4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Greek Islands”

Crossroads Rhodes (by Ναθεν)

Essential theme to life

He leaned over the table for what felt like the thirtieth time that night to fill my wine glass; he looks at me straight in the eye and says “Se kalo.” Then he downs his entire glass of wine. Then I choose someone, “Se kalo” and again my glass is empty. We are at a Cretan tavern in Rhodes. Our table is a battleground of Greek and Cretan specialties: dakas, feta, fritters and fries have been landing endlessly on our table all night. The jug of wine always seems full and the traditional music from Crete can be subtly heard over the constant clinking of glasses and loud conversation in the room. This was the conclusion to our time in Rhodes, a celebration of Greece and new friends. We were at crossroads of Europe and Asia and tomorrow we would be going to Turkey. At 2am we stagger walk with dignity through old town to grab a few hours rest.

Our new friends in Rhodes

Meet my friend Mike, who is actually from Crete, and his lovely girlfriend Alexandra. We met them in Rhodes and our three days have been filled with nonstop adventures and good food. They are university students here in Rhodes, studying to become teachers. I am always impressed by the seemingly instant friendship that is possible with people. There is a little bit of circumstance, some willingness and a whole bunch of letting down guards, but we quickly became friends.

Local eatery with stewed meats, veggies and village salad

I should have recognized how the weekend was going to turn out. In our first hours of arriving to Rhodes, Mike pulled out a 5L jug of clear liquid from the back room. “Want to try Cretan Tsikoudi.” Mike’s dad distills his own moonshine in Crete and sends it with his son to keep him company while at school. It only takes a few minutes before we are all talking about hunger. They take us to lunch at this local restaurant around the corner. The waiter ushers us to the glass case in the back; we are shown an array of stews and specialties of the day. Everything looked and smelled fantastic. It only takes a few minutes before steaming plates occupy every free space on the table.

Cosmopolitan buildings for the Knights Hospitaller from the crusades

Sunlit arches

There is substantial history in Rhodes. It has been inhabited for millennia, but the most prominent occupation was during the first crusades. The Knights of St. John established a fortress in the fight for Christianity. The most impressive part of old town is the street that the knights lived, the hospitalier. Each nation had their own building for meetings, organization, dining and lodging. Walking along the cobblestones we saw the Spanish, English and German headquarters for the crusades, each over a thousand years old.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Credit: WikiCommons)

For centuries Rhodes was a stronghold. After defending themselves against Cyprus, they built an enormous statue, The Colossus of Rhodes, to symbolize their victory. This 107ft (32m) wonder of the ancient world no longer exists, but the entrance to the harbor where he once stood is still there.

Old town Rhodes typical street

Walking through old town in Rhodes is wonderful. The stone buildings and cobblestones reflect a time hundreds of years ago, but most everything is still in use. Carmen and I walked ancient alleyways and underneath buttresses bracing buildings. It is easy to get lost meandering around Rhodes, but that is the fun of exploring these cities. Eventually we would run into the enormous wall that surrounds the city. Beyond it is a moat that is great for walks and runs.

Medieval town wall of the Knights Hospitaller

Our time in Rhodes was filled with new friendship and the history of an old city. We soaked up the atmosphere, snorkeled one last time in the Mediterranean and wondered through the stone streets. Rhodes is a crossroads between the old and new, but also between Greece and Turkey. We were excited to head east, to a place we’ve never been before. We boarded onto our last ferry boat and said goodbye to Greece.

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Swimming In A Volcano In Santorini (by Ναθεν)

… and then we found ourselves on one of the most beautiful places on the PLANET.

Firostefani and ocean

Golden Fira

Santorini deserves all the hype, all the magazine cover shots, and all the glory because it truly is a spectacular place. We arrived on a commuter ferry that chugged along the Mediterranean from Naxos. The arrival to this island was different than the others, everyone on the boat was anxious and giddy in anticipation. When the boat wrapped around the crescent tip of the island, people rushed to take photos. If there is such thing as hunger for sights, then there was definite drooling and jaw dropping as the curved white buildings that frosted chocolate colored cliffs came into focus.

Oia cave and cliffside homes

Carmen and I also became bleary eyed at the sights. Unfortunately for us we were already in island mode. We slowly exited the boat, drifted over to the tourist office and chatted a bit for a map. We went back outside to board the public bus that climbs the steep switchbacks and we realize we missed it. And it was the last bus of the day. A moment of panic when understanding hits us that the closest city of Fira is too far to walk and taxis are expensive because we are the last tourists on the port. We work out a deal with a hostel owner for a one night’s stay and a free shuttle to Perissa. Not exactly our plan, in fact, it is on the opposite side of the island from where we wanted, but we load into the van and set off for a spontaneous adventure.

Sunset Santorini

As expected, Perissa wasn’t our style. The resort-like cafes and lawn chairs in the black sand were beautiful, but we came to Santorini to see the magic of a civilization that lives and dies along the volcano.

Fresco of 3500 year old building

Three story building from 1500BC

The Minoans inhabited Thira (another name for Santorini) for thousands of years. Their civilization was immensely successful with tens of thousands of inhabitants throughout the Greek islands. Unfortunately all these great islands existed because of a dark past. This section of the Mediterranean is a boundary zone of the European and Asian tectonic plates. A volcano erupted around 1,600BC that wiped out their civilization. This was not just any eruption, it is the largest eruption ever recorded and documented by humans. The sound was so enormous that Chinese records describe the sound of it twice as the wave reached them from different directions around the world. Enormous amounts of material blew into the sky, the whole island grew a thousand feet taller and tsunamis expanded the havoc around the world.

Akrotiri excavations

Evidence of ash and volcanic eruptions

Akrotiri was an ancient city on Thira. When the volcano exploded, the city was covered in thirty feet of pumice and ash. This rare circumstance allowed the what was left of the buildings, that survived the earthquakes before the eruption, to be remarkably preserved for 3,500 years. The city was discovered in the 1960’s and slowly they uncovered buildings and intertwining streets rich with painted frescoes, advanced multi-story buildings and sewer systems. This was an advanced civilization, and there are no records to their existence beyond this enormous volcanic event.

Satellite view of Santorini Volcano (Photo credit: WikiCommons)

Walking on the center of the volcano

The volcano around Santorini has shaped and reshaped the islands for millions of years. Each explosion destroyed whole mountains and continued to build up the layers of Islands that remained. We took a boat to the center of the volcano; we walked on the cooling magma center. Standing on the foreign landscape is surreal, perfectly silent and covered in jagged dark brown rocks. There are small craters on this island showing minor eruptions, but it is the whole group of islands, the caldera that is many miles wide that shows the enormity and unrelenting unimaginable power of the earth. The cliffs communicate this history with portions of black crumbly stone, or jagged red boulders or loose pock-marked ash and pumice. And like all beautiful, but dangerous places, the people eventually forgot the catastrophic event and they reinhabited the island.

Rustic door

Chapels of Santorini

Fira is the main city on the island. It is built on the cliffs in the middle of the crescent-shape and the city is packed with thousands of cute whitewashed buildings that curve and flow with the contours of the mountain. There is a beauty in the haphazard construction of all these buildings right on top of one another. Stairways twist and weave in between the buildings, paths start and stop almost randomly, and buildings occupy every little bit of space. I may even make the jump to say that the buildings on the steep slope remind me of a favela. Trash free, plastered and painted with sewers; Rio could make its densest neighborhoods into high-end real estate.

Locally brewed beer

Moussaka from Nikolas Taverna in Fira

Lamb kleftiko

Reward for hiking from sea to cliffside village

We drank locally brewed beer on a picturesque patio. There was moussaka, and kleftiko dinners paired with wine and of course ice cream rewards for those climbs up the steep path from water to city.

Firostefani in the morning light

Carmen and shadow

An essential activity for any visitor to Santorini is to walk the ridge line of the island. The end points of the walk are Oia and Fira and it is about 12km (8mi). We walked it one morning starting at Fira at sunrise with a destination of Oia for lunch. The path works its way through Fira, into the picturesque Firastefani. Outside of town the dirt and cobblestone path follows the ridge and cliff’s edge allowing for endless views around the island. Occasionally a small lonely chapel appears on the path, a remnant of a gracious sailor who braved a storm and lived to fish another day. The sun beats hot on our backs and slowly the buildings of Oia come into view.

Oia, the most beautiful city on the most beautiful island

Blue domed churches and contours of Oia

Walking into Oia, is strange and exhilarating, it is hard to believe that a town can be so gorgeous. Every building has a dome or a curved arch or rounded balcony; straight lines are the minority which creates a natural and harmonious addition to the glowing Mediterranean sea below. Churches with their bright blue domes scatter the cityscape and every surface that is not a walkway is a patio for sunbathing.

Our seafood cantina lunch spot

Tomatokeftedes and sliced feta lunch

Swimming hole below Oia

We decided to walk down the several hundred stairs to swim and grab lunch in the tiny marina. Katina served us delicious tomato fritters, a hunk of feta cheese and a grilled whole fish. We walked left from the harbor to a tiny beach overlooking a small island. The water was cool, but not cold, turquoise and crystal clear. There is a thrilling concrete platform on the side of the island that made it possible to cliff jump into this beautiful water. Swimming in a volcano has never been so much fun.

My gracious jump into the Mediterranean

Sunset Santorini x4

The challenge of any Santorini tourist is where to watch the sunset. I love sunrises and sunsets (as you have seen), but the tourists on Santorini push and shove to get the perfect view of the sun hitting the water. A sunset in Fira showers the city in golden light, in Oia it is possible to stand on the ridge of a peninsula with all periphery consumed by sun, ocean and other camera-wielding tourists. My favorite was Firastefani, a tranquil setting with a more local feel. And the sunsets on Santorini are amazing and worth it. Perched high on a cliff we could see a world vast with beautiful ocean and a scattering of islands. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

Oia silhouette

Sunset from Firastefani

Beaches, Whitewash and Scooters on Syros & Naxos (by Καρμεν)

Bougainvillea on the Greek Island of Syros

View of Syros from the ferry

“Wow. This is perfect”

These were my thoughts as I ate my first meal on the Greek island of Syros. Nathan and I were sitting at a table squeezed onto a lovely, narrow lane. I had just selected some dishes from To Kastri, a restaurant run by a local women’s cooperative. The food was homey and comforting – fish baked with potatoes, broccoli, tzaziki, cabbage rolls stuffed with rice. A wonderful welcome to our first of four islands.

Lunch at To Kastri

After eating, our next thought was beach. We caught a bus to a small cove on the other side of the island and dug our toes into the sand. The water was crystal clear and the beach largely deserted because it was off season. This meant that the restaurants in town were also empty so for dinner we bought a gyro and called it an early night. From our room we could hear the chants of a small, civil protest against the German chancellor’s visit in the distance.

Nathan at a window in Ano Syros

Quaint buildings of Syros

In the morning we awoke early to visit Ano Syros, a picturesque part of town high up on the hill. We snaked our way through adorable alley ways and rustic arches, past weathered doorways and down steep stairs. It was exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of a quaint Mediterranean island village.

Temple of Apollo with Naxos in the background

Rooftop terrace of our hotel

View from our balcony

Next we hopped over to the nearby island of Naxos. At the port we we greeted with another whitewashed town, this time with the ruins of the Temple of Apollo overlooking the water. We also encountered a gaggle of hotel owners vying for our business. Thanks to Nathan’s master negotiating skills we scored a lovely hotel for under $30 a night.

Street in Naxos old town

Cubic church

After settling in we explored Naxos old town, which I found even more charming than the one on Syros. It was a true labyrinth with low arches and endless twists and turns. It was the kind of place that beckons your return with the thought that there might be one more passage left unexplored.

Beachside resort

We walked back to our hotel along the beach and stumbled upon a small resort serving a simple BBQ. We joined in to pig out on Greek-style salads, rice, stuffed grape leaves, and grilled meat skewers.

Scooters make you look tough

Naxos is one of the bigger islands in the area and there were more villages in the interior to explore. We decided that the best way to do this was to rent a scooter. Now I always knew Nathan had some experience with motorcycles before I met him. But I was surprised to see how well he picked it up again as we sped off from the Naxos harbor. What an excellent hidden talent. It’s nice to know that after nearly 10 years together you can still learn new things about each other.

Stony path

Nathan on top

Views from Mt. Zeus

Our destination was Halki, a tiny town with a hundred year old distillery producing citron. This is a drink that uses a citrus fruit unique to Naxos distilled with the local grape liqueur, raki. We then scooted on over to Mt Zeus, a 1000m tall mountain with views all around the island. Nathan braved the steep climb while I enjoyed the Mediterranean views from the trailhead.

Lunch at Meze 2

By the time we made it back to Naxos we were hungry for a late lunch. At Meze 2, we ordered a large Greek salad and a mix of dips including tzaziki, eggplant and two feta based spreads. Accompanied by grilled octopus and a jug of retsina wine, we abolished the need for dinner. After lunch we scooted to the beach, albeit more slowly because of the extra weight.

Yogurt, honey, pomegranate…breakfast of champions

Prasopita

The next morning was another beautiful day. On our balcony we enjoyed a simple breakfast of yogurt, local honey and pomegranate. It was delicious and light, which meant it left room for another delectable snack later that morning. As we passed a small cafe a round filo pastry caught our eye. Within minutes we were devouring a slice of prasopita, a cabbage filled pie of sorts. As the last bite passed my lips I was already plotting my return to the beautiful island of Naxos.

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