We booked our flight to London a few weeks before things fell apart in Greece. It took us a while to sort everything out (I had spreadsheets set up trying to figure out the where's and the how's of all the different possibilities) and when we finally booked our flights to/from Greece, things were still fine. Then it all seemed to fall apart. We found a website that detailed all of the strikes. For most of the days we were in Greece there were at least a dozen different strikes. Transit strikes. Ferry strikes. Air Traffic Controller strikes. We were actually pretty certain that we wouldn't make it to Greece. And if we did, we would get stuck there.
The extent of the impact of the strikes on us was that our flight in to Athens was delayed by about an hour, and we had to leave Athens within 12 hours or so in order to avoid a ferry strike. Once you hit the islands, it was like nothing was going on. Even the local ferries kept running through the strikes. People actually seemed a bit confused when you would ask them about it.
Dogs and Cats
If I was directing a movie about Greece, I can imagine yelling at the artistic director, telling him that he needed to get more cats into the shot. To accurately portray the number of stray animals, there could never be enough cats. You could probably cheat things a little bit with the dogs.
Every island presented us with a new "temporary buddy" to hang out with. On Naxos, there was a dog that followed us around. We were a bit worried that we were going to get him killed, but he seemed to have crossing the street figured out. He found a discarded packet of biscuits in a flowerpot, and we then watched him for the next half hour from our restaurant seat as he went back-and-forth transferring his find to a cache someplace.
In Agios Nikolaos, there was one guy feeding a cat under the table. There were 8 more sitting on the ground around him.
So many cats. And goats. And sheep.
I mentioned that there was a ferry strike on. From Naxos, we should have been able to take a roughly hour long ferry to Santorini. But, because of the strike, the only one running was the local one. Our one hour ride turned into a 5-hour greek island cruise. Folegandros. Sikinos. Ios. Thirasia. And finally Athinios on Santorini. Luckily it was a nice day so we lounged on the top deck, read some books and got a bit of a sunburn. It was pleasant, but perhaps one hour too long.
Food. Greeks like their food. And their restaurants. Every single village that we went to had a baffling number of restaurants. Most were empty, hopefully due to the time of the year. Except when you'd stumble across a totally unexpected impromptu party. As we drove back from Elafonisi to Palaichora, we were hoping that one of the restaurants would be open in the small village that we had driven through a few hours earlier. As we pulled in to town, not only were they open, they were packed. Live music. People spilling off the patios. It was 4 in the afternoon! Couldn't figure it out.
The empty restaurants are somewhat heartbreaking. Palaichora, which must be bumpin' at some point during the year, is especially tragic. In our two nights there, we must have walked by this one strip of restaurants a dozen times. One of them was nothing more than a couple of tables in a small room. There appeared to be a family that just sat for hours, playing cards, waiting for a customer. A few doors down was a pizza place staffed by two sad looking older folks. They looked so downtrodden...it was like they didn't even believe in the possibility of a customer any longer.
The food itself runs the full spectrum. The worst I would describe as mediocre. The best was unbelievable. In Agios Nikolaos...well, I think we actually ended up staying overnight there so that we could go back to the restaurant again. It was so unbelievably good. Chryssofillis (or something like that) if you happen to be in the neighbourhood.
The most important thing that I came home with was a new appreciation for olive oil. I will never cheap out on olive oil again. It's only Cretan olive oil for me from now on.
After Athens, Naxos was our first stop. We lucked in to a nice place to stay for 25 Euros a night after we agreed to go with a strange man that we met on the ferry. The place was large, newly renovated, close to the town square and had a nice view of the surroundings.
The weather was poor at this point, so we didn't feel too badly sleeping off our jet lag. We rented a car and explored the island. It's a pretty quiet island with just about everything. Nice beaches. Villages with great food. Mountains. Ruins. Goats. Sheep. Even a liqueur specific to the island, of which you can tour the distillery and see their miniature still.
Our marathon boat ride deposited us in Santorini as the sun set. After a few less than choice options, we ended up forking out a bit of cash for a swank pad on the edge of the caldera. It was pretty bad-ass and gave us lovely sunset views.
Santorini is the full-on Greek experience. Even at that time of year, there were 3-6 new cruise ships in the harbour every day. They's spill out into the streets of Thira and Oia and make it generally difficult to navigate a 3 block square radius. Anywhere outside of that and you kind of had the place to yourself. We rented a car and found Perissa beach, where we could sit on loungers, swim and have our lunch served to us on the beach. Our only companions were a few Japanese tourists that would show up to pose for weird photos, and an eastern european dong-hanger that sat uncomfortably close and insisted on changing speedos depending on his activity (for swimming, I wear my booty speedo. For sunbathing, I prefer a racier swimmers cut).
As well, we rode donkeys.
Crete is a very large island. It was in Crete that our no-plan vacation strategy broke down slightly. We spent the night in Heraklion, picked up our car, and then...we couldn't even decide what direction to head. We eventually landed on "West" and headed for Chania, a place that nobody has ever said anything bad about.
Chania didn't work for us. It seemed a bit crowded and we'd already had our fill of what it was dishing up (tourists, narrow streets, harbours, etc). So, we decided on Palaichora and drove over the mountains to the south side of the island.
So, we spent a few days in and around Palaiochora. Drove to a beach in Elafonisi. It was all very nice. Once we decided to leave, it all broke down again. We headed Northeast, through the mountain top plain at the top of the Samaria gorge and on through the mountains. Very beautiful. We ended up in Rethymnon. We still didn't know where to go. So, back over the mountains to Plakias. Still didn't work. Back to the center of the island to Spili (for the one mediocre meal of the trip). Ever onwards, back down to the coast...Eventually heading all the way back over the mountains to Heraklion where we splurged on a nice hotel without a back breaking bed. Too much driving. Not enough planning.
From there, we went East. Of course, we had to criss cross the islands a bit before ending up there, as that's just the way we do things. We saw some nice caves, some big mountains and many olive trees before ending up in Agios Nikolaos. We explored around there for a few days and called it a trip.
The Greek Way
I'm not new to Europe. I know that things are different over there. But Greece is just different. Just totally different.
First off, the driving. You really just park anywhere. As long as there is at least one functioning lane, it seems alright to block any thoroughfare. When you drive, you don't really drive in the lane. You drive on the shoulder. The lane is for passing. Even if you're on a 4 lane highway. There's still cars driving on the shoulder with two empty lanes beside them.
Their scooter usage is downright asian. We passed one guy in Heraklion who was on a scooter, helmet free (of course), talking on a cell phone, with a small child balanced on his lap.
And, a quick story to illustrate how differently things work. Our rental car experience in Crete. First up, absolutely not reservation for the rental car. We just walked in, signed some papers and walked out with our car. We had a nice little Hyundai and as the guy walked us over, I could see a few large dents and scratches on it (even though it was probably only a few months old. We did a walk around and got the "This here...no problem." I had to force him to mark the damage on our rental car form...which was of course only half of the duplicate. I asked him if he was going to initial the damage and got a "This here...no problem." I was very close to forcing him to take me back to the office to mark the damage on the other half of the duplicate. But I didn't want to be "that uptight Canadian". A few days later, I worked myself into a fit, convinced that it was a giant scam to make us pay for the damage already on the car. Of course, we dropped off the car at the airport (by parking it in a compound and leaving the keys with some dude over in the public lot) and never had any problems. They're on a different level over there. It kind of works for me.
We ended up in London for a day-and-a-half for a nice little nightcap on our trip. We were lucky to have a nice place to crash (thanks Ruth and Peter) and spent a reasonable amount of time drinking in pubs, riding bicycles and walking around. There's not much more than that to say. So here are some photos. With themes:
A nice fall day
The London Eye
Signs of London
One two that don't fit anywhere