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Sunday, December 1, 2013

The very old donkey, and other tales of Greek islands

There are two harbors in Rhodes: the commercial harbour (where you can easily walk on and off the ship) and Mandriki Harbor, which is where the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. In case it was not clear from my last post, I recommend Rhodes. If you want history, there is St. Paul’s Gate and the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs; if you want gelato, I had the best frozen yogurt of my life, with honey and nuts. If you want to be out on a boat, really feeling the waves and the cool sea breeze, 6 euros will get you a glass-bottomed boat tour (ignore the glass bottom) and half an hour around the harbors, with views of the best-preserved inhabited medieval city. Our boat guy was playing Bob Marley the whole time and rolling a cigarette; we half wondered if it was a spliff and he’d be passing it around!

Our next island was Santorini—named after St. Irene by the Italians, but called Thira by the Greeks. A funny thing happened waiting for the cable car at the top: we befriended a couple from Tasmania and, by the time we reached the harbor a couple of minutes later, we were invited to their pub at the end of the Sydney–Hobart boat race (a future post, perhaps?) The friendliness of people on this trip, in fact, is unrivaled in my recent experience; I lost track of all the places in Canada and the U.S.A. folks came from, but one woman had been, like me, a Paralympics volunteer—sledge hockey, Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Pointed across the Sea of Crete at Santorini, it occurred to me that every day I saw something more beautiful than the day before. Took a “pirate boat” to two uninhabited volcanic islands in the middle of the submerged caldera (collapsed volcano). We hiked the first, Nea Kameni, seeing the smoking sulfur holes and feeling the heat within. Then we sailed to Palia (Old) Kameni, where I had to fulfil a bet I’d made. I’d been working out, you see (delighted when some big man left a weight machine and I didn’t have to adjust the weight), and said that if T. came to the gym I would jump into the sea. So, at Palia Kameni I jumped off the boat and swam to the thermal springs area. 

Pretty much the entire journey, T. had been talking about how awful it was to ride a donkey up to the top of Santorini thirty years before. What do you suppose she wanted to do the moment we arrived at Fira? “If it’s good enough for the Holy Mother, it’s good enough for me,” T. said, and proceeded to clamber onto, she swore, the same donkey that had tried to throw her off all the way up in the 1980s! “You would have hated every minute of it!” she assured me joyfully.

I certainly recommend the clifftop town, which has truly breathtaking views, but I can testify that the cable car does just as well. And it’s much faster, so I waited at the top with a lady from West Virginia, whose granddaughters had made the donkey decision too. I saw her again…

If possible, an even more stunning view is the starry sky at night. I grew up in the country, yet have never seen stars so numerous and bright, ever.

The southern coast of Crete is as close to Libya as the northern coast is to mainland Greece. The history is sobering too: after more than two thousand years on the island, the Jewish community of Crete was finally obliterated when the last surviving Cretan Jews, some two hundred people, died on a German boat—sunk by the British. That’s war for you.

The Mediterranean was more peaceful where we were swimming, at Costa Costa Beach. I’ve never walked on such soft sand. The town, Hania on the northwest coast, has Byzantine buildings, a Venetian lighthouse, and a mosque that has been closed since the Turks were “relocated” in 1923. You can’t get away from history in this region. Even Paul had another cameo here, where, in the Acts of the Apostles, he warned his ship’s crew of the shipwreck to come on Malta.

What impressed me most about this journey was the cleanliness and friendliness of everyone, beginning from Rome. In the Mediterranean, we were treated like adults, instead of constantly being regulated. The contrast with life under the nanny state is hard to miss. We can choose to swim, dive, hike, etc. and take our own risks. Even ride an obstreperous donkey that should have long since retired.

1 comment:

Aunt Janet said...

Loved this tale of the wonderful cruise! No one could have said it better!