Chimera, in Greek mythology, refers to a fire-breathing female figure with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail; an enchanting, alluring, unbelievable mirage that bewitches you. Greece is just that and much more; a heady mix of myths, fables,legends; of intriguing history, quintessential beauty and awe-inspiring architecture. Its a refreshing cocktail of hedonism and cultural history.
Having read so much about Greece and its rich heritage, having sifted through those glossy glamorous images of golden sun kissed beaches and stark white villas perched atop cliffs, overlooking the turquoise seas; I don't remember when, but Greece came to top my wish list of travel destinations and like the fabled genie from the lamp, my hubby began to plan this dream holiday for our fifteenth wedding anniversary.
|HOP ON HOP OFF BUS|
Drawing a perfect itinerary was the toughest part, what with so many islands to choose from and so many places to visit in a limited number of days. And then we discovered our perfect vacation plan, an eleven day long cruise covering seven beautiful islands of Greece; more or less everything that we wanted out of our tour, served to us on a platter. No fuss of planning transportation, of working the luggage from place to place, no worries about the language barrier; just a pure, unadulterated romantic voyage. The port of embarkation though, was Venice, Italy but who was complaining! "Happy is the man, I thought,who, before dying,has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea."( Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek); and our happiness knew no bounds.
Our first stop in Greece was Corfu, a picturesque island floating on the Ionian sea between Italy and west coast of mainland Greece. It boasts of lush greens of olive and pistachio groves, mountains and woodlands; deep cerulean hues of crystal clear sea and cliff-backed pink golden beaches.Corfu is rumoured to be the setting of many a famed novels, a muse of writers and the perfect canvas to sundry acclaimed stories; Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' figuring in the list.The old Corfu Town is replete with elegant venetian architecture and some very fine museums.The ruins of the fort make for a stunning backdrop. We meanwhile, discovered a beautiful little church with exquisite stained glass windows, tucked away in one of the several cobbled streets of the town. Candles, a bell chiming at regular intervals, the smell of incense and the serene ambience removed us far away from the hustle bustle of the otherwise, boisterous and noisy 'agora'-the marketplace.
Shopping in Corfu town guarantees that you would eventually get lost in the jumbled alleys, an intricate reticulum of shops selling souvenirs and local produce.
After a while it gets a little confusing to find your way out and back. Locals have this story of threat of sea pirates to most of the islands in Greece and hence, to hood-wink the attackers, all such port towns came with a perplexing maze of interconnecting streets, all looking alike yet each leading you deeper in the well of this riddle.
Thus, we decided to stick to a particular route and take no diversions or detours in this humongous market place, and hence, my husband breathed a sigh of relief. The jumble of Corfu saved the tumble of his bank balance for this one day! But soon.....
|THE LIGHTHOUSE, SOUDA,CRETE|
Today we woke up to the formidable sights of Crete, an enormous island with high mountains, obscure hinterlands and balmy seas.Crete is known for its olive produce and you would come across huge food markets as well as leather product shops everywhere. Crete is also coveted for the vividly coloured Minoan palace.We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the esplanade, sipping coffee at one of the many roadside cafes, taking a royal ride on the horse drawn dainty white buggy and gazing at the distant lighthouse guarding the coasts; perfect as perfect could be.
|THE ROYAL CARRIAGE ,CRETE|
The box stores on the high street were like a cherry topping on the sorbet; quirky curios, stunning jewellery and mouth watering offers up for grabs. ( You can attribute the latter to the country's battered economy..) The sea front was abuzz with activity; glass bottom boat tours, dolphin excursions, sea scooters and loads of other water activities were available to explore but 'try these with caution' and 'at your own risk' warnings kept us away.
By the time, we reached Athens, ( actually, port Pireus, some 45 minutes drive to the main city), I had begun to get a tad bit disappointed. Granted that Greece uptil now had been divine, serene, beautiful; food was great, entertainment onboard was wholesome and shopping, a steal but this was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing like the Greece I had envisaged, dreamt, fantasized about. But I guess, I was expecting too much too soon like an eager, impatient kid who wants to stuff the whole candy bar in his mouth. Greece was like a bud unfurling its petals one at a time, letting you get a glimpse of its beauty but refusing to reveal its opulent, ravishing splendour all at once....
Athens- a city that happened some two and a half thousand years ago, has seen a myriad of socio-political upheavals, has travelled through a mesh of history and yet, somehow, has managed to retain its distinctive character. As most locals would suggest, Athens is merely the largest village in the country best described by the rock of Acropolis, the dramatic ruins of the Parthenon and the pedestrianized streets along the entire Acropolis circuit. Acropolis;the guiding rock for the tourists who lose their way in the labyrinth of streets at the Pla'ka adorned with taverns, cafes and souvenir stores;is the cultural icon, the symbol of birth of western civilization, home to one of the earliest known settlements in Greece.The Hadrian Arch (131 AD) is the symbolic entrance to the city and The Parthenon, which in Greek means 'unmarried women's apartments', is a temple on the Athenian Acropolis, dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena.
A word of caution though ,Tourists get so engrossed soaking in the details of the spectacular ruins and imbibing the mind boggling information, they tend to forget watching their step on the steep slippery fleet of marble stairs leading to the rock. I was no exception, despite repeated warnings by the thoughtful guides, I slipped twice but managed to thwart a nasty fall, a few others were not lucky enough!
If Athens managed to uplift my senses with its awe inspiring byzantine churches, neoclassical villas and spectacular ruins; Mykonos transported me to a utopian paradisiacal world. Little Venice, the charming seafront neighbourhood sprinkled handsomely, with stark white villas and chic boutiques, is enough to cast a spell on you, send you in throes of ecstasy.Its a precious jewel of the Cyclades archipelago.
Mykonos is known for its amazing night life, narrow cobbled streets, pelicans adorning the emerald seas and most of all for the iconic ancient windmills standing proud atop the cliffs. Paradise Beach, a mesmerizing drive away from the elite Little Venice area, is a picturesque beach throbbing with activity, crowds thronging the area for a lazy swim, to water ski or ride on a horse back. Try Platis Gialos for water sports and did I mention Bakalo, right in the heart of Little Venice, for some finger licking, lip-smacking traditional Greek food. Mykonos is touted to be a hub for gay resorts ,though, it seemed equally popular with families who thronged in hordes to all the popular tourist sites. Interestingly, all houses that we saw on our journey to the beach, appeared to be small white domes each with a blue door, very tiny by the look of it to house real people.
On inquiring, we were obligingly, informed that the external dome shaped facade actually led to a basement with rooms at the underground level, a design to provide safe haven in case of pirate attacks in the yonder era. The residents have successfully, tried to maintain the unique character, the symmetry and the colour scheme of all the houses; turning the town into a visual delight, a time capsule transporting the traveller into a time gone by. The byzantine monastery enroute the Paradise beach is another treat for the spiritual senses.
Our island hopping jaunt led us now to Santorini, also known as Thira; famous for its blue domed white churches, resplendent sunset views from the village of Oia and the donkey back transportation system ( There is an official donkey station with time charts and tariff in place!!). Santorini, is a scene straight out of a fairytale ; whitewashed buildings with brilliant blue doors nestled atop steep volcanic cliffs ( which exhibit an
interesting palette of colours from red-brown, black, grey to purple green due to layering of different stones especially, pumice), falling steeply and suddenly into the sapphire waters. You can find red sand and black sand beaches hidden away in the interiors of this intriguing island. A road trip through the treacherous curves of the daunting cliffs takes you to Oia village and you can choose to come down to the shore through Fira village on a donkey's back , or thankfully, in modern times you have the option of a cable car bringing you back. Wine tasting in Santorini is a must, great white wines made of domestically grown assy'rtiko grapes accompanied, perfectly, with olives, cheese and mezze; a gourmets' delight.
Alas, our cruise ship didn't dock here for the night, I could have settled in this place, if given a choice.
You can atleast, think of booking a private villa for a fortnight or so, to get a taste of the idyllic Santorini
and keep visiting the crazy,unchained Mykonos to satiate the party animal in you; vice-versa is highly recommended , ofcourse with perspective in place.
Our ship set sail for Katakalon, a sleepy port town where stores open according to the schedule of the cruise ships that dock here! A rocky beach just a few steps out of the cruise boat, a number of souvenir shops and cafes lining the promenade; tourist information kiosks aplenty- the typical scene of any european port town; but Katakalon was our key to Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics held every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, the first games held to honour god Zeus.
A good 30 minutes drive zipping across vast stretches of pumpkin fields, led us to the Sanctuary, the ancient site also known as Altis consisting of seemingly, haphazard arrangement of buildings, ruins of Temple of Hera, Temple of Zeus, the Treasuries and the Olympic stadium.
|RUINS AT OLYMPIA|
We kept looking for the Olympic torch, getting excited at every other structural ruin thinking it to be the Torch, only to be finally, guided to a large 'pit' infront of the Temple of Hera, where the Olympic flame of modern games is lit by a reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror and then taken to where the games are to be held.
Greece was finally, beginning to weave a spell around us; its many facets now making sense and the warmth- embracing , compelling us to it. No amount of time spent could however,do justice to this dramatic, vibrant, abundant, mystical chimera of land and seas, mountains and lakes, history and hedonism...... While Athens would charm the historian in you, Mykonos, the mecca of party animals,would draw you by its enigmatic vigour; Santorini is like a soft caress; beautiful, breathtaking and ethereal.
".....There is heat of love, the pulsing rush of longing, the lover's whisper, irresistible magic to make the sanest man go mad"( Homer, The Illiad.). And we were bathed in the magic of this eternally enchanting country called Greece!!
|OUR CRUISE SHIP|
# Greece, known as Hellas in ancient Greece and now officially, known as the Hellenic Republic has a dramatic 14,400 km long coastline; indented, punctuated by balmy sun kissed beaches. It has around 6,000 islands arranged in 8 clusters, separated by the Aegean, Ionian, Icarian and Mediterranean sea.
#Greece is considered the birthplace of Democracy, the gateway to western civilisation.
# Easter is the biggest festival and real hard boiled eggs coloured red are exchanged in place of chocolate eggs.
# Ouzo is the favourite drink, an anise flavoured white wine enjoyed best with meze'dhes or mezze platter.
# Olives, pistachio and date palms are seen aplenty.
# Cats seem to be everywhere, even picture postcards are incomplete without a cat in the scene.
#Murano glass jewellery is cheaper in Greece than its original home, Venice.
#Some useful phrases -
Efharisto for Thanks
Yia Sou Hi
Kali mera Good Morning
Kali spera is for Good Night
#Must See list
@ Santorini sunset
@ Mykonos nightlife, Madonna might have a private residence here!
@ Ancient Olympia- Other than the Stadium, its also coveted for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus, sculpted by Pheidias, named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
@ Athens , selective restoration work at the Parthenon (438BC) renders many areas out of bounds for tourists
@ Delphi for Oracle of Delphi, site of worship of Apollo God after he slew Python, a dragon who lived here. Delphi was thought to be the middle of the earth by ancient greeks
@ Ghost town of Mystra, mirroring the byzantine era.
@ Rhodes island
@ Sko'pelos considered to be a hot favourite for Hollywood shoots.
# With so much to explore and so many islands on the list, I would recommend a combination of cruise and
land tour if you don't want to waste precious time and energy hiring small cruise boats and ferries; and spending most of your time in transportation, packing unpacking, checking in and out of hotels.Best time to visit Greece is October; we went in June which was pleasant ,though, warm at times.
# Cruise excursions are expensive and some of those, totally, needless. Check twice before booking any, try getting a package deal once onboard.
# A hop on hop off city sightseeing tour is recommended in Corfu and Crete.