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Trip Report 1,000,001 Steps: Ups and Downs in Greece for 3 Weeks

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We started planning a trip to Greece in 2009 but did not go through with it for many reasons which included our continued love affair with Spain. Last year we started planning again and I was looking for something adventurous to celebrate my 45th birthday and new level of fitness (and hoping to get DH to improve his level of fitness as well). I decided (please note the use of singular) I wanted to hike down to the Grand Canyon. After a few months of trying I managed to get a 2 night reservation for a 4 person cabin in the beginning of July in Phantom Ranch. Score!! Or so I thought.

Let’s just say that the joyous news were not received with much enthusiasm at home. DH was not quite saying he did not want to do it but it was obvious he was just going along with the plan. Bottom line was that a few weeks afterwards he said, ‘Why don’t we go somewhere else instead? Weren't you planning a trip to Greece a couple of years ago?’. Whoa… GREECE! A million lightbulbs switched on simultaneously in my head. Oh yes. Needless to say, cancellations were made the next day.

And so, the planning started. I usually plan our trips for almost a year and I only had a few months. I dove into the Fodor’s archives. There seemed to be an obvious gap between 20010 and 2014 in Greek Trip Reports. I guess that the financial crisis and well-publicized protests deterred lots of folks from visiting the country for a while. I will only say to them: your loss.

After dozens of iterations and tons of help from the ‘Greece Regulars’ in Fodor’s, I finally decided on a plan for our 3-week vacation:

- Fly into Chania, Crete
- Ferry to Santorini
- Fly back to Athens and pickup rental car
- Road trip around the Peloponnese (Nafplio, Monemvasia, Aeropolis, etc.)
- Visit Delphi and the Meteora Monasteries
- Spend the last few days in Athens

This might seem crazy and hurried to a lot of people but it suited us perfectly. I guess I should give some more info on us and our travel style to put this in perspective:

- DH is retired, Swiss born, in his late 60’s and, most importantly, loves to drive through spectacular scenery. He is not intimidated by hairpin turns and 1,000 meter vertical drops. How he manages to actually drive and notice things is beyond me. I would say that his fitness level is a little over average but aside from our Sunday morning 4-mile walk at a good pace and physical labor around the house, he does not exercise regularly.

- I’m in my mid 40’s (yes, there is an age difference in there, it works great, so get over it.), I’m Puertorrican, I work full time at a rather stressful/ currently unfulfilling job, I do go to the gym and have picked up running over the last 2 years. And to my everlasting shame, I don’t know how to drive with a manual transmission. I'm also the travel planner.

- We are mid/low budget travelers. We strive for value. We seldom return to the hotel during the day so it really doesn't make sense to spend big bucks in a luxurious room. We eat breakfast but usually skip lunch or just have a few snacks. We do not eat desserts. We love, love, love to sit down in cafes and people watch with a glass of wine (or more). Food is very important to us.

Getting There – September 26-27

Living on an island, getting anywhere requires at least a 3hr flight, but getting to Greece seems not to easy from anywhere. Search engines consistently returned 0 results for San Juan to Chania or Heraklion. So we finally opted for a round trip to Athens and then purchased the other flights separately.

I had not flown with Delta for quite a while and was pleasantly surprised with the plane itself and the level of service. We had a 6hr layover in Athens so we scouted out the metro but chickened out of venturing into Athens. We purchased our Heraklion-Santorini ferry tickets at the travel agent and basically stoically endured the wait.

The flight was a bit bumpy but the views as we flew into Crete were quite nice. In less than an hour after landing we were seated in the taxi. And what a taxi ride it was. Wow. Trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles were coming from all sides. The kid driving the taxi kept playing around with his GPS trying to find the hotel.

The adrenaline finally broke through the foggy walls of my jet lagged brain and I realized that I had instructions on how to get to the hotel as it is located in the pedestrian area of the town. We got dropped off in the square and pointed in the direction of the hotel. This route involved more than one flight of stairs through the crowded streets carrying luggage, it was only later that I realized that their instructions were for a much easier route.
Almost 36 hours after departing from home we arrived at Palazzo Ducca tired, jet lagged and hungry. This combination is usually not a great mood enhancer but the warm welcome and pretty room soon improved the energy and enthusiasm levels.

http://www.palazzoduca.gr/

We dropped our bags, and headed out to explore (really trudge along) and (mainly) prevent ourselves from taking a nap that would result in prolonging the jet lag recovery period. The temperature was in the mid 50’s and the wind was blowing so hard that most of the harbor waterfront restaurants had just given up and closed. The Venetian harbor was just like Venice in acqua alta. Flooded. And waves on top of it.

We found a café out of the wind and sat under the nice heater for our first glass of Cretan red. We entertained ourselves people watching but our energy level was on a steady decline. It was time to give up, get an early dinner and go to bed.

The hotel was close to a restaurant that had been recommended in Matt Barret’s website (http://www.greecetravel.com/ which BTW is a great resource) and decided to give it a try. It was packed but we only had to wait about 10 minutes for a table.

Knowing that we were not at our best we kept our expectations low. But Tamam was awesome. We shared a delicious and perfectly dressed salad, DH had lamb in a tomato sauce served the flat bread and I had a similar rice but with the most delicious, smooth and rich eggplant puree ever. Complimentary raki and small portions of a moist semolina cake with a very sophisticated taste were given. Though we don’t usually eat desserts, we actually ate the whole thing. And drank the raki.

We returned to our hotel and were asleep within minutes of laying on our very comfortable beds.

Next: Relaxing for a day before the big hike or it's all downhill from here now.

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    Debbie, I know!!!! I lol when I saw the picture of the wool carder. We were there just hours before too!

    Ian, yes! And it makes me happy that it is picking back up as a destination. The country is gorgeous and the people are just amazing.

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    Day 2 – September 28th: Chania

    After a night of intermittent sleep (afterwards I figured out that raki is really not good for my sleep) we finally rolled out of bed around 10:00am. After many travel blunders I have learned over the years not to plan anything too aggressive on the post-arrival day, so there was not much in the daily schedule.

    We sat in an outside café to have our coffees and lazily watched the progression of the world. It was warmer than the day before but the wind was still blowing hard. The waterfront cafes were still having a hard time as the waves would splash the people walking by and even sprinkling a bit over their wind guards.

    We spent the day just moseying around the hundreds of stores in the pedestrian area in between plunking down in restaurants. Coffees were followed by beer and beer was followed by white wines. We decided not to walk to the lighthouse because the waves were too strong but we did go up to the little fortress hill.

    Chania is just delightful. Incredibly photogenic yet very atmospheric. We both loved just being there.

    I never really got around to figure out how to do this on our own so we went by a travel agent and bought tickets for a ‘tour’ to Samaria Gorge for the next day, though it was quite unclear if the wind would allow the ferry at the end to sail.

    For dinner we went to a hotel recommendation, Chrisostomos. This is a place you are not very likely to walk by as it is in the outskirts of the tourist area and it is not huge. It was just around 8:00PM and we got the last available table. They had reservations for the rest of the evening. They are known for their roasted dishes and they lived up to their reputation 100%. The first house wine we had was barely drinkable but when we told them we did not like it they brought out a delightful Cretan red.

    Presentation is not their thing, but they certainly deliver in execution. The tomato salad was an ode to simplicity and the beauty of ingredients. Their bread basket was quite good. But I cannot say enough about the roasted lamb and lemon potatoes. They did not look like much on the plate but finesse of seasoning and roasting technique were clearly present. Though we had the same dish again in other places, none were better than theirs.

    Complimentary raki and desserts were offered and consumed. The tab was under 40€. Superb value.

    We bought some sandwiches to pack for our lunch tomorrow and happily crashed in our comfy bed.


    Day 3 – September 29th: Samaria Gorge

    There are many things I would do different if I had a chance to repeat this day but first I’ll tell how it actually happened.

    For those unfamiliar with it , the Samaria Gorge is a 13Km hike through a very scenic national park. You start up in the village of Omalos and descend 1,250m to the village of Agia Roumeli (3Km further away from the park exit). From there you must go by ferry to Sougia or Sfakia where there are buses to take you back to your point of origin.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samari%C3%A1_Gorge

    We walked the empty streets of Chania at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to the place where we were supposed to meet the tour bus. We had a coffee at Everest, a somewhat Subway-like chain present throughout Greece. The bus arrived at 5:59 and the guide told us that it was still not certain if the ferry would sail.

    We would only know when we got to Omalos and the park people would then decide with the ferry people if we were allowed to go in. If not, we would then be bused to a different gorge where we would hike for a few hours. We were not crazy about Plan B. The wind was really blowing but after a little hesitation we decided to give it a try.

    I don’t get carsick (or seasick) easily but those curves, at top speed, in the complete pre-dawn darkness in a stuffy bus had me worried for a while, I was definitely queasy. The girl seating next to us was decidedly an alarming shade of green.

    We got to Omalos and the guide went to ask if we would be allowed to enter, he told us he thought it was unlikely. But to his great surprise, we got a go!

    It was still pre dawn and cold (upper 40’s) and windy. Some of people in this group were slightly unprepared and others were completely unprepared. Three young Spanish kids were in shorts. The guide handed out hiking poles and a few pieces of extra clothing. He repeated many times the latest hour that we should arrive at each of the three checkpoints and the final meeting point.

    Formalities concluded, we set off. Downhill. As in straight down. As in down a 3Km long stair. With uneven steps and slippery rocks. The kind of terrain where you cannot go down and look at the scenery. Now, I knew the elevation change but I had not really visualized the actual profile of this descent. Most of the 1250m is lost on those first kilometers.

    What disappointed me during this part of the hike was that although the view of the gorge was nice, it was not really spectacular. You only see the evergreen forest as it plunges down the ravine and once in a while you catch a glimpse of the riverbed waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down below.

    Though I am a strong walker I am not a confident ‘stepper’ so even with my trusty hiking poles it was a bit stressful for me and made for very slow progress. Don’t get me wrong, it is pretty but IMHO, this section is just not worth the effort unless you just want the ‘bragging rights’..

    To make matters worse, DH started feeling his knees around 2.5Km into the hike. We continued slowly ahead without worrying too much about our pace as we knew that some of the group members were still behind us. The guide showed up around the 4Km mark and told us we should pick up the pace a bit. We were now the last in the group as he had sent back everyone behind us.

    By the time we made it to the 6Km mark DH’s knees, which had never, ever been a problem before, were decidedly hurting. And we still had 9Kms to go in the park and 3 more to the village. Turning back was not an option as it would have involved the CLIMBING of all those steps. No way but forward.

    Thankfully two things happen around that marker, although the path never really gets flat and remains rugged until the very end, it is not as steep and the truly scenic part of the hike starts as soon as you get near the riverbed.

    We did pick up the pace as I was worried about DH’s knees and sometimes it is better in injury management to opt to finish as soon as possible over reducing impact. We did not finish last.

    To make the long story short(er), we managed to get to the end of the park and still somewhat enjoy the magnificent views of the narrow gorge. It still took us 6 hours to make it down. We opted to pay the 2€ bus to shuttle us the 3km between park and village. This is a smart choice even without injury as it is not scenic at all.

    We plunked down around 2:45pm in the meeting point restaurant and the guide got some ice packs for DH as well as some anti-inflammatory ointment (regular strength Voltaren requires a prescription in the US and extra strength is OTC is Europe, go figure).

    Most of the groups were relaxing on the beach but it was too cold for us Caribbean folks so we just stayed in the restaurant until the ferry tickets were handed out. The boat ride to Sougia was very pretty and from there we picked up the tour bus back to Chania.

    No one got really queasy since most just slept the whole way. Back in Chania we stopped in the pharmacy to get some Voltaren, dropped the things in the hotel and opted for dinner at the restaurant next door.

    We shared a plate of fried calamari (decent) , DH had pork souvlaki (good) and I had a warm Pasticcio (lets go with forgettable to be kind). Hot showers and sleep promptly followed.

    What I Would Do Now That I Know Better

    Hindsight is 20/20 so this is what I would do on the very unlikely chance that we go to Samaria again:

    - Skip the tour and go on our own, the time pressure was completely unnecessary though somewhat understandable
    - Although it would be a longer hike and a back and forth the same way I would start in Agia Roumeli and hike INTO the gorge as far as where the path joins the riverbed. This way you get all the views without the killer descent.

    Next: Have I just messed the rest of our vacation?

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    Great report so far. We loved our trip to Greece and are glad to see everyone else enjoying their trips as well. Excellent information on the hike--I'm filing that for our someday visit to Crete.

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    Enjoying your report! I hate to say it, but I think the weather got better after you were there. I think we were a week or so behind you, and it was pretty nice overall.

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    marigross

    Your description of the gorge walk makes me so glad that we didn't attempt it. With my trick knee (down is the worst) and my wife's fear of slipping and falling . . . yes, I am glad we passed. Thanks for the honesty.

    Ian

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    Thanks for the report Marigross. Enjoying it, and we were also in Chania this year! Haven't done the Samaria Gorge yet although it is on the list for the future, and thanks for the honest and informative account of your hike there. I would not quite have been expecting that, and forewarned is forearmed... Jane

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    Enjoying your report as it brought back memories of our 2011 visit. We were lucky in that we stayed with friends who have a second home in Chania. The gorge hike is a killer. Legs hurting for days afterwards. George was born in the village of Lakki and his parents also had a "summer" home in Omalos. One of Dimitra's closest friends owns the large building right before you enter the gorge for the hike. It sells all sorts of stuff as well as food and drinks. We were there June-July 2011. I hope you got to try some bougatsa-food eaten mainly for breakfast-dough with cheese inside and topped with or without sugar. it's so yummy! Also a good white wine to try would be the Clos de Creata.

    Looking forward to reading more as we also did Santorini and rented a car for Nafplio, Olympia, Delphi, and Kalambaka/Meteora. Athens was at the beginning and end of our month long trip to Greece.

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    Whenever I read about people's aches & pains after Samaria, I count my blessings that I was not seduced by ballyhoo about "the Gorge" (Note: there are over 20 gorges in Crete, and at least 4 major ones that are alternatives to the highly-promoted Samaria. It's only that there are few commercial day tours to the others). A few years back in my upper 60s, we opted for Imbros Gorge in Mid-May. NO crowds... in fact we saw about a dozen people in toto all the way down. The greenery was lush, the smell of thyme was hypnotic (I felt as if I were a leg of lamb in a sunny oven), the flowers were lovely, the wildlife (goats, hawks) numerous ... AND, down near the end, the gorge narrowed dramatically, to a small area where one could almost touch both sides -- perhaps a long-armed basketball player could do it.

    The bonus: the walk was half as long as Samaria or less. We stopped for a picnic lunch half way and it still took us about 4.5 hrs. The footing was challenging -- because the rocks could be the size of volleyballs, and a stretch of baseball-size rocks was a treat -- but good shoes and a stick helped. AND, the Germans who passed us using TWO trekking poles each were really loping along. At the end of the gorge, a small taverna gave us chilled drinks under a tree, and we walked along a road for about a km down to a beachside taverna where taxis waited. We took one back up the rimside road (20-30 switchbacks!!) to our car at Imbros. Lovely memories, and NO aches and pains the next day.

    The ONLY drawback is that as far as I know, no organized tours available for the carless. There's only 1 bus per day from North Coast to Hora Sfakion, bout 14:00, stay the night, get a taxi up to the top of gorge next day, walk down, then stay o'nite again and get 7 AM but on day 3. A real hassle. Worth a 1-day car hire instead.

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    Day 4 – September 30th: Change of Plans or the Most Expensive Cheap Car Rental Ever (Part 1)

    No wake up alarms were set for this morning. After a good night’s sleep we lingered in bed, checking emails, reading our home newspaper on the tablet, posting silly selfies to Facebook, you know………. The kind of thing that you do while postponing the moment when you have to actually put weight on your legs or knees. But bladders will only allow procrastination so far.

    I bravely sat in bed and put my feet on the ground. Feet did not hurt, ankle was ok (I’ve had issues before), knees were fine; upper body no problem. It was time to stand up. Yup, calves and thighs were sore like crazy but I managed to wobble unsexily into the bathroom.

    Having a stronger bladder, DH held out for at least another hour but he too eventually had to obey the call of nature. It was not good. Calves and thighs were very sore but the knees were bad.

    The plan for today was to pick up the car we had rented at a very favorable price via Kayak through a formerly unheard-of broker named Car del Mar and routed to Olympic Rentals. We were supposed to drive along the Western coast and spend the day making our way to Elafosini beach.

    Since I cannot drive a manual transmission and Cretan mountain roads are most certainly not the place to learn, the only available driver was DH. It did not take much deliberation of the Trip Planning Board to come to the conclusion that this was clearly not going to happen. We would spend the day relaxing in Chania and reevaluate the situation the next day. Or the next. Or the following week, who knew at the moment?

    We had breakfast in the hotel (very decent for 6 € pp) while I continued haunted by images of the steps down to Amoudi Bay in Santorini, up to the Palamidi fortress in Nafplio and endless staircases of the Meteora monasteries. Panic began to set in but was firmly shut down by reason: ‘It will be what it will be. Ok. Not every trip has to be perfect. Ok. There can always be a next time. Exhale.’

    The day had actually begun to clear up and wind was more manageable as we slowly and gingerly made our way to the rental car place to see if we could pick up the car the next day instead as we were not going to use it.

    So we get to the rental car place and tell the kid that we would like to change the rental agreement. Off he goes to the supervisor at the end of the hall. We get looked at. Kid comes back. ‘No, it cannot be changed as this is a prepaid agreement.’

    This is when that cheap price begins to be not as good. The way the contract works (and I was aware of this) was that cancellations are allowed up to 48 hours before the rental period and then a full charge is made to the credit card.

    Ok, well, no problem, we just thought we would ask. I can read a contract. Or so I thought.

    We make the next request: ‘Can we then still pick up the car tomorrow so that we don’t have to drive around and look for a parking?’. Kid goes down the hall again. Nope, we need to remove the car from the parking they rent from a nightclub before 8:00PM. Ok. And then he adds ‘It will be 70€ for the drop-off in Heraklion.’……………. WHAT!?!?!

    I will say in my defense that I was overworked and stressed out around the period that I made these car reservations. My –incorrect- assumption was that if I put in pick-up place ‘Chania’ and drop-off place ‘Heraklio’ the price would include the different location fee already as every single other time I have done this.

    Quick review of the contract revealed in font size 2.5 that the fee had not been included. No way of getting out of it. So we ended up paying 20€ more than the next cheapest quote I had before making this reservation as well as having the car for one more day than we actually needed. However, this is only Part I of the Tale of the Most Expensive Cheap Rental Cars Ever, Part II will take place in Athens.

    So we got into the car and DH managed to drive it to the big public parking lot without too much pain. We slowly made it back to the old harbor and were pleased to see that we could actually walk on the waterfront without much risk of getting soaked by waves.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon making a slow progression all the way to lighthouse and back which included a few stops to enjoy Cretan white along the way. We returned to the hotel to apply more anti-inflammatory medication and rest before going to dinner.

    We asked for recommendations for a fish place and were pointed out to the new harbor. DH didn’t want to go so far or take a cab. The other place that was recommended was hosting a very loud and wild private wedding party (looked fun though) so we went down to my backup list of recommendations from Matt Barret’s Guide. Xilouris (Ta Neoria) is located almost at the end of the waterfront towards the lighthouse, before the nautical club (btw, the yacht club is the best place to hang out and watch the sunset Chania!).

    The restaurant was lively but not rowdy. The inside tables were reserved for a large group but it was (barely) warm enough to sit outside without a heater so we took the table offered. We ordered grilled calamari and fried anchovies to get us going. They were both delicious.

    Encouraged by the great two plates and copious amounts of wine on mostly empty stomachs we ordered seafood risotto, fried vegetables and, another plate of grilled calamari. Way, way too much. The vegetables were not that great, a bit soggy and under seasoned. The rice we got was nowhere anywhere near close to being a risotto by any Italian definition, it was more like a very bad Spanish Arroz Caldoso.

    We picked on the seafood itself but the rice was inedible. Its texture was a disaster and taste was not appealing at all. The calamari was still good but we had just had too much and it wound up being eaten by the very appreciative begging cats that seem to be ubiquitous in Greek restaurants.

    We got some complementary raki, fruit and cake. We happily wobbled back to the hotel and crashed for night hoping DH’s knees would feel better tomorrow.

    Overall, there are far worse places in which to have to take a ‘down’ day than Chania.

    Next: Cretan Roads and Monastery Steps

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    Thanks to all for the replies!

    cold, you are going to have to wait to find out ;)

    Jan, that hike sounds wonderful!

    Overall, even with the knee pain affecting many things during the rest of the trip, DH still thinks the Samaria Gorge was one of the highlights. I don't really want to discourage anyone from going.

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    Day 5 – October 1St: The Road Trip is On!

    DH’s knees protested when he stood up from bed but he announced with a brave faint smile that he thought he would be OK to drive. Yay! We were on. The Plan would be salvaged.

    After a quick breakfast in the hotel we wobbled to the public parking and took off to get introduced with the Western coast of Crete. But first, an excerpt from my Greece 101 Notes:

    Driving in Greece

    We are old-school drivers: we rely solely on maps. The paper kind. DH drives and I navigate. I had some unfortunate experiences with early GPS and never converted to paperless. I just love my maps.

    Having said that, we got lost once in this trip and had to ask several times for directions to find the road we wanted, we missed a few exits due to dubious signage and had to drive back significantly and we searched in vain for a Monastery that was very high on my list of things to see. But from what I have read, GPSs are easily confused in Greece either so it might have happened anyway.

    On this particular trip I found, even with the always consistent Michelin maps, that the color-coding of roads did not accurately reflect the condition of the road itself. For example, ‘Red Roads’ indicate state-owned roads that in the past I found to always have had two full lanes and one could count on keeping a consistent speed. This was NOT the case in Greece. We drove on ‘Red Roads’ that had no central lane markings and hairpin turns that could barely be taken without having to do a 3-point switchback.

    There is a system to driving in Greece. Do not mess with it and you should be alright. To paraphrase the late Julia Child, you just ‘be fearless’ (and purchase full insurance for ease of mind).

    - The most important point to this system is that you need to understand and accept that you do not own your lane. Lane lines are there simply to be considered as general guidelines. Embrace this concept and everything else will flow naturally.

    - Greeks drive fast but you don’t need to feel pressured. Move to the side into the shoulder and let them go by. Even in curves. Even in BLIND curves.

    - Two lane roads: Each driver straddles the shoulder line to their side of the row. At least 1/3 of the car needs to be on the shoulder at all times. Drivers will pass next to you (on both directions) on an imaginary third line in the middle. Even in curves. At any speed. Do not panic.

    - No lane roads: Same as the two lane roads but it is more important to drive as much as you can on the shoulder.

    - Highways: Though use of the right lane for passing only was consistent, people on the left lane still tended to straddle the shoulder line. Go figure. What happens when a car actually breaks down and needs to stop in the shoulder is anyone’s guess.

    - Do not panic when you see other cars passing vehicles in tight, blind curves where passing is clearly not allowed. They count on the other car straddling the shoulder, making enough space for them. This is why you also need to let go of your preconceived driving notions have at least part of your car over that line at all times. You might cause serious accidents without being at fault.

    - Always look for motorcycles. They come from everywhere at any time and speed. As far as we know, no rules apply to them.

    - We drove a couple thousands kilometers. Outside the big toll highways we saw a total of 2 signs with road numbers and one was wrong. Do not look for them and do not trust them. Study your map beforehand as all directions are given by town name.

    - 99% of the time there are signs with Latin letters following the ones in Greek. It is really not difficult.

    The Plan

    - Drive on E65 from Chania to Kissamos.
    - Stop in Falasarna and see the ruins
    - Take the coastal road south.
    - Visit the Chrysokaltisas Monastery.
    - Visit Elafonisi beach.
    - Return on the inner mountain road via Vathi – Elos – Topolia road where we would then hook onto the major road from Paleochora to Polemarchio.

    What Actually Happened

    Truth is it went pretty much according to plan except that we did not get out in Falasarna to see the ruins. The descent to the beach offered an almost 180º view of olive groves between the mountains. The entrance road to the ruins looked a bit too much to tackle with our little rental and DH was not up to walking in.

    The route to the Monastery was simply spectacular, mostly on No-Lane roads but they were in good condition. DH was able to tackle the hairpin turns without much knee pain. We stopped along the way for a glass of the (first of many) fresh orange juice.

    DH did tackle the 80 steps up to the Monastery. It was the first Orthodox church we visited and were duly impressed. The views from the top were also really nice.

    In Elafonisi we also opted out of going to the beach. There were tons of people still on the beach (day trippers and campers) and it would have been a long walk. We still had to think of the drive home.

    The inner mountain route that we took back ran along narrow ravines and gorges. World-class destination scenery. A must-do for road trip lovers. After a quick stop for orange juice and a shared Greek salad along the way we returned to Chania around 4:00pm.

    DH rested his legs for a while and then we went and saw one of the most spectacular sunsets of the entire trip while sitting in the Yacht Club close to the start of the lighthouse walk. As in wanting to tell people to forget that (in)famous Santorini sunset, instead go to Chania. At a much better bang for your buck. The sun gloriously sank behind the mountains, outlining the lighthouse in a million shades of orange and blue.
    Our last dinner in Chania was in To XANI. From the pedestrian street it is easy to miss the entrance but you will most likely be enthusiastically be invited in by the tiny dynamo daughter of the owner. It shares a courtyard with the old Synagogue.

    Not only was the food good, but the ambiance was so warm, happy and relaxing that I would have gone again (though it was not one of the cheapest meals we had). We shared an orange and avocado salad that I will certainly try to replicate at home. My goat stew was superb and DH’s lamb in tomato sauce was very good as well.

    They had live music, two older men singing traditional tunes with string instruments (technically not guitars but I’m not 100% what the correct term is). But the highlight of the night came from the guests on the table sitting next to the musicians. One of the men on the table started to sing along with them with a deep baritone voice filled with emotion. One did not have to understand the words to feel the longing for romantic love or deep love for the Motherland.

    His wife joined in, though she sang well, it was not at the same professional level as him. The songs were obviously well known and loved in the Cretan/Greek popular repertoire and more than once half of the tables in the courtyard and restaurant joined in to sing along. This moment will always remain in my mind as the embodiment of the Hellenic love of life and music. Needless to say, we lingered. Who needs to sleep after all?

    Next: Enter the Labyrinth and a visit with Earth Mothers

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    I agree paper maps work better in Greece than the GPS. I didn't get much use out of the one we used in The Peloponnese and Central Greece. Hope your knees are feeling better.

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    Loving your trip report...and so sorry we missed you by just a few days!

    We're pretty active hikers, and I have to say the Samaria Gorge was every bit as challenging as I'd expected. When we finished, I was content to sit in a Roumeli cafe and order tall Mythos bottles for a couple hours.

    Looking forward to the rest of your TR.

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    This is a great trip report and especially helpful as we are traveling at the end of May to Chania and then on to Santorini! I am anxiously awaiting the rest of your trip report.

    I know you mentioned a little about your fitness abilities in talking about the Samoria Gorge. May I ask your age ranges? I only do so to try and ascertain if we should try it. My DH and I are mid 50's - but will be with my daughter and SIL who are obviously younger!

    Thanks again for sharing. Love your writing style.

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    Continuing to enjoy your report. It is bringing back memories including the sore knee.
    Just a comment on using the GPS. You need a good map so you can study where you are going and then properly input the destination.
    One thing you have to know in Greece there are multiple places with exactly the same name so the map not only gives you the prefecture your destination is in but it also gives you the correct spelling of that location.
    Sometimes it is a good idea to input interim destinations so you can confirm you are going the right way.
    We did the Peloponnese and Crete using this method and our little Garmin (named Bernice) faithfully got us to our destination every time.

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    Thanks to all!

    Cindywho, I'm 45, DH is 68. Cardio is not a big issue on the Samaria hike, just stamina. It is the downhill portion that is quite challenging and it is hard to train for that.

    Also, people with depth perception issues (me) might not be quite comfortable stepping from boulder to boulder and stepping over the slat/log bridges towards the end of the hike.

    I have been actively working with my fear of heights for many years, now I can deal mostly deal with it without major issues. That said, I did not find the hike particularly stressful from that perspective.

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    T' the knees eased a little but remained an issue for the rest pf the vacation. Yesterday we went on a 3.5 mile flat walk and he still felt them though not too bad. :(

    We have driven the backroads of Spain and Italy, I will say that the Greeks are even a tad more aggressive than them. But then we live in Puerto Rico, where no holds are barred, lol. We are not much phased by aggressive driving.

    Stan, I remembered your TR with Bernice on the way to Meteora, lol.

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    Ah marigross you caught me.
    While Beatrice our little Garmin GPS performed flawlessly in Crete she displayed her fickle nature on our trip to Meteora. In that case we drove off our map which was only of the Peloponnese. That is when we realized that Greece as so many identical names all of them in different prefectures. A forensic audit of what went wrong discovered there were 7 Meteroras in Greece. You have to make sure to chose the right one. Thus my comment about having a good map so you can double check where GPS is taking you.

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    Day 7 – October 2nd: Santorini of the Thousand Blues

    From the moment I was old enough to browse through glossy lifestyle magazine or travel journals, I dreamt of Santorini. Pictures of bikini-clad jetsetters lounging on white villas with the endless sea as background on the pages of Hola! were as ingrained into my young brain as much as the geeky stories of mythical Atlantis, or the geological articles about the Volcano on National Geographic. Santorini……even the name itself I found intriguing. I could only follow with its Siren’s call. And a bit of a Siren it proved to be.

    We took the 9:45am ferry from Heraklion to Fira. One cannot go outside on High Speed Ferries and the view from inside is very limited. Investing on a club seat might be worthwhile in order to enjoy the beautiful approach into the Caldera, we did not know this so we did not. Regardless of your seat assignment you still have to be down by the ferry gate (I’m sure that this is not the correct term for the up and down thingy) with your luggage ready to disembark during the final approach as the docking, unloading and loading of passengers and departure takes less than 15 minutes.

    At the last moment I decided to book with the hotel the transfer from the port for 15€ pp because I thought (incorrectly) that we would be taken directly to the hotel, avoiding the navigational part of actually finding the hotel.

    The port of Thira/Fira was a madhouse. The transit through Fira town was chaotic to say the least. Even as far as Immerovigli it was still a bit crazy, though mostly due to the ferry-arrival rush hour. I was glad we were going to stay in Oia, the alleged ‘quiet’ part of the island.

    I will say that it was not the worse taxi ride of the trip, but only because our driver in Athens was actually BROWSING ON HIS TABLET for ‘Puerto Rico’ while talking on his phone as he drove a manual transmission through the hectic traffic of Athens lunch hour at 80kph. But it was a very close runner up.

    Having said that, I will add that the mastery of the art of driving exhibited by Greek bus drivers is above and beyond what I thought possible. They also seem to all have two separate cell phones AND talk into them at the same time. One for business and one for private? One for the wife and another for whatever? Who knows.


    Anyways, the point is that this guy successfully negotiated (defined as in not getting a single scratch into the shiny new van) with a manual transmission the many switchbacks of the ascent to Fira, while talking nonstop into either of his two phones, with full size buses coming from the top, mopeds and ATVs whirling everywhere and panicky tourists on rental cars blocking everyone’s way.

    Also, bus drivers seem to have a personal vendetta against ATV drivers. The Travel Planning Board was happy not have included any ATV or car rental in the schedule.

    The van was shared with another guy that was going to a different hotel so we got unceremoniously dropped off by the Oia bus station and pointed in the general direction where the hotel was located. Thankfully we are perfectly capable of schlepping our own luggage but it might have been a problem otherwise (this is a recurring theme in Santorini). With only two stops to confirm directions we found the gate to Hotel Aethrio .

    http://aethrio.gr/

    Santorini, or Oia for that matter, is not known to be a budget friendly destination so when I set my filter in Booking to the 60€ - 129€ range I had low expectations. We don’t use hotel rooms that much anyway so I was certainly willing to let go of the ‘private’ caldera view knowing that we could see the famous sunset from almost anywhere in town.

    Much to my surprise a few places with great reviews popped up. I was skeptical that I could actually get a hotel with a ‘Fabulous’ 8.8 rating in Oia, over a weekend, for 60€ per night with breakfast included. I checked, cross referenced and finally made the reservation.

    This little hotel exceeded all my expectations. It even has a rooftop shared terrace from which you can watch the sunset in semi-privacy. It also has a very-inviting, decently-sized pool with comfortable lounge chairs all around it. Wi-fi was available everywhere and at decent speed.

    And one of its most important features (given the bum knees): you don’t have to go a zillion steps up and down to get to the hotel or to your room in addition to all the ones you HAVE to take in order to see the town itself. Do not mistake what I’m saying here, it is not flat. We had at least 10 steps to go up and down. But by Oia standards this place could almost be considered ‘accessible’. We saw more than one disgruntled guest throughout town complaining loudly with the ups and downs to get to their very expensive rooms.

    One more thing about those expensive rooms that I have not seen mentioned anywhere. People might be inclined to ‘invest’ in those gorgeous ‘dream honeymoon’ rooms with the exclusive infinity pool overlooking the caldera with –ahem- romantic intentions requiring a bit of privacy. The problem with that is that those rooms with caldera views are arranged almost vertically down the cliff and therefore, every single person looking down from the main street, restaurants, or even hotel rooms higher up will have a perfect view into ‘private’ pool and terrace from above. Obviously some people don’t care, but forewarned is forearmed, just trying to keep up the informative part of this report, lol.

    Back to Aethrio now, the room had a very simple decoration but it was HUGE. It had a sitting area inside, a little balcony outside, a kitchenette (which seemed to be actually functional). The bed was the standard European hard bed he had been expecting but it was OK. The bathroom was also very comfortable and had ample hot water at decent pressure. Overall, two thumbs up and enthusiastic ‘Value’ reviews for this place. Would not hesitate to stay there again given the unlikely chance that we find ourselves in Santorini again.

    Our room was not ready yet so we left our luggage in the reception area and went into town to explore. Oia is probably in the Top 10 Most Photogenic Towns in… the world. Not the Photoshopped super model type of unreal prettiness. This is the real thing. Like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly kind of beautiful. Beautiful in haute couture evening gowns and diamonds as much as in girl-next-door daytime capris and blouse.

    There is no single shade to describe the almost physical sensation of being immersed in Santorini Blue. Here unimaginable of shades of lapis, sapphire, turquoise, cerulean, cobalt and indigo blues are set against the white village walls and the ultramarine sea. Just breathtaking.

    We randomly selected a place overlooking the castle and the endless sea to have a little lunch and calmly drink in the view. We had tomatoes stuffed with tuna, a glass of white wine and beer. At +20€, though good, it was obvious we were not in Crete anymore. After a while we felt revived enough to go back to the hotel and complete our check-in.

    And then reality struck.

    There are lots of people in Oia. LOTS OF PEOPLE. If this is ‘quiet’ Oia in the ‘shoulder’ season, I don’t want to be there from July to September. Not even for the views. I had (uninformed, unrealistic) expectations that Oia would be tranquil. And yes, it is certainly not party central, but even when the cruise crowds left there were still lots of people. Restaurants were not empty.

    Later, I inquired in the hotel and a few restaurants and was told the same by all. The season for tourist from America (not only US) and Europe does wind down towards the end of September. However, the Asian tourists begin to arrive en masse in October as most are only interested in scenic photography (and portraiture) and not in beaches or sunbathing. More on this later…..

    The absolute #1 Thing To Do in Oia is go to the castle and watch the sunset. And take pictures of it. And take pictures of yourself taking pictures of the sunset. As early as 4:30 the photography diehards start setting up their tripods and cordoning off their prime spot with multiple bags of high-end equipment and gadgets. Around 6:00PM the rest of the people start finding spots along the walls and terraces or settling in restaurants that overlook the caldera.

    Around 7:00PM the sunset begins to take dramatic colors and the streets and stairs of Oia become impassable with the crowd. Last minute photographers dashed in and jockeyed for position, scrambling in front of the tripods that had been carefully and lovingly put in place hours before. Arguments ensued and even more scrambling followed.

    I’m going to be honest here. It was a very beautiful sunset. It was a bit cloudy but still very, very pretty. But it is just as pretty as many other sunsets I have seen in beautiful settings. A collective sigh was expelled when the sun disappeared as thousands of bucket lists got the ‘Santorini Sunset’ item checked off simultaneously. The crowd broke into applause.

    The truth was that I enjoyed watching the people watching the sunset more than the sunset itself. Maybe it was the two particular sunsets that we got to see in Oia but, IMHO, this is not bucket list material. Or maybe I’m just the Sunset Grinch. The thing is that you do have to get there and see it in order to form your own opinion. Like Cinque Terre -which I will never, ever go to, again.

    We had somehow wound up halfway down the cliff so we decided to keep going down and see if we could have a reservation-less dinner in Ammoudi Bay. I told DH that if his knee was not up to it we could take a taxi back up.

    After many pictures and steps we were down by the water and went straight to Katina’s. For once the waterfront tables were empty and available as the wind had picked up and the nice warm daytime temperature was dropping rapidly. We were able to get a table in the back and settled in.

    Though probably the most expensive meal of the entire vacation, it was as good as I expected. We had a delicious Sea Food Salad, loaded with goodies and perfectly cooked fresh mussels in lemon sauce. DH tried a few more mussels during the trip but none compared with Katina’s

    I went with the waiter to the kitchen and picked a beautiful sea bass with gleaming eyes. It was just under a kilo and certainly more than enough to feed both of us. The preparation was as simple as it gets and relies solely on the quality of ingredients and a skilled hand at the grill. It was superbly seasoned with just salt and lemon juice. The meat was moist and flaky. It was heavenly.

    We also got complimentary vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and raki. Katina’s gets two enthusiastic thumbs up.

    It was time to leave and DH just headed straight back to the stairs leading to Oia. He was game to go up so up we went. Did I mention that copious amounts of wine had been consumed during dinner? After reading a few reports I expected the stairs to be totally dark but we found that the low lights –though dim- were sufficient to safely make it up. However, a little more light would have helped to avoid stepping in donkey dung.

    After stopping a few times to admire the view (and reoxygenate our bodies) we made it all the way to the top. Half drunk and happy as clams (or mussels) we wobbled back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

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    Wonderful description, both complimentary AND candid ... most newcomers to Oia are like you, they have to experience it for themselves, so I've given up explaining ... I do agree, it is a superb place for taking pictures (tho alas, not at sunset).

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    Your Santorini descriptions are spot-on--both the good and the bad. The sunset experience for us in May was very similar to one we had at Angkor Wat, sitting on top of a temple with thousands of other people awaiting the drama. Far more drama in watching the people than in seeing the sun set! But the Santorini environment is indeed jaw-droppingly beautiful. I couldn't stop saying "Wow!"

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    Day 8 – October 3rd: Walking the Edge

    The Travel Planning Board had a few alternatives for the one full day that we would spend in Santorini but the mild headache I had the day before turned out to be sinus pain and was giving all the warning signs of a head cold.

    I didn’t feel like taking the bus down to Akrotiri (though I still regret not seeing it) so If DH’s knee would have been 100% we would have done the full Thira-Oia walk but I still had to think of the many steps and miles of driving ahead of us during our vacation; time to reduce the scope. The Board decided we were just going to do the walk from Immerovigli to Oia.

    Since the temperature was very pleasant we did not have to hurry to avoid the heat and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the hotel. Dressed in shorts and under the clear, bright blue sky, we walked down to the station and took the bus to Immerovigli. Tickets are purchased on board.

    The trailhead was not obvious from town so we had to ask two times for directions until we found the path. The views of the caldera are breathtaking. The views of the towns are equally magnificent. Everyone that has the physical ability to do this walk, should.

    The trail surface changes from concrete with stones, to asphalt, to dirt, to gravel and stones. It also goes up and down. And up and down. And up and down. Just before the path joins the street, there is a steep stretch with just red gravel. It makes for nasty, slippery walking. I was wearing my not-so-pretty Skechers Go Walk 2 shoes (highly recommended) and they were at the very limit of adequate for the path.

    As soon as we were down by the street DH bailed out. The gravel was rough on his knees and he took the bus back to Oia. I kept walking on the trail all the way into town and savoring the drop dead gorgeous views. I think that even walking from Oia up to the highest vantage point by the little church is still very much worth it for people that don’t want to go on this hike. Also, I think that this last stretch is possible for anyone with a moderate level of fitness.

    I found DH lounging by the hotel pool and almost wished I had a bathing suit. Almost. We can lounge as much as we want back home. We found a place for a little lunch just next to the church and plunked down to people watch. Oh boy! Two hours of prime entertainment.
    It seems that in Asia and particularly in Japan it is a Real Big Thing to come to Santorini and have your wedding pictures taken. After a few inquiries we found that these are not destination weddings, just marathon photographic sessions that can last a few days and can take place years after the actual wedding. I’m estimating a single-day total of at least 30 couples.

    These young brides are dragging full length, puffy wedding dresses all the way to Santorini and joyfully posing for 100 shots every 25meters either by themselves or with their less enthusiastic grooms. We saw couples posing with professional photographers, some pairs of couples where they took turns taking pictures of each other, newlyweds by themselves using selfie sticks and tripod times to get their pictures. And then we saw an entire tour group of brides and grooms with full entourage. I guess that there must be serious money to be made within this niche.

    If one is not a bride, it seems that the Next Best Thing is to take pictures of yourself and your BFFs in long, billowing gowns with either wide brimmed hats and/or long scarfs flying in the wind. These are obviously custom made ensembles and I’m betting that some of them cost as much as the wedding dresses. Though they were the vast majority, long dress posing was not entirely limited to Asian girls.

    What really amazed me is that all this couples and girlfriend groups seemed to me to be very young. I cannot imagine how they can afford such a trip at that age. Either it is way cheaper to come to Greece from the East or it is part of the wedding gift from their families.

    I had expected Oia to be more of ‘glamorous’ destination, but aside from the wedding dresses and posing gowns, the tourists seemed to be very casually dressed and not fashionably at all. Maybe in August or late at night but certainly not in an early October afternoon….who knows. Enjoying the parade of humanity we lazy-ed the afternoon away until it was finally time dress in something warmer and head out for dinner.

    DH’s requirement for dinner was ‘not more than 20 steps down’. And he wanted a lamb shank. So based on those we selected Skala Restaurant. By now my sniffling was turning into a head cold and I was beginning to lose patience with smoking in general and smokers in particular. We moved tables 3 times before we found a relatively smoke-free spot. This became more of a problem as the trip progressed and the cold worsened. In case I forget to mention it (unlikely), by the time we reached Athens I was decidedly upset with the smoking. Maybe without the cold we would have been more tolerant but whenever a Greek asked what they could do to improve their tourism (asked more than once!) I just snapped: QUIT SMOKING!!!!!

    We had a good but not particularly memorable meal of a shared greek salad, lamb shank for DH (very good) and fish wrapped in paper (also good). No liqueur or desserts were offered. It was just around this time we began to miss Crete.

    We had to catch an early flight in the morning so we called it an early night and went to bed.

    Next: Misadventures in Renting Cars

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    We had a lot of Asian brides wandering during our stay in May as well. One morning as I relaxed on our balcony, I watched a bride & photographer make the long walk down & up to Skaros rock. She was in full long white dress & he was in a suit. I noticed that they didn't get to the tippy-top but it was still very adventuresome.

    Ian

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    Lots of Asian brides and grooms in September too. One coiple almost fell backwards off of a roof.
    When we were there last time, nine years ago, there were lots of weddings going on but don't remember all the posing for photos.

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    Day 9 – October 5th: The Most Expensive Rental Car Ever and Was that Corinth?

    We arranged a transfer to the airport with the hotel but we might as well have not, as we had to go wait for it anyway by the bus station/taxi stand. The flight was scheduled for 8:45am and we left the hotel before breakfast as we were told we needed to be picked up by 6:45am. The transfer bus showed up at the agreed spot by 6:59am. Did I mention that the taxi price goes down at 7:00am?

    The streets were mostly deserted so the taxi ride was blessedly boring. We got to the airport way early anyway and had to wait a good hour and a half for the flight.

    Aside from some ear pain due to my bad sinus congestion, the flight to Athens went without problem. Within 30 minutes of landing we were out in the Arrivals Hall…. A space we would become very familiar with over the next few hours .

    We looked around for an ‘Olympic Car Rental’ desk but it was not to be found. We asked around and were told that they did not have a fixed spot and that a representative would meet us in the Arrival Hall with our names on a sign. A detailed re-reading of the rental agreement, confirmed this given the fact that we now had a bit more content to understand the instructions. It had not been obvious to me before.

    No sign.

    Even though I had provided them with our flight number, I had put in the ‘pickup time’ as noon. It was just 10:50am. We figured the guy would arrive by noon. We would patiently wait until noon.

    12:00. No sign.

    12:15, 12:45…Ok. Did I mention that we did not have a cell phone?

    1:00pm. No sign.

    DH goes to one of the guys holding signs and one of them volunteers to call the rental company. ‘We are so sorry for the delay. Don’t worry, a driver will be there within 30 minutes with your car.’

    1:30pm. 2:10pm. No sign. DH goes to the very nice Information Desk girl and she lets him call the rental company again. ‘We are having troubles locating your reservation. Could you please call us again in 15 minutes?’ I start composing a seething email to the folks at Car del Mar, the rental broker.

    2:30pm,Nice Girl lets DH use the phone again. ‘We have not located your reservation but you can go to the Enterprise counter and we might be able to work something out with them.’ When DH asked the critical questions they replied, ‘We don’t know if we can honor the price or if they have any cars available at all.’

    He went to the Enterprise counter and indeed, no cars. I hit the send button on the outraged email thanks to the very nice Athens Airport free 1-hr free wi-fi.

    DH says $%$%#$ it. And goes off to the Avis counter and rents a car. For about 50€ more expensive than the $275 Budget reservation I had cancelled in favor of the even cheaper Car del Mar price of $240. The same agreement of 'cancellations allowed up to 48 hrs before and then it turns into a pre-paid’ as we had in Chania applied. That meant that it would be highly unlikely we would see our money again.

    So we finally drove out of Athens airport in the Avis car at almost 4:00pm. Visit to Achrocorinth scratched off, we headed to our destination for the next five nights, Nafplio. I still planned to stop to overlook the Corinth canal but we completely missed it to the point where we did not even realize we went over it. I’ll blame it on the car incident and the head cold that was rapidly worsening.

    Arrival in Nafplio was a bit chaotic as there was a massive gridlock in the Old Town caused by tour buses coming in opposite directions. With a bit of creative driving DH managed to park and we headed out on foot under the dark gray sky to find our hotel, Pension Eleni.

    I had specifically laid out our plans so that we would arrive in Nafplio on a Sunday afternoon, thinking that all the Greek tourists spending the weekend in town would have left by then. I did not realize that lots of them stayed until Monday morning and drove straight to work. So even if the weather was taking an obvious turn for worse, the town was still packed with foreigners and Greeks.

    Turned out we had parked rather close but had walked downhill instead of up. After about 1000 steps up and down the old town we found Eleni sitting in the reception room. She does not speak much English but is the wonderful kind of person that does not need to speak a language to understand or make herself understood.

    Our room was on the ground floor (appreciated in a very vertical town like Nafplio) with a decent view out the window and was big enough to move around, the double bed as well though pushed against the wall. The bathroom was adequate and had ample hot water. No breakfast offered though an electric kettle and a few basic supplies were provided. For €50 it was not bad at all.

    It was just around that time, as we were getting settled, that I paid attention to that nagging feeling I had over the rental thing. Within seconds I realized what had happened with the car. The Travel Planning Board had made a critical, rookie mistake. Today was the 5th of October. The Car del Mar and Olympic Car Rental folks were innocent.

    The Travel Board –me, myself and I- had made that reservation from MEMORY. Without looking at The Spreadsheet. I had made the reservation for pickup on October 6th. Of course it had been cheaper, it was for a day less than all the other searches I made. I was single handedly responsible for the loss of $241 AND the additional expense of close to €300. The $%$%$ Most Expensive Cheap Car EVER. AAAaaauuughhhhh...the shame for an experienced travel planner! I cringed thinking of the email I had sent.


    This realization did not improve my mood. Not at all. And snot was constantly running from my nose. And I had a slight fever. And it $%#$% to be sick on vacation. And DH’s knees still hurt. And I entirely missed the Corinth canal. And I was hungry. And the Greeks smoked. I did not have a complete melt down but I was darn close to it.

    After making the second pharmacy stop of the trip for syrup and cough drops we had a few pre-dinner drinks at a cool café by the lovely old church and then wandered around looking at menus.

    DH was beginning to hanker for some non-Greek food and wanted to go into a place with lots of pasta dishes on the menu. We settled on Christoforos, hoping for a repeat of its great namesake in Chania, but it did not happen. We had dolmades (I liked them DH did not) and grilled anchovies (we both liked very much) as appetizers and then I had Greek-style meatballs (really, really good) with mediocre pasta and DH had a barely edible and sad looking spaghetti Bolognese.

    Even with the less-than-perfect afternoon the evening was salvaged by the wonderful conversation we had with a Greek couple sitting right next to us. As we waited for the bill to brought and fed the last remnants of the anchovies to the resident cats, the husband asked us where we had been, where we were going to. We told them about our plans and how excited I was for my plans to visit Mykines (Mycenas) tomorrow. I told them about my Art History and Architecture background and it turned out that they were architects. They made a few suggestions for the rest of the trip.

    And then he asked if we had liked Greece. We replied that we had loved if so far. He then said something that hit so close to home that it still stings: ‘If you have liked Greece and want to help out Greeks as much as you can, please, ask for a Legal Bill whenever you pay.’ We showed him the handwritten bill we had just received and he said, no, that was not a Legal Bill. Those could be altered or not reported. A Legal Bill would be a printed strip.

    The thing is that I’m a Puertorican living in Puerto Rico, a US Territory that has been said by many, many financial analysts to be the US’s Greece. Tax evasion is almost a religious principle coming up only after love of God and Mother. In Puerto Rico you will almost never get a Legal Bill either. That is why we are just at the edge of an economic crisis of epic dimensions. No one will pay taxes. Not a cent paid in cash will ever be reported to the agency. We would rather pay a dollar in the informal economy than pay $1.07 legally and have those 7 cents go to the government's general fund.

    Taxes are only paid by Puerto Ricans, like me, on salary receiving a W1040 because there is no possible way we can deny it. It hit close to home.

    So we asked for the Legal Bill and the waiter’s demeanor completely changed. Not necessarily in a good way. We exchanged contact information and made informal plans to meet again in Athens.

    It turned out to be a wonderful evening. I sniffled and DH wobbled happily back to our hotel as the first drops of rain fell from the sky.

    Next: Acoustics, Lions and the Tomb from my Past

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    Very, very interesting--from Wedding Photograph Heaven to Car Rental Hell, and especially the insight on the Greek tax situation. I feel for you on the car rental--I think anyone who has traveled a lot has probably done something like that as well (mine was with a hotel reservation in northern Italy). Good on you for owning up to it. Did you send an updated email to the agency?

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    Day 10 – October 6th: The Grand Stage and Agammenon

    The morning was cloudy but the heavy rain we had had overnight had disappeared. The status check resulted in not-so-awful knees for DH and a full-blown head cold for me. I was not feeling great at all but I was so excited about the plans for the day that I didn’t even didn’t mind that much. At least I didn’t have a fever. Yet. But rain was again forecasted for the afternoon so we had to get going to ensure that we got our must-do list checked.

    We walked around town looking for a place to have breakfast and settled on la little nondescript coffee shop. When I don’t voice an opinion DH keeps selecting these ‘joints’…sometimes they are –ahem- not great and other times he hits paydirt. This was the good kind of joint. Kids from the school across the street popped in to grab a pie or some of the pre-made sandwiches, store attendants grabbed their freddos to go and older guys sat on the rickety chairs twirling their beads.

    This is where my love affair with anything ending in ‘kopita’ started. At home I usually don’t waste my calories on any kind of stuffed dough –sweet or savory- because I dislike the texture when it gets soggy oozy wet. But then, these pies are ubiquitous throughout Greece… it would only be fair to try one. ‘A spinach pie, please.’

    Now, this is the thing, Greek pies –spinach, mushrooms, yellow cheese or whatever- have deliciously creamy yet dry fillings and the most delicious crust that gives a nice, thick bite and miraculously retains its wonderful texture as you eat it. I will only say that these pies might have had a lot to do as to why I came back home with 6 extra pounds even with all the walking -though barrels of wine, full fat Greek yogurt slathered with fragrant honey might have also had had something to do with it. Oh, and soggy french fries (though those are not recommended).

    The first destination of the day was the archaeological site of Epidaurus. Phrased this way because there is so much more to this site than the Theater. Though that is the clear star of the show.

    There were only two tour buses and lots of RVs when we parked. And lots of cats. Should we talk about cats now? You might also want to know for perspective purposes that we are owned by three inside cats (furry babies would be a more accurate description) and a very demanding outside cat.

    I knew coming into Greece to expect feral cats everywhere but I was still surprised about a few things. First, there were not that many cats to be seen in Oia when I expected them to be sunning on every terrace. I kept thinking of a rather disturbing portion of a trip report from a few years back….

    Once we were in Crete we did begin to see cats hanging around restaurants. Most were young adult females and older males. I did not notice any young ones so the mothers must be catching enough to bring back to them.

    The panorama changed when we went into the Peloponnese, in addition to big older males we saw lots adolescent cats and kittens in completion for the food being tossed at them by –mostly- the tourists.

    Funny fact: there were cans and little bags of cat food by the registers in supermarkets next to chewing gum and condoms. (Yes, condoms. How very civilized not to have them in the most hidden corner of the store.)

    I expected the Greek stray/feral cats to be sorry, raggedy creatures but we did not see any sick or famished ones. I’m assuming that natural selection takes care of the ones that are not healthy or become injured. I realize that we were at the END of the season so the cats had had a chance to thrive for a few months, so the picture might be entirely different in the beginning of May.

    Greeks claim not to want to have anything to do with the cats and blame the tourist for feeding them thus creating the entire ‘cat problem’, which is then left for them to deal with. This is undeniably true. We even contributed to this ourselves, feeding table scraps to the cats hanging around. . However, we did see feeding stations and water bowls scattered through towns so there must be a few local individuals or organizations feeding them as well.

    However, we did not see a single cat with their ears clipped to show they had been neutered or spayed. So the one thing that could be done to really help the problem is not done. I realize that this might not be a priority at times of crisis but it is still very sad to know that every 4 months a new litter of kittens will be born to replace the ones that do not survive the winter.

    Please remember to adopt, never buy and ALWAYS spay or neuter. Off my soapbox now and on to the matter at hand.

    Epidaurus

    Once we were inside the site we headed straight to the theater. There are two ways to go up, a long slope rampart and then, further in, a flight of stairs that joins the slope almost at its end. This was the first of many sites where we saw some of the elderly struggling, huffing and puffing, to make it up. We took the stairs.

    Either way, the entrance to the theater is magnificent. I had seen lots of pictures of it before hand and know it to be ‘perfectly preserved’. It –IS- so perfectly preserved/restored that you feel that you are just walking into ancient times.

    You approach from the bottom and enter into the center ‘stage’ where you are surrounded by this splendid example of ingenuity and beauty. Its glory resides in the absolute perfection and simplicity of proportions as it elegantly rises in a half circle.

    We sat through two tour guide demonstrations of the perfect acoustics. They tapped a rock against the center stone, ripped a sheet of paper and murmured. All could be clearly heard at the very top row. A few enthusiastic persons started singing but were immediately hushed by the attendants.

    We spent at least two more hours visiting the rest of the site and the small but interesting museum. We both enjoyed them very much and highly recommend the site. This is naturally colored by its being our first classical destination, but in retrospect it still remains one of our favorites from the trip.

    But we needed to make haste as the rain was threatening and I wanted to make it to our next destination before it really started coming down.


    Mycenae

    Oh! To finally meet Agamemnon! Images of Iliad flashed through my mind…though I always routed for the Trojans. I was so excited not only because of this, but also because in my second year of History of Architecture class I had chosen to make a model of the Treasury of Atreus (a.k.a the Tomb of Agamemnon) as my final project. I was very well acquainted with this place and its wonders.

    What Art or Architecture History books do not show you is the absolutely magnificent setting of the Mycenaen Acropolis. Wow. This site is worth visiting only for the view. There are some historical events –involving warfare in particular- that one cannot really understand until one visits the place where they took place or at least one alike.

    Impregnable. The concept can only become clear in situ.

    The old town is set at the top of the mountain and is surrounded by ravines that if they were any steeper they would be cliffs. Even goats would have problems reaching the city walls from underneath. Though not 100% accurate, it seemed to me that only sickness, thirst and famine could overtake the ancient city.

    The stonework is impressive, but then you think about the many centuries that have gone by since they were quarried, cut and set in place and it really becomes mind boggling. A portal through time that lets one peek into the ancient glory. Crossing the Lion Gate took my breath away. Climbing into town left me speechless.

    DH soldiered his way up the hill but though he enjoyed it he did not share the passion and his knees hurt. The site is steep and has many ups and downs on rocky paths and metal grills. It certainly contributed to our 1,00,001 steps.

    When we were at the highest point it started raining and we took shelter by the cistern entrance. DH stayed up and I went down halfway using my phone flashlight but then chickened out. After waiting about 20 minutes we ventured out and made our slippery way down as far as the Lion Gate where we had to wait again. Another 20 minutes and we made it to the museum. I found it not to be that interesting but that might have to do with my being tired, a little bit wet and sneezing, wheezing and sniffling.

    We went back to the car and went down the hill to the Tomb of Atreus, the finest beehive tomb in existence. It seems to be the work of Titans. It was everything I expected and more. Being inside made my eyes mist with emotion (remember I am quite biased on this one). I admired the elegant roof rising effortlessly into the crowning stone, simplicity at its best.

    After ogling and wowing to my heart’s content we made our way back to Nafplio under a steady gentle rain. There was not going to be any exploring the fortress this afternoon. We found a place for pre-dinner drinks while we pondered our dinner options.

    Now, we love pizza. We faithfully go for pizza every week. I’m a great cook but that is one of the few things I don’t make at home. DH wanted a pizza.

    He had hoped to find good pizza everywhere in Greece, ‘just like in Germany where all the great pizzerias are owned by Greeks’. This had so far failed to materialize but we found some rave reviews in TA for a pizzeria in town, Scuola Pizza Bar and we headed out to it. I’ll get on my ‘How Much I Hate TA Restaurant Reviews’ soapbox later.

    The salad was great, the wine was good, the pizza….was acceptable. The toppings were good but the crust tasted somewhat of Pillsbury rolled pizza dough. Which is not that bad, if you are making pizza at home and are OK with settling for the premade stuff. And it came out in 10minutes of ordering as we were just digging into the salads.

    Bottom line, it was good but does not get a two thumbs up raving review. At least is satisfied DH’s hankering for pizza.

    Next: Are we in Tuscany? And Searching for the lost Monastery

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    Day 11 – October 7th: A Roll through the Neman Vineyards

    It was raining in the morning. Really raining. My head cold was worse and DH was sniffling. His knees were sore but not hurting too bad. I had several alternative plans for the day but heavy rains were scheduled for the afternoon, limiting the choices. Hydra was out. Maps and spreadsheets were consulted and the Trip Planning Board made a decision.

    We made our third visit of the trip to the pharmacy (a few more were still in our future) and left with a package of good old Panadol Cold & Sinus, the real formulation, the one with pseudoephedrine that cannot be sold anymore in the US because it can be used to make crystal meth. The one that actually works. Yay! We also got some more cough syrup, a Nasonex nasal spray (obviously without a prescription) and chewy tablets for sore throat.

    The rain was beginning to subside so we walked around and found a place for breakfast. I had a spinach pie and DH had a humongous egg, ham, cheese and salad wrap that would stay with him for the rest of the day and remind him every so often of its location within his digestive system.

    During the planning stage for this trip I read countless trip reports and advise posts from the Greece regulars. All agreed that Ancient Nemea was one of the semi-secret jewels of the Peloponnese. So I had included it as an ‘if-we-have-time’ item on my list.

    I will be concise on this one. Go there! 100% Whole heartedly recommended. This should be a top destination for anyone in the area. I was skeptical on all those ‘Skip Olympia and go instead to Nemea’ posts. They were dead on.

    The drive itself was gorgeous. To the point where I could have passed the pictures as if they had been taken in Tuscany. A connoisseur might have detected a little bit more ruggedness in the landscape but otherwise, we might have been driving through hills around Piensa (one of my favorite places in the planet so this is a raving recommendation).

    We were greeted in the almost empty parking lot by the resident Nemean Lion; it was really a big, scruffy looking dog but I’m sure he perceives himself as a more of a noble beast. The museum was quite interesting and we visited it leisurely. Until a bus full of Italian teenaged students showed up. It was clearly time to go see the ruins.

    I cannot say that we had the place to ourselves as there were other people in the site; a grand total of 5 (the students were still in the museum).

    The site is big, lovingly maintained, and particularly well curated. This is good as most guidebooks only provide a few paragraphs of information about Nemea, if any. The partial reconstruction of the temple was as good –actually even better with the possible exception of the Temple of Apollo Epicurious in Bassae (more on that later)- as any to be found in other well-known sites.

    Also, since it is very flat it does not take much physical effort to make the tour. Two sick people, one with sore knees, notice this kind of things. I think that strollers or motorized wheelchairs might even make it here.

    But in my opinion, the crown jewel of this site is a few hundred meters down the road: The Stadium. Though not as accessible as the main site, I think it can be managed by most. It is located in a natural depression and the backdrop is just plain beautiful. It did not have a lot of seats as the audience sat on the steep hills surrounding the arena. The tunnel used by the athletes to enter the stadium from the ‘locker room’ is perfectly preserved.

    I will end the suspense and just say it: Nemea is everything that Olympia is not. Although the museum in Olympia is really awesome so that you might still want to go there.

    It was still early in the afternoon so we looked for other possible destinations in the map. Aha! Daphni is near. Isn’t there a monastery? So we proceeded to drive for about 2 hours through spectacular scenery and winding roads. No one in town ever heard about big churches or monastery. I have a nagging suspicion that we were just in a namesake town. Complete failure of the Travel Planning Board. But again, the drive through Tuscan-like vineyards was worth the useless detour.

    And then it began to rain. Like they meant it. As in streets flooding within 5 minutes.

    It was obvious that there would not be any more sightseeing that day so we headed back to Nafplio under a deluge. After waiting more than 20minutes in the parked car we just decided to make a run for it into the nearest restaurant.

    The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent dashing from one café to another under the rain, first drinking warm tea and then switching to red wine at a barely socially acceptable hour. Dinner was had in a nondescript restaurant selected for its closeness to the hotel than anything else. Greek salad, Pork Souvlaki, double doses of Panadol Cold & Sinus and copious amounts of cough syrup rounded up the night.

    And that was how we spent 4 nights in Nafplio and never made it up the fortresses. So those were a couple thousand steps that were sadly not taken.

    Next: The Underground Boat, The Towers of Vathia and The Best Sunset in Greece

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    PS I know you are not crazy about heights. I had a hard time at the bottom of the climb up to the main fortress. It got a little better near the top (just in case you ever return).

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    Another tip for the fortress ... if you have a car, or are up for a €6 taxi ride, just drive up the BACK way to Palamidi (all its conquerers went that way anyway), and walk DOWN the steps ... it still will give you achey knees but easier in the huff & puff department.

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