In Homer’s The Odyssey, after Odysseus concocts his successful Trojan Horse ploy during the siege of Troy, he sets off back to his home of Ithaca and wife Penelope. His journey ends up being a perilous ten-year voyage riddled with misfortune. My adventure in the Aegean Sea was not quite that long. However, I can now see why the beautiful yet treacherous Greek Isles served as inspiration for the characters and backdrop in Homer’s epic poem.
On our last day in Athens we boarded a ferry at at the port of Piraeus, which in Greek means “the place over the passage”. Piraeus developed alongside the ancient city-state of Athens and eventually became the maritime engine of ancient Greece, sending merchant vessels all over Europe, Africa and Asia.
Our vessel was taking us to a small island in the southern Aegean sea called Santorini. The ferry ride took about 7 hours (our trip didn’t have quite as many stops as the Google map above). We passed the time with naps and card games.
When we arrived, a minibus took us through a series of twists and turns up the mountainside.
Santorini is essentially all that remains after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption, which occurred some 3,600 years ago. The eruption caused much of the island to collapse into the sea which created a massive volcanic crater, or caldera. What is left today is a very mountainous society with a population of about 15,000. The capitol city of Fira clings to the steep slopes overlooking the caldera. The clusters of white buildings and blue-domed churches make for a stunning landscape. It is these such views as the one at the top of this post that draw tourists from all over the world to this tiny little island in the Aegean.
In Odysseus’ journey, he encounters several mythological creatures that would delay his return home to Ithaca. Monsters from the ocean’s depths, treacherous sorcerers, savage brutes, demons, fiends. Odysseus saw it all. Whether true or not, I am convinced there is a certain something about the Greek islands that brings out the…beast…in people, both native and on tour. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is (could be some combination of the salt-scented air, beating sun, and delicious local wines).
Our first such encounter of the kind was with a rather charming island creature named Vicki. Lively and sweet, Vicki serves as manager of the Aelia Hotel, our home for the two-night stay in Santorini. The hotel is small and quaint, with only a handful of apartments, a lobby, and a pool. But Vicki takes her role very seriously, and makes sure we are comfortable and content from the moment we arrived.
After giving us some fresh squeezed orange juice, Vicki began regaling us with all the wonders and sights of Santorini. Her thickly Greek-accented voice is high-pitched, animated, and passionate. Like a concert pianist who has practiced her routine a thousand times, Vicki seems to effortlessly flow through her spiel as she tells us how to get around, what to see. We nodded politely throughout, returning her wide smiles. Eventually she wrapped up her hypnotizing speech and led us through a courtyard to our apartment.
After getting settled in we take a bus to Kamari beach on the southeast side of the island for some evening relaxation and tasty gyros by the black sand beach.
The following day Cathy and Yupei went off on a mother-daughter tour of Oia, the northernmost part of the island. Trying to figure out what to do, I had a feeling a certain someone might be able to help.
Vicki’s eyes lit up when I asked her for her advice. She gives me a colorful five page pamphlet on thick paper that oozed of her relentless spirit. She walks me through it, speaking with such fervent passion about each attraction such that I’m not sure which sights are more worth seeing than others. I make sure to thank her for the tips, she responded mostly how I expected her too.
“Oh! Of Course! This is why I’m here!”
I ultimately decide on Ancient Thera, archaeological ruins of a city on top of a steep 360m high mountain which overlooks present-day Santorini. Thera was occupied as early as the 9th century BC and was once populous and thriving before small volcanic eruptions and Byzantine invasions cause it to weather away.
The remaining ruins show the city featured an Agora, private residences, bathhouses, a amphitheater, a grotto, temples to Greek gods, and even a shrine to the Egyptian gods. The ruins were cool, but to be honest the sprawling views of Santorini were the real highlight.
After hiking through the entirety of the ruins, I descended the mountain via a minibus. My next move after grabbing a bite to eat was to explore the capitol.
Fira is great for wandering around aimlessly. There are tons of storefronts to browse ranging from generic tourist traps to downright wacky shops. There are lots of fashion-forward boutiques, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and colorful clothing markets.
Plus, you are never too far from the sweeping, panoramic views of the 11 mile-long caldera.
The following morning we bid goodbye to Vicki. She made a pouty face and said she was sad to see us leave for another island. Then it hit me…
Vicki is no mere hotel manager. She is Calypso. The beautiful goddess-turned-flesh who seduced Odysseus into staying on her island for eight years, the majority of his journey. Like Calypso, she has a fierce cunning for making you feel comfortable…almost too comfortable…
Kidding aside, in Vicki I see someone who loves what they do. Over our two nights and a day in Santorini, Cathy, Yupei and I question her on a number of things about the island and our apartment (like how to get the damned burners to work). Every time she responded with radiant, unwavering energy. As if she holds great pleasure in taking care of weary travelers, nurturing them, consoling them.
(Much like Calypso did with Odysseus…)
She even has an apartment in the hotel, so she is never far. The previous night she left us a parting message, some candies, and a surprise in the fridge (peaches soaked in honey, which Cathy and I enjoyed poolside).
Against all odds, we were able to escape her alluring grasp and moved onward to our next destination: Crete.
The ferry ride was about 2.5 hours and the drive to the city we stayed in, Rethymno, was a little over an hour (the Google map above is more that a little off). When we arrived it was dark, but I could already tell I really liked the city.
The next morning we got an early start in lieu of SCUBA DIVING! It was my first time and I was thrilled to take the plunge.The following morning we met our driver outside the Casa Vitae, Cathy’s hotel. He looked at us questioningly.
“Are you for Scuba??”
Yes, yes we are for scuba.
We drive for about an hour to Chania, where their shop is, and near where our dive site was. During the morning we had some comprehensive training on the equipment we would be using, different techniques, plus do’s and don’t’s while submerged.
Our instructor, George, is especially animated and engaging while teaching us the way. Clearly his many years of scuba-stardom hasn’t deterred his passion for showing mere novices like myself. His liveliness makes me even more excited to get into the water.
After training we drive about 15 minutes outside of Chania to our dive spot. There we would submerge near a small reef not far from the coast.
Once submerged George takes charge and leads us through a series of exercises that he briefed us on during training. He takes turns working with us, making us show him that we can do what he taught us back in the shop. While on land I was overly confident that I would be able handle everything he was explaining. I’ve been swimming since I was three years old, this should be easy right?
As it turns out, controlling your breathing is very important while deep underwater and I was not very good at it. Several times I inhale too quickly and start to float toward the surface. I start to think too much about my breathing and can’t stay parallel to the seafloor. I look over and see Cathy struggling a bit too. The third member of the group, Christopher the Polish dude, seems to get it before either of us. I’m a little embarrassed at this point and we haven’t even started moving much.
Still, George is patient. More than that, he is a deft underwater instructor. He darts around from me, to Cathy, to Christopher, moving effortlessly even with all his scuba equipment. Adjusting our buoyancy devices, pulling us down when we start to float, providing illustrative hand motions to tell us how and when to breathe. He encourages us with high fives, fist bumps, blowing kisses and doing little dances.
For under the sea George is no mere mortal. He is the Scylla. The six-headed monster that lurks beneath the depths, preying on Odysseus and his men. George is more like a friendly Scylla, but his quick movements through the water and ability to attend to us is likeness of a several-limbed monster.
Perhaps his most impressive skill was capturing awesome pictures on top of all his other responsibilities as our instructor.
Right as I really felt like I had mastered my buoyancy control, the dive was sadly over. In total we spent about an hour under the water, diving to depths of over 23 feet. We saw a few small fish and some nice looking coral, but the point was really to get us acclimated with the scuba concept.
It was a wonderful experience and makes me wish I had done it much sooner. Better late than never I suppose (which should really be the Greek national slogan, never did I attend an event in Greece that started on time).
I also feel lucky to have had an instructor like George, whom I’m convinced was a sort of water creature in another life, mythological or not.
Back in Rethymno, I found the town to be quaint and it definitely drew me in from the start. It has an old world feel to it due to the narrow streets, small ruins located throughout, and Venetian touches all over the city. We stayed in the heart of old town, which was built almost entirely by the Venetians. The two big attractions of Rethymno are the Harbor and Fortezza. The latter was built by the Venetians in the 16th century as a citadel for the city. It is well preserved and great for exploring.
Aside from the old world beauty, Rethymno has a certain lazy beach town vibe to it. Lots of folks just sit around outside all day, sipping coffee and talking idly (though the same could be said for much of Greece).
While doing just that one morning I meet my final island creature, Magne. Self proclaimed as standing two meters high (6’6″), Magne is a towering and jaunty old man on holiday by himself. His stature is imposing as he stumbles over to me outside the cafe.
It’s 11 AM and he is drunk. This could be fun.
He says he heard me speaking to the waitress and asks me where I’m from. I tell him I’m an American and return the question. He says he’s from Norway, his face lights up when I tell him I was just there.
What followed was close to two hours of conversation. He pays for all our drinks and does most of the talking, as he has a fascinating life story. He speaks eight languages, served in the Norwegian navy, started a travel company and sold it for millions, and is now retired and traveling the world. But he mostly talks about the time between his service and business career, when he was a rock star.
I call him that because, if his stories are true, he was. He played at Wembley stadium with Status Quo and toured with them for nine months while their lead guitarist took parental leave. He played with a smattering of other bands all over the world. And he rubbed elbows with some of rock’s legends.
He had some very interesting things to say about some of the stars he spent time with.
“I hate Mick Jagger. I like talking to people. He only liked talking to girls, and then fucking them”
“Keith Richards was the real artist. He has the most intelligence and creativity.”
“Art Garfunkel is the most stupid man I have ever met. He had nothing interesting to say.”
I laugh hysterically and am awed by everything he says. But for all these adventures, I wonder why he is here alone on this island. He is a stranger here, an outsider. He is Polyphemus, the Cyclops that Odysseus encounters while the beast is alone on an island with his sheep.
Magne has both his eyes, but he is towering like the Cyclops. He has hit the bottle a little too early in the day, giving him the air of a creature without a purpose. He slurs his words as he sips another cocktail, sounding monsterish. This Cyclops has been alone on the island for too long, clearly he just needs someone to talk to.
He begins to tell me a story he just told me 45 minutes ago.
At one point he tells me his hair was once a meter long.
He calls over the waiter and tells him to play “Ain’t Complaining” by Status Quo, which he says he co-wrote. While the upbeat rock music flows out of the cafe and Magne jams on his air guitar, I whip out my smartphone and take to the internet.
Turns out the wonderfully belligerent Cyclops-esque Magne either didn’t co-write the song or wasn’t credited. So…it’s hard to separate the truth from what is simply an old man embellishing his life story for young ears.
He did tell me one story that I can say for sure was 100% honest. The story was how his wife proposed, to HIM (!), at a pub in Bergen, Norway, 35 years ago.
“She stole my heart”
It’s a lovely story. He has an affinity for storytelling, embellished or not. He was wonderful company during a lazy morning in a cafe which spilled into the afternoon.
But the story just brings a certain someone to my mind. I explain to him that I just had to part ways with the girl I care about. She left the previous evening and I stayed, alone, on an island in the Aegean.
My favorite island nymph of all, Cathy made this trip so amazing and one I will never forget. Much like Penelope and Odysseus, her and I have had a long and difficult bout with logistics. Higher education is calling to her, pretty soon she will be in Cleveland for medical school. And my own journey is also in a bit of a flux.
It was the right decision. Long distance never works. That’s what I tell myself.
Saying it over and over doesn’t dissolve the deep lull of parting ways. One moment it’s bliss and exhilaration in a beautiful country, then nothing. It’s an emotionally jarring transition.
The actual goodbyes were the hardest part. I’m thankful for her and for the time we had together. Moving on will be an Odyssey in itself.