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From Crete to Santorini > breathtaking displays of nature October 4, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean.
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Santorini. The very name brings to mind shimmering images of white walls and blue domes rimming a curving shore, high above the blue waters of a caldera, where the sea filled the basin of a collapsed volcano when it erupted around 1600 BC.

santorini1.jpg  Mesmerising sunsets extolled in a hundred photographic displays crop up in the mind’s eye too. Any traveller would be dazzled long before setting eyes on this legendary pilgrimage of mass tourism among the islands of Greece. What could be a more passionate expression of the relentless wanderlust that drives today’s nomadic millions across the globe in an addictive search for the spectacular, the novel, the breathtaking displays of nature, spoilt or unspoilt, or of human habitation, past or present?

Crete was our primary destination for a week’s stay at the picturesque village of Koutouloufari, now a tourist village, located at a moderate height, about 23 km away from the capital Heraklion. It was from here that I proposed to make our visit to Santorini, like a minor general carefully plotting the conquest of a prized target after establishing himself on a larger base.

After some hesitation, we decided we would try to make a day’s excursion to Santorini from Crete rather than spend a night. There was too much see in Crete during the short stay of a week, and a night at Santorini would have reduced our stint. Of course, not stopping for the night meant missing the fabled sunset on the caldera, but we decided to sacrifice this for the sake of more time in Crete.

It was on reaching Koutouloufari that we discovered the ideal one-day excursion to Santorini. This was by catamaran, a high-speed ferry which made the journey between Heraklion and Santorini in less than two hours. The organisers arranged it so that the catamaran made both the outgoing and returning journeys on the same day.

The other normally advertised one-day excursions were by slow ferry involving a four-hour journey each way. Our organisers also arranged to have us picked up in the morning from very close to our resort and have us dropped back there at night. Above all, they had included in their package, a tour by coach on Santorini, all this at very economical rates.

santorini2.jpg  The weather was perfect, and the catamaran journey was remarkably comfortable and smooth each way. Much has been made by travellers, of the sight from the deck, when the white buildings on the rim of the caldera come slowly into view as the slow ferry approaches Santorini. But our ferry brought us swiftly to our destination, so that was that.

We alighted at the port from where the white buildings on the caldera rim appeared almost like wide smudges of chalk on top of the rising brown shoreline. With a waiting coach we were spared the trouble of seeking transport up the hillside and saved a great deal of time reaching the villages which make up the inhabited regions of the island. Up the winding road we saw the bay receding below and the expanse of the constantly blue Aegean Sea coming into view, as we rose towards our first stop, the village of Pyrgos.

Santorini has been linked culturally to neighbouring Crete as an island which hosted the Minoan civilization, and was in existence from 2700-1450 BC and whose centre was represented by Crete. But occupation in Santorini, known also as Thera, not only includes the Minoan period, but goes back further to 4th century BC. Crete too, has evidence of settlements going back much further than the Minoan age.

The massive volcanic eruption which occurred around 1600 BC caused the island to split up into three, with the present Santorini as the main island. The hillsides and boulders, the coast and the exposed soil of Santorini, all bear the mark of the island’s volcanic history in the darkness of their colour.

We came to our first stop of Pyrgos and climbed up the winding paths between small white recesses and enclosures, representing traditional houses and shops. Churches figured repeatedly along the way with beautiful stark white walls and blue domes, and small squares lay between them. From a square in Pyrgos we got a panoramic view of the surrounding land and the sea.

Returning to our coach, we drove further up to Oia which is perhaps the best known village in Santorini, at least for the tourist. The view is magnificent all round, but particularly so from the main centre which looks over the caldera. This is the place from where the famed sunsets are watched. But even during the day, lunch in one of the restaurants overlooking the caldera was a wonderfully exhilarating experience. On the narrow streets, the shops sold expensive jewellery and miscellaneous souvenirs, underlining the area’s fame as a tourism hotspot.

And so to our last stop Fira, the capital of Santorini. An impressive Museum in Fira displayed artifacts discovered in the archeological sites of Santorini of which Arkotiri is the most notable. Fira, lower in altitude to Oia, also overlooked the caldera and, as in Oia, the white houses descend in cascades down the hillsides, making for picture-postcard-perfect photographs.

Clicking and admiring over, we rode down to the port to take the catamaran back to Heraklion. It was 6 o’clock in the evening, and the sun was descending slowly behind the white houses of Santorini , behind us high up on the ochre coloured hillside. We managed to catch the sunset after all.


Leonard Cohen’s spirit still lives on Hydra island September 29, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands.
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The hydrofoil skips over the deep blue waters of the Saronic Gulf, the azure sky burning overhead. Athens soon fades. Aegina, Methana, Poros, Hydra. The ferry nuzzles against the dock in the U-shaped harbour, and the few remaining travellers disembark.

Nothing moves quickly on Hydra. The day trippers wander slowly among the shops and cafes. There are no cars here, no trucks, but there are birds, and wires, now. Those staying wheel their noisy suitcases to the waiting line of donkeys and servants. Darkly tanned men hoist the luggage onto the beasts, and lead the guests to their hotels.

I wait until all are gone, leaning against a post at the end of the harbour. I’m not here for the paradise beaches, nor to dive the Aegean Sea. I’m here to find Leonard Cohen. It was from the idyllic island in 1965 that the CBC introduced the poet to his nation in Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. On the poster for the film, he stands on a ship in Hydra’s harbour, dressed as a casual sailor. Five years earlier, at age 26, Cohen had bought a house here. “I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years,” he wrote to his mother.

But things changed. The long arm of modernity stuck its finger into Cohen’s bohemian backwater, and tall poles went up to hold the wires for the telephones. Cohen, saddened by this and catching sight of a bird resting on this strange, uncomfortable nest, wrote his legendary Bird on the Wire. “I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all,” he later said.

It was also on Hydra that Cohen met Marianne; and from here he wrote So Long, Marianne, and the album Songs From a Room; the back of the CD is a picture of Marianne sitting at his typewriter in his house on Hydra.

I sit at a cafe, a few feet from the harbour, flipping through The Spice Box of Earth, peering over the ragged top. Eight rough fishermen grunt and drag a boat out of the clear water. Gulls wheel through the clear air, dreaming of scraps. Through his poetry, Cohen tells me he has not lingered in European monasteries. I don’t believe him, but it does give me an idea.

Beyond the harbour, houses climb a steep hill. I’ve heard a monastery sits at the summit. I finish the sweet Greek coffee, drop some euros on the table, put the poetry in my backpack, and leave the village. The path winds up a steep road. I pass a man and his donkey. The man is not sweating. Only tourists sweat in Greece. In the backyard of a whitewashed house, a rooster crows, while a mule and a dog ignore it. As I get beyond all the houses, the path narrows, branches. A hand-painted sign points me in the right direction. I smile.

The mountain is called Eros. Cohen must have smiled at that. I climb on, heat hovering in the air. I press through the hard bush and emerge on the summit, which has been cleared. A stone floor covers it. In front of me is a white building. The stones around the door have been painted to resemble brick. A prophet in a chariot pulled by four white horses rides over the door. Elijah, on his chariot of fire. Elijah, the fierce Old Testament prophet who heard the still, small voice of God. The climber of Mount Eros arrives at a Monastery. Cohen must have smiled.

I walk to the edge, seat myself on the wall. A tall monk in long black robes, long black beard and a black hat walks past me toward the chapel. I smile. He nods back, lost in prayer.

Below is the village; across the water is the mainland. The island has two other mountains. Stone walls crawl over them like chains. Clouds cover the distant peak, but here, the light is strong. Cohen wrote a poem called Hydra: “Pain cannot compromise this light,” he says. A small, nearly still breeze comes across the Gulf of Hydra. I inhale deeply as the sun presses down on me, setting everything a golden blaze. Cohen is here.

Source > The Daily News

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. 

Aquariums in Greece > in Rhodes and in Crete July 25, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Museums, Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean.
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Did you know that you can visit two aquariums Greece offers, during your visit to the country? Well, here’s some details to get you acquainted with what you would see there.

crete_aquarium.jpg  Cretaquarium Thalassocosmos

The two international standard aquaria operating under the HCMR umbrella have a major role in its mission to stimulate interest in, and to develop and spread knowledge about the marine environment and in particular to promote knowledge concerning the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Hydrobiological Station of Rhodes was first constructed by the Italians in 1936, and has operated as an Aquarium/Museum and Research Station under its present name since 1963. Formerly part of the National Centre for Marine Science, it now operates as one of the arms of the HCMR.

There is also a completely new aquarium, the Cretaquarium, which was opened in Crete, in December 2005, in a location which combines recreation and science, as part of the marine centre site now named Thalassocosmos. The HCMR aquarium in Crete is situated in the place now called Thalassocosmos, site of the HCMR marine science and aquaculture institutes, a meeting point where science, discovery and recreation are equally accessible. The aquarium has therefore been designed to serve the needs of a wide range of visitors and user groups

Inside the aquarium, there is a designated visitor capacity of 300. The aquarium will be open every single day of the year, including public and religious holidays. Since the opening of the aquarium in December 2005, there have been more than 100,000 visitors.

Up to four thousand marine organisms will be introduced into the aquarium where they will spend their lives within specially designed and constructed tanks containing 1.6 million litres of seawater, and visible to the public through 300 m2 of glass or transparent acrylic materials. Overall the building covers 5000 m2, including the backstage and technical support areas.

At both the entrance and exit of the aquarium there is a coffee shop and a central meeting point.

Some very small organisms, such as phytoplankton, zooplankton, eggs, larvae, will be visible by means of gigantic screens that the visitor will be able to manipulate without difficulty. Thus, visitors will be introduced in a dynamic way, following the route designed for them, to the leading roles in the marine environment played by Science, Technique, Marine organisms and last but by no means least, Humankind itself.

Related Links >
For detailed information visit the site of Cretaquarium > www.cretaquarium.gr




Greek islands that still live life at a quieter pace June 12, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands.
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Just 20 minutes by boat from the western coast of Greece, Kalamos and Kastos offer a true escape from the madding crowds

There are still some islands that do not cater to the mass tourism market and where cars are a rare sight. Kalamos, off the west coast of the southern Peloponnese, is a wooded island, 780 meters at its highest point, with several small, isolated beaches, so isolated that one of them, Asproyiali, was one of Aristotle and Jacqueline Onassis’s favorite bathing spots.

The villages are also hidden among the greenery; three large plane trees shade the port, the busiest spot on the island as virtually all transport is by boat. Summer visitors arrive by yacht, keeping the island’s economy going, while locals use their own boats to go swimming at one of the beaches or go shopping on the mainland. The port is also the center of what nightlife exists on Kalamos.

There are roads on the island but they are put to little use apart from a few Municipal vans and the odd bus or taxi. Visitors are driven about by a local youth, Panos, in the Municipality’s car.

It is a walker’s paradise and the best hiking route is from Kalamos to the island’s other inhabited settlement, Episkopi, home to less than 10 people in winter, about a 90-minute walk. The road passes through an impressive pine forest and the vegetation around Episkopi is lush, with thick hedges of ferns reaching up to 2 meters in height. Lower down the hill, thorny thickets form an impassable barrier. But there are olive trees, cypresses and laurels, even almond trees.

Twenty minutes along the route is Kastro, where a picturesque path leads down to three of the best beaches on the island, Mylos, Dafni and Poros. Overland access here is only for the more able-bodied but the walk is worth it.

Kastro, a small settlement only inhabited in the summer, is named for the beautiful but abandoned fortress right next to the Church of Aghios Georgios, built in 1854, and cared for by a neighbor, Antonia, in the summer months. Closer to Kalamos, the vegetation thins out into a pine forest suitable for picnicking.

Sea taxis are available to take visitors anywhere around the coast. The closest beach and therefore the favorite with most visitors to Kalamos is Agrapidia, about 10 minutes’ walk from the port. There is a taverna among the houses shaded by citrus, almond and pomegranate trees.

At first sight less impressive than Kalamos, its neighbor Kastos has many hidden beauties, its beaches, the peace and quiet, the age-old olive groves and a breeze that cools the port during summer. If getting away from it all is what you are looking for, this is where to find it; the loudest sounds are the crickets, the birds and the waves. The only settlement is home to some 35 permanent residents, who grow much of their own food as there is not even a single local store, but in summer the houses and courtyards fill with holidaymakers, who usually eat at one of the three tavernas or the souvlaki stand.

Again, walking is the favored mode of land transport but boats are available. About 20-50 minutes’ walk from the port of Kastos, there are plenty of pristine beaches. At Limni beach, the biggest and the furthest from the main town, there is plenty of shade but Kalada is closer. The olive groves on the island are a monument to nature, centuries-old, with huge trunks carved by time into shapes as fascinating as the rocks that surround them.

For information call > Kalamos Municipality 26460 91100, Kastos Municipality 26460 91484.

Mediterranean sea life at the Cretaquarium June 9, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Museums, Greece Islands, Nature.
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A wide variety of Mediterranean sea life at the Cretaquarium

  Tourists stand before a tank containing a wide variety of Mediterranean sea life at the Cretaquarium, in Iraklion, Crete.

Still under development, the completed aquarium will comprise 32 tanks with around 2,500 fish and other sea creatures representing 200 species. Visitors can enjoy tours of the inside of the larger tanks by using remote-controlled underwater cameras.

Related Links > http://www.cretaquarium.gr/index.php?content_lang=2

Get on board and shop till you drop dead May 17, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean, Shopping.
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The Greek islands offer plenty of resort boutiques to attract the more demanding consumer. Mykonos is the most renowned for its elite designer shops, but discerning buyers can find trendy treasure troves on other islands such as Santorini, Paros and even nearby Aegina.

Soho Soho > Located on Mykonos’ famed Matoyianni passageway where celebrities ranging from Jean Paul Gaultier to Sakis Rouvas are snapped sauntering from boutique to bar, this cult fashion den sells a carefully chosen selection of casual-chic beach pieces like decorated leather sandals, slogan T-shirts, print bikinis and colourful kaftans. Don’t miss the menswear shop opposite, which offers metrosexual print shirts and scarves, baggy cargo pants and easy flip-flops. 46 Matoyianni Street, Mykonos, tel 22890 26760.

Fistiki > A treat for rummagers, this shop has three small rooms filled to the brim with ornaments, hair accessories, jewellery, kaftans, T-shirts, swimwear, candles, coffee mugs and much, much more. Shoppers wandering the backstreets of Aegina town are lured in by the racks of colourful Havaiana rubber flip-flops and practical beach bags dangling outside, and emerge hours later clasping bagfuls of unusual finds. 15 Panagi Irioti Street, Aegina, tel 22970 28327.

Bit of Salt > This super-funky surf shop is located between Naousa and the famed windsurfing beaches of Paros. Boys love admiring the boards with their graffiti/comicstrip art, checking out the kitesurfing gear and the gorgeous bronzed babes in the advertising photos for surf brands like Killer Loop, Reef and Quiksilver, and trying on the low-slung floral Bermudas and the sporty wraparound shades from Oakley and Arnette. Girls, meanwhile, love the selection of vivid-hued Brazilian-cut bikinis and printed hot-pants, as well as the eyecandy provided by the washboard-stomached bleached-blonde surf dudes who drop in to fix their boards and exchange gossip about where to catch the best waves. Archilochos, Paros, tel 22840 42757.

Ammos > Going for sunset cocktails overlooking the caldera and want to look suitably fabulous? Need a stylish piece to dress up your beach outfit for dinner? Ammos offers chic summer essentials like intricate beaded sandals by Ioannis and reworked retro jewellery by Katerina Psoma, flamboyant T-shirts and bags embellished with crystals, badges and slogans by 2B, and extravagant leather bags and shoes made by Dukas. As well as the pieces by creative young Greek talents, there are also imported goodies, including footwear from Italy. Branches in Fira, tel 22860 28744, and Kamari, tel 22860 32801, Santorini.

Elena Votsi > Votsi is rightly famed for her characteristic, elaborate designs with gold and precious stones. The white-painted shop on the harbourfront of her native Hydra offers the island’s discriminating international visitors a full collection of her chunky gold necklaces and signature rock rings, as well as silver charms and other unique keepsakes. 3 Economou Street, Hydra, tel 22980 52637.

Tara > Patmos’ beautiful and stylish crowd flock to these celebrated sister boutiques to pick up their summer essentials. The stock combines pieces by Greek designers, Angela Rapti’s elaborately decorated leather sandals, milliner Katerina Karoussos’ fabulous handmade straw boaters, Neroli’s unique embroidered army bags and design duo Aesthetic Theory’s flowing silk print sundresses, with carefully chosen imports, including colourful pareos and kaftans handmade in Kenya and bikinis from Poisson d’Amour and Pin Up. Don’t miss the collection of silk or cotton dresses and skirts made by the shop’s charming owner, Tania Topouza. Branches in Skala, tel 22470 32293, and Hora, tel 22470 32193, Patmos.