After years of talking about it we finally made it to the Greek islands. Going back over a decade these fascinating rocky, historic Mediterranean outposts has been on our list, but over and over they kept getting bumped for one reason or another. Usually because they aren’t really too close, geographically, to any of our other top of the list destinations (Morocco, Guatemala, Nepal, Argentina, Thailand). Our best shot would have been back in 2008 when we were in Turkey and you could literally see a couple Greek islands from shore. But back then I wasn’t the epic swimmer I am today (I can front crawl for 50 metres without quite hyperventilating now, usually), and we had also heard rumours that Greek border control officers took a rather dim view of wet passports produced magically from inside damp, clinging bathing suits. So we passed back then, and never thought it would take so long to make it back. But here we are now, with a full month to spend wandering, exploring and, if the first week is anything to go by, watching Laynni scarf down delicious Greek salads while moaning and exclaiming “Oh god” to the point that it starts to make other diners uncomfortable, or maybe just nostalgic for “When Harry Met Sally”. Either way, she claims the feta cheese alone deserves its own UNESCO award, or at least a colourful thumbs-up emoji. Incidentally, and surprisingly I think, they do actually call them “Greek Salads” here, not simply “Salads”.
After a surprisingly long and occasionally painful ferry ride during which we spent far longer than was necessary clinging to our hard-won seats right in the middle of smoker’s alley, a motley and mostly unconnected group of about 30 fully surrounding us who seemed intently focused on smoking as much and as quickly as the human body would allow (with, presumably, some eventual complaints from various organs and such), we were eventually alert enough to spot an upgrade to a more comfortable, blessedly smoke-free indoor environment. It still seemed to take forever, though. Just after midnight we disembarked on the island of Naxos, one of the larger islands that supposedly had a lot of good hiking and more natural scenery than some, which is one of the main reasons we chose it. Also, we both agree that islands with an “x” in the name sound cooler than those that don’t. Overall, we are planning to spend all our time within the relatively popular chain of islands known as the Cyclades, partially so we don’t fall into the trap of trying to see too much and spending all our time on the move from island to island, and partially because it is simply so overwhelming trying to choose among the hundreds of different Greek islands that this seemed as good a way as any to start narrowing it down. At least, the best way left after my search for “Greek islands with cheap hotels, big-screen TVs showing exclusively English Premier League and Toronto Blue Jay games and free goat skewers with the purchase of every beer” came up disappointingly empty.
Although it was difficult to tell in the dark when we arrived, the next morning we were quick to notice how picturesque the main town was, known as either Chora, Hora or simply Naxos (a naming pattern that seems common to most of the islands), with its pleasant malecón lined with outdoor cafes, nice harbour full of cute sailboats and posh yachts, its jumble of white building sprawling up and over the hill, the narrow whitewashed alleys of the old town interspersed with photogenic splashes of colourful flowers, blue shutters and the occasional elderly tourist who got a little overzealous with the pink when dying her hair. As if all this wasn’t enough for the strolling gawker and amateur photographer alike, Naxos also features “the Portara”, a huge stone doorway that is more or less all that remains of the 2,500-year old Temple of Apollo. Now it serves as a creative focal point for photos of the Aegean sunset, the shining white hills of the town and bored tourists choosing to mess with perspective to create hilarious images of their significant others appearing to hold the walls apart, or maybe raise the roof in some comical manner. Whatever your goal may be for your next profile pic, it is certainly a great place to share the sunset with a few hundred strangers.
We were staying about a 5-minute walk from the main area, just around a point and near the popular St. George Beach. Not particularly being beach people ourselves, we mostly used it for strolling. Yet, even though we had a perfectly good both salt- and sand-free, pool at our hotel, one day Laynni got it into her head that we simply needed to go swimming in the Mediterranean at least once. So we headed down, spread our woefully insufficient sarongs out on the surprisingly soft dark sand, pinning them down with a variety of clothing and flip-flops because, well, sarongs are really just one long string away from being a cheap kite, and in we went. Conclusion: pretty cold but manageable, not so salty as far as oceans/seas go, and pretty annoying to emerge from the depths to see that while I was gasping for breath and desperately acclimatizing to the chilly water, Laynni was pulling the plug on her own plan, bailing as soon as the water reached her crotch claiming, rather weakly I thought, that “maybe this was a dumb idea, after all”. Then it started to rain and we hurried back to the comfort of our tiny terrace. Beach time – check.
When we arrived the islands were experiencing the same heat wave we’d suffered through back in Athens, which kept us from whipping up the requisite enthusiasm for any of the island’s celebrated hiking trails. 30C with 95% humidity to start with, but it settled down to a much more reasonable 25C and 65% later in the week, convincing us it was finally time to tackle Mt. Zeus, the mythical childhood home of the great god himself, and the highest point in all the Cyclades. Which is still just over 1,000 metres above sea level, but not bad for an island. Well done, Zeus. Obviously, even as a child he had a god-like knack for finding amazing panoramic views. And while we were struggling up the 500-metres or so of incline from the trailhead I attempted to distract ourselves with talk of how it was funny to be climbing Mt. Zeus when we both remembered watching that terrible 60’s cartoon The Mighty Hercules when we were kids, the one where Hercules has a ring of power which, unfortunately for him, resembled a really gaudy high school class ring, and uses it to provide that little bit of extra juice whenever he needed it to defeat his nemesis, Daedalus, or, presumably, simply to pleasure his definitely useless – and likely a bit sleazy – girlfriend, Helena. But my favourite part, in hindsight, not so much at the time I don’t think, was Herc’s sidekick, Newton, the boy centaur who said everything twice, always in a shrill, unfortunate-gelding-accident, sort of voice. “Newton! That’s me! That’s me! Your mare in heat is safe with me! In heat! In heat!”
The next day we were off to the rural portion of our Naxos visit, taking a scenic bus ride along the high spine of the island out to the small, remote village of Koronos. We had found the hotel on Booking.com so it wasn’t exactly a lost island in the Pacific, but apparently few enough people go there by public transport that we had some difficulty convincing our bus driver that Koronos was really where we wanted to go, and he only barely relented, reluctantly stopping to let us off a good kilometre past the town. Koronos turned out to be a quintessentially quaint Greek village, with whitewashed houses, narrow confusing alleys, with the only two restaurants easily outnumbered by stereotypically gruff, stocky old Greek women clad in black with short puffy hair that still somehow managed to look extremely solid. And, naturally, the requisite group of small elderly Greek men who seem to spend most of their time sipping coffee from tiny cups somehow simultaneously together, sharing the same restaurant and proximity, and apart, with each occupying a table all by himself. At 500 metres above sea level the temperatures were steadily 5 degrees colder than we had seen along the coast, and being on the north side of the island now we were facing right into the teeth of the wind. A travel tip I learned over time, and all on my own: whenever you see wind turbines get ready to break out your jacket.
The chill did little to dampen our enthusiasm, however, as our “traditional house” was terrific, two stories with a big kitchen and a terrace with a view all the way down an impressive valley to the sea. In the morning Laynni bought a still-warm loaf of homemade bread from a little bakery just around the corner, and for supper I had a delicious plate of goat while Laynni once again had a semi-orgasmic encounter with some feta cheese. Seemed like a win for everyone involved, well, except maybe the table of women next to us peering at her suspiciously. These culinary successes were topped off the following day with a very good hike down the valley to Lionas Beach where we arrived in the typical semi-deserted September lull near one of the two restaurants, Delfinaki, where a mother and son excitedly waved us onto their terrace like we were slender Kenyans just completing a record-breaking performance in the Olympics, instead of just a couple dull foreigners who spent 2 easy hours strolling down a goat-shit strewn path. Then, for the price of two beer and 10 more euros, the son gave us a ride back up the 8 kilometres to Koronos, thereby saving us both the strain of tackling the hill in a far more difficult direction, and giving us just that much extra time to alternately enjoy and fight over the pleasantly surprising couch.
The next day: an early bus ride back to Chora, a day spent killing time at our previous hotel, then a fast ferry that used multiple stops to very successfully mimic the end result of a very, very slow ferry, and now we’re on the smaller, quieter and, unfortunately, “x”-free island of Folegandros. I can’t wait to tell you all about their white church next time.