Mediterranean Europe - Greece

We didn't come to Greece directly from Tunisia - we stopped on the Italian mainland on the way, but that is covered (out of chronological order) in the journal entry for Italy. We arrived in Corfu from Bari.

Corfu Town tends to be dismissed by travel guides - too many tourists, too crowded, somewhere to just get out of. We didn't find it to be anything near as bad as we'd expected. Sure, there are lots of cruise ships, and the tourists swarm through the town, but they all pack up and go back onto their ships fairly early in the afternoon, and things quieten down to being perfectly acceptable. After all, we are tourists too - all part of the mix that makes a living for the people who live there. We liked Corfu town, and walked all around the old town, and the two fortresses. We took the local bus across to Paleokastritsa, where it was possible to skin-dive, although the Mediterranean here was just as depauperate as we had seen it in Elba.

We would have liked to see more of the island of Corfu, but time was pressing so was we took a bus directly to Athens. Our first choice of backpackers was full, but they directed us to another suitable if slightly spartan place in Plaka. Physically, this was the worst place we stayed in for the entire trip, with a tiny bedroom and bunk beds, but the people were friendly, and the rabbit-warren of tiny cobbled streets soon resolved into a recognisable place that became a temporary home.

What can I say about Athens that hasn't been said? We went to all the expected places - the Acropolis, the southern slopes, the Agoras (ancient and Roman), temples, museums, gardens, parks, changing of the guard, flea markets, squares.... walked and walked until we could entirely sympathise with the worn-out dogs we saw sleeping all around the monuments. We climbed up every hill that dared to raise itself above the houses, By now we'd been travelling for three months, and were undaunted by Lykavittos Hill; were surprised to reach the top so quickly and looked for more places to climb. One of the pleasures of walking around the hills behind the Acropolis was to come across some autumn crocuses, glowing golden yellow amongst the rocks

With only a few days left on the Greek mainland we decided to go to Meteora. Good choice. With a train strike in effect we gave up on rail and took the bus up the coast, then inland to Kalambaka.

It doesn't matter where you stay - everything is very close together, and we were able to get the local bus to Kastraki when we wanted to visit the monasteries further west. The day was late, the weather was threatening, with mist swirling all around, but we managed a short walk up into the sandstone pillars. This was my sixtieth birthday.

The next day the weather was no better, but we managed to visit a number of monasteries out of Kastraki, with low clouds sitting as thick mist, suddenly parting to give clear views of the buildings perched at the top of the pillars, then, just as suddenly shrouding everything in grey. It also intermittently poured with rain, a real drawback for those of us walking between the monasteries.

Apart from the wonderful sandstone and the fantastic buildings, we also enjoyed walking through the countryside. The curtains of mist only added to the experience, and we were enchanted by a hillside totally covered by cyclamens (difficult to grow at home). Kaye is interested in fungi, and the dinner-plate sized specimen we saw at the foot of one of the monasteries was a bonus.

Back in Kalambaka we walked up the footpath through the forest to visit the monasteries close to the town. By the time we made it out to the convent of Agios Stephanos we were in the middle of a thunder storm, and we waded back to the village along the narrow path in heavy rain, but it was all worthwhile. Somehow the weather seemed to suit the place, and our experiences have led Geoff to create a haunted web page - wait long enough and you will see the ghost.

Train strike over, we returned to Athens just for the day, and left on the overnight ferry to Crete. Although our ticket said we were going from Piraeus to Hania, the ferry actually leaves you at the port of Souda, 9km from Hania. We were unaware of this, and our early morning (4am) arrival left us somewhat bleary. We waited until dawn, then tried to reconcile our tiny map of Hania to the streets around us. Eventually some kind soul pointed out that we weren't in Hania at all, and suggested we catch a bus to get there. Once in Hania we found a really nice pension and explored what turned out to be a pretty little town wrapped around an old Venetian harbour.

While Hania is worth visiting for its own sake, we were there to walk in the Samaria Gorge. We tried to get an early bus to the head of the gorge, but no bus was running, so we whiled away the time drinking coffee and caught a later bus, along with a huge crowd of other walkers. We then had quite a long drive through rugged mountains with small villages clinging to the slopes. The walk is fundamentally a 17km downhill hike through quite spectacular country, with the possibility of seeing the local wildlife - wild goats or kri-kri. There are some of these around the village of Samaria, towards the end of the gorge, but our real pleasure came from spotting a couple of goats back in the forest, up on a wooded slope across the way. The walk ends at Agia Roumeli, a village with no roads, so we caught the ferry back to Hora Sfakion only to find that there were far too many people needing a bus back to Hania for the single bus that was scheduled to run. We waited, and eventually another bus was organised and we made the crossing back through the mountains in the dark - a long day's side-trip.

There were a lot of people on the hike, but the distance and the size of the gorge tends to thin out the initial crush, and for most of the time we walked in comparative peace. We did have one unfortunate side effect; because all of the walk is downhill our feet pushed forward in our shoes. We should have cut our toenails first. I lost both big toenails as a result of compression bruising, and Geoff lost one. For my part, this was the first time had worn shoes when walking (I usually wear industrial-strength sandals), and I regretted my choice. I spent the rest of the trip with taped-up big toes and it has taken most of the next year to fully replace the nails.

From Hania to Heraklion by bus. Another good city, with an interesting, if small, archaeological museum and Knossos nearby. These Greek islands are very appealing indeed. And about to get even more so. We didn't really have a choice about going to Santorini - it was a natural way in our stepping stones to Turkey, but it is, of course, the classic Greek island. We agreed to go with a woman who was looking for tourists to stay in her hotel. It was fine, but located some kilometres outside of Fira. There was a bus, but it stopped at about 6pm, so we soon got used to walking into the town and then walking back home in the dark. Santorini is very pretty, and very small - we only had a few days but managed to explore most of the island before taking another ferry to Rhodes.

Rhodes has many things in common with Corfu. We had been turned off completely by things we had read on the net. It was said to be completely over-run by the worst sort of tourism, crowded out with cruise ships, and altogether not worth going there. We had decided to give it a miss, but the people running the backpackers place in Athens had talked me into revising our plans. Logistically, it worked well for us, and they assured me that it a place I shouldn't miss. They were right.

Rhodes old town is just fantastic. It is a completely walled city, double walls and a moat, and it is beautiful. Yes, there are cruise boats, and yes, there are crowds of tourists, but walk a couple of blocks away from Socrates Street and you are in a different world. We stayed in a 500 year old building that used to be a Turkish harem. The people running it were just great, the city was a delight to wander around in, and we could have spent more time there than we had. There is a "tourist zone" well outside of the old town, with all the things that make tourism feel undesirable; the sort of place that you look at from the bus as you drive through, and feel glad that you aren't going there. Inside the city walls there are no nightclubs and bars, and dining out was a good experience, with great food and really lovely settings.

Apart from the city, there are other places on the island to visit. We had limited time, but spent one day going to the acropolis at Lindos and another day at the ruins of Kamiros, and both were great places to visit.

We had one more ferry ride, a quick trip leaving Greece for Turkey.

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