The last time I went to Europe, it was easy to convert Euros to dollars. 1 Euro equaled $1 U.S. Last spring, our trip wasn’t as user-friendly. The U.S. dollar lost 0.42 cents plus service fees at the Money Exchange. Ouch. Nevertheless, we were determined to visit an island we had heard about.
Naxos is an island of 20,000 inhabitants in the Cyclades, between two well-known islands’ cruise-ship ports: Mykonos and Santorini.
Our first stop, however, was Athens. We chose a hotel that was within walking distance of the Parthenon on the Acropolis and The Plaka. Neither my husband nor I are fond of large, congested areas, so we figured two days was enough time to be in this city of 3.7 million.
The Parthenon is the remains of a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. There is an incredible view of Athens from the top. Close by is The Plaka, the oldest section of Athens, which contains many restaurants, shops and cafes. Most of the streets here are for pedestrians only.
Leaving Athens and heading for our main destination, Naxos, we boarded the subway to Piraeus, where our ferry was waiting. Five and a half hours later, we were on Naxos, looking for George, the owner of our hotel, who kindly offered to pick us up.
George and his parents were our hosts for the first 10 days of our five-week stay on Naxos.
The Galini-Sofia (www.info @hotelgalini.com) offered small studios with kitchettes, some with seaviews, a complete breakfast in the communal breakfast room, daily maid service, Greek cable television and free Internet. (We found this hotel in Frommer’s Guide to Greece and also during an Internet search.) Breakfast consisted of cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt, honey, fruit, juice, cookies, cereals and coffee, all to be shared with lots of conversation from fellow travelers.
Are you ready for the price? We are of the type who prefers to spend less and stay longer. I laugh when I read Conde Nast Traveler and their “super hotel deals” advertised for less than $300 a night. We paid $350 for 10 days.
Our second hotel (www.studiosnaxos.com) in Naxos, where we stayed for 29 days, was owned and operated by none other than George’s cousin Stavroula Tsagkli. We had a two-room studio with kitchenette on the second floor overlooking the Agean Sea. Price: $27 U.S. per night, and that included daily maid service and the famous Greek Cable TV.
We enjoyed making our own breakfast, as we were losing interest in the ham and cheese sandwiches with that thick yogurt. The balcony looked out over St. George’s beach and the beautiful Agean Sea. We never tired of that view, day or night.
Our first week in Naxos was cool and even rainy.
“It never rains in May,” George kept telling us. We told him we must have brought it with us from Oregon.
We spent a lot of time that week getting acquainted with the little harbor town, or Chora, as the locals called it. In the old-town area, there is a 13th-century Venetian castle protected by thick walls, private residences and many shops and restaurants: quaint and cute.
Geraniums were everywhere, as were bougainvilleas, lantana and other colorful flowers. We noticed there were very few tourists in May, and all the ones we met were European.
The second week warmed up, and the rain stopped. George told us how to get free water from the mountains: “Just walk across the street and look for the spigot,” he explained. Not all the tourists knew that because they were buying bottled water by the cases. George also told us about some beautiful beaches we could walk to. We did. St. Prokopios became our favorite. George claimed it was the most beautiful beach in all of Europe. It was an hour’s walk each way, so we got our exercise, as well. The beach was a pebble beach and the water a beautiful turquoise blue. There were very few people on our beach until the middle of June when we left.
Some days, we would take the bus inland to visit some of the recommended villages. Apiranthos is made entirely of white marble, which is mined on the island. Sunglasses required, and no cars allowed. People park at the bottom of the hill and walk up. We saw pack donkeys carrying heavy loads up to someone’s house.
This village of 1,000 inhabitants is known for all its embroidered handicrafts. Beautiful, but expensive.
Naxos is famous for cultivating onions, tomatoes, herbs, making several kinds of feta cheese, a liquor from the Kitron fruit, and, of course, their black and green olives.
Some local food favorites seemed to be the ever-present gyro (chicken or pork, lettuce, tomato, onions and a cucumber-yogurt-garlic sauce wrapped in pita bread), octopus, squid, many kinds of fish, spinach and cheese pies, Greek salad, Moussaka (ground beef, eggplant and potato casserole), Pastitsio (macaroni and ground beef casserole with cinnamon and nutmeg cream sauce on top), yogurt dill sauce with cucumber and zucchini fritters. We loved everything we tried. My husband, a great chef, cooked a lot in our kitchenette, but we tended to eat out several times a week.
One day we took a ferry (three and a half hours each way) to Santorini. This was a dream come true for me. I had always seen pictures from friends’ trips, and it looked like a spectacular island. I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as we spotted the island, my heart began pounding. Every village was high up on the tops of the mountains, 1,000 feet up. It looked higher to me. The bus zigzagged its way up the mountain, switchback style. I only looked down once, fearfully, out of the bus window. Wow! Our tour included stopping at two villages, Ia and Fira, and gave us time to wander about and take photos. But we found out where all the American tourists were: Santorini, straight off one of the eight cruise ships anchored far below us.
It felt about 90 degrees, and I heard a lot of groaning and complaining as people climbed the many sets of stairs to different places. I was ecstatic, though. I took more than 100 photos of the white, sugar-cube houses spilling down the sides of the mountain. It was weird that I saw more dogs than cats, though, as everyone knows Greece is famous for its cats. Hmmm.
The beach in front of our hotel started to get more crowded in June. We didn’t care, as we still walked to our favorite beach, and it remained a well-kept secret. It also was getting warmer, and we were glad it was time to go by mid month.
The plan was to take the ferry to Piraeus and stay at a hotel there near the port, which we had reserved months earlier. When we arrived five and a half hours later, the heat hit us like a brick. It was 104 degrees. My mouth was so dry I had trouble talking. My hand kept slipping on the suitcase handle I was trying to pull.
We began asking for street directions to our hotel. It had advertised itself as 200 meters from the port. Ha, 200 Greek meters maybe. It took us 45 minutes to arrive at our hotel. Air conditioning never felt so good as it did in that lobby.
Our room was booked as “ocean view.” What we could see were the tops of the ferries. Oh well, it was only for one night. We had a small room, but it was fine. It also was the most we had paid yet, $100. The breakfast was huge, much like in Naxos, and before we knew it, we were walking the 45 minutes to catch the train to the airport. We tried to walk slowly, but it already was 85 degrees, and it’s easy to get heated when one has a suitcase and large purse in tow.
The train was a bargain at 7 Euros ($10) for two for an hour ride. The train was new (it had been built for the Olympics), comfy and air-conditioned. We watched Athens fade away from view. Our Greek vacation was quickly coming to an end. We would return, we promised each other.
Vonelle Swanson can be contacted at email@example.com