The Magic of Greece
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I have always wanted to take a cruise around the Greek Islands. In 2007 I almost made it and now, five years later, I have finally achieved my dream. It nearly didn’t happen. Left to our own devices – my husband and I – we would probably have done our usual thing and flown to the UK to visit family then meander around Britain and Europe at our leisure for a few weeks before flying home again.
This time, mainly because we were planning to stay for six months due to wanting to enjoy an English Spring (which we love) and stay on for Mike’s Mum’s 90th birthday in August, we did things a little differently. The fact that it was also my birthday in August was quite thrilling as it would be my first in England since my family emigrated to New Zealand many years ago, so six months it was. We would leave at the beginning of April and come home mid-September.
Well, we’d better think about a bit more structure then, we supposed, so we visited our local House of Travel and talked to Mandy, who I’d spoken to a few months earlier. It’s nice to go to someone you’ve already chatted with and found friendly and obliging – she’d kept me on her email list and sent me regular travel updates since our first meeting.
Mike’s dream had been to visit Israel. He has always been fascinated by the country’s history and this was an ideal time to make the trip. So what interested me, Mandy asked after an Israel tour was decided upon? Well, I would kind of like to visit Israel too, although I said so a bit tentatively given the newsfeeds coming out of that part of the world.
But what was my personal dream, she persisted? And out it came, a cruise around the Greek islands; I’ve always wanted to do that I gushed, suddenly dreamy-eyed and eager to pursue the possibility.
Well, let’s explore the options, she said and, suddenly, I started to realise that my dream was actually poised to become a reality. We went home armed with travel brochures and the pictures of bluer than blue sea and white sugar cube houses had my imagination racing.
When we decided on a cruise, and booked it, I couldn’t have been happier. First we would spend four days in Athens, then board the Louis Olympus for our cruise.
The reality turned out to be even better than the dream. Ship life was fun with plenty to entertain and some very good shops and a beauty spa to keep me feeling like the Greek Goddess I had privately dubbed myself when we boarded ship. I’d also wheeled my husband along for a good haircut and insisted he buy a couple of white cotton collarless hang-out shirts to ensure he looked the part.
The first night after dinner and drinks where I tried some very interesting cocktails – and sat through some great entertainment, wiggling in my seat to the lively music – we fell exhausted into bed and awoke with the island of Mykonos on our doorstep (or rather, outside our porthole). My first glimpse rendered me actually speechless for a few moments – my husband would say that was no small feat – I couldn’t wait to get off the ship and start exploring. Mykonos will probably always be my favourite island– a bit like a first date. I couldn’t get over the narrow lanes, cobbles outlined with white paint, and the cute shops, spilling over with souvenirs, jewellery, cool floppy dresses and quote t-shirts, shoes, knick knacks – something for all tastes, wants and needs. I really didn’t want to leave Mykonos (pronounced Mikonos). As my first Greek island I’ll always treasure and remember its beauty and the way it made me feel.
Kusidasi and Patmos
Next was our one stop in Turkey. Kusidasi was different in many ways from Mykonos. We were the first off the ship at about 7.30 a.m., eager to get on and see as much as possible. The waterfront was immaculate, the sea so clear we could see layers of fish from tiny tiddlers, to sprats and, deeper, to some larger species. For an hour or so it felt like we had the waterfront to ourselves – it was semi-deserted bar a few taxi drivers keen to show us the sights of the island – which we declined due to time constraints and the fact that, had we chosen, we could have taken a separate excursion with our guide.
At about nine, we strolled into the Grand Bazzaar – quite an experience. We both love markets and car boot sales and this was a bit like a far more resplendent, lively, colourful and bustling version of the best of those with a backdrop that reminded me of a scene from the Arabian Nights. I promised myself a return visit at some time in the future. The shopping was amazing, particularly the hand made Turkish rugs. I watched a woman weaving outside one shop on a small frame and was blown away at the intricacy of what she was creating. Obviously it’s an art form Turkey is keen to keep alive. Some rugs, one vendor told me, take between one to three years to complete. What a commitment.
That afternoon we cruised on to the island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. Teeming with biblical significance, Patmos held us spellbound with its ancient buildings, and mind-boggled by the excellent state of repair of so many. Back on board ship we enjoyed another night of cruise revelry, a plethora of pink, orange, red and yellow sunset drinks, which may or may not have been alcoholic – at least I can say I wasn’t hung over once – and some marvellous cabaret entertainment.
The Island of Rhodes
This was the island where once stood the Collossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, standing at 30m high, before an earthquake caused it to tumble into the sea in 276 BC. The old town of Rhodes is still surrounded by long medieval walls. We took the open-topped city coach tour to get our bearings and, at one point, flanked by the glorious Aegean Sea on three sides, we had a 360 degree view, which held us speechless for the few minutes the coach stopped to allow us to admire and take photos. Back in the town we had time for more shopping and lunch at the seafront restaurant/pizzeria, Greco’s. I have to say, the food here was some of the best out of lots of bests.
Crete and Santorini
Crete – the largest island in Greece, in the Mediterranean, big and beautiful and the site of the ruins of King Minos’ Palace of Knossos, built during the Bronze Age and excavated and partially restored between 1900 – 1931. It would probably take a year to properly explore Crete so, joyfully, more reasons to return to Greece.
That afternoon we made our final stop on the island of Santorini.
Wow! Wow! Wow! about says it all.
The town of Thira sits at the top of a steep cliff face. The Santorini donkeys are famous for ferrying visitors up and down the hundreds of steps to the top and I’ve been up some steep places but this tops them all. My guess is that it’s even steeper than Masada, King Herod’s ancient fort in Israel, near the Dead Sea. And that is steep!
To be kind to the donkeys we took the cable car to the top where we had a glass of wine while we gazed down on one of the most breath-taking views imaginable. Far down below us in the bay our ship was anchored along with three others and a sturdy clipper so the numbers coming and going would be pretty high – I know our ship carried 1700 people.
Although words are failing me right now as I try to capture a phrase that will do the sight justice, my response at the time was something like, “Ooh, ah. Oh, my goodness. Oh, Mike, look. Ooooh!” interspersed by sips of particularly delicious Greek wine.
I truly never wanted to leave. We sat there for about an hour – we couldn’t tear ourselves away – but there was only so much time before we were due back on board. We were told early in the cruise, `The captain waits for no one.’ Leaving time is the leaving time, we were told, and it is everyone’s responsibility to be on board before that. Well, a few rules never hurt anyone and all in the names of efficiency and our health and safety. So, knowing this, we headed off around and up and down the narrow cobbled streets, checking this shop and that, buying last minute gifts and mementos and, when it was time to go, bypassing the cable car in favour of another different experience – the long walk down to the bottom.
The donkeys coming towards us in groups of 10 – 20 were tempting but if I were hot, I thought, what were they with their heavy hairy coats? Actually, we were told by Lisa to avoid riding them as there had been several accidents. I’m inclined to think it was a nice way of saying, “It’s very hot and the climb very steep. Think about the donkeys.”
I agreed and, besides, walking down was all part of the experience. So, on we trod and, almost half an hour later, reached the bottom. I was glad I didn’t ride a donkey. (Google the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary, Devon).
Back on board we learned that an Australian couple from our group were so taken with the island that they were returning the day after we had disembarked back in Athens, for five more days on the island. They are probably lying under the Greek sun improving their tans, wandering around the towns, or sitting in the shade enjoying the exquisite views, as I write. Lucky them.
The next day, soon after we docked in Athens, we were taken back to our hotel, the Metropolis, which we liked a lot. Athens, the City of the Gods is a wonderful place to tour on its own. Here, during our initial visit, we explored the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of the Wingless Victory and, of course, the Plaka (the old town) where the shopping is fun and the atmosphere a kind of colourful carnival / bazaar mix.
In the nearby more modern retail areas I have never ever-ever seen so many shoe shops. They seem to cater intensely for the young, whose desire is clearly to look six feet tall in heels that defy gravity. Years ago – never mind how many – I danced the nights away in two, rising in time to three inch stiletto heels and thought I was pretty cool. Today, my summer shoe preferences are those adorably colourful backless heeled sandals. Pre-Athens, I thought them rather with-it.
But how do these young people stay upright on six inch nail-thin heels with two inch platform soles? I’d love to try but I’m told middle-aged bones can be rather brittle and the thought of an ankle twist from such a height is cringe-making. I guess that means it’s never going to happen? Pity – the shoes are quite stunning and I’m sure would do wonders for this pair of middle-aged legs – that’s if I were able to stand up without falling over, which I doubt. For the lucky ones – the young and the older slim ones – who are able to wear this type of footwear without breaking a leg, there is no lack of choice. Shoe shops are literally side by side, several to a block. Athens must be the modern shoe mecca of Europe – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Why didn’t I discover this place 20 years ago?
Anne the Amazing
Backing up a bit – when we first arrived in Athens, the first person to greet us was Anne from Insight Vacations. Hardly settled in our room, the phone rang and there she was and, from thereafter, always available, constantly organising and making sure everyone was looked after. Anne has a desk at the hotel and I swear she must never go home. Each morning, when we came downstairs around 7.00 – 7.30, she was already there, working away at her desk and, in the evening, when we were relaxing with a pre-dinner drink, most times she was still there. Apparently she works at other hotels too, which I found amazing – where does she get the time? I asked if parking was a problem for her but she told me she uses the bus to get around to the different hotels.
Despite her crazy schedule Anne was always the same – smiling, friendly and helpful, answering endless questions from dozens of Insight guests and organising us all to ensure we were getting the most from our stay and didn’t miss out on anything. I was impressed. On our last night I confided in her that I’d imagined hers as top of a list of dream jobs but, once I’d seen her and Lisa, our tour guide, in action for days on end, I revised that opinion. These girls put Charlie’s Angels in the shade – big time.
Lisa the Star
On board ship, Lisa quickly fell into the roles of confidante, mother hen, news caster, nurse, agony aunt and, of course, our amazingly energetic and knowledgeable tour guide. That Lisa loves her country with a passion was abundantly clear from the start and her warm personality and generosity just added another dimension to the meaning of `service with a smile.’
In Patmos I bought a bag with ‘I Love Greece’ emblazoned across it. If there was one with ‘I Love Lisa,’ I would have bought it too. We all adored her, she was above and beyond all we had expected of a tour guide on a busy cruise. Not only was she a wealth of information but her passion was unmistakable as she talked about the history, the geography, and the people. She truly seemed to care. One day she told the group how personally grateful she was that we had chosen her country to visit and I could see that she really meant it.
For all its recent bad press we found Greece a wonderfully diverse and exciting place to be and its people equally so; rightfully proud of their amazing heritage. Every country has its not so good periods and Greece has certainly had its fair share in the past few years but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not still an amazing place to go to. All Greece really needs now is for the travelling world to put aside any bad press they have read or heard about (remember, it’s bad press that sells, not the good stuff). Greece wants you to visit. The people will make you welcome and proudly introduce you to places, things and experiences you will find nowhere else on the planet. So put Greece on your list of amazing places to explore and experience. It’s top of my list. I’ll be back, Greece.