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A self catering stay in Zakynthos island October 4, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Ionian.
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Beaches, sea, sand, plenty of places to explore and a great autumn climate are some of the reasons why holidaymakers love Greece’s many islands.

If you are looking to brighten up your autumn with a last minute Greek island break Opodo has a seven-night self catering holiday in Zakynthos, the third biggest of the Ionian islands, from £230 per person.

The break includes accommodation in the three-star Filoxenia hotel’s holiday apartments, which are close to amenities and around two kilometres from the beach. Flights depart from London Gatwick on October 14th 2007.

For more information see http://www.opodo.co.uk

A Greek island hopping September 23, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean, Greece Islands Ionian.
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The beautiful Greek islands are just perfect for a spot of hopping, as many will tell you. But you don’t need to live out of a backpack and navigate your way round the island’s hostels, hop aboard a luxury liner for a tour of the very best places in Greece.

Santorini > One of the world’s most dramatic backdrops of cliffs, sea and sky in the world was sculpted by a volcanic eruption during the Bronze Age. The explosion caused the middle of this once-circular island to sink, leaving an enormous sea-filled crater flanked by mammoth cliffs. This cataclysmic event is the reason for many of the island’s remarkable features, from its black-sand beaches to exquisite wines grown from the fertile volcanic soil.

The town of Fira, located on the island’s west end, is perched on the edge of sheer 260m cliffs. Wonderful views combine with quaint streets filled with souvenir shops, jewellers and fine restaurants. To truly appreciate this cliff-clinging spot, descend by cable car to the port of Athinio below. If you’re truly daring, zigzag down the face of the cliff on a donkey.

Rhodes > Rhodes is said to be the sunniest place in Europe, with an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the island has a rich history spanning millennia. The Old Town’s character is greatly influenced by Italian architecture and this well-preserved society still maintains its charm of a medieval town with Venetian and Ottoman influences. This ancient harbour is where the famous Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood. There are also ruins of the ancient acropolis and the Temple of Apollo.

Buy fine pottery, leather goods and painted vases in the winding streets of the old town. Savour some local olive oil, homegrown fruits and vegetables and well-reputed Rhodian wine. Tour Sokratu Street for the best shopping and cuisine choices on the island.

Mykonos > Mykonos is a dazzling destination filled with whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches and beautiful beaches set against an equally striking blue sky. The Hora, or main village, of Mykonos is filled with a maze of tight-winding streets. With over 20 accessible sandy beaches, you’ll discover secluded locations and family-oriented beaches.

Mythology cites Delos as the birthplace of Apollo, son of Zeus. Visit remnants of temples dedicated to Apollo or take a stroll to the Sanctuary of Artemis, dedicated to Apollo’s sister. The House of the Dolphins and the House of the Masks showcase superbly colourful mosaic pavements. The Terrace of the Lions, a row of marble lions erected in the 7th century BC, stand as eternal guardians of the sanctuary.

Corfu > Although most of the Greek islands are located in the Aegean, Corfu is in the Ionian Sea. Lush and fertile with a cooler climate, Corfu is dotted with olive groves, orange and lemon orchards, and graceful cypress trees. Explore living history in the streets of Corfu’s old town and take in the old and new fortresses, or citadels, surrounded by delightful gardens. Narrow, winding streets, wander past quaint village squares, and richly decorated churches and homes.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria built the Palace of Achilleion. Adorned with statues and motifs associated with Achilles, the palace features a dramatic statue, the Dying Achilles, by German sculptor Herter. The palace grounds feature lush and tropical terraced gardens with sweeping views of Corfu Town and the countryside.

Zakynthos > take a trip for the turtles August 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Ionian.
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They’ve been coming here for 90 million years, and know a good beach when they see one

There’s something about turtles and their prehistoric little faces that captures the imagination. Whereas nearby Cephalonia is the ‘Captain Corelli island’, Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz were filming there a few years ago, Zakynthos, also known as Zante, is very much the turtle island. Its reptilian connection is celebrated everywhere, from turtle merchandise at the airport to turtle-themed days out and turtle-spotting trips in glass-bottomed boats.

However, as my friend and I arrived at the airport for a short break, we knew the island’s most famous residents, the endangered loggerhead turtles, would be making our acquaintance. They are in town, or, more precisely, in Laganas Bay, from June to August, when their egg-laying sojourn coincides with the arrival of package holidaymakers intent on living it up a Bacardi bottle’s throw from the turtles’ nesting zones. Our hotel, the Louis Zante Beach, overlooks the very beach where they nest; it is just a few hundred metres’ walk to the turquoise waters where the turtles swim.

Refurbished a couple of years ago, the Louis Zante Beach is part of a 26-strong chain of hotels across Cyprus and Greece owned by the Louis group. The hotel staff are friendly and helpful; it’s spotlessly clean and the setting is idyllic. 

 Laganas Bay is both beautiful and serene, helped by the fact that it is strictly monitored by the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, an organisation on permanent turtle watch. Maintaining a balance between the needs of the turtles, who’ve been here for 90 million years, and those of the package tourists who’ve not been around for quite so long, is an onerous task, but it’s one that the National Marine Park and local businesses are desperate to make work, the beach doesn’t permit water sports, is closed at night and is patrolled by wardens.

Sitting on the beach just outside the hotel, it is easy to forget that the major tourist hotspot of Laganas is just a few minutes’ walk away down a slightly treacherous unlit road, but ranks of tourists lured by the neon lights make the trek even outside the main tourist months.

Laganas is much as you might expect, an unexceptional strip of bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants, but inland Zakynthos remains an arrestingly pretty island. It has had a colourful set of owners, having been passed from Alexander the Great to the Romans, all the way through to Napoleon. But it was the Venetians who, during a 300-year sojourn, made the biggest impression architecturally, earning the island the tag of the ‘Venice of the south’. Tragically, a massive earthquake in 1953 destroyed almost all of the Venetian and Byzantine architecture, all that remains now are frescoes preserved in the town’s Museum.

My friend and I decided for an excursion. We chose the turtle boat excursion because it also promised a serene cruise around the smugglers’ caves, one of the island’s top tourist attractions. The turtle boat trip proved to be an opportunity to float round the island taking in breathtaking sights including the Mavratzi beach.

Zakynthos has charm, welcoming residents and beautiful beaches but it clearly faces a Herculean challenge in trying to reconcile the demands of package tourism with safeguarding its natural assets. For the turtles’ sake, I hope it succeeds.

Related Links >
http://www.nmp-zak.org (National Marine Park of Zakynthos)

http://www.louishotels.com/greece_zakynthos/hotels_zakynthos_zanteresort.htm

In Cephalonia > looking for Odysseus August 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Ionian.
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The Greek hero’s final journey has been shrouded in mystery, but on a canoeing trip to Cephalonia, we found the pieces falling into place

It’s 1200BC, and after 10 years of war the Trojans have been vanquished. Helen’s catastrophic flirtation with Paris has come to an abrupt end and she is now playing the dutiful housewife with her husband, Menelaus, back in Sparta. Meanwhile, Agamemnon, the Greek commander, has returned to Mycenae only to be murdered by his adulterous wife, Clytemnestra. But what of Odysseus, master of plots and teller of tall tales? How is he to explain to his faithful wife, Penelope, that instead of spending just a week or two on the voyage home from Troy, it has taken him another 10 years to return to his Palace on Ithaca?

It wasn’t because he left his sat nav behind. Odysseus is literature’s most famous philanderer: he hardly has to set foot on a deserted island before its resident goddess summons him to her bed. Circe transforms his shipmates into pigs, and only by withholding the comforts of the couch does Odysseus persuade her to undo her magic. Calypso is so besotted that she offers him the gift of immortality if he will agree to pleasure her, for ever. It takes a personal message from Zeus to free him from her embrace and to bring him back to his homeland in western Greece.

Corfu, Lefkas, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos… the islands Odysseus lingered on are still there, and our journey to reach them is a little swifter than his. The flight from Athens after just less than 45 minutes, you’re fastening your seat belt for the descent into Argostoli airport. This is the small capital town of Cephalonia, devastated by an earthquake in 1953 and later immortalised in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But behind those beautiful beaches and majestic mountains, there lies a mystery that is more than 3,000 years old: to which of these islands did Odysseus return from his fabulous adventures?

Homer seems to spell it out for us. Odysseus is on an island called Scheria, which is thought to have been Corfu. He is speaking of his homeland to its King, Alcinoos, and he describes it as follows >

I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son, world-famed for stratagems: my name has reached the heavens. Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain, leaf-quivering Neriton, far visible. Around are many islands, close to each other, Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos. Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun. Odyssey 9.1926

So where’s the problem? After all, today’s island of Ithaca has long been regarded as Homer’s Ithaca: it even offers day trips to landmarks listed in the Odyssey. But what about those last two lines, which describe Homer’s Ithaca as lowlying and furthest out to sea towards dusk, ie to the west? How can we make any sense of that as a description of Ithaca, which is mountainous and lies to the east of Cephalonia, towards the mainland of Greece?

Did Homer simply get it wrong? That has been the reluctant conclusion of most scholars over the ages. But in 2003, a radical alternative was proposed. Could it be instead that geological changes in this earthquake-afflicted terrain have altered the landscape since the Odyssey was composed? Could the western peninsula of Cephalonia, which is today called Paliki, once have been an independent island, separated from the rest by a narrow sea channel? Because if it was, then Homer’s Ithaca was not today’s island called Ithaca at all. It was instead Paliki, which is indeed lowlying, furthest out to sea and facing towards the western dusk, just as the poet described it.

Our guide, Pavlos Georgilas, has taken us to the northern end of this ancient sea channel, to a bay called Agia Kiriaki. It is late August but we have the place to ourselves. Things change slowly here: the family who run the fish restaurant, the Apergis, have lived here since parish records listed their name in 1264AD, and perhaps for long before that. Along the beach to the east is a wall that is being excavated every winter by the waves: its style has been diagnosed as Mycenaean, the period of Odysseus. We help Pavlos to unload the sea kayaks off the trailer and he gives us a briefing: none of us has done a trip like this before.

Before we know it, we are in the water and paddling past the jetty into the open sea. A light swell, brilliant sunshine, an open sky. I have sold this outing to my friend, as a tough adventure and now he is battling with the reality in the front seat of our canoe. It’s not that the paddling is difficult: it’s simply that we have another seven hours in front of us and eight more miles to go. But the magic has already begun, because if the theory is right, then we are retracing the route by which the shipmates of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, evaded a watery death on his return from mainland Pylos.

While her husband was away, suitors wooed Penelope, intent on seizing the crown of Ithaca: but first they needed to dispose of the young prince and his inconvenient claim to the throne. To escape from their ambush, Telemachus disembarked on the western coast of Paliki while his crewmen sailed round to Agia Kiriaki and the narrow sea channel to the south. That took them precisely along our route, but in the opposite direction.

We gaze up at the sheer cliffs, at the landslides that have catapulted countless tons of limestone into the ocean. Was this the view that greeted those sailors more than 3,000 years ago?

Great flocks of sea birds swoop and dive in our wake, and as we round Agiannis Point, we are greeted by a deserted beach to die for. We swim, but it’s not yet time for lunch. We paddle on with Pavlos and Lee, an expatriate Brit who has seen the light of Greece and can never work in an office again.

Poseidon the earth-holder is relentless, in anger for the son Odysseus blinded, The godlike Polyphemos, mightiest Of Cyclopses. His mother was the nymph Thoosa, daughter of the sea-god Phorcys, Who mated with Poseidon in a cave. The earth-shaker does not wish to kill Odysseus, But keeps him wandering far away from home. Odyssey 1.6875

The cave appears slowly from across the sea, like the entrance to an alpine tunnel. We draw closer and now we are dwarfed at its mouth. Inside, the waves beat against its jaws and the suction bares its gums. Pavlos kayaks in and we follow. We paddle against the swell and twist around to face the opening. This sea space is vaulted like a church: Poseidon could well have had his watery way in here with Thoosa. Is that why he was called the “earth-shaker”: did the earth move for her?

We lunch at a bay inaccessible by foot. Then we canoe past wild headlands convulsed by geological upthrusts. This is the most tectonically active landscape in Europe: only 12 miles to the west, the seabed drops from 300 to 3,000 metres. If you drained the sea, you would find yourself standing at the edge of the African continental plate, while in front of you the cliffs of Europe rear up, and they are two miles high. That is why Cephalonia experiences so many earthquakes, because the African plate is pushing it up like a springboard, and this island is at its tip. Homer was not fanciful in his description of Poseidon: the earth-shaker remains with us today.

We are five hours into the trip and I’m starting to realise that exercise matters. The experts are gliding along effortlessly, but we have rounded the northern point of Kakatos and now the wind and the currents are working against us. To the west, past the next headland, there is nothing but open ocean for 200 miles until the toe of Italy: enough reach for a serious swell. But we are at last on the course that Odysseus took on his final journey home > 

As soon as that most brilliant star arose Which is sole herald of the light of dawn, Then the seafaring ship approached the island. On Ithaca there is a bay of Phorcys, The old man of the sea: in it, two headlands, Projecting, sheared off, crouching from the harbour, Shield it from waves whipped up by blustering winds Outside… They rowed inside: they knew the bay of old. The ship ran up the beach for half its length At speed: such strength was in the rowers’ arms. Odyssey 13.93115

Odysseus is asleep and the crewmen are bringing him back on a direct route from Corfu. Their landfall is today called Atheras Bay. Homer’s description is exact, and this landscape matches it exactly. We pass the outer headlands to find two inner ones that are “in” the harbour, just as the poet observed them. The rough waters are behind us: this bay is well shielded from the waves. On the final stretch, we accelerate and run the kayaks up the beach for half their length. Maria waits for us in the Land Rover like the patient Penelope. She is greatly welcome, and so is the simple meal that greets us there. We have followed Odysseus across the sea, and now we match his footsteps on the land. He has returned at last to Ithaca. He sleeps on through the night, and so shall we.

Where to stay > the Paliki peninsula is much quieter than the main tourist areas of Cephalonia. The aptly named Odyssey Villas has low-cost rooms in beautiful but remote Agia Kiriaki, tel 26710 85076, www.ionion.com/odysseyvillas, while, for the well-heeled, the Emelisse Hotel, tel 26740 41200, www.arthotel.gr/emelisse, in Fiskardo provides luxury and a breathtaking view.

Sea kayaking > Monte Nero Activities, tel 6932 904360, www.monte-nero-activities.com, provides a range of marine adventures, from a single day’s outing to a week’s kayaking between different islands. 

The best way yet to mix it in Greece > part I July 29, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean, Greece Islands Ionian, Greece Mainland.
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Which island > Pick your spot carefully for the ideal holiday, Greek island villages and mainland resorts may look much the same in the brochures, but on the ground there is a lot of variety.

For family peace and quiet, Skiathos in the Sporades offers some of Greece’s best soft sandy beaches, short transfer times from the airport, and a good choice of villa and self-catering accommodation as well as hotels. It also has lots of watersports and, for day trips, is within easy reach of other nearby islands such as Skopelos and Alonissos and the Pelion peninsula. Lesvos, in the north-east Aegean, has warm, shallow waters and sandy beaches at Kalloni Bay on its south coast, one of the Aegean’s most picturesque villages at Methoni in the north, and a hinterland that is good for exploring on foot or by car.

Cephalonia in the Ionian islands, with quiet, pretty villages, has some excellent villas and hotels and some dazzling beaches, also has good watersports, there are speedboats for hire at most resorts. Scheduled flights make Corfu more attractive this year, but steer clear of the main resorts and head for a villa with a pool in the Nissaki area, in northern Corfu, if you want upscale tranquillity. Corfu’s tiny neighbour, Paxos, is even quiter and more peaceful, but it also offers good water sports, including windsurfing and water-skiing, for active families.

Mainland Greece > For those with itchy feet, the mainland is a better bet than the islands, because you can be spontaneous and rent a car or hop on a bus to explore the tantalizing hinterland. On the islands, you’re at the mercy of ferry schedules. The Western Peloponnese, reached also by charter flights to Kalamata, is a great area for exploring, with Medieval castles and Venetaian fortresses, ancient temples at Olympia, wild mountain scenery and some stunning beaches around Navarino. Still on the Peloponnese, the Stoupa and Kardamyli are good bases for exploring the craggy scenery of the Mani and its tiny castles, or the rugged mountains of the Taigetos range. Visitors to the Halkikidiki peninsula in northern Greece get much further than the sandy beaches of Kassandra and Sithonia, or a day cruise round the isolate Monasteries of Mt Athos. But beyond the resorts lies the hinterland of eastern Macedonia and Thrace. This is a great region for eco-travellers, with pelican-haunted coastal wetlands and the thick woodland of the Rhodope mountains sheltering Greece’s only wild bears.

Island hopping > If you’re planning an island-hopping trip, forget battling your way across Athens to its main port, Piraeus, thanks to the new Athens public transport system. Instead, hop in a taxi to Rafina, the smaller and much pleasanter harbour only 20 minutes from the Athens’ airport, for ferries and hydrofoils to most of the Cyclades and the north-east Aegean. You may skip Athens and fly straight to the islands such as Mykonos, Santorini, Naxos, Paros, Rhodes, Kos and Samos are all good places to start an island-hopping journey. 

Sightseeing > Hedonists who need to assuage the vaguely guilt feeling of going to Greece just for sea and sand can have the best of both worlds by choosing a resort within shouting distance of some of the wonders of ancient Greece. On Crete, the luxury resort of Elounda is less than an hour away from ancient Knossos, with Crete’s other Minoan and Hellenistic relics not much faurther away. Rhodes has the largest surviving Medieval city in Europe, a World Heritage Site in its own right, and a parcel of even more ancient ruins.

Sacred Delos, with its avenues of columns, is a day -trip from the fleshpots of Mykonos. For the best of Athenian sightseeing from an island base, you could choose a holiday on Andros, Kea, Poros, Spetses or Hydra, each within day-trip distance of the capital. On the mainland, Nafplio, the first capital of the Greek state, is one of Greece’s prettiest towns in its own right, though it is short on beaches, so pick a hotel with a pool, and has ancient Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns and Epidavros more or less on its doorstep, with ancient Corinth only a little further away. The sandy beaches of the Halkidiki region make a good base for exploring the ruins of Macedonia, from Roman Philippi to Pella, Vergina, Dion at the foot of Olympus, and the not-to-be-missed Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki.

Food and drink > Dining in Greece has moved on in recent years. You can find and there are restaurants that are, as they say, worth the detour, though they are still outnumbered by cheap and cheerful tavernas. Starting with the islands, devout foodies will find a handful of really good restaurants in Chania and Rethymnon in Crete and in the Old Town in Rhodes, but the most target-rich environment is Mykonos Town, where the options range from sushi and Mediterranean fusion to classic French and Italian. For the best restaurants, though, you need to head for the cities, Athens for the newest trends in modern Greek, Thessaloniki for a distinctive kitchen influenced by the climate and terrain of the north and the culinary traditions of Byzantine eras’ Constantinople.

If you can read a bit of Greek, or get a Greek acquaintance to translate for you, the annual Alpha Guide (Desmi Editions, €10) is the Greek foodie’s bible, listing great places to eat all over the country.

Ultimate boltholes > Sometimes, like Huck Finn, you just need to light out for the territory, and find somewhere that doesn’t show up on the main holiday map. Greece still has places that have escaped the holiday empire-builders. Getting to them can be a challenge, and may involve an overnight stay on a larger island with an airport open to  charters, but www.gtp.gr is an open-sesame for ferry, fast catamaran and hydrofoil connections. 

Kefalonia > a beautiful Ionian island July 22, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Ionian.
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A beautiful Ionian island > Book your holidays in Kefalonia and enjoy a beautiful Ionian island with rich plant and animal life and a quaint cultural style.

Kefalonia, also known as Cephalonia, is the island where the Hollywood movie ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ was filmed. The success of the film has inspired even more people to book to Kefalonia seeking to enjoy Greek islands holidays on this attractive Greek island.

The coastal regions are dotted with pretty fishing villages and fine white sand beaches. A popular attraction of Kefalonia holidays is the island’s caves, that feature spectacular stalactites and a subterranean lake that reflects a rainbow of colours when the light hits through an opening overhead.

Quiet beaches and great seafood > The nightlife in Kefalonia is sufficiently vibrant to satisfy most partygoers but holidays to Kefalonia are better known for the quiet beaches and forested mountain trails. There is no lack of cultural interest on one of these holidays,  Kefalonia is blessed with an abundance of Roman ruins, old churches, castles and monasteries to marvel at.

The local cuisine features some very excellent seafood dishes and the specialty of the island is lamb pie. From spring onwards the temperatures are pleasantly warm with July and August being the hottest months when temperatures can be in the 30’s.

Attractions > Kefalonia holidays are mainly about relaxing on sandy beaches and enjoying some quiet Greek charm. A good book, such as ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ for instance, would be a great way to pass the time on a Kefalonia holiday. The local Archaeological Museum in Argostoli, the island’s capital, houses exhibits from prehistoric and Roman times, showcasing Kefalonia’s rich cultural history.

As with many of the Greek islands, water sports are a popular pastime on some of the beaches and throughout the year there are numerous feasts and celebrations in many of Kefalonia’s towns and villages. Book your flight to Kefalonia today!

Corfu old quarter on world heritage list July 1, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Architecture Greece, Greece Islands Ionian.
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The old quarter of Corfu has been added to the list of UNESCO’s world heritage monuments, as of Thursday.

According to the press office director of the Greek consulate in Sydney, Efthymios Aravantinos, the decision was taken unanimously in Christchurch, New Zealand by the 21-member UN world heritage committee, following a positive recommendation by UNESCO’s advisory organisation ICOMOS.

Corfu is the 17th Greek location to be added to UNESCO’s world cultural and natural heritage list, although its entry had experienced several obstacles since 1999, when the Greek request had been made initially.