A month in Chios, Lesvos and Samos (coming in from Turkey this time) in October 2013
September October 2013 – travels in the eastern Aegean…
Back to Greece again – it’s becoming a habit… this will be the fourth time in two years (if you count the lovely visit to Rhodes in Sept 2011 which hooked us and had us heading back to the islands as soon as we could.
This time we are heading for the eastern Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast so we try a different route… Brisbane to Bangkok then on directly to Istanbul. From Istanbul a quick flight down to Izmir (an international add-on which only costs an extra $14!), and on to Cesme and across to Chios…a great route worked out by the friendly staff at Turkish Airlines but flying Thai to Bangkok and on Qantas from Singapore on the way back.
I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Thai Airlines… leaving at a respectable hour (2pm) is a plus but there’s such a nice feeling on board. Yes the planes are getting a wee bit old but frankly I found economy just as comfortable as our usual carrier Emirates and I have to say the food was much better and the service much more jovial – oh and they give you a drink before dinner! I know it shouldn’t be important but it’s always been a little tradition for me – that G&T and nibblies soon after getting on board and neither Emirates nor Etihad will do it (and believe me, we have asked)… it all just seemed more generous somehow.
Eight hours of movies and great food and drink and we were in the new BKK airport… not impressed, but perhaps we were in a bad part… all very sterile and boring and the free wifi didn’t work… what to do but snooze.
Then onto Turkish Airlines for a 10 hour flight – more good food and wine and a long sleep (6 hours anyway)… can’t complain about that. We landed in Istanbul just after 5.30am and headed for the domestic airport where the check-in girl was happy to put us on an earlier flight at 8.00am. In Izmir the Havas bus to Cesme waited right outside and by 10am we were flying through the Turkish countryside to a pleasant coastal town complete with an old section with caravanserai and mosque and the ubiquitous shopping streets and a rather glam marina with gorgeous boats, Porsches and even the odd Ferrari!
Have a quiet meal in the old town (good to be back eating Turkish sardines and salad) with a crowd watching an exciting soccer game, and then a relatively good night’s sleep at the Akpinar Hotel (E29 through booking.com with a generous fresh breakfast thrown in) in spite of the constant traffic - thank goodness for earplugs.
The 9.30am Ertuk Ferry ride to Chios is over in a jiffy and at the port we meet lanky Don the New Zealander who runs the charming Chios Rooms – right on the water (and unfortunately the main road through town – more traffic noise – what to do?). We have a great room at Chios Rooms – the ‘penthouse’, a separate little space on the roof reached by a delightful spiral staircase. We have a bedroom, a wee sitting area, a bathroom, a fridge and a large roof terrace with a view to the harbour. For E35 it’s wonderful - it’s all so spacious – I love it.. No breakfast included but there’s a little kitchen downstairs for common use, and tea and coffee (and beautiful cake from Don’s wife) at any time.
Just after we arrive there is the sound of a brass band from below… a ceremony about to start – apparently they take a special cross on one of the boats out to the harbour mouth and immerse it… to commemorate something (perhaps one of the many massacres?). Everyone is very dressed up – lots of priests and dignitaries in good suits and ladies in local costume… quite exciting to arrive to…
We eat well and cheaply (pitta at Marathon just down the road) and wander the not very exciting and extremely noisy town before heading home for a wee rest and drink before dinner at the recommended Tassos Restaurant around the corner… a surprise to see a fully equipped play centre there, trampoline, swings, ball pit etc etc. Grand-daughter Indigo would be impressed. The food is fine and we stagger home after a good kg of white wine to sleep heavily in spite of the traffic noise.
Next morning after sheep’s yogurt and peach for brekkie it’s off to the market area to wander and gaze but buy only very little – cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, bread, coffee (the usual) and then head off to the closest recommended beach of Daskalopetra (supposedly a rocky outcrop where Homer taught). It’s very deserted and after a pleasant swim it’s difficult to find some lunch – but we do… a great meal of fish mezes and more wine… (right at the southern end of the beach – no idea what it is called). But then we discover that although the bus station happily sold us a return ticket, there is no bus to return on… hmmm we hitch a ride with a nice young couple returned home to Chios on holiday and then have to walk the rest of the way on a hot afternoon at the time jetlag hits us – not happy. I indignantly walk into the bus station and demand my money back – and the surprised clerk gives it to me – only E3 but it’s the principle after all.
Home to rest and Tom is showing signs of a wog coming on – sore throat, blocked sinuses, so he plies himself with good ouzo and we eat at home on the terrace as the clouds blow in and rain threatens.
It does rain through the night and most of the morning too so it’s nice to stay in. I fuss over Tom and get time to read and relax and watch some hilarious YouTube videos before we venture out for lunch and watch the sky clear. We’ve decided to stay another night anyway so we just wander the newly washed streets finding the lovely Turkish section of town and the beautiful park and the Cathedral. The air is so clear and everything looks so different. Already the hills seem to have taken on a green hue and the sea sparkles…
But it is shortlived. That night there is a huge storm. It wakes us at 2 am and rages for ages. No sooner does it settle than the bar downstairs starts pumping out terrible music full blast… what on earth are these people doing at 3.45am? Tom is already quite sick but a very broken night on top of it makes him a miserable traveller. Still he bravely faces the hire car man and we drive off towards the north west in a nice little Fiat Panda (E80 for 4 days from Psoras car hire in the centre of town).
The drive over the hills is pretty amazing! The sky is heavy and we drive through the clouds through a strange jagged stoney landscape like something from another planet. Every now and then there are cars parked and ladies gathering something amongst the rocks. We surmise it is snails, brought out by the rain. They seem to have large bags of them. I wish I had asked Tom to stop and talk to one of them – then again without Greek it would be hard… wish it wasn’t so difficult to learn this crazy language. I have decided to try to learn one new word a day… yesterday it was beetroot but I have forgotten it already, today it is “I don’t understand’ – is that ‘seth kalavatas’ or is that a kind of olive? Aaarrggghh…
We finally stop at Limnos Beach just west of Volissos and find a rather nice studio at Agiali Studios for E35… over a nice little pebble and sand beach and ours are the only footprints… beautiful sunset too! Probably very busy in the season but everyone is closing down – the only taverna still there on the beach is closing on Sunday and everyone is going back to Athens.
Next morning the wind is cold but the sun is shining and Tom is miraculously cured (only took ½ bottle of ouzo and Don’s tea tree oil). We wander along the little coves to the north. They are just gorgeous and in hotter weather we’d be tempted to stop and swim. As it is we’re happy to just look and then head off to find Nea Moni – ancient monastery and site of one of those massacres that are all too common in Greek history. This one was very nasty. All the villagers came to the monastery for protection and when the Turks came they killed all 4300 people (monks men women and children) on Good Friday. There’s a little chapel with a big cupboard of skulls and bones to remind people who visit.
In Nea Moni, the main cathedral is pretty amazing. The usual fabulous chandeliers and carved work but also mosaics (about 600 years old) to rival anything in Hagia Sofia and the Chora in Istanbul! Tiny tiles making wonderfully expressive pictures of the saints surrounded by thousands of little gold tiles – in the sunlight from the domed windows, a glorious sight!
We wind up into the hills towards the little stone towns of Anovatos and Avgonyma – eat a wonderful hearty meal in the central square of Avgonyma in a 1000 yr old taverna (with excellent wifi) and wander around what turns out to be a delightful town – ancient stone houses bedecked by bougainvillea and late summer jasmine. On the edge of town, overlooking the sea far far below we find another taverna in a stone house, and this one has rooms with balconies that look out to the western sea – think beautiful sunset! Costas shows us a wonderful studio – absolutely huge with everything we could desire, for E40 and we joyfully decide to stay high in the hills for a change. After a glorious sunset with drinks and nibblies on our terrace, Costas brings our delicious dinner up to us in our luxurious and warmly heated room (there’s a pretty bitter wind outside)… what more could we ask, well perhaps a little healthier appetite because after our hearty lunch we are unable to finish even the small portions we have chosen – still the yummy chick pea dish goes well into Tom’s morning scrambled eggs.
Then it’s off to the highlight of our visit to Chios, the mastic villages in the south. We have booked to stay in Pyrgi and head there with only a short detour through the pretty but rather windswept (today) village of Armolia. Pyrgi is quite astounding! The houses are decorated in a unique way… grey concrete covered with white paint which is then scraped back in quite intricate designs… beautiful! We manage to park and then wander tiny narrow laneways to find the main square, the platia where we are able to navigate to our B&B, To Pounti. This turns out to be just divine, an ancient building renovated with loving care and furnished with the owner Toula’s eclectic collection of puppets, paintings, fabrics, antique furniture. Even the bathroom has old brass fittings – although where she found an old brass plunger for hand washing lotion I don’t know.
Toula fusses over us like a mother and we feel at home immediately. Her breakfast next morning has to be seen to be believed. Of course we can’t eat it all but we put a few bits and pieces in our fridge for later snacks. First day we head to nearby Komi beach (the Emborio cave not being open for the third day in a row…hmmm…) which would be wonderful except for the cutting wind… we huddle in a taverna, bravely walk the beach and head home to Pyrgi to catch the last of the sun in the protected platia. Not hungry, we spend the evening ouzerie hopping. Ouzeries are little bars that sell ouzo and usually serve little snacks along with it. We struggle to find more than very very basic snacks but don’t need much and happily play scrabble in a bouncy place until we drag ourselves home.
Next day, after that huge breakfast, we head out through the charred countryside. There was a big fire across southern Chios last year and much of the landscape is still very blackened. It’s so strange to see such devastation and then one hillside in the middle of it that is still lush and green… who can tell why? Our main destination is Mesta, the main mastic village. A word about mastic… all over the hills (those that remain uncharred) grow mastic trees. The resin from them is a gum that has been used for centuries and continues to be harvested from Chios and a small area on the Cesme peninsula. The locals tell you it is pretty well a panacea… they chew it and drink it in various forms. I don’t like it at all… even the smell is unpleasant to me. Tom chews some that some sweet old ladies in the street force on us and for hours he can’t get it off his teeth – sort of Greek superglue.
We stop for a wander and lunch in Mesta. At first I wonder why some people like it better than Pyrgi… no painted houses, nothing very exciting… but we spend a few hours there and it grows on me. It is more comfortable somehow. The little lanes between old stone houses are narrow and cool, many houses have been restored and offer accommodation but many others await renovation and there is a comfortable village feel. The central square, overshadowed by a huge and quite impressive church is shady and children play amongst the locals and small number of tourists. We eat at Despina’s which had been highly recommended… with good reason! Absolutely delicious shrimp saganaki and bekri meze! So fresh and tasty. Best for a long time!
That night at Pyrgi we eat with Gus, a native Chion who spent many many years in US and speaks like a New Yorker… best pizza, good conversation and rather too much ouzo!
But after an early breakfast, it’s off to Chios town, hopefully to catch the Nel Line ferry to Lesvos. It has been so unreliable that most ticket offices didn’t even tell us about it… but it is scheduled at 10.50am (instead of Blue Star’s 5.30am departure) so it’s worth a try and if it doesn’t go we can stay a night in Chios Rooms and leave before dawn…
But hey! At 10.20, right on time, our ferry, the European Express pulls in and at 10.50, on the dot, we are on our way… 3 lazy hours with ebooks and games and we’re there!
The capital Mytilene is not so impressive at first impressions. A bit run down (very run down actually) and pretty dirty too but you don’t get a good impression on a Sunday when shops are shut except for the harbour side cafes packed with young people. We stay at the Orfeas Hotel up the hill a little from the port. It’s fine enough but after To Pounti it’s a bit of a comedown… a basic room, all a bit bare and unloved, but everything we need, good bed, fridge, hot water, free tea and coffee downstairs anytime and so so internet… anyway it’s only for two nights.
But the food scene in Mytilene is great! It’s a student town and there are bars, ouzeries and restaurants all through the little streets behind the main drag. Some of the most recommended are already closed for the season but we manage to eat (and drink) really well and quite cheaply both nights (an ouzerie in a back street with really creative mezes first and then O Ermiz at the north harbour – highly recommend) To justify the food we do a lot of walking – around the town itself (which is definitely more interesting once the shops open – food, cakes to die for, antiques and quite trendy clothes), to the north harbour and around the castle etc etc…
We take a nice little car from Billy’s for E20 per day and head off! So good to be out on the road in a new place – and out of the city noise and traffic. Roads are very good and also very empty… another advantage of being here in October perhaps. We’re heading for the famous Molyvos along the dramatic coastal route, but take a few detours along the way, first at the Taxiarchos Monastery near Madamados, recognisable by the fighter jet outside… apparently it houses the patron saint of fighter pilots and they say the Turks never fly over it (although why they’d care I can’t imagine). Then we take a side road to the beautiful little cove of Skala Sikomenia for a leisurely (and delicious) lunch by the little boat harbour, under the tiny chapel dedicated to the Mermaid Madonna (which inspired the book of the same name). The road is narrow and winding but the result definitely worth it. There’s more narrow and winding on to Molyvos – not my favourite thing in any way especially after a big lunch. So glad we decided to forego our usual ½ kg of wine.
Arriving at Moyvos is awe-inspiring… round the bend it appears, a hill right next to the water crowned by a beautiful castle with the grey and rust coloured houses tumbling down the steep slopes. We stop to ooh and ah and take a few shots and then head straight down to the little harbour where we plan to stay.
We check The Sea Horse Hotel and it’s quite lovely and probably good value at E50 including breakfast but then we also have a look at Sea Melody a few doors away and for E25 are offered almost the same room (well perhaps a little plainer) without breakfast. Since we are always happy to have our favourite sheep’s yogurt with fruit and honey for breakfast anyway, and we have facilities to make our own tea etc… we take it! Our little balcony opens right onto the port – glad it’s a quiet time of year; we oldies might find it difficult when the restaurants and bars are raging in mid-summer.
Oh what to say about Molyvos…there is a magic here that is hard to convey. Each morning I awaken to the sounds of the port, the fishermen preparing nets, sometimes the little chapel bell calling the devout, the locals greeting each other as they wander home with the morning bread. Fortunately it all starts pretty late… the sky is still pinkish at 7.00 so no one gets going too early. Besides everyone is winding down from the busy season – each day more places close and people pack up their shops. In fact as we move from place to place we feel the whole island sighing and closing… people are tired out – but also concerned about the coming winter. The government has cut the old ‘pension’ they used to give through the winter months to those that rely on the tourist trade. It wasn’t a lot, but it kept them going. Now without it… many will seriously struggle. But at least out here on the islands many people have the ability to go back to the old ways, grow some food, have some goats… be more self-sufficient.
From our verandah I look up the hill over the tumble of traditional houses to the castle. Such a beautiful view. I photograph it in every light – morning softness, midday brightness and evening sunset tones. The first morning we climb up through the little cobbled back streets where herbs grow in the cracks and bougainvillea and late jasmine tumble over old stone walls to the castle at the top… and explore this rather lovely old building. There’s a stage and seating set up inside and once more we regret that all the concerts are on during the height of the season. It must be lovely to sit up here on a warm summer evening, with a glass of ouzo and beautiful music!
A great café next to the castle affords views over the whole bay – magnificent.
Over the next few days we eat rather too well at various Molivos restaurants, attend a little early morning memorial service in the little chapel for the husband of a south American woman (there’s a story there but one we just can’t get our heads around with so little Greek), visit the rather nice beachside town of Petra and climb the 114 steps to the church of Panagia Glykofilousa (Our Lady of the Sweet Kiss – what a lovely name and a great view too!), swim at the local beach a couple of times - cold water and pebbles and I am quite over the pebble beaches, give me sand anytime - but refreshing and I am glad I did it.
It would be easy to stay here for a long time. We meet the owner of Molly’s Bar, the in place to be on a nice evening – and right next door to our room – and that’s just what he seems to have done. Came as a tour guide, found a teaching job for the winter and (did he say 16 or 26 years later?) now alternates between the tourist season and this educational work and lives in the village. So many people dream of it but these days it’s certainly not so easy. Seasonal workers have nothing during the cold winter months.
After four lovely days we take our leave, take one last look back at the castle (and a couple of last photos) from the Petra Road and head off to Skala Eressos, lesbian central and such a different landscape it’s like we are on a different island. We follow the coast for a while (and I do mean follow the coast – the road is actually ON the edge of the water and any waves would splash the car) and then head over the hills with a stop in the lovely town of Andissa for a coffee in the traditional square, to emerge into the lush green Eressos Valley. There is actually green grass on the slopes and abundant growth of fruit trees and vegetables… beautiful!
Eressos itself is a pleasant village about 5kms from the coast but we head straight for the beach. Skala Eressos is almost deserted this late in the season, especially so because as usual we arrive after lunch when everyone about has headed off to have a good lie down. Probably a good thing we are here in October. There’s a big lesbian festival in September and thousands descend on this sweet little town. I suspect it is one big party with a bit of politics and general female support thrown in and I definitely would have found it all too much.
We have a recommendation for the Gallini Hotel but when we eventually find it (not easy) we see that it’s tucked away in a back street and we always gravitate to the water front if we can. And we can! Hotel Kyma (it means surf, although there’s not a wave to be seen, the term millpond comes to mind) is right on the water a few doors from Zorba the Buddha – a popular comfortable bar which is fortunately still open. For only E30 we take a second floor room with a verandah right on the water – opposite a fascinating rock about 300m off shore which promises to make for especially interesting sunsets. We fall into the water - much warmer that Molyvos and, lying back on the pebbly (but flatter pebbles) beach agree that we are in heaven. AND we’d planned to spend two nights here before moving on to Plomari, but discover that what with arriving in Lesvos a day early because of the changed ferry plans, we actually have an extra day… ahhhh sometimes getting it wrong is getting it right…
That night sitting on our little verandah sipping ouzo and nibbling crackers with blue cheese and cod roe (as you do) we recognise a NZ accent on the verandah next door and make the acquaintance of a lovely woman who has lived here for many years in the past and with whom we have so much in common it’s quite spooky. She has even recently become involved with Tibetan Buddhism and we know her teacher… Anyway she takes us under her loving wing and introduces us to the Skala Eressos and surroundings we would probably not have found without her. (Thank you so much Felicity!)
We eat at the best place in town (thankfully still open), the Blue Sardine (at the far end of the waterfront)and have a great time with owner Costas. We drive (on a bumpy dirt road) the back way to Sigri and the petrified forest through an amazingly beautiful arid valley and hear how the shepherds tie up dogs where the road cuts through their walls/fence. Here they are left in horrible conditions to keep the sheep from going through and there is an ongoing battle between the farmers and the ‘foreigners’ who try to save as many as possible of these tortured creatures. We don’t see any dogs tied this day, but drive through at least four places where it is clear they have been.
The petrified forest itself is less than awe-inspiring but the museum in Sigri is wonderful! We spend about 2 very happy hours watching the videos, learning about and admiring fossils and the petrified remains – and then move on to the little shop where we try the local ouzos and a few of the local women’s cooperative’s wares. One that stood out (and not because it was good) was the olives preserved in honey – very odd…
After a filling and ‘adequate’ lunch at the port we head to the Psolou Monastery, winding up and up and up… it’s windy and quite chilly up there but well worth it! It’s a wild a windswept hill but beautifully maintained with veggies and fruit trees and a little herd of sheep around a lovely collection of ancient buildings. Probably because we are with our new friend, who speaks some Greek (which we still don’t) we make friends with a young monk there (he seems to do all the work and care for the four other elderly monks in residence) and he takes us into the monastery museum, a treasure house of old old icons, amazing robes embroidered (by the monks) with pure gold, sceptres and medallions of gold and huge precious gems. It’s astounding what is hidden in that crumbling old building.
Have I mentioned the bells?? I just adore the bells that the goats and sheep wear. You’ll be walking along a deserted track, or driving on a mountain road and you can hear the beautiful sound of those funky metal bells long long before you can see any animals… Here they call them Lesvos bells, but really they are pretty much everywhere. I remember standing on the highest point of Naxos, where you can see both of the beautiful coastlines of that gorgeous island, hearing literally hundreds of bells as a huge herd came up one steep side, leapt over the road and threw themselves over the edge down a precipitous slope on the other side. Here at Psolou Monastery the charming sheep troop past us in single file – stop to stare one at a time, and then dingle off down to pastures unknown… love it!
Next day is much lazier. We start with coffees at Zorba the Buddha Cafe (after our usual lovely breakfast of fruit (juicy pomegranate from the owner’s tree as well this time), sheep’s yogurt and honey, watch the local women’s group do their daily swim out to the rock and back (great effort girls – 600m all up!) and lie about indulgently as they head off on a 12 km hike (we are on holiday after all). Then we head off in our little car (a little guiltily) and find another beautiful monastery - Pythario this time, sitting on a hillside over a beautiful lake – a man-made one because they have put in a large dam (hence the green and lush valley), but absolutely beautiful. The reflections on the still water and the abundant bird life must make it a beautiful place to reflect on God’s goodness.
More swimming, local cocktails (lime and sugar and rum and goodness knows what else) and a glorious meal at Blue Sardine with the local ouzo rounds off a great stay at Eressos. I hope we can return soon!
And it’s on the road again… heading for the Plomari region, more beaches, ouzo factories, mountain villages, perhaps a hot spring although the owner at Kyma tells us they are ‘closed for restoration’, a common phrase we hear all too often in mid to late October. We think it really means ‘closed because there aren’t enough tourists around’.
We head up and around the gulf past Kalloni (great roads and lovely scenery if a little lacking in clear signage) and on to visit the holy little hill town of Agiassos with its special church of the Holy Virgin. It’s a bit of a tourist trap in a rather spiritual materialist kind of way… lots of pilgrims and school children on excursion and lots of icon selling shops. But the church is rather lovely and so is the town. We enjoy wandering, looking at cake shops and the others filled with overpriced pottery. I love people watching amongst this kind of crowd – such contrasts! Ladies in their finest hobbling on the steep cobblestone streets on high heels, bent-over ancients making prayers in the church, shrieking children with red faced teachers and priests trying to keep them in order, local people sitting about drinking coffee watching it all go by. You can buy little models of different parts of the body and hang them in front of the Madonna (with the appropriate prayers) to ask for her help – lots of eyes and legs… even one of a little baby, but I can’t see one for shoulders. Even the raucous children usually become quiet and relatively devout in the church and light candles quite seriously. Although we’re not ‘of the faith’ we usually light a candle or two with some prayers of our own. Can’t see it can do any harm.
Then down again to the coast to end up in Plomari – hmmm not terribly impressed at first sight, pretty old and crumbling actually, not where we want to stay although the port itself is lovely. We head on to the closest beach, Agia Isidoros, and one which is apparently packed in the season, clearly with good reason. It is a long stretch of beautiful clear water lapping a wide curving beach. This late in the year (the charter flights all stopped about a week ago) it is deserted and all the tavernas have closed, but we find a lovely place (again right on the water) and decide to stay there even though we’ll have to go back to Plomari to shop and eat. Pano Sto Kyma is lovely and the manager Maria makes us welcome and comfortable in our spotless little blue and white room (this time with kitchenette). The sea is like glass, the people are friendly and kind, we are happy. Eating at a Plomari waterfront restaurant we order the liver and, no kidding, the owner gets on his bike and heads off to buy us some… which is absolutely delicious, fried with onions the way we like it.
Weather forecasts are not so promising though and the next day the sea turns grey and stormy and that night we are absolutely pounded by wind and rain. But Pano Sto Kyma is a good place to hole up in such weather and we do manage to explore Plomari itself (hmmm not fabulous) and the next beach on the other side, Melinda (fantastic, wonderful little place with green pebbles), picnic on the cliffs above the dramatic coastline and visit the Barbayianni ouzo factory in a big storm before heading home for a wee lie down (after all the samples they plied us with). That night we find the highly recommended Mama Katarina’s Taverna in Plomari for a hearty, jolly meal – she even dances for us!
All in all Lesvos has been an island of huge contrasts and every part of it great! Well worth more time here in future.
On Friday we head off reasonably early to return our little car and catch our flight to Samos but not before a bit of a drama trying to book a flight from Izmir to Istanbul (the last leg of the journey and looming near). We discover we can’t use the Aussie credit card to pay for our online ticket and it’s all very frustrating… have to leave it all till later. Perhaps a travel agent on Samos?
Our SkyExpress flight to Samos is a surprise (although I should have expected it) – it is a tiny plane – two seats one side of the aisle and only one on the other… about 30 seats in all. We fly for about 35mins to Chios and touch down there to drop off and pick up and then head off again to Samos… great fun – such a good way to island hop and all for E56 – the ferries would have cost that much and taken many hours. Not that I don’t LOVE the ferries but between these islands they are not very frequent and becoming unreliable too.
We arrive in Samos without any bookings and not completely sure where we’ll stay anyway. For the first time we actually pick up a car from an office at the airport. Toms bristles a bit about not being able to compare and bargain (and paying E30 a day) but, hey, we’re only taking it for 3 days and it’s late in the season so lots of the offices have shut down. Plus with only three nights here we don’t want to waste any time. We drive straight to Pythagorion which is only 3kms from the airport and immediately fall in love with it… We wander the little streets, check a few hotels and decide on the glamourously named Hotel Belvedere about halfway up the steep hills near the archeological museum. A lovely room (if a wee bit small) a beautiful bathroom, a fridge and sitting room to use (and there is no one else there anyway) and a balcony with a view of the harbour and the castle… what more could we want. Oh and a very friendly host (Manolis) to answer all our questions and help in any way he can.
Our hassles trying to book the ticket in Turkey continue but even those frustrations cannot stop my complete joy in Pythagorion. It’s a gorgeous town set around a lovely little harbour. I walk about with a permanent silly grin saying ‘I love this place!’
Lots of rather trendy looking shops and restaurants indicate a different kind of vibe in the season but now, late in October, it is peaceful and laid back, good food to be had, lovely walks to take and the prospect of some delightful drives around the island. We stock up for our traditional breakfast and find a lovely back street taverna where I at last eat a moussaka (ok now I have done that, I don’t need to do it again) and Tom enjoys a fresh chargrilled swordfish steak (and of course the local wine yummmm).
Next day we head to the ‘city’ – Samos town, to try to sort out the flight. No luck there (seems they can’t book internal Turkish flights from Greece ??? and the only agent who finds a way to do it says it will cost about 4 times the price that is quoted on the internet), but the town is a pleasant surprise and the archeological museum small but great! The kouros is the main attraction (and with good reason) but there are also some really interesting 2,500 year old wooden artefacts from the site of Heraion. It’s very unusual to see wooden items so old but Heraion is on wet land and these have been preserved under water/mud. We go on to the beautiful beach of Kokkari for lunch by the water and fall in love all over again! There’s a tiny house overlooking the harbour side for sale – ahhh nice to dream – wonder how much it would be? Prices went through the roof on these islands a few years ago and don’t seem to have come down much. Too many visitors from the richer European countries with dreams like ours… The Greeks fought off the Germans during the war but this generation is coming back and buying up big.
After lunch we head to the hills… up steep narrow roads to the delightful little village of Vourliotes surrounded by terraces of grape vines and pencil pines and looking surprisingly reminiscent of Tuscany in many ways. In the summer it must be lovely to come up to these higher villages for lunch away from the heat. Today there is a cool breeze but the skies are brilliant and the views astounding.
The main road takes you on a circuit around most of the island so we head on to windswept Karlovassi for good coffee and nibblies and to admire the magnificent cathedral, then drive back on the eastern side of the island on a truly spectacular road back to our little home in Pythagorio. Still quite satisfied from our generous lunch and nibblies along the way, we opt to pick up some odds and ends from the local shop and eat on our lovely little balcony with the beautiful view – it was a big day after all and really our own food, ouzo and some Greek music on the IPad is a perfect ending.
Next morning is again clear and glorious and we find the 2,500 yr old ruins of Heraion, the site of the temple of Hera and, at its time, the biggest temple in Greece. We do love ruins, in spite of archeological ignorance, and it’s fascinating to look at the various stages of excavation and to imagine what it must have been like when thousands streamed along the 6km holy road to come here to pray and make offerings to the powerful goddess Hera (wife and sister ?? of Zeus). There is one enormous column remaining upright even after earthquakes and much destruction and it is really huge… Tom is tiny standing next to it. But we read that it is half its original height and the whole inner temple was that height!! Whew… the mind boggles.
Then it’s off up to the hills again, to wander a monastery being beautifully restored (someone still has large amounts of money anyway) and investigate more little mountain villages with lovely pottery (if a little overpriced). We choose to lunch at To Balkoni (just outside Koumaradei on the edge of a hill overlooking the whole coast) at random and find it is a fantastic choice. The serve mezes only which suits us perfectly… we can order a few dishes without fear of bursting. The cheese puree (fetta and chilli and paprika etc etc) and the liver in red wine sauce are standouts. We eat and drink and talk and take in the view for a long time then head home to sleep it off before a lovely walk through Pythagorion, still finding delightful corners we have missed.
That night (our last in Greece – sigh) we eat at Tarsanas Café right at the far end of the port where the food is exquisite (ah deep fried fetta with honey, sesame and baslamic – yummmmm), the wine good (and the bottle generously refills itself) and the company great. The owner, George, comes to sit and philosophise and we talk long into the night. It will be so hard to leave Samos, a pity we only have three days here at the end. We will definitely come back! They say the people are the friendliest of any island and ‘they’ are quite possibly right. We’d like to have time to stay in beautiful Kokkari (as well as more time in Pythagorion), to swim in those beautiful little bays we drove past, to have long lunches in the lovely hill towns, to drink the lovely Samos wine (it used the be the only wine used in the Vatican!!) and to get to know more of these friendly, creative people.
And that evening we are able to book a flight from Izmir to Istanbul on Onurair – and they have a free shuttle from Kusadasi to the Izmir airport… all’s well with the world!
In a subdued mood (is it the excess of wine last night or just because it’s our last day) we spend the morning wandering the castle and the hills behind town finding the little chapel in the cave behind the monastery. We need to return our car to Vathy/Samostown so we have lunch there and wander the back lanes of the town before it’s time for the ferry to Kusadasi which leaves efficiently on time and arrives in the busy port just after sunset.
Two years ago we stayed in Mr Happy’s Liman Hotel right on Kusadasi port, overlooking the huge cruise ships that come in each evening and the rows and rows of buses that come to take the literally thousands of tourists to Ephesus and Pammukale in the morning – fun to watch. We had a great time there, so of course we head for it again. What a surprise!! We are remembered and welcomed like old friends… we are given a lovely room with a view of the harbour (E40 including a very good breakfast) and greeted with a free bottle of excellent red wine and mezes when we go up for dinner on the fabulous roof terrace. It’s a great evening, lots of good cheer and stories and even some dancing… pity we’re only here for one night!
The free shuttle to Izmir airport from Kusadasi otogar goes smoothly although we could very nearly have missed it because there is no sign about where to wait and only a very little sign, easily missed, on the bus itself. The flight too is efficient and comfortable, with even a little snack and a cuppa for our 214TL total (that’s about AUD$58 each). A quick tram ride into town (tokens are now 3TL) and we are in our old favourite Hali Hotel in Klodfarer St in the middle of Sultanahmet, in a room with a little balcony that looks straight out over the glorious Hagia Sofia – oh how I love this wonderful city! The good (included) breakfast is served on the top floor and the view from there has to be one of the top views in the world.
Two nights and two days in lovely Istanbul – Tom has been here about 9 or 10 times now. I have possibly visited 5 or 6 times… I still love it. We eat in some old favourite places (the chicken and pudding shop near the Grand Bazaar for one) and take a cup of tea in the lovely nargile café nearby. We visit the Hagia Sofia again to see what changes have been made (not many) and the bustling port of Eminonu because we love it. We prowl the Grand Bazaar, not to buy but because a visit to Istanbul isn’t complete without that, and we also try out the little less touristy area of HocaPasa (between the archaeological museum and the old train station) and eat two delicious dinners there for around $10. We do our little bit of shopping around there too – prices about half the Grand Bazaar.
On our final day we visit Pierre Loti Hill – a pleasant ferry ride from Eminonu. At the base of the hill is Eyup Mosque, and the very holy mausoleum where one of the close disciples of Mohammed is laid to rest. It is crowded at prayer time and I am hustled up the narrow stairs to the ladies’ gallery which overlooks the beautiful old mosque. There is a teacher speaking to the growing crowd and the experience is quite moving. Frankly I think the ladies have the best spot up there near the ceiling where the light streams through the coloured glass and the call of the muezzin echoes.
After a great lunch in a local eatery we wander the bazaar and the streets of this very authentic part of Istanbul (no tourist shops here) gazing at fabulous cakes and Tom even buys a waistcoat… and then take the cable car to the top of Pierre Loti Hill to gaze at the expansive view of the city before heading back, this time taking the bus because it is nearly an hour to the next ferry (should have checked the timetable before we left the ferry stop).
Istanbul, and in fact Turkey in general, feels so different from Greece. It feels so prosperous. Everywhere old buildings are being restored, transport is clean and efficient, shops are bustling. The thing that really strikes me is how beautiful the gardens are, manicured, lush and creative… The authorities clearly have money to spend and they are spending it on their beautiful city. They are hosting an expo in 2020 and that promises to be fantastic! The contrast to Athens is very great. They tell us that the rich Greeks used to come as tourists to Turkey but the tables are turned and Turkish tourists now visit the Greek islands in growing numbers and it seems the islands are coming to rely on them, especially when the summer season slows and the Europeans go home in October. Interesting changes.
Just one note about the trip home… we have a Turkish Airlines ticket but they code share with lots of other airlines and we are on a Qantas flight for the last leg from Singapore to Brisbane. I haven’t flown on Qantas for a long time by choice (there was one time my Emirates flight didn’t go and they found me a seat on a Qantas flight) and this confirmed for me that I WILL NEVER FLY QANTAS AGAIN if I can help it. Uncomfortable seats, couldn’t sleep and my movie screen didn’t work, terrible food, slack service… I could go on. It’s not as if they are cheap either. Be warned.
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Greece - trip report - Aegean Islands Chios, Lesvos and Samos Oct 2012
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