Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A week in Crete - October 15-22, 2013

This could have been the shortest travelogue in the world, summed up by this sentence: “We set out for Crete but didn’t even make it to Manchester airport.”

We were flying out from Manchester at 9:30 a.m, and were it up to me, I’d have preferred to set off from home at 5.30 a.m so as to make provision for any rush hour traffic jams, as it was a Tuesday. Rush hour in Manchester might not be as spectacularly static as in and around London, but it’s bad enough. Pete knew this better than anyone... but he pooh-poohed my concerns, and we set off only around 6:15 a.m to pick up our friend Adie (who would be driving the car back and picking us up again in a week).

So, by the time we got to about 20 miles from the airport, we were in steadily worsening traffic. 10 miles from the airport, around 8.15 a.m, we were crawling along at 5 miles an hour and I was beginning to panic because the gates would close at 8.50 for take off at 9.30. I was having visions of missing the flight and having to pay all over again for flights out and cutting our already short holiday shorter by at least a day... you know, the usual jumble of panicky thoughts. The only plus in all this was that I’d checked us in online and printed off the boarding passes, so that was one less hassle to cope with at literally the last minute. Oh, and we were only travelling with hand luggage, otherwise we really would have missed the boat. Flight. As it was, we got to our gate just in time to board straightaway - “by the skin of our teeth” would be a good, if clich├ęd, description.

That we were sat in the plane for half an hour thereafter is neither here nor there.

The Jet2 flight out was incredibly comfortable – it was not full, and also, one of the stewardesses took a shine to Pete and we were moved to the seats by the emergency exit for loads of blissful leg room.

The flight to Heraklion Nikos Kazantzakis Airport was uneventful and took slightly less than 4 hours, so that it was around 3.30 p.m (Greece is 2 hours ahead of the UK) when we landed. We walked straight out, as we only had hand luggage (sweet). The first thing that hit me was a wall of heat – well, it felt like a wall to me, but I guess the temperature was around 27 degrees C. We went looking for a place to exchange our pounds sterling for euros (having had no time for this in Manchester because of our last-minute act), but to our surprise, there was no such facility. There wasn’t even a hole in the wall. So the next thing we had to do was wait for our car hire guy (who was supposed to meet us with a sign bearing out name for easy identification), but who had (it turned out) gone off somewhere without letting anyone know – a very Indian trait. He only returned after Pete rang the hire car company to find out his whereabouts.

The car was a mid-sized something or other with air-conditioning. We nearly ran into a problem right there because we had no euros to pay Stavros (the car hire fella). He finally accepted the equivalent of 210 euros in pounds sterling, and we were good to go. Pete then rang the villa owner’s son, Yannis, to say that we were on our way.

Villa Eleftherna in the tiny village of Eleftherna is about 60 kilometres from Heraklion airport, and in the mountains rather than by the seaside. Yannis said it would take us about 2 hours to get there. We were somewhat unprepared for the drive, in that we only had a crude tourist map by which to find our way. I suppose I should have printed off the directions that Kostas (the other son) had emailed me... but I had naively presumed that Pete would have the TomTom satnav (GPS for you American readers) on his phone. Actually Pete had also assumed the same thing... but as it turned out, every country BUT Greece was there. Greece had to be downloaded specially, but obviously we didn’t have an Internet connection to do that.

I did try to navigate using the tourist map that Stavros had given us, but it was not particularly detailed, and of course the town names were completely unfamiliar. I found Eleftherna village (and another village that was one of our landmarks) easily enough on the map, but getting ourselves there was rather trickier. I could see that we needed to turn off the highway before we reached a city called Rethymnon, but finding that point in real time was difficult. So Pete decided to turn on the Roaming facility on his iPhone and use that as a Satnav. Using the roaming facility to tends to be extremely expensive (as he’d found out a few years back when we’d visited Boston), but we had no choice.

Eventually we got to the village called Viran Episkopi (our main landmark) where we finally saw a sign for “Villa Eleftherna”. With great relief we turned right where it pointed, and continued driving. Eleftherna villa is about 10-12 km beyond Viran Episkopi, the road rising in a series of switchbacks. We nearly missed the next sign for Eleftherna village in the gathering dusk, as the sign had been knocked face down by some vehicle at some point. If Pete had not noticed the flattened sign, we would definitely have been in big trouble if we’d driven on... but he did notice it, and within 15 minutes we were driving through Eleftherna village.

Villa Eleftherna is set a little away and further up from the main village of Eleftherna, and it was every bit as beautiful as the photos we’d seen on the website (I’d had a tiny kernel of doubt in my mind about that, despite the glowing recommendations on TripAdvisor). Yannis, who met us there, showed us through the villa and explained that his parents would come every three days to clean the villa, change the sheets, towels etc. His dad, Georgios, maintained the pool, the garden and general greenery. There was a quite amazing welcome gift of a very large basket of fruit (pears, apples, oranges, grapes, bananas), a large bottle of olive oil, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of honey and a small bottle of raki, the local moonshine (more on this later). All of these things were produced by the villa owners from their own orchards and beehives.

We asked Yannis if there was anywhere we could change pounds to euros in the village, or perhaps a hole in the wall to withdraw money from, but he said that Rethymnon was the closest for those facilities. We then asked if he would take payment in pounds for the rental of the villa, but he said he’d prefer euros. Unfortunately, we had no euros at all. When he realised this, Yannis very kindly lent us the 40 euros he was carrying, so that we could buy some food (or eat out), saying that if we needed more “I can get some money from my grandmother who lives close by”. Somewhat red in the face, we assured him that 40 euros was plenty, and that we would go to Rethymnon first thing in the morning and change the money. 

Once Yannis had left, Pete drove us back down to the little village shop, where children were playing in the forecourt and a few of the locals were sat at tables, smoking and chatting. I learnt my first few basic words of Greek from a friendly local who spoke a little English – “Kalimera” for good morning, “kalispera” for good afternoon, “kalinikhta” for good night and most importantly “efharisto” for thank you. We picked up some tomatoes, cucumber, local cheese (me hoping all the while that it wouldn’t be too smelly), milk and bread, then returned to the villa.

Our first meal at the villa was a simple Greek salad made with the tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese that we had bought. The cheese was locally made feta, very strong tasting, but very tasty eaten with the tomatoes, cucumber and the lovely, crusty, chewy bread. The next morning was sunny but with a nip in the air from being in the mountains – it was a welcome nip, although it did make the swimming pool rather too cold for comfort. 

The villa itself was well designed, airy and light with high ceilings. The two ground floor bedrooms each had a small sit-out balcony. The main bedroom upstairs had a massive balcony overlooking the swimming pool and with a view of the mountains; the second upstairs bedroom had its own, smaller balcony. The massive balcony could also be accessed from the first floor landing. The only slight drawback was that there were only two bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. If only each bedroom had its own attached bathroom, the villa would have been flawlessly perfect.

The garden was very thoughtfully laid out, with loads of flowering plants and a herb trough to one side. There was a tree in the middle of the garden, with an outdoor dining table for eight set in the shade of the tree. The hammock was under another, smaller tree by the wall where a flowering jasmine creeper grew. Every waft of the breeze brought a delightful scent of jasmine. I was very, very careful getting into the hammock, having seen too many episodes of “You’ve been framed” where the person getting into the hammock is dumped on to the ground because the hammock flipped over. You will be glad to know that this did not happen to me. It was blissful in the hammock, and I spent a good amount of time in it with my Kindle, sniffing madly at the jasmine perfume anytime it wafted past me.

We went to Rethymnon later in the day, in search of a money changer and a hole in the wall. We found the latter fairly easily on the main promenade in Rethymnon, next to a travel agent, who told us that there were money changing facilities in the old town. That sounded very much nicer – old towns are always more interesting – so we got back in the car and drove down to the city centre. 

Driving is somewhat free and easy in Crete – the motorways are more like B roads in the UK – not very wide, not very fast, and definitely more relaxed in that you can find little stalls by the side of the road selling fresh fruit and fruit juices, nuts, etc – and all you have to do is put your hazards on and park up. On the motorway. Did I say this was on the motorway? You even find the odd cyclist or two. I repeat, on the motorway. Oh, and there doesn't seem to be any rule for children to be belted in or seated in child seats - I saw kids standing in the back of cars, between the seats, and nobody seemed to mind. The traffic and drivers are a bit like India in that people on scooters zip around overtaking from both sides, parking any old where and not always obeying the road rules. I say “a bit” because it’s not anywhere near as chaotic as India, but it’s definitely not like orderly ol’ Blighty. 

Rethymnon Old Town was, as I knew it would be, beautifully picturesque. We parked up at a convenient spot just before the marina and walked past all the restaurants and shops to the money changer where we changed our money to euros. We weren’t even thinking about lunch when we got waylaid by the hustler at the first restaurant. Here’s some advice – if you want to avoid being reeled in like a fish, smile but keep walking. Stopping to look at their menu card is a mistake, but if you actually stop to listen to the hustler, you can consider yourself well and truly hooked.

Luckily, the food at this restaurant was pretty good. Pete had fried squid, and I had the mixed vegetarian platter, where I had my first taste of authentic dolmades or stuffed vine leaves. They were absolutely delicious and I really could have eaten them all day. I assumed that the dolmades in every cafe/restaurant/taverna would be equally delicious, which is as dumb as expecting every restaurant in, say, Madras, to serve uniformly delicious and high quality local food. So of course I was disappointed in quite a few places where the dolmades weren’t quite to my taste – too oily, too hard, too soft, too vinegary... etc. As it turned out, the dolmades at this, the first restaurant we ate at in Crete, were the best. And that is where we’ll be taking our family in 2014. 

We sat by the water, next to a moored boat and watched the fish swimming busily to and fro in two lines, for all the world like they were on a motorway. The only time that the fish motorway descended into chaos was when someone would throw in some bread or other food. Then it was every fish for him-or-herself. I’m afraid I was the chaosbringer supreme. I kept throwing bits of my food into the water, and discovered that the fish did not care much for vegetables, but they loved bread. I guess they hadn't heard of the 5-portions-of-veg-a-day principle or even the carbs-are-bad principle. 

The streets of the Old Town are utterly picturesque, narrow, with tiny little tavernas, shops selling touristy souvenirs, local bakeries etc, interspersed with little alleyways leading to hidden courtyards, with the occasional door left wide open, allowing you could peer into the houses (while trying not to be too obvious about gawking). The odd scooter or motorcycle would whizz past, but there were no cars there. I’m not sure if the streets were pedestrianised or whether they were just too narrow for any cars to get through.

We didn’t go to Rethymnon castle/fort because it was just too warm for a long walk and I was tired, possibly a little jet lagged. So we went back to the promenade and had an icecream while looking at the waves. Pete was very tempted into get into the water, but we hadn’t brought along his swim costume or a towel, so he reluctantly had to give up the idea of going for a dip. I would have been happy to walk the back streets some more, but Pete said we should save some of it for 2014 with my family, so that it would be new and fun for us when we explored the back streets together.

Crete is a fairly large island – to drive its breadth would be an all-day drive at least, but from north to south (relative to where our villa was, that is) it was a much shorter affair. Of course, we chose to take the long routes that wound through some spectacular mountains. One of the towns that we visited in that way was Plakias. Pete set the TomTom to “winding route” and by god, it was that. The drive to Plakias was very long and leisurely, over 4 hours, especially as we kept stopping at various points to marvel at the scenic views. If it had been a less cloudy day, the views would have been clearer and less misty in the distance – and therefore better in photographs!

It was in Plakias that Pete finally got a chance to swim in the sea. He pronounced it wonderful, although there was a fairly strong undercurrent. I didn’t have any plans of going in the water, partly because I didn’t have a swim costume, but mostly because I’m not crazy about the whole beach thing at all. The water is very nice while you’re in it; it’s the getting out part, however, that I hate. All that sand just clings to your wet body and suit, refusing to wash off unless you have a good powerful shower handy. And even then you’re shaking out sand from your shoes and bag and swim costume for days thereafter, not to mention sweeping the floors! 

Anyway, I was quite pleased not to have to go in the water, so I sat on a bench and kept a hawk eye on Pete. Yeah, he’s a good swimmer but I am not, and I had visions of jellyfish stinging him, or undertows carrying him away, or cramps getting him, or sharks taking a fatal bite out of him, and so on, with me being unable to help in any way. I found out only later that Cretan beaches do not have life guards or any kind of coast guard/emergency rescue. Eeek! As if I wasn’t paranoid enough!

We didn’t take the scenic route home from Plakias because I didn’t feel comfortable about a protracted drive through lonely mountains in case we had a breakdown – there’s no AA or RAC to come to the rescue of stranded motorists and I did not fancy spending a night in the middle of nowhere in a not-really-comfortable car. If you’re thinking “boy that’s one paranoid chick”, I would have to agree with you. Except for the “chick” part. “Big clucky hen” is probably a better description. Also, apart from the reason just stated, there didn’t seem any point to a mountainous return drive if the scenery was lost to the dark, the whole point of the long drive being the views. So the trip back home was mercifully shorter.

Cretan roads – especially off the motorways – are not in the best shape or condition – maybe like “D” roads in the UK. Potholes, broken up tarmac, open gullies by the verges, badly patch-repaired areas are all common, and driving at night when visibility isn’t good (no street lights outside of residential areas – which is normal and wouldn’t be a problem if the roads weren’t so bad) is a bit nerve wracking. You can’t really get up to any speed, or you shouldn’t – as Pete found out when the right back wheel of the car went into such a deep pothole that it felt like the jolt had knocked a few of our teeth loose.

Pete stopped the car a little further up the road under a solitary street lamp to check if there was any obvious sign of damage to the tyre – as he remarked, it was quite amazing that the tyre hadn’t burst when the wheel crashed into the pothole. But the hubcap had fallen off. So I went looking for it and discovered that it had rolled a little way downhill into the gulley at the side of the road and was waiting for me there. It was a good thing that it hadn’t gone any further, because all the area beyond was in pitch darkness, and I didn't have a torch. I went back to the car with it, put it in the boot and there it stayed for the remainder of our stay in Crete. The next morning Pete checked the wheel and the tyre thoroughly to make sure that there wasn’t any damage done that could make driving dangerous. I guess we were extremely lucky to get away with no damage to the car. 

One other thing we discovered after Pete had set his phone/TomTom to take “winding roads” was that we couldn’t seem to turn it back to “normal”. We only discovered this when we tried to return home from a day out somewhere, because the bleddy thing took us miles off route without us realising. It did this by taking us down back roads and trying to send us up (or down) narrow, steep, stony, teeth-rattling country lanes which would not have been wide enough for our car, as small as it was. Assuming that our car would have managed to negotiate the gradient, that is, and not acquire a puncture from the sharp stones. In any case, Pete was forced to backtrack on quite a few occasions, trying to find a main road that would set us on the right path home. This was made immeasurably difficult because of not knowing the area or the lay of the land or recognising any village names at all, other than our own.

On one of our drives, we came across a lake so bluey-green and set in such a beautifully mountainous setting offset by amazingly blue skies, it was almost as if we were in Switzerland. This was Lake Kournas in the village of Kournas. The lake is fed by underground springs, so it’s a fresh-water lake, used to irrigate crops in the surrounding areas and also providing drinking water for the locals. This information was given to us by the owner of the cafe which was perfectly positioned right across from the road, with tables and chairs set beneath shady trees. We had a Greek salad here for lunch, and opted for fresh orange juice to go with it. This was so incredibly delicious and refreshing, even without ice, that we both ordered another glass each. I don’t think I’ve had better freshly squeezed orange juice anywhere, ever. It was extremely relaxing to sit in the sun-dappled shade and sip at our juice, reading our Kindles, occasionally looking out at the view. We hadn’t even known that there was such a lake in such a setting, and it was just serendipity that brought us that way. It was one of my favourite drives.

Did I mention that every cafe and restaurant in Crete – and, for all I know, in all of Greece – offers raki (which is the local hooch) to customers at the end of any meal. Raki is very, very strong spirit and tastes incredibly awful. At home, I’d tried the raki that our hosts had left for us, pouring some into a glass and sipping at it delicately – quite the worst way to drink raki. Anyway, I’d come to the conclusion that it was definitely not for me and I was quite prepared to refuse it everywhere. 

Unfortunately, it is the custom for the host to raise a toast with the guests (to whatever strikes his fancy, but usually involves your good health) and for everyone to down the contents in one. That, by the way, is the only way to drink raki – swallow it down before you can smell or taste it, then suffer for a few horrible moments while it burns its way down your gullet. Delicate sipping is for posh drinks, not moonshine. Our cafe owner was happy to drink with us (he must have been bored because there were only two other customers there apart from us), and he persuaded us to more than one shot. Pete, who hates spirits, managed one out of sheer politeness (and the valid excuse that he was driving), but I was forced to have three and I’ll say my head was spinning. This was pretty much the case everywhere. After about 3 shots, you’ll probably feel that it isn’t so bad after all... but beware, if you’re not used to raw alcohol such as this, you’ll very likely regret it very much very soon. 

I don’t know if I mentioned this, but apiaries are quite commonly found in the hilly areas because of the abundance of heather and other plants that bees are very fond of. So while driving around we came across white-painted boxes lined up in rows on the hillside. I didn’t realise they were apiaries because I thought they would be ice-lolly shaped (if you know what I mean), but that’s what the rectangular or square boxes were, allright. At one point, quite high up in the mountains, we stopped by the side of the road because there was a gap in the hillside with a view of the sea far below, and I wanted to check out the path to get a better view if possible. 

When we got out of the car, we smelt a heavenly herby aroma, but over and above that the air smelt literally sweet. Fresh mountain air we’ve experienced, but air that actually had a caramel aroma? After a few deep breaths (while I was trying to work out what I was smelling) Pete suddenly said “It’s honey!” – and bingo, that’s what it was allright. The air smelt of wild thyme and honey! And when we got back in the car and followed the road as it went around a bend, we saw dozens and dozens of apiaries stacked up on the hillsides. It was an amazing experience as far as I was concerned. 

A few of the things that we noticed on our drives: 

- In the more remote areas, road signs peppered with holes... made by shepherds, according to Pete, who used the signs for target practice!

- Beautifully, blindingly white whitewashed little churches pretty much in every village. 

- Herds of goats and/or scrawny sheep stopping traffic on the mountain roads in the evenings, as they made their way home in the gathering dusk. Didn’t notice any shepherd/goatherd accompanying them. 

- Little shrines, some elaborate, some simple, sometimes with Jesus or Mary or possibly some saint or other within, dotting the roadside here and there. They looked like dolls houses, but weren’t – they were memorials for people who died in road accidents. A more permanent marker than the flower bouquets and toys that are sometimes left at the accident scene in the UK. 

- Roads that occasionally went almost literally through the backyard of remote and lonely houses, so close to the houses themselves, that I thought we’d lost our way – but no, we hadn’t. Lorries used these roads, believe it or not.

One other city we visited was Chania (also known as Hania or Xania). It is a very pretty – and naturally extremely touristy – city, about an hour and a quarter’s drive from Eleftherna. We were there on a Sunday, so it was extremely busy, with parking spaces at a premium - in those areas where cars were even allowed, that is. It was a very bright sunny day, and I didn’t fancy walking ages just to get to the old town centre. But, as per usual, Pete managed to find a space in which to shoehorn the car, I’d guess about half a mile or so from the main promenade. Then we strolled down the promenade – it really was a lovely day and the sunshine made the little waves sparkle like diamonds in the incredibly blue sea. The water was very clear and if you looked over the sea wall, you could see the fish swimming between the rocks below. Actually, in some places you didn’t have to look over the wall to see them; they were more than visible through the whacking great holes in the masonry of the parapet – easily big enough for an inquisitive and adventurous child to fall through onto the rocks. Not a comfortable thought. While I think the UK has excessively strict Health and Safety regulations in every sphere, a little of that caution would not come amiss in Crete when it’s to do with the safety of children. 

Anyway, there’s a centuries old lighthouse which you can walk to. It didn’t seem like much of a walk when you looked at the lighthouse from the promenade, but this was deceptive when you actually followed the meandering line of the harbour. We ran the gauntlet of the souvenir shops and restaurants and cafes (being waylaid a few times by the professional hustler for each eatery), deciding that we would check out the lighthouse and then return to one of the cafes for lunch. 

As it turned out, we didn’t bother in the end, because it didn’t seem quite worth the hassle - for one, there was no shade at all and I was beginning to get a headache in the sun; and for two, Pete was not wearing the right footwear and the cobbles were hurting his feet in the thin-soled sandals. So we wandered into a large boathouse where there was meant to be a nautical “exhibition” but it was possibly the dullest of its kind ever – just a couple of boats, and acres of text on the walls in Greek – which, naturally, was all Greek to us. It was not so much an exhibition as it was a cafe and souvenir shop. So we wandered back out, with the prospect of lunch appearing unexpectedly on the horizon as the lighthouse had been ruled out. 

Before we went back to the first cafe where we’d been stopped, we saw some glass-bottom boat trips being advertised on sandwich boards and also by the inevitable hustlers for each boat. A two-hour trip, with a 30-minute stop at a small island for people to snorkel, cost 60 euros per person and seemed a pretty good deal. So we booked ourselves onto one, and went for lunch. The food was very good, but also very expensive – it almost seemed like the restaurant was trying to make up for the paucity in tourists by charging us what should have been shared by at least a dozen people! I dread to think what the prices are like in peak season. However, that’s a worry for another day. 

The advantage of the off-peak season was that the glass-bottom boat had hardly any tourists on board. Apart from Pete and me, there were two tattooed and rather hungover college students, and a couple with a (very cutely dimpled) 12-year-old son. The diver/guide on board was in his mid-20s, tanned, sun-bleached blond haired, bearded and English, with a quirky sense of humour. I’m sure you’ll remember from your schooldays that history can be made boring by a recitation of dry facts if not injected with a good dose of humour. Luckily, our guide (whose name I forget but whose face is clear in my mind) kept things interesting and us laughing. 

We chugged around a few islands (one of them boasting a rare species of wild mountain goat), getting to see a few schools of fish and the rocky sea bottom through the glass floor, but were only scheduled to stop at a particular point for 30 minutes – this being a short trip - for anyone who was interested in snorkelling or diving. The only two who volunteered were Pete and the young lad. While they were changing out of their clothes, the guide kept winding them up by talking about how cold the water was and how he himself was going to stay in the water for no more than 2 minutes for fear of cramps and hypothermia, and were they quite sure they wanted to snorkel? (incidentally, the only person who got wound up was me).

Pete had a lovely time snorkelling, at one point diving right beneath the boat to come up on the other side, but I missed seeing this because I was holding a starfish in each hand. This was because the guide had brought out a bucket from under his seat (“here’s one I prepared earlier”) which contained a few starfish and sea snails, and handed them out to us on board while he gave a short lecture on their habits. The sea snails grossed me out because they were actually exactly like snails except five times the size of a normal land snail – there was NO way I was going to touch them, never mind hold them in my hand. The starfish, on the other hand, looked pretty. After he had put the starfish in my hands, the guide casually mentioned that they probably wouldn’t leap onto my face and sucking my eyeballs out, but that I should be on my guard and make no sudden movements. Luckily I wasn’t idiot enough to fall for quite such an obvious wind-up, but I am pleased to report that the starfish stayed motionless and my eyeballs stayed unsucked. Always a good thing. 

On the penultimate day of our stay, Pete wanted to take me to the Samaria Gorge, which is one of Crete’s most spectacular national parks. It’s probably one of Greece’s best, even. There’s a village called Agia Roumeli, at the foot of Samaria Gorge, which can only be reached by ferry from the starting point of a place called Sfakia, or by an arduous 16-kilometre trek from the top of Samaria Gorge (entered from the village of Omalos). As someone who is terrified of heights, the hike down (even if I was fit) from Omalos was pretty much ruled out as far as I was concerned. 

I also didn’t want to do the ferry trip (which, according to Pete, has amazing views and beautiful scenery as the ferry hugs the cliff line all the way around) mainly because I wanted to experience it in 2014 with our family for the first time. The other reason I was reluctant was that Sfakia is a 3-4 hour drive from Eleftherna; so, to catch the 1 p.m ferry, we’d have to leave at 8 a.m, for which I’d have to get up at least at 7 a.m. If we left Sfakia at 5 p.m sharp, it would still be at least another three hours of driving before we got back home. And Pete would have to do all the driving with no chance of relief, as I can’t drive manual shift cars. He kept saying this wouldn’t be a problem, but I really wasn’t keen.

So he finally decided that we would drive instead to Omalos village, so that I could see what we could of Samaria Gorge from the village. It was still a fair distance to Omalos, but not as long as the drive to Sfakia. There was a cafe at the entrance, where we had good coffee and shared a slice of bad apple pie (too much air, too little apple). There was nobody else there and To be fair, the gorge looked... well, gorgeous. It was quite awesome, but – and I don’t know if it’s fair to compare, but I am doing it anyway – not a patch on Yellowstone Canyon. Still, it was impressive, very jagged and rocky.

The information board for hikers, at the entrance to the Gorge, had some general advice with regard to shoes, food, water, the path itself, and so on, saying that the path was reasonably well maintained by the authorities. I certainly didn’t feel that would be true, and from the latest reviews on TripAdvisor, I wouldn’t count on emergency help being available in case of any accident. Apparently there’s a helicopter pad (but no mention of any helicopter) and the only other way to get out is on the back of a donkey (for which you pay a 10-euro fee)... but there’s also no mention of how you would contact anyone to bring you a donkey in the first place! Oh, and if you set out on the hike but didn’t get to Agia Roumeli by 4 p.m to catch the last ferry, you’d either have to spend the night in the gorge (if you hadn’t reached Agia Roumeli) or in Agia Roumeli itself – assuming that there were any hotel rooms available there at short notice in the first place. Because the ferry apparently waits for nothing and nobody. Not really encouraging, is it, unless you’re the intrepid sort? Which I certainly am not.

The next day, the last day of our holiday, we didn’t do much – got up late, had breakfast, packed up in a leisurely manner (while Pete worked on his software), said our goodbyes to Georgios who came by to give us some last minute gifts to take home with us – a bottle of home-pressed olive oil and a bottle of home-made honey – and finally left at around 3 p.m for the drive to the airport. 

We’d had a very good week with no rain (one thunderstorm overnight on the second night, that was all) and good weather, and this in mid-October. I can only imagine that the last week in May is going to be even more sunshiny and hot and green and beautiful, and I cannot wait to go back with the family!