Monday, August 08, 2005

Greek Isle bliss

Sunset in Gouves, Crete

Be warned! What you are about to read is a very long blog, so you may as well grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable, because you're about to hear all about our week in the Greek Islands, which is now officially my favourite place in the world for holidays.

We left a cold, miserable, rainy Dublin last Saturday and flew directly to Crete, landing at around 10:30pm to find it was 28 degrees outside - woo hoo!!! It was a charter flight full of package-holiday-makers, the foulest kind of traveller on the planet. Fake tans, white track-suits and convict-style haircuts surrounded us on the 'plane, with Dublin accents so thick you'd need a broadsword to cut them. Bellies stuck out between tank-tops and tiny skirts and you could have opened a shop with the amount of 'Burberry' caps around. But when you're doing things on the cheap, you get what you pay for. Fortunately Lyda Studios, the resort we were staying in, was actually really nice and there were 3 swimming pools to choose from so we were able to avoid the worst of the yobs (the term used to describe the culture of young, drunken, rowdy louts) once we had checked in, and get on with enjoying our holiday.
Yes, I know I sound like a terrible snob. Tough. These dregs of society - the unwashed masses - have that effect on me. Live with it!

Since Crete is 2 hours ahead of Ireland we were well ready for supper by the time we'd checked in so we headed straight to The Snack Bar - the restaurant contained in the apartment complex. It overlooked one of the swimming pools and was like a big patio covered in a canvas awning, with bougainvillea climbing the wooden support posts and beams, small square tables and rattan chairs dotting the terracotta tiled floor. We were treated to live entertainment while we ate our big, juicy burgers: it was Karaoke night. The stars of the show were a 15-year-old rapper, his tone-deaf 9-year old brother and an elderly woman with a reasonable voice that she wrecked by singing the most mournful Irish tunes she could find, at a snail's pace.
But who am I to judge? (More about that later...) Everyone was having a grand old time anyway!

View from the Snack Bar

Sunday morning dawned bright and hot so we spent the morning lying on sun loungers next to the pool, under the shade of a canvas umbrella. I have had enough sunburn in my life, thanks, and would rather return from holidays with no tan at all than burnt to a crisp and looking like a lobster with half its shell missing.
In the afternoon we decided to take a half-hour nap, which lasted for 2 hours, after which we decided it was time to do a bit of exploring. So we set out, armed with a hand-drawn map courtesy of the travel rep, in the general direction of the sea. Although the shadows were already lengthening, it was still stifling hot and dusty, lending an orange glow to everything. We took a wrong turn (my fault - my usually infallible sense of direction must still have been sleeping) but eventually fought our way through the clouds of miggies (gnats, for those of you who don't speak Afrikaans) to arrive at the promenade that runs the length of the sea-front in Gouves.
Our timing was perfect and we perched on some rocks jutting out into the ocean to watch the sunset. As the orange fireball slipped quickly and silently into the sea and was snuffed out in the dark blue water on the horizon, its blazing pathway stretching out over the white-tipped waves in front of us grew shorter and the shadows grew longer until we were enveloped in twilight, the pink and orange glow tingeing the edge of the world gradually fading and making it possible for the evening’s first stars to peek through and twinkle in the faded blue sky. We sat for a while, enjoying the sound of the waves colliding lazily with the rocks, and the smell of the ocean carried on a cool, energizing sea breeze, and the peace and tranquility of the moment.


Eventually the need for food drove us back to the promenade and we ate an incredibly romantic dinner at the Paradise Restaurant, a thatched wooden deck supported by stilts, beneath which we could hear the small waves rolling gently in and rattling the pebbled beach as they retreated. Dinner was delicious, accompanied by a bottle of Rosé wine, Greek music playing softly in the background and the smell of the ocean carried on the slight breeze. At one point a piano-accordian player put in an appearance, and obliged a Dutch couple by playing "Tulips from Amsterdam", and an Australian couple with his rendition of "Waltzing Matilda". When he came to our table and found out we were South African, he promptly ran away because he didn't know any South African tunes. (David Kramer would have been devastated, I'm sure!)
Whereupon the owner of the restaurant took it upon himself to make us feel properly welcome, by producing some drinks on the house.

Our table at Paradise Restaurant

But not any old drinks, oh no. This was a special Cretan (there ya go Kyknoord, they're Cretans, not Cretins!) drink called Haraki - not unlike Tequila in appearance and, indeed, taste. It was poured from a clear glass decanter just big enough for 4 tots, and we were issued strict instructions to drink it slowly. As if there were any other way! As the stuff worked its magic, our grimaces faded and our smiles broadened and soon we were having a really good laugh about, well, everything really.

We followed the Haraki with a nightcap of Baileys and paid the bill - leaving a tip, of course, which provoked another round of Haraki on the house. Eesh!
Eventually we managed to leave and walked (swerved) back along the promenade. It was such a perfect evening, the stars twinkling brightly in the pitch-black sky, the sound of the inky water of the sea in our ears and warmth all around, that we stopped for a nice romantic smooch under one of the pretty lamps lining the path... prompting a collective "Aaah..!" and a round of applause from the diners in a restaurant across the road that we hadn't noticed.
Cheesy, but true!

But our evening didn't end when we reached the apartments. It was a long walk, after all, so we opted for another nightcap, perched on wooden stools at the bar in the Snack Bar. We made friends with Nikolas, the barman (who was kind enough to put a sparkler in my bottle of Coke), and an Irish couple called Eric and Ashling, and soon we were all getting along famously. We introduced them to that wonderful South African shot, the Springbok, and in return we all drank Irish Flags (Crème de menthe, Baileys and brandy) and then ended the evening with a round of Sambuca at about 3am.
Needless to say, I slept like a log!

On Monday we had breakfast, a swim, and then went back to bed.
Our second attempt at the day started around mid-afternoon, when we dragged our lazy asses out of bed and walked what felt like many kilometers into the town center. Our mission was to book tickets on a ferry to Santorini, an island about 70km North of Crete. The local lady at the travel agency sold us a 2-day tour, leaving Wednesday and returning on Thursday. This done, and our thirst quenched with a Coke in one of the many bars, I suddenly realised we were in the middle of the main shopping area of Gouves. Yes please!!! The prices were so reasonable I didn't even get too much resistance from my ever-suffering husband, and it was 7pm by the time we returned, laden with parcels, feet blistered from my new shoes (which are really pretty!), to the apartments.
We had a quiet dinner at the Snack Bar, me looking gorgeous (of course) in one of my new sundresses, and beginning to sport a bit of a tan. Dodging Nikolas and Eric and Ashling (and the pretty cat who was stalking our food from behind our chairs), we turned in early.

On Tuesday we were feeling the need for adventure, so we hired a moped for the day. Helmets are compulsory on Crete, but the moped-hire guy looked at us like we were insane when we asked for two. He gave one to Dave, but told me that I didn't really need one and besides, it would mess up my hair. Priorities, hey?!

Our wheels for the day - love the helmet!

So we set off, D wearing a shiny helmet that resembled a WW2 relic, me holding onto him with one hand, the other ensuring my straw hat didn't blow off. I felt like something in a Bogart movie! It was only a 45-minute drive to the town of Agios Nikolaos on the east coast of Crete but we had to stop halfway in Malia to get out of the heat for a while and top up on liquid before we dehydrated.

The first thing we did in Agios Nikolaos was go for a swim in the sea to cool off, then we lingered over our lunch in an outdoors fast-food restaurant and eventually walked up a winding street to see what was there, following the signs to the Town Centre.

Café in Agios Nikolaos

There we found a beautiful little lake, in the middle of the town, a big rocky hole filled with cool, dark water. After a little rest there in the shade, we went back to our moped and took a drive along the coastal road, past the port busy with ferries and fishing boats, and the pretty little town, and retraced our route through the big, rocky mountains to Gouves.

Dinner in the Snack Bar that night was a BBQ Buffet - a feast of fresh, juicy salads and succulent lamb chops, chicken wings and kebabs, followed by desserts as sweet as only the Greeks produce. Thus fortified, we bravely perched on the barstools with our friend Nikolas the barman again. Whereupon I was ganged up on and ambushed. I had forgotten that in my Haraki-induced haze the other night, I had mentioned that I had never done Karaoke before. Nikolas had been sober, and had not forgotten... and tonight was Karaoke again. When I looked again the list of songs was in front of me and my traitorous husband was sitting with pen and paper poised. The next thing I knew my name was being called, so after a ginormous swig of Gin & Tonic, I found myself singing "California Dreaming" for all I was worth in front of a room full of strangers. Not bad for someone who hates being the focus of attention! Nonetheless, I think I carried it off okay and I even got an enthusiastic round of applause when I was done. When I got back to my seat I could barely stand I was shaking so much, and found that Eric and Ashling had arrived during my 'performance'. A little while later, Ashling and I took the stage together for what was, by all accounts, a brilliant rendition of Madonna's "True Blue". This time I was actually able to enjoy myself, my nerves having been sufficiently calmed by a healthy dose of G&T.
So that was it, my 15 minutes of fame. We fell asleep to the sound of a chorus of voices doing the YMCA, wafting in through the open window (along with the mosquitos!).

Wednesday arrived at last and we saw the sunrise from the air-conditioned coach that took us to the port at Heraklion, about 25 minutes away. There we boarded a big red ferry for the 2-hour voyage to the volcanic islands of Santorini.
I don't know what I was expecting, but that wasn't it. It was even better. Dave had been wanting to take me there for as long as I've known him, having been there once before, in his youth (hahahahaha!).
We emerged into the sunshine along with hundreds of other confused tourists, feeling dwarfed by the high, steep rocky cliffs that towered over the port of Athinios.

Disembarking from the ferry at Athinios, Santorini

Dozens of locals were urging us to come and stay at their hotels, but we were already booked to go somewhere. Trouble was, we couldn't find out where, so when a man told us in English that the vouchers in our hands indicated that we would be staying with him, we hopped into his minibus along with a handful of other confused people and set off up the steep road that zig-zagged up the mountainside.

His hotel, called Maistro Village, was just outside the main town of Fira. Don't be misled when I say 'Just outside' - Santorini is really small, with a permanent population of around 12,500 people. After settling into the hotel we set out (once again in the midday sun!) to Fira on foot.

The town is almost indescribably beautiful. Whitewashed walls and narrow paved streets lined with shops selling almost everything, all perched on the edge of the rocky brown cliffs. Restaurants and hotels cascade down the edges in tiers, providing the most magnificent view over the volcano and surrounding islands. In order to visit the volcano we had to get down to the Old Port at Fira, which could be reached either on foot down lots and lots of stairs, or a 2-minute ride in a funicular. We chose the cable-car. Once again at sea level, we sat in the shade of a café and waited for our ride, which turned out to be a beautiful wooden boat of the tallship variety. While we were waiting we met up with another Irish couple, Kieran and Ashling, who were staying in the same hotel as us and who also took the boat trip. After a while our ship arrived, skirting the huge passenger liners that were anchored in the sparkling blue sea not far off. We were then ferried across the not-so-very-pond-like water to where two similar ships were already anchored in a small bay at the volcano, and we were told, "There's the path, start walking."

So we walked up the hot, dusty, rocky volcano, the landscape resembling something out of a science fiction movie. And we walked, and climbed, and panted, and looked into the big craters from whence fire and brimstone had once erupted. Hm, very interesting - are we there yet?! I'm sad to say I never reached the top. About 30 metres before the summit I was overcome with nausea and dizziness from the heat, and all I could do was stand on a crest where the wind would blow on the water I dripped over my head to try and cool off. Ashling had the same problem so we sent our menfolk to bravely soldier on to the top. We almost got there but it was just too much - according to Dave's clever watch it was 42.6 degrees outside just then. Considering this, I didn't feel too bad at having to stop.

View of Fira & the Grand Princess cruise liner from the volcano

Fortunately, by the time we reached the ships again we were feeling much perkier and the cool of the waves splashing us once we were on the move again soon had me feeling quite normal. From there, we sailed to the smaller island behind the volcano, where the ships dropped anchor offshore so we could dive off the side (just like in the movies!) into the bright blue water of the Aegean Sea to cool off. We swam to shore and splashed around in he warm sulphur springs there for a while before returning to the ship, which then completed the circumnavigation of the volcano and returned us to the Old Port at Fira, where we enjoyed a late lunch at a picturesque restaurant before once again opting for the cable-car ride to take us back to the town at the top of the cliffs. We could have ridden donkeys up the stairs, but they smelled really bad! At the top we parted company with our new friends, and found a restaurant high up on the hillside where we sat down with an enormous beer shandy to watch the spectacle of sunset on Santorini.

Santorini in all its glory!

"Imagine a place where every day the sunset is a major event." These are the words of my husband, and his gift to me was just that. (Go on, say it, "Aaah!")
We sat in the shade overlooking the most magnificent view of the islands and the volcano and the sea, and the town of Fira perched on the cliffs, the whitewashed walls turning a delicate shade of peach as the sun sank slowly in the sky. The restaurant had one employee whose only job, it seemed, was to choreograph the sunset. As the light began to change, he issued orders to his underlings to raise the canvas awnings. Beautiful, mystical music began to play and he bustled around making sure that everyone had drinks and was able to see the phenomenon that was the sunset.
I'll stop waxing lyrical now, and just tell you it was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life, and when it was over and I'd taken as many photographs as I could (they haven't been developed yet but you can see what was captured by the digital camera) I just sat for a while, letting the magical quality of Santorini wash over me.

Sunset from Zafora restaurant in Fira

We then strolled slowly back through the narrow streets of the town, now brightly lit, back to the hotel, where we washed away the heat of the day and then sat by the pool drinking G&T (what else?!), enjoying the company of Nikkos, the owner of Maistros Village.

On Thursday we were taken on a complete tour of Santorin in an air-conditioned coach. This was like heaven, as the heatwave that engulfed the region was still raging. We crossed the dry, dusty landscape to the tourist resort of Kamari, on the east coast. There we swam in the cool, crystal clear water of the sea - so clear we could see our feet on the rocky bottom - and so rocky that when you hired the sun loungers in the shade of thatched (well, palm-fronded then) umbrellas you were issued with a free pair of "sea shoses" to put on your feet so you didn't hurt them on the pebbles of the beach or slip on your ass once in the water. That left us an hour to enjoy a leisurely lunch in a beautiful seafood restaurant before boarding the coach, which then took us to the local wine museum. After a quick look around the museum, located underground in a series of connected cellars, we had a mini wine-tasting. The wine was a speciality of Santorini, made from white grapes but coloured red from the oak barrels in which it was stored after the grapes are dried in the sun. It tasted a lot like Old Brown Sherry (a South African kind of fortified wine, almost like Port).

From there we drove all the way to the north of the island (it took almost an hour) to the town of Oia, which is even more beautiful than Fira, if it's possible. This is the place most often shown in brochures and postcards of Santorini, with geometric white walls and blue window-sills, shutters, doors and roofs, overlooking the other islands in the caldera.

The town of Oia

After wandering around this gorgeous place for a while, we were back on the coach to visit our final stop, the town of Pyrgos which is the highest town on the island. We had a light supper there and watched the sunset from a park bench, before being taken back to Athinios port to catch the ferry back to Crete.

By Friday we were ready for a nice quiet day, so we spent it lounging by the poolside, reading our books. For the final dinner of our holiday we returned to the Paradise Restaurant, since we had had such a good time there on Monday. We weren't disappointed, but this time we got involved in a great conversaton with Dimitrios, the owner, who plied us with even more Haraki. This time it was too much and by the time we got back to the apartment it was all I could do to just fall into bed.

Saturday was our last day, so we had to check out early. We spent the afternoon in a bar in town, watching most of the rugby game between the Springboks and the All Blacks, which went a long way to putting us both in a very good mood since the Bokke were well in the lead by the time we had to leave to catch our bus to the airport.

Not even the rowdy company we were in for our return journey, nor the long queues in the airport, could dampen the magical mood that stayed with me from a fantastic holiday in the Greek Isles.


Anonymous said...
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DelBoy said...

Glad you liked Greece. How beautiful is Santorini?!??! And those Oian sunsets are breathless!
Good to have you back on the blog again cuz - we missed you! ;-)

boferspork said...

Wow!...just wow! It sounds wonderful and I loved your pictures.

kyknoord said...

Welcome back. I've never been much into travel, but now I'm beginning to wonder, because your holiday sounds amazing. I'm very pleased to hear that the Cretan thing worked out for you :) Love the photos, too - the first one is astonishing.

Terri said...

Del Aw thanks Cuz!! I'd like to say its good to be back but that would be a lie. Instead, I wish I was blogging from the Greek Isles.

boferspork Nice to see u & glad u liked it ;-)

Kyknoord U don't know wot ur missing. Keep reading here & you'll definitely be wanting to travel yourself. It's a big, wide, amazing world out there.
PS I'll pass the compliment on the photo to my hubby, thx!

ChittyChittyBangBang! said...

OK... I made it. Two cups of coffee later and I am in awe.
Sounds like you & hubby had the fantastic holiday! The photos are great.
Good to have you back on the blog though... how selfish is that?

Terri said...

Chitty be selfish - it's good 2 know I was missed! ;-)

Now go run around the block a couple of times 2 get rid of that caffeine buzz ur sure to be on.

LiVEwiRe said...

What a wonderful post. I really am jealous now. Not only does it look beautiful, but hearing your descriptions and the stories to go with it make it so much more real. Especially the story about the mosquitoes doing the YMCA! Oh... did I read that wrong? ;) Besides, you had me hooked when you mentioned 'terra cotta tile'. Then with the pic of the little cafe. Then... Glad you had such a magnificent time.

Underachiever said...

Awesome! I must go.


PS Missed you bobo.

BUDDESS said...

Have you ever thought of publishing a book??? This was so good at one stage I thought I could feel the water splash against my face!!!!

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have put it better myself! Been to Gouves 4 or 5 times now and it's the most fantastic place on earth!

Thanks for such a beautiful description.

Anonymous said...

Perfectly written! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Have been to Gouves several times. It is a special place, but it seems you missed out on the old village Pano Gouves.

Anonymous said...

a well written article on a lovely destination. i went to crete last summer and would definately recommend it to anyone. i booked my holiday through the website and advise this site for people looking for a luxury vacation