Monday, May 31, 2010

Lest we forget. . . those five days in Crete

Our travels in Greece have been a doorway into history for us.  Not just to the ancient civilizations but also into much more recent history. So, on this Memorial Day we remember the many lives, both military and civilian, sacrificed here during World War II. 

In particular, we remember those final  five days of The Battle of Crete - May 28 - June 1, 1941- when thousands of Allied troops evacuated to Alexandria on British and Australian war ships from the harbor at Chora Sfakia, on Crete's southwestern shore, while others*, primarily New Zealand troops, held off the Germans.  The Suda Bay War Cemetery, near Chania, on Crete's northern shores should be a required stop for all visitors to this island.

New Zealand, Australian and Greek troops made their way to Chora Sfakia while other Allied troops ambushed the advancing German troops.  The road they walked ended three kilometers and 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) above the harbor town, leaving them to make their way down the steep hillsides.  British and Australian warships evacuated 11,000 - 18,000* men  before the Germans overtook the Australian rear gear, capturing 5,000 - 12,000*.
     *Vary by source.
While we Americans have set aside Memorial Day as a time to remember those who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy, in Crete such remembrances are part of every day life. We found memorials along busy roadways, tucked away in remote areas and often the centerpiece of town squares.  While we couldn't decipher much of the Greek inscriptions we understood the date: 1941.

In Chora Sfakia, the unassuming little harbor town, that has won our hearts, a new memorial has been erected overlooking the harbor that tells the story of the evacuations that took place here. . . "lest we forget."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Novel Destination: "The Writer is Here Now. . ."

A high point of our travels is seeking out  'novel destinations'; those places that come to life for us as result of some fictional story set in some faraway place that peaks our curiosity enough to go there. Such was the case last year in Crete with Zorba's beach in Zorba, the Greek and Spinalonga in The Island

This time it was Crete that led us to new novels. . .or, I should  say, to the writer of those novels.

It was during a lazy afternoon stroll along Loutro's waterfront promenade -- a walkway that bi-sects the restaurants ringing its crescent-shaped harbor -- that we noticed the poster at Taverna Pavlos announcing a series of books 'now for sale on'  As we paused to read it, Pavlos (Paul) the owner, called out to us, "The writer is here now," nodding toward the rooms above the cafe. "He will be here tonight at dinner." 
And it was after dinner that night that we met British novelist Bill Kitson and his wife, Val.  Bill, a retired executive from the world of finance, who keeps you laughing or groaning with his rapid-fire one-liners, writes about murders; murders solved by the character he has created, Mike Nash.  Three books are published and more are on the way.

We continued our laugh-filled conversation the following evening, again at Taverna Pavlos, over after-dinner glasses of raki. Raki is Crete's rather strong beverage sipped in small amounts following a meal. Pavlos has a friend who distills the stuff and bottles it for the restaurant - look close and you'll see the label features Pavlos.

Upon learning we were from the Seattle area, Bill told us his second novel, Chosen, opens with a fictitious article from The Seattle Times that provides the plot's hook.  No, he's never been to Seattle, but he loved the movie, "Sleepless in Seattle."  We've stayed in touch with the Kitson's since we met and we plan to start reading Bill's books upon our return home. . .for those who want to take a look at them, I've added them to the Amazon carousel on the right-hand side of our blog's home page.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Saints be Praised!

Here they are not only praised, they are worshipped and celebrated.  Tourist publications list Saint Days and the festivals that mark them in villages and monasteries throughout the island.  Road signs direct you to chapels and monasteries ranging in size from the smallest of structures to large sprawling complexes.  What has struck us is the numbers of them we have found open - even in the most remote locations and no signs of vandalism. 

The small chapel for Saint Paul below is perched on a slight incline near the highway in the middle of grain fields at the southern tip of the island. 

We were the only ones there on Sunday morning and found the door to the chapel open and a candle already had been lit.

Today we walked the Stations of the Cross - something usually done in our town of Kirkland on the Friday before Easter - here it can be done as often as you want at Moni Agias Ypsenis (Monastery of Our Lady) just outside the town of Lardos on the eastern coast.

The Stations lead to a large cross on the hilltop that overlooks the Monastery complex; home to about 12 monks we were told.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lindian Village Luxury

We are baskinng in the lap of luxury on the southeastern coast of Rhodes.  We are settled in at Lindian Village, a member of the marketing group, Leading Hotels of the World; certainly not a place we would normally be staying but in keeping with our 'find the deals' approach to travel, Joel happened upon a deal while researching hotels a few days ago.

Actually, Lonely Planet  travel guide had listed it as the author's choice, noting 'if you could afford it.'  This season we can.  I should note here that tourism is down; way down according to the folks we have talked to along the way.  The economic turmoil, protests that it generated and then Iceland's volcano are all being listed as contributing factors to the downturn in tourism.

We nabbed a Mediterranian room for the rate of 105E per night -- 50% of the normal rate -- about 130USD, with the current rate of exchange.  We were greeted with a welcome drink, driven by golf cart to our villa room and then pampered with a welcome bottle of wine, water and fruit plate.  The rate includes a full buffet breakfast with champagne each day (and the buffet rivals that of some of the best cruise ships we have been on).  The beach is like out of a movie. 

The resort is offering a 50% off rate through the end of June - if you found yourself in this part of the world, we would highly recommend taking advantage of the deal being offered.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Medieval contemplation and exploration

"You'll either like Rhodes or you will love it," is the opening line from Lonely Planet's guidebook section on this Dodecanese island. A more appropriate opening may never have been written. . .from the books we had read (travel guides and novels) we thought we would like Rhodes, and now on our fourth day within the walls of the medieval city we are pretty smitten with this place.  It isn't every day you get off a ferry and head to your hotel through a gate such as this one; the Marina Gate.

We are back in the land of mass tourism though, unlike our travels in southern Crete where we often were among much smaller numbers of tourists.  Here they arrive by the thousands on a variety of cruise ships.  We counted seven such ships in the harbor outside this gate two days ago and yesterday only the mammoth Celebrity Equinox brought hordes of day-trippers to the town.  The cruise ships these days reach far higher han the fortress walls.

During the day it isn't unusual to be greeted with the question, "You from the cruise ship?" so we try to focus our explorations away from the heart of the tourist trek lined with hopeful vendors.

But by late afternoon the tour groups have loaded into their buses or have ambled back to their cruise ships and the streets and alleyways empty and call out for contemplation and exploration

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rockin' and rollin' our way to Rhodes

Although we kept extending our stay in Symi for 'just another day' we realized that if we were to get to Rhodes it was time to say goodbye to our new friends and finds and set sail.  Our ship for this trip was the fast-boat Dodekanisos which normally would have whisked us across the 24 kilometers of Agean Sea in an hour.  But we did have a bit of stormy weather -- some said it was the red-dust-blowing Siroco winds from Africa and others said it had changed to the northern winds -- that rocked and rolled our boat like a swing.  They finally dropped the speed a bit but because of our early departure from Symi  we found ourselves at the gates of the medieval city by 9 a.m. Tuesday.

We announced our arrival in this old town as we rattled and clattered our bags through the labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways until we happened upon Niki's Hotel where we are now 'at home' in a room that opens on to a garden terrace, up so high that a lemon tree drooping with fruit provides a backdrop to the view.

This 2,500 year Old Town of Rhodes is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe -- once home to 30,000 some residents it now has 5,000 living within he walls.  We quite literally cross a moat and enter the town through one of its 13 gates to 'get home' after one of our excursions.

The old town is surrounded now by a new town which provides an itneresting juxtaposition:  we can walk one direction and be in a palace  inhabited by the Knights of St. John for some 200 years after their arrival in 1309 or we can walk a few blocks outside the walls and sip a Starbucks coffee. 

The waters that surround Rhodes have got to be some of the most spectacular we've seen; the colors of the sea simply dazzle.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Symi Days

Symi has provided not only spectacular 'in town' walks but some out into the countryside as well. And it seems the town father's or the tourist organization has worked extremely hard to make such explorations a most comfortable experience -- even though the routes can take you up and down from dizzying heights.  One of our favorite destinations was 'around the corner' a couple miles from where we were staying.  We had the option of walking on the dirt/paved roadway or going through town and linking up with the trail pictured above.  Our  little neighboring hamlet is called Nimborios - there we found  a scatterin of  spectacular private homes, a few rental studio apartnements and  a single taverna. . .who needs more in this setting?
 The trail was a flat surface all the way; rather steep and they don't use handrails or guardrails around here. . .so you can't let those drop-dead vistas let you lose concentration for too long, but with views like the one below it was hard not to be distracted.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Dinner in Symi

Our dinner is waiting for us back at our apartment. . .thanks to Fotini (foe-tee-NEE), the woman from whom we are renting and also our next-door-neighbor.  As we have settled into life on this magnificent harbor we realize everyone knows 'our' Fotini. . .we are asked where we are staying and we show the official businness card and the response is, "You stay at Fotini's."

We consider our stay here one of our best - thanks to Fotini making us feel a part of her family.  She and her husband do live next door, her daughter and grand-child and husband are above us and we speculate that a fellow just down the road might be related as well.

Fotini and her husband, we think, are about our ages - and constantly on the go.  They come and go by small boat as we do at home by car.  But when Fotini is home, she cooks and when she cooks, she shares.  Our first day in the studio I was 'preparing' lunch:  opening a package of sliced cheese to have with a sliced tomato and bread when I heard Joel chatting with Fotini.  She had brought us a little something for lunch: shrimp risotto, complete with a lemon to squeeze. (I sliced the tomato):

                         Since that first feast Fotini has provided a plate of pastries for my morning coffee and two days ago she brought us a plate of baklava from her sister-in-law in Turkey.  But back to tonight's dinner:  yesterday while she and her husband were gone, his brother brought them a large fireshly caught fish. . .we said we'd keep it in our place until they came home.  I took it over to them this morning and we headed out for a walk.  When we got home, we found our dinner waiting for us - a wonderful pot of fish stew (we had some for lunch) and cake.

As we have said before, travel is about places, but it is also about people. . .and Fotini is one of our all-time travel highlights.


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