bags on his back down the winding path and at least six flights of stairs and dropped them on the stone patio with the little red wooden gate and the freshly painted little red wooden door to match. The cave house was pure white inside. White walls, floors, rounded ceiling carved out of the rock. White bedding, lights and dishes. Pure white. Plus we were inside a 200 year old cave. It’s pure magic. Good thing we had some white tissues.
Many brides from China fly all the way to Santorini just to have their wedding photos taken against her stunning backdrop. Actually, I’m not even sure if they’re married, it’s just for the fancy photos. You see them all over the place. Random brides, often without any sign of a groom, in flowy wedding dresses or red evening wear draped over donkeys and church squares and low stone walls posing into the wind. It’s kind of a weird phenomena but then I don’t understand ‘Hello Kitty’ either.
If you don’t ‘do’ stairs then Santorini is not for you. They wind up and down everywhere leading you do precarious perches with stellar views and sweet surprises like cafes that have only two tables. Down about 300 steps from the ruined castle of Oia you will find a little fishing village with a row of Fish Tavernas. The farthest on on the left is called Dimitri’s and just happens to be owned by a very nice woman named Joy who comes from our home town of Vancouver. Small world, I even know her brother! They make legendary tomato fritters and grilled octopus. Great spot to watch Santorini’s famous sunsets too. Joy will drape you in a fuzzy blanket if you get chilly. Just remember, it’s 300 steps up again too.
We walked the spectacular mountain trail along the ridge of the island to the next town of Thira collecting wildflowers along the way. From up top you could see both sides of the crescent shaped island and some of her unexpected farm land. We also got to hang out with some new Canadian friends we had met earlier on the barfy catamaran ferry from Crete. We were so happy to share a few days with them chatting and visiting ‘not’ hot springs and riding donkeys. It was so nice after eight months away to talk to other Canadians. We felt so lucky to be able to visit in April before the direct flights from all over Europe and the fleets of cruise ships arrive. Those tiny lanes must be a nightmare in high season. We left just in time. German seniors groups with those ski-pole walking sticks were starting to outnumber us.
NAXOS – “Now this is more our style” my husband Cam said when we arrived in the port town of Chora and saw the rows of small sailboats bobbing in the marina. No vanity yachts, expensive jewellery shops or bumping discos here. It was quiet, ancient and adorable. We savoured more wonderful fresh local meals, slowly cooked with olive oil and love. We hiked Zeus’s Peak the highest on the island, discovered more ancient ruins and many sleepy hill towns. We searched for recommended grandma tavernas where fresh spring water comes streaming out of a pipe on the wall and you will not get a bill until you demand it. Nobody is ever in a hurry. Again, you WILL be having dessert. Whether you like it or not. It would be ungrateful to refuse.
Naxos is a working farm island famous for it’s many small villages that produce cheese, olives, honey and marble. The village of Apiranthos perched under a working quarry is made completely of marble. They even use it for paving the streets and the curbs. It glows in the late day sun. In Filoti we stopped into a Taverna and the server said “You are a very handsome woman” to me. She was dead serious. And she got a big tip! We stayed at the very sweet Hotel Elizabeth where Maria the owner made us fried fish and apple cake and introduced us to her pet turtle who we named “Fiesty” because he would chase Lyla around all over the place. There were hardly any tourists, this was feeling like authentic Greece. We were falling hard.
PAROS – My sister recommended staying at LA Seleni on Paros. This bright, beautiful, small hotel is run by another Vancouverite named Lou Ann. When she found out we had been travelling for eight months basically sleeping in the same room the whole time she got a twinkly in her eye “We’re not full at the moment so why don’t you just take two rooms? I won’t charge your or the second one.” This is a woman with a huge heart! Husband and daughter couldn’t wipe the grins off of their faces at the thought of privacy at last! On Paros we felt even more Greek and oddly, more grounded. It was very much like our favourite Gulf Island at home. We rented one scooter and one quad and blitzed that whole island top to bottom and side to side. What fun! Sweet little fishing villages, gorgeous deserted beaches, rolling farms and small family tavernas. We had unexpectedly found our happy place.
SYROS – In the tiny fishing village of Kini we learned what it means to be Greek. We were in a(nother) wonderful restaurant called ALLOU-YIALOU watching a(nother) mesmerizing sunset devouring the most innovative meal we’d had in Greece when the waiter/philosophy prof schooled us regarding the Greek essence. The first is “Filoxenia” which he defined as “we love it everyone foreign that is a stranger. We treat you like friends.” “Also, we have Kafi,” He continued with a brightness behind his eyes “Kafi, is to love every moment of your life. To respect everything. To do what you feel without disturbing anyone or anything.” Crisis? What Crisis?
Oh there’s more…there’s always more. More islands, more wonderful people, more adventures, but I’ll stop there and just tell you that of all the places we’ve been this year Greece is our favourite. The open, humble, generous people, fresh healthy food, the affordability and the beauty of it all won’t be soon forgotten.
Love from Greece,