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Cretan magic launches Greek island hop

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September 2011

First impressions mean a lot, especially when you’re exploring new territory with no reservations, no tips, no guidebook and high expectations.

During our three days in Chania, the delightful historic seaport on the north coast of Crete, this city surpassed our highest expectations and set the standard for the rest of our 30-day Greek-island hop.

As is always the case in July, the weather was perfect: blue skies, hovering at 30C by day, and the sea was cold enough to be refreshing at first dip, but just right to soak off the heat of the day.

We stumbled onto the Venetian-built old port in Chania, too shallow for big vessels, which now dock 10 kilometres to the east. The Turks and Venetians left their architectural mark here, and these buildings give the old city its charm. Narrow streets are lined with shops and restaurants, and the port-area main square is covered with marble and surrounded on three sides by restaurants and shops.

Yes, there are many tourists here, but they add to the festive feeling. There is some hassling of strollers, but it’s nowhere near as extreme as in other Greek islands, or in Turkish coastal cities.

The food is simply wonderful — home-cooked phyllo pastries filled with cheeses, stuffed peppers, spicy feta dip, fresh grilled sardines, and for breakfast, yogurt with honey and chopped almonds.

The Cretans are polite, friendly, and helpful. The two beaches we visited were low-key, the one nearest to Chania is a city beach somewhat more crowded than the gorgeous inlet at Stavros, which we visited about 10 kilometres to the east. There, the water was clear and smooth and the beach faced a mountain. We met some American Greeks who live in Stavros and love it. They were working at Mama’s Place where Anthony Quinn taught Alan Bates how to dance during the filming of Zorba the Greek in 1964. The owners are very proud that Mama herself cooked for the cast.

We took a cab there (22 euro) and a bus back (2 euro).

Lots of Norwegians, Dutch, and a few Americans are among the hundreds of visitors that add sparkle to Chania and its surroundings.

We ate at the same restaurant, Semipamis, three nights in a row. The courtyard is filled to the brim and the Greek musicians serenade from a distance as we sampled the delicacies that make us return to this part of the world again and again.

Earlier, we encountered a couple of volunteers of English origin who are trying to save the giant sea turtles that spawn on the north-coast beaches. If they walk right into the sun chairs, they return to the sea afraid to spawn. The volunteers’ mission is to bury the turtles’ eggs and surround them with a protective fence to save them from being crushed. Their goal is to have the owners remove the chairs at night or stack them up to enable to turtles to breed in safety.

On our seven-hour ferry ride from Piraeus, we met Maria and Nick. She is 29, a recent graduate in environmental sciences and unemployed. She is among the 20 per cent of recent university graduates in Greece who are without work, victims of a government, she said, that had squandered money from wealthier eurozone nations on infrastructure projects that benefit their friends, rather than promoting research and development, so Greece emerges from its dependence on agriculture and tourism. Thirty-year-old Nick, is also fed up. He has a master’s degree in economics but had to pay 8,000 euros for his studies because it was classified as “research.”

Meanwhile, the rich don’t pay taxes. They declare their yachts as fishing boats and seem to get away with it. Members of the Greek parliament are cutting away at public services but have never taken even a symbolic pay cut. Nick’s no anarchist, but he’s angry and frustrated. They live in Petras and want to avoid what so many Greeks had to do during the lean 1950s, emigrate to greener pastures in North America.

Frustration. The same frustration we heard about from Dutch travellers, high-school teachers in revolt against cutbacks from their government. Although Greeks are angry and frustrated, there is no outward sign of crisis and most of the tourists here are Greek.

The Bank of Greece reported in July that tax evasion and the black economy amounts to 30 per cent of the country’s GDP every year while “no efforts” have been made in the last few years to control tax evasion, while social security funds are strained to the point that the state budget cannot meet its commitments when it comes to social spending.

Next issue: Reythimno, Crete



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