It has been nearly two months since we've posted a blog, which is a good indication that we have been having an excellent cruising season. Our last entry was from Chania Crete, where we left on June 26th to cross yet another windy corner of the Aegean. Once again we waited for a calm, clear weather window and left early. But then once again, we had heard the stories of calm forecasts turning into nightmarish crossings. So when the wind began to come up, we prepared ourselves. Ah, but instead of drama, it turned into a dream sail with 20+ knots on the beam and mild seas.
During our sail, we received word that the Greek banks would be closing for several days to stem the flow of withdrawals amid rumors that Greece might be leaving the European Union. For weeks we had watched the news about the pending doom regarding Greece's financial debt. The general comments from the local were that "they (meaning the EU lenders) are bluffing." So while we were concerned, we weren't too worried. We have been in Greece during the past three years and they have been dealing with these same issues the entire time.
But this did seem more serious. Banks closing and ATM withdrawals would be limited to 60 Euros per day; that was it. In a cash economy, Greek residents were told (by the government) how little of their hard-earned money they could have. Given that our funds are in an international bank, we were allowed to withdraw our usual daily limits. Good news for us.
We tried not to let the banking news impact our beautiful sail, so we made a plan to spend the weekend relaxing at anchor and then head to Kalamata to beef up our cash stash before the ATMs ran out of money.
Kalamata is the largest city on the southern Peloponnesus of Greece, best known for the Kalamata olive. We arrived the afternoon of the first day of bank closures and were surprised to find quiet neighborhoods and no queues at ATMs. We had read the news about long lines and angry demonstrations in other cities, but it seemed that it was life as usual in Kalamata. As evening came on the town square filled with locals coming out to enjoy the night.
We spent several days touring the area around Kalamata and each day the banks were closed, the ATM lines grew. But we didn't see rage or frustration, what we saw were friendly people waiting their turn and helping others who had difficulty. It was clear that many of these people had never used an ATM machine before. Some plodded through very carefully, sometimes starting over two and three times before getting their money. Others asked for assistance from the people in line, yelling over their shoulder in Greek, we assumed saying "what now?" An older woman sat in a chair until her turn came, as she could not stand for the 30+ minutes required. When our turn came, we felt guilty that we could get up to 900 Euros from the machine while the Greeks could get so much less. But our conscience was eased in knowing that all of our withdrawals would be spent in Greece.
We could include a photo of long lines at ATM machines that you saw on the news, but we chose, instead, to post this image that we captured of a rainbow as we sat fat, flush and happy on Berkeley East. Perhaps it is an indication of better times ahead for Greece. We hope so.
A day trip from Kalamata saw us driving along the windy coast roads to Dyros and the cave of Vlychada. Discovered in 1958 the cave covers 1.5 miles of water passages through an intricate network of low passages, large galleries, unique shaped stalactites and stalagmites with amazing colors.
From the Caves we wound through the mountains to the Byzantine ruins of of Mystras. The fortified town overlooks the city of Sparta and the plains surrounding it. Built into the hill, we climbed up the crumbling streets to see the incredible churches and their frescos.
In the past three years, we have been to over 50 Greek islands. Just a drop in the bucket considering there are more than 6,000 (of which around 200 are inhabited). But the moment we arrived in Crete, we knew that something was different there. This was not just another Greek island; it was more like a completely new country.
We spent 10 days touring Crete. By Greek island standards it is huge. In fact, it is the largest Greek island and the fifth largest Mediterranean island. At 160 miles long and between seven and 38 miles wide, with tall mountains (over 8,000 feet high) and strong winds, it is not especially cruising friendly. But there were places to leave Berkeley East, cars to be rented, and excellent roads. So we drove, and drove, and drove, to see the beautiful island.
Crete's history goes back 4,000 years prior to any other civilization in Europe. After the Minoan society was devastated by the Santorin eruption, Crete developed an organization of city states, then successively became part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, was an autonomous state, briefly occupied by the Germans, and now is a state of the country of Greece. As we drove around the island, we saw remnants of these periods in the architecture. We also visited some of the sites from the ancient Minoan times and were very impressed with finds in the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, one of the best in the world.
One of the displays included figurine's of the Minoan "poppy goddess," a 1400 - 100 BC terracotta figurine found throughout Crete, with raised hands and seeds of opium poppies on her head.
In addition to exceptional archeological sites Crete has it all: stunning scenery, wonderful beaches, delicious and unique food, wonderful wine, excellent hiking, interesting towns, and did we mention the roads? Greece must have spent most of the money lent to them by the European Union on the roads in Crete. The mountain network was better than any we had seen on other Greek islands, and the new national road was a superhighway, with only two lanes but shoulders wide enough for cars to pull aside to allow for faster vehicles to pass. This made for very fast travel, as long as there were no cars stopped in the shoulder lane.
Cretan food is truly distinct from other Greek dishes. The essential ingredient, olive oil, is grown everywhere on the island. In fact, 30% of Greece's olive oil comes from Crete. It is organic and pressed at the monasteries. The freshness of the other ingredients, fish, snails, fruits or vegetables, makes simply prepared dishes taste outstanding. And then there are the herbs; Cretan recipes use more fresh herbs than we have found in any of the other Greek islands. We had some great and unique meals, including one of fajitas, from a Mexican restaurant in Herkilion.
From the palm beach in Vai (surrounded by the largest palm tree forest in Europe consisting of 5,000 trees); to the throwback, hippy-vibe beach of Matala; to the massive white sand beach at Elafonisi on the south west corner of the island, Crete had some of the most unique and beautiful beaches in Greece.
The "Abduction of Europa" statue on the harbor in Ayios Nikolaos represent the Greek Myth of Zeus and Europa. Europa was the beautiful daughter of King of Phoenicia. Once, while playing with her friends on the beach, Zeus saw her and fell in love with her. He transformed into a beautiful, burly and powerful white bull. Europa saw the bull grazing, approached and started to caress him, fascinated by its power. Then she decided to ride the bull, but when she climb up he started running with lightning speed. He crossed the Libyan Sea, until he arrived in Crete.
Larry scratching his head wondering what he had gotten himself into
We decided to hike the Samaria Gorge, the most visited of the 36 gorges in the Crete hiking guide. Our 10-mile hike descended 5,000 feet from the White Mountains to the sea, giving new meaning to "its all downhill from here." We started out with jackets and ended at the ocean in swimsuits.
The most famous part of the gorge is the stretch known as the Iron Gates where the sides of the gorge close in to a width of only 12 feet and soar up to a height of almost 1,000 feet.
Berkeley East at the town dock in Chania. The Port authority told us he had the best berth available, and it was, if you wanted to be part of the bar scene that stated around 8:00 and finished about 4:00 in the morning. From the bench just off our stern, people could order drinks and admire BE. At times it was like being in a fish bowl, but at least the walk to dinner was short.
Followers of this blog have heard this before, and won't be surprised: we founds some very nice wineries and wines in Crete. Every family in Crete grows their own grapes and makes a barrel of wine for personal consumption, so the wines here are more for visitors, restaurants and export. We found good whites, reds and even a rose (from a winemaker trained in France). Crete has some unique local grapes (Vilana. Vidiano. Dafni, Thrapsathiri. Kotsifali), as well as popular international varieties (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Once again, BE is sitting a little lower in the water. At one winery we meet two Americans who were working there. One was a Greek American from Boston who has made Crete her home, the other was a Texas lawyer who is living there while her husband, a JAG lawyer, is serving the USA in Crete, tough duty.
We have been trying to get to the Greek island of Santorini for three years. During our first year cruising in Greece, we planned to sail there. But after some investigation, we learned that the only marina in Santorini was not deep enough for Berkeley East, and the water surrounding the island was too deep for us to anchor.
So we decided to take a ferry there, from Naxos, in August. Then we sat at anchor on BE and watched the thousands of people boarding each and every ferry, and we began to try and book hotels, only to discover most were unavailable. August was the busiest time of year in Santorini.
Then we made a plan to go at the end of the season, fly from Turkey after we put BE up for the winter. It was set, late October would be the perfect time. Not really. As we started making plans, we discovered that many things would already be closed and the weather would be chilly.
How about a trip in April before going back to the boat in year two of cruising Greece? Nope, too much to do at the boat and not everything was open there yet anyway. And so it went, every possible option that we could come up with simply did not work.
When we arrived in Crete in June of our third and final season in Greece, we finally found the right combination: a marina to leave BE in, not too far from a short ferry ride to the island of Santorini, at a time when it was less crowded, everything was open and the weather was good!
Crescent-shaped Santorini (or Thíra) is actually a group of islands within an active volcano. The islands that form Santorini came into existence as a result of intensive volcanic activity; twelve huge eruptions in the 16th century BC that caused the collapse of the volcano's central part, creating a large crater in the sea (caldera). The edge of the crater is now fringed with small whitewashed, cube houses and hotels that hang off the cliffs of the towns of Fira, Oia and Imervogili.
Relaxing by the pool. It has been a busy sailing season, so time for a break.
Great lunch with a view!
Great view from the rim down to the thousands of people on cruise ships.
What started out as a casual stroll to dinner on a rock walkway quickly turned into a 10 mile hike along the crater rim in pumice/lava stones followed by 300+ steps down to a sunset dinner.
Night skyline across the rim and pool
Santorini is considered to be the most sought after places for a romantic getaway, where couples can gaze at crystal clear waters while perched on the rim of a massive active volcano in the middle of the sea! It was a great place to celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary a few weeks early.