TRAVELS IN GREECE – PART 1
We travelled for two and a half weeks in Western Crete, (based in Chania and Loutro), Folegandros and Santorini in early May of this year and had an amazing trip. After our first vacation in 2005 when we fell in love with the Greek Islands we scrapped the idea of Italy for our next trip and decided to return to Greece. We want to go back again. Since we obtained so much great information from this Forum, I thought I’d contribute some travel reports.
To put us in context - we are David and Kathy, aged 48 and 47, hailing from Northern Ontario Canada. We are in good physical shape, interested in moderately adventurous, off-the-beaten-track travel, with some hiking, eating lots of good food and sipping great local wine, and splitting our time between attacking the popular tourist sites and wandering off to savour the local atmosphere. An entire afternoon at a Taverna by the seaside is as important as seeing the Acropolis and the local museum. We hate driving. Slow travel is our mantra. That’s us.
(A warning, the first part of this installment involves our tale of packing and travelling which you may find tedious or hopefully, mildly amusing.)
IN THIS INSTALLMENT we discover the following truths:
1. We are not the Smartest Bunnies In The Forest when it comes to packing for a three week trip to the Greek Islands.
2. Charles de Gaulle airport was designed by the same people that make the ingenious Roach Motel. You can check in, but whether or not you can then find your way out remains in the hands of a higher force.
3. The Greek Shrug is an art form which can, in a nano-second, convey an amazing variety of sentiments from “I’m so sorry you just severed your limb and urgently require medical attention but I’m having my coffee right now” to “I’m so sorry that you have 25 minutes to catch your Olympic Airlines Flight but this 1,000 strong snaking mob of people in front of you is the Greek way we do things – so get in line buddy and hope for the best”.
4. Greek food is most excellent and Greek wine is a “Good Thing”, (as Martha would say), and it is best to seek out the Tavernas where the local Greeks are eating and not the empty places with the glossy laminated pictures of “Greek Food for Dummies” located at the entrance.
5. Porto del Colombo is a great hotel in Chania which we would recommend highly but if you are not the Smartest Bunnies In The Forest (see Number 1 above) ask for a room on the first floor to avoid carrying 72 kilos of luggage up (and back down) three flights of stairs.
6. Western Crete is a wonderful, spectacular, unique part of Greece with friendly people and incredible natural beauty and the old town of Chania is picturesque and charming.
Packing Cubes, Ballistic Clad Meteors, Not the Smartest Bunnies in the Forest:
I was never very good in physics. Apparently I’m also fuzzy on the whole conversion of pounds to kilos thing as well. So, when the nice lady at the Air France ticket counter in Toronto informed us that we would be required to fork over $100 to get our two overweight bags on the plane, or otherwise repack them into four bags, before we even started the vacation we knew we were in trouble. After swearing to each other that on our next trip we would be traveling with a toothbrush, a packet of Kleenex and a Visa Card we tried to figure out what went wrong. Aside from the obvious (“You brought too many clothes and too many shoes you Dolts!) we realized our mistake. On our last trip we had discovered that wonderful invention – the packing cube. That vinyl “envelope” with the Velcro and the plastic card is the smartest packing aid on the planet. We got ours from Eagle Creek. They’re great. You fold all your clothes in these nice tight rectangles, pile them up and compress them into these little bundles and Voila! – Bob’s your Uncle! You shove these nifty, dense cubes of clothing into your suitcase and you have SCADS of room.
We had ten packing cubes. Yes…TEN. Those of you who took physics, and are much smarter than we are, see the problem. When you “C-O-M-P-R-E-S-S” things they are heavier! Dummies like me – “Wow – look at all the extra space in the suitcase – let’s pack more!” -- shouldn’t be allowed to leave the driveway at home! We were even more embarrassed when we met a lovely couple in their seventies in Folegandros on their thirtieth trip to Greece, who were traveling with two bags half (and I mean HALF) the size of our carry on bags! We may not be that efficient, but we swore – never again.
The good thing was that our luggage was checked through to Athens (or so we thought) so in theory we wouldn’t have to deal with the two Swiss Army meteorites encased in water-proof ballistic material until we were in Greece.
The Air France flight was pleasant – as pleasant as can be crammed into the standard economy class seat. The Air France food was a cut above the average airplane fare and France’s national airline seems committed to maintaining the French reputation for good food. There was a tasty baguette that tasted like bread. Entrees were hot, moist, tasty and far removed from the usual “goop” covering leathery dried meat. Good cheese and dessert. Some great wines, cognac after dinner with good coffee. It was a nice way to start the vacation.
Charles de Gaulle, Our Luggage Enjoys Extra Time in Paris, The Greek Shrug:
And then we landed in Paris. Which leads me to the topic of: “The EVIL that is Charles De Gaulle Airport”.
As background, when I went searching for flight options to Greece this time, the cheapest option was flying into one of the Europe hubs and a connecting flight to Athens. The question was which hub. We had flown British Airways last time and had a great experience. But the two week-long closures at Heathrow last year made me think that it might be better to consider an alternate where the risk of delayed or cancelled flights would be minimized. So I picked Air France. I did the research on the Airline – better than average airplane food, good service, reliable, they all said. We had over a three hour gap in Paris on the way to Athens, (with 1 and a half hours on the way back). I went for it.
What I had NOT done is check these forum boards and others, on the topic of connections through CDG airport in Paris. If I had, I would have learned that missed connections through the CDG airport is a common occurrence and a hot topic. If you’re interested, go into the Fodor’s France Forum or the “Airwise” web site, type in CDG and any terminal (ours were blessedly close to each other - 2D and 2F) and take a look at the ranting and raving about connections through CDG. You’ll even see some bad words. If France is your final destination then there are few or no problems. It’s the connections that make things interesting.
I thought Heathrow was bad. Holy Crap is Charles de Gaulle busy! And enormous. And frenetic, and poorly designed, and unfinished, and poorly labeled…but with really cool architecture. The French are infamous for their cutting-edge, thought-provoking modern and futuristic architecture and the Terminal 2 buildings (there are six massive separate parts) are examples of this French flair for the avant-garde. (The TGV station is also incredible). Of course you only see these architectural wonders as a fuzzy blur as you frantically careen through the corridors and concourses trying desperately to get from point A to point B and feeling like one of those experimental mice in a maze.
I swear there is a darkened room in Charles de Gaulle airport, with banks of security cameras, where all the staff sneak away (since they sure as hell are not, as advertised, at the gate ready to guide you to your connecting flight!) to point and laugh at the stampedes of tourists helplessly trying to find their way to their flight. I can just imagine Jean-Pierre munching on his morning Pain de Chocolat, laughing with his buddies and pointing at the screens filled with endless hordes of zombie-like tourists wandering aimlessly through the cavernous terminals: “Attendez. Look at zat one zere Louis! Ze won avec le Disney shirt. He is going down ze same hall to ze men’s toilette for ze fifth time…Tee Hee Hee….And zat couple zer off zee plane from Canada – zey are headed to the TGV to Dusseldorf instead of Terminal Deux-D. Ar Ar Ar”
Perhaps my imagination gets the best of me, and yes I exaggerate slightly, but due to the sheer enormity of its size CDG is a bit of a logistical nightmare even when you know were you are going. We had plenty of time to make our connections on the way to Athens, so we were not too concerned as we stepped off the Toronto flight at six a.m. When you check in Air France gives you this nice booklet with maps of the terminals and tells you that all “Correspondence” (connection) passengers will find an army of helpful airport staff ready to guide you to where you want to go. “Hah!” “Hah” I say again. As we walked off the jet way the 450+ passengers from our flight merged with umpteen hundreds more from an adjacent offloading flight from Lagos into a tiny bottleneck that looked more like my parent’s dimly lit rec room in the seventies. Passengers stared blankly at screens, drifted into one of three queues (to where, no one knew). The one CDG staff member surrounded by a mob of people asking for directions was very friendly but spoke no English and we couldn’t even get to him. The other lady we approached directed us into a line-up without asking us where we were going. It was not where we wanted to go. When we asked again, she began giving us instructions before we could finish telling her where we wanted to go. Not helpful. She pointed us in another (wrong) direction, again. We decided we had nothing to lose and headed off in what seemed to be a direction towards 2D. We eventually found a customs line up, exited and got to the concourse past the TGV station to 2D. The Departure hall in 2F is actually quite cool. Terminal 2D also looks nifty but the architect never asked anyone whether it would be quite so nifty when the 275 people trying to get to a departure gate were jammed into a space the size of an average fast-food restaurant with a few thousand other people trying to walk (or barrel) through them to their gates (some travelling at break-neck speeds with hard cased luggage flying behind them).
Queuing up and line-ups must be a North American thing. The boarding calls at all of the airports we passed through this vacation in Paris and Greece were more in the form of Rugby scrums than orderly boarding of an aircraft. It was unique experience in Paris to be hip-checked by a woman in a beautiful Chanel suit off the Paris fashion runway and Prada shoes and bumped aside by a man in a spiffy business suit with a leather brief case worth more than my car just to be the first to get on a plane.
We got to Athens. Kathy’s suitcase didn’t, but we did. With a 3 hour layover in Paris it boggled my mind that a suitcase couldn’t make it from one airplane to another. Maybe they were worried the plane might not get airborne with the weight of it! We had a two hour buffer for our Olympic flight to Chania. That quickly narrowed to 30 minutes by the time we waited to confirm that we were missing a suitcase, and stood in the agonizingly slow line up at the lost luggage counter in the Athens Airport (since there were apparently a number of lost bags).
After confirming arrangements to forward the bag to Crete the next day, we raced to the Departure Levels only to discover not less than a 1,000 people in a massive snaking line-up for Olympic Airlines, and only five check-in counters opened. There was just no way we were going to make the flight.
I love the Greek shrug. You ask a question that you feel involves an urgent, timely matter that will impact upon your life to some significant degree and necessitates a firm, definite response. And you get “The Shrug”. The two shoulders go up in the direction of the ears, the head tilts, the hands extend, the person smiles or flutters his or her eyes and in a single gesture tells you “Who knows/Whenever/Oh Well/Too Bad/That’s Greece”. As we frantically got to what seemed to be the end of a winding lineup for every bloody Olympic Flight departing from Athens in the next week I asked the Olympic lady extending the strap to lengthen the line-up yet further if there was a SHORT line for a flight leaving in 25 minutes. The Shrug. “Here”, she says pointing to the shuffling crowd. Another man came up behind us asking the same question for a flight leaving in only 15 minutes. Again The Shrug. “There is no short line – this is it”.
I instructed Kathy not to move and raced around the mob to the front. Through the bedlam I heard one of the check-in staff yell over the crowd “Chania”. Ignoring the hundreds of people behind me I pushed my way through to the lady at the ticket counter. There was a rather heated argument in Greek going on between two ladies at the front of the line. Though I’ll never know, they seemed to be arguing about who was next. Family members were jumping into the fray. I took advantage of the diversion, and told the lady at the counter of our urgent need to get a boarding pass to Chania. “You can do it now”, was the answer. There seemed little chance to rationally explain that I had a wife and hundreds of pounds of compressed clothing in ballistic anvils located at the back of the line so I took off past some very angry people to the back of the line, and grabbed Kathy and the luggage. Back to the front of the line. We were lucky, the argument had escalated and a Greek Orthodox Priest seemed to have somehow joined in (an interested party or rendering divine justice on the issue?) and now arms were waving. Uncharacteristic for we, the polite orderly Canadians, so used to the orderly universe of line-ups, - we rudely pushed to the check-in counter and pleaded for boarding passes. The Olympic lady was great. Grasping the urgency of the matter she processed the luggage without any thought of weight allowance and not bothering to asking if a member of the Taliban had assisted us in packing nuclear warheads in our luggage (which was again plausible given the weight). We were racing down the terminal, held our breath through the blue smoky haze of the Athens Airport Food Court, and arrived at the gate. We made it with ten minutes to spare.
We were certain the luggage could not possibly get to Chania with us. But, as a testament to the excellent state-of-the-art baggage handling system installed in the new Athens airport before the Olympics, or good luck, all the bags rolled off the carousel in Chania (all of them except Kathy’s suitcase which of course was still holidaying in Gay Paree).
We were ready to start our vacation.
(……Part 1 to be continued)
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A GREECE TRAVELOGUE - Western Crete (Chania, The Samaria Gorge, Loutro) Folegandros and Santorini - PART 1
TRAVELS IN GREECE – PART 1