Nafplio – The Most Romantic City in Greece

We planned the last part of the trip as an exploration of the Peloponnese Peninsula, but when we arrived in Nafplio we immediately fell in love. We extended our stay and canceled our remaining reservations. This town has it all…a fortress high on the hill, quaint streets with no cars, nice beaches, good food, and friendly people.

To get here we rented a car….we got a little Fiat 500c…cute as a bug!!!! And really good on gas.

On the way out we drove by the Corinth Canal. This canal literally changes the Peloponnese Peninsula into an island. The four mile long canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf. It is only 70 feet wide at sea level and still is traversed by boats and small cruise ships, but only if they are 58 feet wide or less. Started in the 7th century BC, the digging proved too difficult. The project was picked up again during Roman rule (under Emperor Nero) in 67 AD using a workforce of 6000 Jewish slaves. This project was also abandoned. Not until 1893 was the canal finally finished. Today about 11,000 ships pass through every year.

Nafplio is just so cute. All the roads in the old town are pedestrian only. Like Chania, it is filled with cafes and shops, the buildings built during the Venetian rule. At night families migrate to the city square where their children ride bikes and scooters around the fountain, the men drink their ouzo, the women chat away….very family oriented. Nafplio is only a couple hours from Athens so many Athenians come here for a quick vacation. We did not see another American the entire time we were here.

The Palamidi…Venetian Fortress
High on the hill, overlooking and guarding Nafplio, is the old Venetian Palamidi Fortress. This was the last fortress built by the Venetians. Just as they were completing the walls, the castle was over run by the Ottoman Turks. These Venetians were expert masons….most of the fortress is still intact after all these years. In the harbor lies a water castle called the Bourtzi (means “Tower”). Originally built as part of the fortress system, it has since been used as a prison, a home for the Executioners (seems like no one wanted them for a neighbor), a hotel/cafe, and is now being refurbished to be opened up for tours. At night the Bourtzi and the Palamidi are all lit up…beautiful sight.

Beaches and Mycenae
Each day we would head out to a beach. Our favorite was Kontili Beach, a wide expanse of sand and gravel and crystal clear (and warm) Aegean Sea. At the far end of this beach is a tiny little church perched upon a small hill above the water. So much nicer than Pink Beach on Crete as it was devoid of the crowds.

Mycenae is the ancient bronze age city, founded by Perseus and home to King Agamemnon, leader of the expedition to Troy. (he happened to sacrifice his daughter to the Gods in exchange for fair winds to Troy….seems his wife held a grudge about this act and later took it out on him by stabbing him to death while he was taking a bath.) To enter the palace area you must pass under the Lion’s Gate with walls a good six feet thick. The museum on the grounds holds artifacts found on the site with displays of weapons and pots, gold jewelry and burial urns and so much more. Spectacular and so, so, so ancient.

Tomorrow we head home and we must say goodbye to Greece.
Our Turkey/Greek Odyssey coming to a close….an unforgettable trip!!!
Big question now…where to next???

Athens

We only have two and a half days in Athens, clearly not enough time to do the city justice. There is so much to see, such history; ideas, concepts, ideals, philosophies that have survived the years.

Our first stop is the Acropolis. It is kind of like the Mt. Rainier of Athens…no matter where you are you can look up and spy the Acropolis. It’s like a giant birthday cake set out for all to see, the Parthenon acting as candles. We chose to hike up in the evening, when the temperature cooled a bit. Our hotel was located nearby in the old Plaka area so we wound our way through a few narrow streets, bought our tickets and headed up. Now all around the base of the Acropolis and along the shoulders are amazing sights to see. There is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, The Legendary Olive Tree of the Pandroseion, the Theater of Dionysus, the Temple of Athena Nike…and many more. These are all ancient but built at different times. And at the top, the shining glory, the most sacred sight of the ancient world, The Parthenon. We truly were in awe being here in the shadow of such history.

The Temple of Dionysus
Built in the fourth century BC, could hold as many as 17,000 people. Still in amazing shape.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Completed in 161 AD, holds about 5000. Currently used as a concert/theatre venue. Luciano Pavarotti has performed here, so has Sting and Elton John.

Pandroseion and the Olive Tree, The Old Temple of Athena Polias

The Parthenon
The jewel of the Acropolis. You are not allowed to walk inside (there is actually a crane inside as restoration is occurring), but you can walk all around. The temple was built from 447 BC to 338 BC, and is still magnificent from every angle.

Next day we took off on foot to see more sights. Truly, everywhere you go in this ancient city is a building or site that is older than old. Modern buildings are sometimes built over and around little churches or archaeological sites.

The Panathenaic Stadium

Built originally as a racetrack in 330 BC, redone in marble in 144 AD, at one time held 80,000 people, currently 50,000 is the seating capacity. At the last Olympics held in Athens, this was the site of archery and the finishing point of the men’s and women’s marathon. This is where the torch handoff is presented to the Host Olympic city. The stadium is made entirely of marble and the design far-sighted. There is a walkway around the track, but it was designed lower than the track so people walking by won’t block the view of the people sitting in the front row. The water run off below the walkway is still intact and hasn’t needed a bit of restoration. We took turns standing on the First Place podium and did a short sprint on the track (emphasize the word “short).

Temple of Olympian Zeus
Only 15 of the 104 Corinthian Columns remain standing, but you can still get a feeling of the majesty of the building. There is one column in pieces, toppled in 1852 in a wind storm, where you can see how the columns were pieced together. Truly spectacular.

Acropolis Museum
There are just some museums you don’t want to miss…the Louvre, MOMA, the Rijks Museum, The Smithsonian (and many others) and the Acropolis Museum. Great design, great collection of antiquity. The top level is a replica of the Parthenon with the remaining pieces set in place. So sad many of the pieces are on display in other countries, and won’t be returned. Our opinion, they belong here at home.

We loved Athens. We walked where Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Hippocrates and so many others walked before us. We tracked through the old Plaka area, ate delicious Greek food (shouldn’t a Greek Salad just be called Salad in Greece?), bought an Athen’s Hard Rock Cafe pin, some jewelry, and soaked up the Grecian sun.

We rent a car tomorrow and drive to the Peloponesse Peninsula and the romantic city of Nafplio.

LAST DAYS ON CRETE

After all our hiking, we decided to do a beach day, so off we drive to Elafonissi Beach, also known as Pink Beach. Certain times a year, the sand on this beach is a light pink color, but not this time of year. We got there early after surviving a winding, mountain road. The beach was empty at 9:00. We grabbed an umbrella and two lounges, went for a swim and started working on our books and tans. Little by little the lounges by us filled up. Soon the sand between us and the water filled up. There must have been a couple thousand people at the beach, but it is so large it doesn’t seem like Waikiki where it is shoulder to shoulder, feet to head.

For some reason, I thought the water would be really warm, but it was a little brisk, about 77 degrees F. Once you got wet, it felt good. This was one of those beaches where you can wade out forever, your feet always in sand.

We left around 2:30 with our pelts all tanned and two books finished. Back into the car and ready for the mountain road again. Here are some driving videos:

Driving and Raki

The Tunnel

Cute Village

We have fallen in love with Crete. A special place for us.

Next up: ATHENS

The Samaria Gorge…an Epic European Hike

The Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in all of Europe and home to one of the most popular hikes on the continent. You begin the hike high in the White Mountains of Crete, at about 4100 feet, and end up at sea level at the Libyan Sea. You descend through pine forests and traverse through a gorge with cliffs ascending to heaven. While not technical, it is 16 kilometers long over stones, more stones and even more stones.

The trail is open only May through October, the rest of the year it is too treacherous with raging river water and falling rocks. On any given day, up to 3000 people may make the trek. It is not a hike if you desire solitude.

We got an early start, bought our tickets at the park entrance and down we went. It is helpful if your parents were mountain goats for the first 3 kilometers are rather steep with many a switchback….a good thigh burner. You continue to descend, but not nearly as steep, until you come to the old settlement of Samaria at 7 kilometers. Here people have lived for centuries, the last inhabitants were forced out when the area became a National Park in 1965. It’s a good spot now to eat lunch, refill your water bottle, use the water closet and then off again.

The scenery now changes as the trail enters the gorge. Steep cliffs soar above you on both sides. You feel so tiny as you make your way along the riverbed. Important to watch where you place your feet for you pretty much walk on loose stones for the next 4 or five kilometers. You cross the river a couple dozen times either rock hopping or using wooden bridges built for the purpose. Wild oleander blossoms brighten the way. You hear the bleating of an occasional wild goat. This section of the trail is truly spectacular.

WE MADE IT!!!! TIme to celebrate!!!

Here’s a little video of our hike:
Hiking the Gorge

When you come to the end of the trail, there is a small little village right on the sea. You grab a bite to eat, a cold beer and then a couple lounge chairs and an umbrella and just chill out until the ferry arrives. A short 40 minute ferry ride with outstanding views of the southern coast, brings you to another village with road access. The wind was blowing so hard it pushed the ferry (the size of a Washington state Evergreen class ferry) completely past the dock. We had to come about for another go…a hearty cheer erupted when we finally docked. Then an hour and a half bus ride home with at least 1000 curves. Don’t ask Heidi about this trip. Finally home to Chania…time for dinner and then bed to rest our weary bones!!! Definitely an EPIC day.

Mountain Monasteries

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We drive today to visit the Monastery of Agia Triada (Holy Trinity).  We pass ancient orchards, the branches green on top of thick, twisted and gnarled  trunks.thumbnail_IMG_1600thumbnail_IMG_1599.jpg

 

 

Orange trees burdened with fruit compete with the olive groves for the most popular tree on Crete.  Boxes of bees litter the countryside, the thyme honey recovered ever so sweet.  When you arrive at the monastery, initially you are not impressed.  From the parking lot it is a rather plain, nondescript building.

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But once in the courtyard, every changes.

The grounds inside were spectacular…roses, fruit trees, lavendar…such variety, a real visual feast for your eyes and nose.    The underside of the central dome featured the face of Jesus looking down upon everyone.  dome

The altar bright and intricate.

altar

Carved wooden seats for the monks lined the walls.  Offering candles lit the entry.candles

Off to the side was a little museum filled items of gold and silver, robes, crosses, manuscripts, wooden carving and other historical relics of the monastery.   Built in 1634, the church has played and continues to play an important role on the ecclesiastical life on the island of Crete.  The monks also run a profitable and award winning olive oil and wine making facility.  We visited the cellars and of course sampled the wine and oil, heck, we even bought a couple bottles to enjoy later.

Further down the road is the Gouverneto Monastery.  Unfortunately for us it was closed for the day, so we instead took the trail down to the abandoned Katholiko Monastery and the cave of St. John the Hermit.

Supposedly, Saint John founded the Katholiko Monastery, perhaps the oldest monastery in Crete.  It is said that while praying he hit his stick upon a rock and from thence forth sanctified water flowed with curative powers.  In his later life, he wandered the hills naked, crouched over with age.  Mistaken for a wild animal, St. John the Hermit was shot by a hunter.  His last request was to be taken to his cave to die.  His bones were found and are interned in the cave today.

After we explored the cave, we made our way further down the hill to the abandoned Katholiko Monastery. The trail ends at the monastery and a large bridge that spans the gorge. Not wanting to stop until we made it to the sea, we found a steep little scramble off to the side and arrived at the riverbed. We then followed it another kilometer to the sea. There was an small inlet that was once a used as a harbor, and outside the harbor waves from the Aegean Sea crashed upon the rocky shores. Luckily there was a nice breeze blowing as we climbed back up to our car.

We finished the day with a nice dinner watching the sun set beyond the little Chania Harbor.

It is up early tomorrow…..we do an epic European Hike…The Samaria Gorge!!!!!!

Chania, Crete

Tell any Greek that you are visiting Chania (pronounced Hon Ya) and they will say “ti oraia”…How Lovely!!!!! Little known outside Greece, Crete’s cultural captial has long been Greece’s favourite city. A gentle and sparkling mix of historical beauty and seaside charm.

Crete is the largest Greek island and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. It has pretty much escaped the tourist hordes but that may be changing. People are finding out about the absolutely fabulous beaches, the rugged mountains and gorges, the food, and, of course, the people. Crete is part of Greece, but is seems to have its own culture. One thing you can be sure of, at every meal you will be served some Raki, compliments of the establishment. You need to be extra careful drinking Raki….at 37% or more alchohol, the effects can quickly sneak up on you.

We took the fast ferry from Santorini to Heraklion, Crete….rented a car and drove the almost 150 kilometers to Chania, mostly in the dark. Driving is something else here in Greece. Important to understand that you drive on the shoulder pretty much all the time. This way, those who want to go fast can get around you and those in the opposite lane can also easily pass if you are off to the side. It seems to work, and we have quickly become shoulder drivers. At one point we almost had a few passengers with us. Right as the sun was setting, nature called and we pulled into a small gas station right on the coast. While I was busy exploring the men’s room, Heidi was busy snapping pictures of the sun dropping into the sea. All of a sudden the back doors opened and in popped a couple Greeks. A more astute partner outside the car noticed Heidi inside and at the same time spied their car just 10 meters away. Communication became a bunch of hand gestures and a lot of laughing. Seems everyone rents the same model of white Nissan Micra.

Chania is this “Cute as a Bug” city, with its narrow, labyrinthine alleyways to the historical Venetian Harbor. We heard one woman explain, “So cute!!! You can’t swing a dead cat in any direction without hitting something cute”. Never had heard that expression before, but she was spot on. Chania is dripping with cuteness. Getting lost should be your goal as you wander down alleyway after alleyway. It’s a shopper’s paradise and a feast for your eyes. Stroll past old Venetian homes and gaze upon ruins from Byzantine times, your camera your inseparable companion.

People have been living on Crete since the dawn of time, well at least over the last 6000 years…first by Neolithic people, then the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, the Dorians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and occupied by the Germans during WWII. All left their mark on Crete, but for Chania, the greatest influence were the Venetians. Approximately 1/6 of the population of Venice moved here in the 13th century. They fortified the city and the harbor and built most of the buildings still standing in the old section of town.
I was reading another travel blog, and the author described Chania as “a jewel in the Mediterranean beautiful enough to make your eyes feel as if they’re going to burst into tiny little hearts and spill out all over the turquoise sea.” I can’t think of a better description.

Tomorrow going for a drive to visit some mountain monasteries and do a small gorge hike.

Goodbye to Santorini

Santorini Island was home to Mt. Thera and in 1610 BC it erupted with one of the fiercest explosions ever witnessed by man. Archaeologists feel this explosion may have brought an end to the Minoan Civilization due to the tsunamis and temperature declines caused by the massive amounts of sulfur dioxide spewed into the atmosphere. What is left is a thin, 18 mile long, crescent shaped island that almost encircles the massive caldera. Towns cling to the cliffs that soar upward 200 to 300 meters out of the sea.

Now-a-days Santorini is one of the most visited islands in Greece. Most mornings up to four cruise ships steam into the caldera and deposit their passengers. Today we will see the Royal Princess with 4300 passengers and the Celestyal Olympia with another 1500. Most will come to Oia and fill the narrow walkways to the point of gridlock. The first day we were here, four cruise ships were in town and the crowds were overwhelming. The powers to be have actually limited the number of passengers allowed on the island at any one time at 8000. We have quickly learned where to find the cruise ship schedule and to hunker down when they arrive or go somewhere off the itinerary.

Yesterday we hiked from Oia to Fira, opposite direction from what is recommended. Our path had more uphill during the 13 kilometer walk. The route follows the edge of the caldera. You climb three hills and at the top of each is a little church. One must be very devout to attend the services. It was a beautiful hike and we only met a handful of people along the way. One couple was from South Africa and they had just been to Crete, our next destination. We soaked up their recommendations and somewhere along the conversation stream we were convinced that Africa must be moved up on our bucket list.

Tomorrow we leave for Crete, the largest of all the Greek islands. Sad to leave Santorini but so excited about visiting the former center of the Minoan civilization.

Doorways

Last Dinner on Santorini…..Ambrosia Restaurant