Monday, May 8, 2017

To the Islands!

The Greeks recently celebrated Labor Day (May 1st) giving us a four day weekend. My roommate Amy and I traveled to, arguably, the two best known islands in Greece - Crete and Santorini.


Thursday evening, after our classes for the day finished, we took a ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Heraklion, one of the major ports of Crete. This was an overnight ferry (nine hours), the first four of which, we spent freezing in the cold upper deck taking occasional breaks to the bathroom to warm up, as we were unsure of the range of our economy tickets. Eventually we plucked up the courage to descend to the lounge, where we saw other economy passengers curled up on chairs sleeping. Once we joined them in the warm lounge and put chairs together to sleep on, the journey was much more enjoyable and I would highly suggest traveling by ferry! Upon waking up on Friday morning, we were able to see the sunrise over Crete.

Sunrise over Crete

After landing in Crete and exploring the town of Heraklion, we went to the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, where we saw Minoan artifacts, including bull sculptures and the original frescoes from the Palace of Knossos. We then proceeded to drop our backpacks at our Bed and Breakfast (minus the breakfast), and then took a walk along the shore of Heraklion, where we found a beach a which to relax. The mentality of this trip was gelato, gelato, gelato, and this night I got a creamy caramel flavor. 

The following morning we walked to the bus station of Heraklion, as we wanted to visit Psychro Cave, the birthplace of Zeus. However, it is almost impossible to get there on any day except Mondays and Thursdays, so instead we traveled through Agias Nikolas to the town of Plaka, where we proceeded to take a ten minute boat ride to the island of Spinalonga.

When Crete was taken over by the Latin crusaders in 1204, the island, and subsequently Spinalonga, developed Venetian influence, and the island of Spinalonga was carved out from the mainland. Venetian forts and fortifications dot the island, along with Ottoman fortresses dating the to 18th century Ottoman seize of Crete. During the 20th century, from 1903 to 1957, the Greek government converted the island into a leper colony in order to quarantine the leper population of Greece. Whole families were brought to the island, where they lived self-sufficient with little aid from the Greek government. When the leper colony was disbanded in 1957, the island was abandoned and it now serves as a tourist attraction due to its vast colonization. Hiking across the island and through the abandoned houses is eerie, you can feel the silent presence of all those who lost their lives abandoned to this disease.

Venetian Fortress
When we return back to Heraklion after some lucky chances with the bus time tables, we then went to the Palace of Knossos, the famed home of King Minos and the Minotaur. The convoluted architecture of the palace lent to the myth of the labyrinth, and I can attest to the labyrinthine corridors of the palace, which makes it almost impossible to see everything the palace has to offer. While Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who worked at Knossos, took liberties in his reconstruction of the palace, I really did find it amazing to walk through partially reconstructed areas based upon archaeological evidence (but mostly his own imagination). In fact, I couldn't keep a smile off of my face while walking through the site. (Side note: this night, I got coconut and toblerone gelato).
Palace of Knossos



Sunday morning, we took a high speed ferry from Heraklion to Fira, the port of Santorini. From there we took a local bus up the switchback road into the town of Thira. From Thira we walked to our hostel... Caveland, which has rooms built into natural caves in the landscape.

The White Buildings of Oia (E-ah)
After getting settled into Caveland and changing into our bathing suits, Amy and I headed to Akrotiri, a town in the south of Santorini known for its beaches. There under the guide of the Santorini Dive Center, we went Scuba Diving! I have been snorkeling before, but I was really nervous about scuba diving as I was concerned about getting the bends and that I would face a mental barrier about breathing under water. Our guides, however, took the time to teach us the physics behind diving, and taught us the techniques used by divers in order to stay healthy while diving. Once we were all suited up, we slowly backed into the shallow water from the beach, where we then practiced breathing. Despite my reservations it was a lot easier than I thought to breathe. Amy and I had so much fun and the guides said that we caught onto diving pretty quickly! I was ready to go and swim around independently, but they kept us together for the dive (which was probably for the best). We got to swim with barracudas and other fish native to the area, and we even saw the famed "Atlantis" volcano from under the water. Diving in Santorini was such a unique experience that I would have never tried without my roommate and I am so glad that she convinced me to go diving with her.

Scuba Diving in Akrotiri, Santorini

Scuba Diving with fish

Me and Amy
After scuba diving, Amy and I took the local bus to Oia (pronounced E-ah) the northern most town in Santorini, and arguably the most tourist-y. We were on a mission. In Venice, we went to Alta Acqua, one of the twenty best bookstores in the world. Oia, Santorini holds another bookstore on the list - Atlantis Books - and we were determined to find it. (To be honest, it was a toss up as to whether we were more excited about diving or visiting the bookstore.) Bookstores are my favorite places in the world, and this one definitely lived up to the hype! Not only was the outside beautifully decorated with paintings of bookshelves and quotes, but the inside was absolutely magical.

Atlantis Books
I was so excited (and still am) to get a bilingual edition of Constantine Cavafy's poems. Cavafy was an early twentieth century Greek poet who wrote my favorite poem - Ithaka. I also got a copy of The Song of Achilles, one of my favorite books that I can never find in print with the U.S. The bookstore stamped the inside of our books with their logo, and I also got an Atlantis Books tote bag!

Atlantis Books
We ended our day in Santorini, and our weekend, joining about five thousand other tourists in watching the sunset from Oia. It was beautiful, though a little overcast, so we abandoned the sunset early for a gelato place (coconut and caramel) and a less crowded bus back to Caveland.

As someone who doesn't particularly like the beach, I was nervous that I would not enjoy the islands, but the Greek Islands have so much more to offer than beaches, they all have their unique cultures and attractions, and by no means is visiting Crete and Santorini satisfying enough.

Sunset at Oia

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