Greece – It didn’t quite take three weeks to cross the Aegean, but in some ways it felt like a lifetime. It was August and the seas were crowded. Greece is one of the most highly touristed countries in the world, and summers are thick with vacationers. For me, it was a change from the Balkans. In fact, this was the first time—fourteen weeks into my trip—that I was not entirely happy. Crowded ports, expensive beers, and exhausted hospitality can make summertime in Greece a headache. Nonetheless, people come here for a reason. And when you find that quiet cafe, lonely beach, perfect gyro, or island sunset, then your visit to Greece is worth every nautical mile. I attacked a conventional list of islands, beginning with Corfu, then Crete and Santorini, Naxos and Mykonos, and finally Samos. Here’s a few pictures to tell the story…
Piraeus – Island-hopping in Greece often begins just outside Athens at Piraeus, the largest port in a land of ports. Like many Greek cities, it has loads of history going back to the 6th Century BC. But to me, Piraeus was just a madhouse of people swarming like ants to get aboard stadium-size ships. It’s a little disconcerting the first time you board one of these huge ships and realize that if it were to sink, things would end badly. (Did I mention I’m afraid of water?)
Crete – The first thing to strike you when you reach the shores of Crete is the savage Mediterranean terrain. Arid, hot, and stony, the islands I visited were not the idyllic island paradises I expected. Rather than dream of hammocks and cocktails, I found myself imagining the terrible death I would suffer if stranded in 95-degree heat on one of these remote, tree-less islands. Not the island getaway you imagine. Still, once your eyes adjust to the flora—like adjusting to low light—you begin to see the beauty in these landscapes.
Chania, Crete – It’s hard to wrap your head around the historic reach of the Ottoman Empire, although the 1645 Kucjk Hassan Mosque (Mosque of the Janissaries) helps. Its minaret was destroyed in WWII, but the domes remain. In Chania I bought a postcard of a church I’d seen there, although in the very old photo it had a minaret built onto it—converting Cretan churches to mosques was common in the Ottoman period.
Crete – This was just my attempt to be artsy-fartsy. I also carried a collection of Greek myths with me, reading about them as I traveled to the places were they were set. Crete, of course, is awesome, being home to the Minotaur, King Minos, and his capital at Knossos. Crete is also home to the fascinating ancient Minoan Civilization which curiously disappeared (possibly with the eruption of a volcano at Santorini).
Rethymno, Crete – I’ve given too little attention to the time I spent in hostels while traveling (it’s a lot). Although it was bloody hot in Crete, this was a good one for relaxing with a book, a cold beer, and a gyro. In the evening you make some friends, play some darts, stare at maps and research travel books to figure out where you’re going next. A good hostel is a great thing; a great hostel is reason enough to visit any town. Can you spot evil-eye charm?
Nikolaos, Crete – The port, viewed from a hill over the city. I found a little family who put me up in a room downstairs where I had wifi, wine, and a sink for washing my clothes. At night I sat with my feet in the warm water of the busy cove in the old center. The town was packed with families eating ice-cream. The aspect of Nikolaos is fantastic—open sea on one side, calm tree-lined park on the other. Really a lovely town that had many Greek tourists, but very few backpackers that I could see.
Crete – Just a pretty house, with pretty flowers, and pretty shadows etched by the late, August sun.
Heraklion, Crete – The harbor at Heraklion, Crete’s major city and port. Poor photography, but brilliant evening colors over the sea. I killed an evening in Heraklion’s boisterous and fun downtown, then slept on the pier before a 3am departure by ferry (it didn’t leave until 8am). Crete was my favorite of the Greek islands, and I’d return there first.
Santorina – The approach to Santorina is spectacular. The enormous stony cliffs, topped with perfectly white buildings that from afar look like a thick icing or meringue. Giant ships arrive constantly to unload people, who take cars and buses up the steep cliff and across Santorini’s inhospitable terrain to the lavish city overlooking the sea.
Santorini – You could spend years walking the lengthy promenades atop Santorini and photographing its picturesque architecture. Just as beautiful are the island’s two arms that reach out in either direction. The island is formed by the lip of a crescent-shaped caldera (volcanic crater). It’s crowded place, but every bit as beautiful as people say.
Santorini – A pretty rooftop over Santorini. Have a vent on your roof? Paint it white! Why not add a cross. Paint that white too! Oh you say you own a barn? White. Car? White. (How do you like blue trim).
Santorini – Bike photo! This motorbike is SO Greek. On Greece’s islands everything is white and blue. People dress in white and wear blue evil-eye charms. Houses are painted white with blue shudders. Motorbikes are white and blue. And of course the Greek flag, with its blue and white symbolizing the blue sea and sky with white clouds and waves. These colors are Greek, and I couldn’t imagine a Greek-er bike.
Back on the boat again. These days there are pretty quick boats between most islands, but you put in plenty of hours at sea.
Naxos – I really liked Naxos, which was a bit quieter than some of the other islands. Again, more families and fewer young partiers. And very picturesque with its low ridges behind Naxos town.
Mykonos – Oh Mykonos. Lovely. So lovely that it’s a mess in summertime. For me, this was the culmination of why I wouldn’t return to Greece in mid-August. Packed hostels with poor service, crowded streets, and pricey (I paid $12 for a simple beer). That said, it’s popular for a reason.
Mykonos – The awesome 16th Century Venetian windmills of Mykonos. A popular spot to come to watch sunset, and well worth it. This was one of my last nights in Greece. I relaxed and journaled while overlooking the Chora. Then caught an overnight ferry to Samos, sleeping underneath some chairs because I only had a deck ticket.
Greece – One of many memorable sunsets. If it weren’t primarily water, you could appropriately call this part of Greece the Land of Sunsets.