Greek islands

World got you down? Escape to Hydra

A lot of people around the world right now may be looking for a place to seriously escape from reality and I can’t recommend a better place to do it than the famously picturesque little island of Hydra, off the coast of Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula. I made a brief visit there with friends recently and, though I had been there many years before, I was charmed by the island more than I expected.

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View of the port from a church to which we hiked.

Hydra has two great advantages for would be escapees from reality: 1) It is a very quick and easy 90 minute boat ride from the Athens port of Piraeus (okay, maybe not so quick and easy if you have to fly from, say, Australia, or San Francisco, but that’s another issue); and 2) Because of the absence of motor vehicles on the island, it is wonderfully, magically serene.  Yes, the wise people of Hydra have chosen to preserve the island’s unique character by prohibiting all motor vehicles, with the exception of a few small garbage disposal vehicles and a volunteer fire department truck. All other transport is carried out with the aid of the island’s famous corps of donkeys which, we observed, put in some seriously hard labor hauling everything from large sacks of construction materials to joy-riding tourists.

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It’s a donkey’s life on Hydra.

Hydra, with its narrow, winding alleyways, lovely whitewashed stone homes, and brightly painted shutters, has the same charming character as more famous Cycladic islands like Mykonos and Santorini, but feels more grounded in traditional Greece and less overrun by big money tourism. (Of course, we were there off season–I’m sure it is much more overrun in the summer.)

We were blessed with fabulously warm, sunny weather on our early November visit and took advantage of it to do some easy hiking. A very pleasant surprise on Hydra is the infrastructure of well-marked walking trails that crisscross the island. You can take a pleasant amble for several miles along the coastline, enjoying fabulous sea views and passing through small villages, or you can take a more rigorous hike inland up into the mountains. Either way, you will find it wonderfully peaceful and picturesque.

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Local fishermen and the ultra-rich on their luxury yachts mingle at the harbour.

We spent only a couple nights on Hydra and, unless you are truly wanting to escape the world, a few days is probably enough. But I look forward to going back again to enjoy the pretty harbour, the fine seafood, and the cute little nooks and crannies to be found in the main town’s alleyways. Highly recommended for anyone with a couple days to spare in the Athens area.

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Lefkada

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View from a hike in the mountainous central region of Lefkada

In my last post, I write about a visit to the Ionian island of Kefallonia. Here I will share a few pics and observations from the second part of our trip, to the island of Lefkada.

One of the great advantages of Lefkada is that it is actually connected to the mainland by a bridge, making for easy access from Athens or Central Greece. Unfortunately, we learned that this is also a big disadvantage, since the land connection means that anyone in continental Europe can drive to Lefkada and, believe me, they do. From a perusal of the license plates on the island it would appear that half of Romania heads for Lefkada in early September. Along with large numbers of visitors from Serbia and Bulgaria, the Eastern European tourists filled the beaches and tavernas of the island, in this post-high season period that we expected to be relatively quiet.

We had been warned by our guidebook to get out of the town of Nydri, where our ferry from Kefallonia landed, as soon as possible, and this proved to be good advice. Nydri appears to be heavily oriented towards package tourism, with little of interest to offer. We made our way north to Lefkada town instead and found a picturesque harbor area and a unique architectural style, unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere in Greece.

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Lefkada town’s waterfront

Because of the frequent earthquakes throughout the island’s history, the townspeople developed a method of construction which uses sheet metal reinforcement over the masonry, which is then painted in bright colors, giving the downtown a distinctly tropical look. As we wandered the alleyways of the old town, I felt as if we could have been in the South Pacific or the Caribbean. The impression is enhanced by the jumbled, incongruous nature of the architecture, with lovely tall houses painted in bright yellows and blues set among a jumble of grey, rotting bare wood structures with porches that appeared ready to collapse upon unsuspecting pedestrians. Could not be more different than the Cycladic villages with their strict architectural codes, every building perfectly whitewashed, the shutters all painted in the same shade of deep blue, green, or red.

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Earthquake-proofed home in old town Lefkada

One does not expect to encounter rain on the Greek islands in early September, but the weather gods were not smiling on us. Fortunately, Lefkada town has a nice little archaeological museum that is perfect for a rainy day. It was there, however, that I learned something that to an oenophile and even occasionally practicing oenologist such as myself, was very disturbing. You’ll notice that, although the modern Greek word for wine is krasi, I don’t say that I’m a krasophile–the ancient Greek word for wine was, of course, oinos.  I learned from an exhibit at this little museum that the word krasi is actually thought to have come from the word for “mixed,” as in “wine mixed with water,” which, apparently, is the way that wine was generally consumed  by the ancient Greeks. It seems they enjoyed quaffing rather large quantities of the stuff but still wanted to be able to impress their friends with their rhetorical skills and poetry and whatnot. So I guess I can no longer scoff at the modern-day Greeks who often put ice cubes in their wine, a practice that I have always ridiculed. It is well-grounded in history, it seems.

By the way, I also learned at this museum that a symposium was, in fact, a guys’ drinking part, presumably mixed in with some intellectual banter for respectability’s sake–keep that in mind next time you’re invited to one of those academic gatherings.

Lefkada’s proximity to Italy also offers the advantage of a substantial number of genuine Italian restaurants on the island, something we don’t often find in Athens. We stumbled upon one–a little hole in the wall that proved to be a gem. The owner was a Napolitana woman who, despite having lived in Lefkada for two years spoke barely a word of Greek and only a few words of English. She seemed particularly pleased to be able to chat with us in our broken Italian and was delighted at the fact that we wanted our pasta al dente (having learned in our time in Florence that the word scotto! —always with an exclamation point–conveyed the worst possible culinary sin–overcooked pasta.) Despite the rain dripping through the flimsy plastic sheeting above us and the cramped sidewalk tables on a not particularly picturesque city street, we spent a lovely afternoon, enjoying our pasta with swordfish and eggplant, pasta with mussels, caprese with basil cut from the plant in the corner, and, of course, substantial quantities of white wine.

Having learned from our guidebooks that the island’s most remote and nicest beaches were on the east side of the island, we booked a room on that side, just outside of Lefkada town. We stayed at the absolutely lovely Mira resort, near the town of Tsooukalades, which I would highly recommend.

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Mira Resort

We took a drive down the beautiful coastal road on the island’s east side, making our way all the way to the southern tip to the spectacular beach of Porto Katsiki. Unfortunately, every other visitor to Lefkada had also been apprised of the beauty of this beach and, even in September, we were confronted with a mass of umbrellas, blankets, and people.

 

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Porto Katsiki beach

 

We had better luck with our visit to the mountainous central heart of the island, despite the iffy weather.  We took a lovely drive through the mountains, mostly on good roads (although we did end up, at one point, on what is probably the most narrow, winding road I have ever encountered–more of a paved goat path than road–thank goodness we never encountered another car or I don’t know how we would have managed to get by.) We enjoyed a nice hike through olive orchards and fig groves, sheltering occasionally from the sun showers, enjoying gorgeous views at various points of the mountains and the sea below.

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Central Lefkada

 

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My bottom line impression, then is that Lefkada is a great natural beauty but, unfortunately, much of Europe has already made this discovery.

 

An Ionian Island Adventure–Kefallonia

Throughout all my years as a tourist in Greece, and in the two-plus years that I’ve lived here, most of my island visits have focused on the Cyclades–the island group south of Athens famous for its iconic villages of blue and white cube-shaped buildings, tumbling precipitously down rocky, bone dry mountainsides. Santorini and Mykonos are the best known of these but others–Paros, Naxos, and Syros, to name a few–are all uniquely interesting, while sharing the characteristic Cycladic look.

I had  been interested in exploring the Ionian island group–the islands on the Italian side of Greece–ever since I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in Kefallonia, back in the mid 1990s. We finally got the opportunity when friends invited us to stay with them at the home they built many years ago in Kefallonia. Like most Athenians of middle class or higher economic status, they maintain an exohiko spiti–an “outer” house, a home outside of Athens to which they can escape the summer heat. The exohiko is, in most cases, not a luxury vacation home, but often a simple place where extended families can gather. As in the case of our friends, it is often actually a family compound–in this case, two adjacent small houses, one occupied by our friends and one by her parents. The exohiko is usually located in the village from which one branch of the family originates and to which they return, keeping close to their roots despite their residence in Athens.

We decided to take advantage of our visit to Kefallonia to see the neighboring island of Lefkada as well. (We did not visit the best known island of this group–Corfu, or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it.) I was pleased to finally have a chance to get to know this part of Greece but my bottom line feeling about these islands is mixed, with some distinct pros and cons for the independent traveler. While the natural beauty is fabulous, with stunning beaches, mythically turquoise, clear waters, and lovely green mountains and forests, there is not a whole lot that is attractive about all that is man-made on these two islands. Both islands have been pummeled by earthquakes repeatedly throughout their histories and, therefore, have little in the way of historical architecture. Further, Lefkada, in particular, is overrun with tourists, even in the shoulder season of early September. I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in July and August, but I know I wouldn’t want to find out.

In this post, I will share a few photos and observations about Kefallonia and will follow-up with another post about Lefkada.

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Kefallonia

We stayed near the pleasant town of Argostoli, a stone’s throw from the small airport. It was entertaining to see planes flying just overhead, seemingly barely clearing our umbrellas, as we sat on the local beach. But the quantity of planes bringing visitors directly from the UK and other northern climes explained the presence of the long stretch of package tourist-oriented shops and restaurants all along the coast. Argostoli itself was a happy surprise, with pleasant pedestrian walkways throughout the downtown, a lovely palm-lined main thoroughfare (also closed to traffic at night), and a good supply of fine restaurants. We ate very well there, particularly at Casa Grec and Oinops, both serving fabulous sea food accompanied by good local wine.

The beaches on Kefallonia are lovely, especially Mirtos Beach, which boasts the very definition of turquoise waters alongside stunning white cliffs. Unfortunately–very unfortunately, given the spectacular setting–the beach is also the home to a massive colony of wasps, who may not sting often, but are a tremendous nuisance. I don’t know if this is a constant problem, but traveler forums suggest that it is a frequent concern on both Kefallonia and Lefkada.

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Mirtos Beach Kefallonia

The Ionian Islands are not particularly known for their wines, but the Gentilini Winery on Kefallonia offers both nice wines and a very pleasant environment in which to taste them. Friendly staff, nice wines featuring the local Robola white grape, accompanying platters of cheeses and olives, and picnic tables under the shade of pretty trees makes for a great outing. The only disappointment was discovering upon examining the bottle of their “Red Blend” that most of the grapes were Agiorgitiko from the famous Nemea region just outside of Athens, where we buy most of our wine, with only a trace of locally sourced fruit. Oh well…it was still very tasty.

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Gentilini Winery

We took the ferry from the pretty, but unremarkable, little harbor town of Fiskardo. It is known as the place on Kefallonia where historic buildings still stand, having not been hit so devastatingly by the 1953 earthquake as the rest of the island. So, yes, there are a few old buildings there, but it is mostly a collection of tavernas catering to those of us getting ready to hop on a boat to Lefkada or other spots, with the sort of mediocre food and surly service that one expects from such places.

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Fiskardo

Next up…Lefkada.

 

A Close-up View of the Refugee Crisis on the Island of Lesvos

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Syrian children at Pikpa Center, Mitilini

We had been on the island of Lesvos, the epicenter of the refugee crisis now swamping Europe, for a few days and were enjoying a relaxing late-night dinner after a long day of volunteer work at an emergency aid station, when we heard the frantic phone conversation.

“Try to stay calm, Christo! Yes, we will have a doctor waiting here! Try to keep the baby warm and just get them in here to the port as quickly as you can! Yes, the doctor will be here!”

Melinda, the de facto coordinator of the all-volunteer emergency relief effort in the tourist town of Molyvos, had received the call from a Greek Coast Guard official who had rescued yet another group of refugees from the sea on their short but tumultuous journey across the strait from Turkey.  A baby’s life is hanging in the balance as the distraught Coast Guard captain races his boat into the port at Molyvos. Our group of volunteers rushes out from the restaurant armed with metallic warming sheets to wrap the arrivals, while others run off to bring in the medical team.

Within a few minutes we see the lights of the boat and hear the chaos of screaming and shouting passengers and crew. The boat docks, the baby is rushed off the boat and onto the port, and the remaining passengers, in a daze, disembark among the café and restaurant tables in the heart of the tourist center. We wrap them in sheets and watch anxiously as the doctors frantically perform CPR on the infant, who looks to be under a year old.

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Informal Molyvos camp organized by volunteers

We lead the refugees, many of whom are women and young children, into the emergency aid station set up by the local volunteers, just a hundred meters or so from the port. Priority number one is to get them dry and warm—despite mild temperatures, the water is cold and the refugees are soaking wet. We rush them towards the area where clean, dry clothes are laid out in boxes and fit them up as best we can. But it isn’t easy—several times a day this scene is repeated and the neatly sorted and stacked boxes of clothes become a chaotic mess each time, the refugees’ wet and dirty clothes mixed in with the clean and dry, and children’s and adults’ and men’s and women’s clothes all mixed up. It is full-time work for several volunteers just to keep the clothing boxes stocked and sorted.

As we lead the group towards the food table, one of the refugees, a handsome young man of about 21, approaches me. “Thank-you,” he says in very clear English. “All of you are human. We are not human.”

“We are all human, of course—all of us,” I say, indicating refugees and aid volunteers alike.

“No, we are not human,” he insists. It is a simple fact, in his view. It is not the only time I heard this sentiment from the Syrian refugees. They are in despair over their country and their people and have lost hope for their country’s future.

The refugees politely and calmly line up and we pass out simple white bread and cheese sandwiches (made by the thousands by a remarkably dedicated crew of volunteers in Molyvos), bananas, and bottles of water. It is not much, but it is something. The refugees are incredibly grateful for this meager repast, each one offering their heartfelt thanks. The children come in crying but once they are warm and dry, are scampering around the camp, laughing and smiling. Their parents prompt them to say thank-you and each one does so with a shy smile.

After the initial rush for dry clothes and food, we begin to talk with the group and hear their stories. They are all from Syria (“Soo-ree-ah,” I quickly learn, is how they pronounce it), except for an odd group of four young men from Afghanistan, who sit off by themselves, completely isolated from us and from the Syrians by language barriers. The Afghanis had simply been thrown by the smugglers into the boat with the Syrians on the Turkish side at the last moment. The departure scene was nearly as chaotic as the arrival, they told me, as the group of 50 or so was pushed into the rubber dinghy that was designed for 15. Remarkably, the smugglers do not accompany their customers, simply picking out one of the group at random and designating them to operate the tiny motor and steer the boat towards a set of lights on the Greek side.

Even on a relatively calm night, the waves quickly becomes too much for the overloaded and underpowered dinghy. Halfway across, the motor stops working and the boat begins to take on water. “At that moment, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” Minas, a well-educated, middle-class, 30-something man with fluent English told me. “We were going to drown, I was certain. But, thank God, the Coast Guard found us and saved us.”

Minas (second from right) and friends)

Minas (second from right) and friends

The Syrians are exhausted from the ordeal but also exhilarated to be alive and on European soil, the first step of their journey successfully completed. They are remarkably calm and remarkably unconcerned about the details of their future life. “Where would you like to end up?” I ask several of them. “Anywhere,” they all reply. “Maybe Germany, maybe Sweden, but anywhere that will take us.” They aren’t picky.

After getting officially registered here on the island and receiving an official transit document that will allow them to go through (but not stay in) Greece, they will board a ferry boat to Athens. “Do you know how to get from the port in Athens on to the border of Macedonia?” I ask them.

“Not exactly, but we’ll figure it out,” they tell me, not the least bit concerned about these little details. “Many people are doing it and they post the info on Facebook. We’ll find our way.”

Living through war, months in Turkish refugee camps, and a harrowing journey across the sea instills resilience and confidence. They are survivors.

They are among some 400,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived on the Greek islands this year, many of them just in the past several weeks, completely overwhelming local authorities, who simply do not have the resources to host and process this enormous number of arrivals. The Greek Coast Guard, now assisted by crews and boats from Norway, Portugal, and other European countries, are doing their best to rescue those whose boats fail along the way, saving thousands of lives.

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

The wonderful volunteers who have come from all over Europe and North America to help with the crisis are almost enough to restore one’s faith in humanity. David, a pilot for a regional airline based in Cleveland, takes his four days of vacation to fly across the Atlantic to work long shifts at a camp, before dashing back home and back to work. Alistair, an Aussie who lives in Istanbul and says he doesn’t really know a thing about cooking but has taken on the job of unofficial kitchen manager at the Pikpa camp in Mitilini town, cooking up huge pots of stew every day to feed hungry migrants. (When asked how long he would stay, he said he couldn’t leave until someone capable of doing the job appeared to take his place.) Nina from Denmark, a workhorse in the kitchen, who took time off from her job at a local recreation center to feed and clothe refugees. Kenny, a truck driver from the UK, who had been saving for eight years to buy a house, but who has spent all his accumulated funds to support himself while volunteering on Lesvos, spending the last of it on a jeep to transport the refugees so they wouldn’t have to walk across the islands. Charlie, a young TV producer at the BBC, who had planned a vacation but couldn’t bring herself to lie on a beach when she saw so much need for help with the refugees, so changed her plans to come to Lesvos and work. Ordinary people who saw a need and came to do whatever little bit they could. So many good people from Germany, Norway, France, the UK, the US, and the Netherlands (thank goodness for the Dutch—a lot of compassion in that little country.)

In the morning, the group prepares to walk to a bus organized by the local police, who will take them in for processing. (Having been rescued at sea, they are officially “under arrest,” which means that they will get a free ride to the processing center, rather than having to walk or find transport from volunteers.) We ask around about the fate of the baby from the night before, hoping to hear a happy tale of a heroic rescue by the medical team.

But there is no happy ending to this story. The baby did not make it, we are told.

As the group packed up their meager belongings, we took photos, exchanged handshakes and hugs, and got email addresses. I promised Minas to send photos and he promised to keep us informed of their progress. (They are on their way to the Macedonian border, he told me in an email today.)

There were many things that surprised me in our week’s experience working with the refugees, of which I will have to write more another day. But perhaps the biggest surprise was just how much I liked the Syrian refugees, who almost to a person struck me as kind, gentle, and extremely grateful to those of us who welcomed them.  “Thank-you for everything you are doing for our people,” Majed said to me as he and his family were departing. “But most of all, thank-you for your smiles.”

Banal, maybe, but true–just a welcoming smile can mean the world to a refugee preparing to start a new life.

You can learn more about the volunteer efforts on Lesvos and how you can help at lesvosvolunteers.org or at the Molyvos volunteer Facebook page.

Majed and family

Majed and family

Vacation

With the latest crisis averted and the Greek people now looking forward to another grim decade or two of debt servitude, there’s only one thing to do–head to the beach for a few weeks of sun, sand, and relaxation. One might think that the prospect of higher taxes, greater unemployment, and even more household belt-tightening would cause the Greeks to forego the traditional summer vacation this year and pass the time glumly baking in their Athens apartments, saving their meager stock of Euros for the hard times ahead. But no, that does not seem to be the case. If our experience in recent days on a visit to the island of Serifos is any indication, the Greeks are heading to the beaches in droves.  Not only was the Piraeus pier complex mobbed with Athenians heading off to the islands yesterday, but everyone we know here is going somewhere for the month of August, whether to a family home in the Peloponnese or to an island.

Whether this summer’s mass exodus is a sort of flight response from the constant stress of the events over the last several months or simply a routine following of tradition just like any other year, I don’t know. But either way, you have to give the Greek people for high marks for stoicism in the face of the constant crises these days. I suspect that most Greeks, like a boxer who has been pummeled for seven rounds and no longer feels the punches, have become numb to bad news.

We spent a week on the Cycladic island of Serifos, one of the least developed of the islands close to Athens and relatively unknown to non-Greek tourists. We did encounter a smattering of Italian and French visitors there, but the vast majority of the island’s tourism is Greek. Serifos’s strong suit is its pristine beaches on wide, protected bays that offer great swimming in turquoise waters. Its other major attraction is the main town Hora, which improbably tumbles down the side of the steep hillside overlooking the lovely Livadi Bay. Driving the roads that ring the small island provides spectacular views of a series of bays, many of which have fine beaches with a taverna or little beach bar.  The island’s many tavernas offer the standard fare, but the fresh fish, especially the barbounia, are to die for.

If you are a wine lover, you may be tempted to sample the local Serifos wine. I am here to tell you–don’t do it, you will regret it. While many other Greek islands–Santorini, Crete, and Samos, among others–produce outstanding wine, Serifos produces a liquid that comes from wine grapes, but bears little resemblance to fine wine. Our first clue that the island might not be a wine-lover’s paradise came from our conversation with the owner of the pension where we stayed. He informed us that he made his own wine, from the island’s Roditis and Vilana grapes. “So, it’s a white wine,” I say, showing off my familiarity with Greek grape varietals. “No, it’s a red, actually,” he replies. This is confusing, since I have heard of the miracle of producing wine from water, but not of producing red wine from white grapes.

“If you drink it in the months that have no ‘R’ in them and you add water and ice, it’s really good,” he went on to explain. This was not encouraging, but who were we to turn down the small bottle he offered us?

Serifos Wine

It wasn’t actually a “red” wine, but nor was it white–more of a gold shading into an ominous brown. Upon opening the screw top, we were treated to an odor somewhere between turpentine and sweaty sock. The taste, not surprisingly, was no better.

We later found in restaurants that this local wine was referred to as a “rosé,” a creative use of this wine term to describe something that was neither a white nor a red. But I guess it’s hard to sell a wine that is called a “Brown.”

So don’t say you never learned anything useful from this blog–go to Serifos, enjoy the beaches and the fabulous fresh fish, but stay away from the local wine.