Greece from top to bottom

Crete to Santorini – Greece

After making the short road journey from northern to southern Crete I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when boarding the ferry. We disembarked at Agia Roumeli, a tiny collection of whitewashed buildings wedged between the mountains and ludicrously clear sea with no road access. There is no reason to visit this place other than the fact that it sits at the end of one of Europe’s longest gorges (this blog is quite heavy on European achievements) and a 13-16km hike depending on who you listen to. Usually, tourists start hiking at the northern end of the gorge and are deposited in Agia Roumeli several hours later where they catch a ferry and bugger off. We were different as the only hikers walking in the opposite direction against a tide of people a little like a salmon fighting its way upstream. Finally, the path cleared of people and we hit the 8km mark before deciding to head back to town and cool off in the sea before sunset. The gorge is spectacular but not unique and we were happy to climb up into the forest which offered a degree of peace and respite from the relentless sun. It was a shame not to have completed the full length of the hike, but a bonus was our return was on an almost completely empty trail with only the lame and a handful of park rangers remaining. What’s more, the village was empty when we returned, and we took full advantage over an incredible dinner of oven baked lamb and a little too much wine. I could have happily stayed for several days reading my book with a beer and my toes dipped into the Libyan Sea although it wasn’t to be as I awoke the next morning with a stinking hangover and made the short ferry ride over to Loutro.

A bridge

Loutro is a little bigger than Agia Roumeli with a larger contingent of tourists but it is still only accessible by the sea and as a result is able to maintain a village atmosphere to some degree. It is essentially a line of restaurants along the sea front with a line of guesthouses and hotels behind, but it was relaxed with plenty to do including hikes and kayaking. One afternoon was spent kayaking around the bay squeezed into yet another open sea kayak that offered even less legroom than a Ryanair seat, but at least it didn’t attempt to sink on this occasion. The following day goes down as one of my best days in Greece. Catching a boat to a secluded bay we were treated to a morning cooking class in a restaurant kitchen so hot I figured I was to be the main course. However, moussaka was to be the main event, a dish far too complicated and time consuming to make relative to the end result. While it was cooking, I parked up under a tree and read until I dozed off, only waking to the call of lunch. What followed was heaven. Beers and wine, plenty of salads and cheeses and then the moussaka, which was without doubt the best I had eaten and thus shattering my theory that it’s not worth the effort. As ever on Crete, raki and watermelon appeared for desert before finally leaving via a boat that dropped us at yet another extremely pleasant beach to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon. Deep down we knew this was the end of something epic and we endeavoured to enjoy every moment. 

Loutro

As expected, all good things come to an end which in the case of Greece was our arrival to Crete’s capital, Iraklion, a little like Chania but far worse. It’s a large capital town and so what else can be expected, but my confusion lay in the sheer volume of people that filled the usual restaurants and not a lot else. No one loves Greek good more than me, but I’m getting tired of the restaurant filled streets of the Balkans in general and cravings for home cooked food grow stronger by the day. Of course, if we were in the villages of Greece the story would be different because eating out or not, you are likely to get mama’s cooking. There is one point of interest worth mentioning in Iraklion which is Knossos, branded Europe’s oldest city, famed for its 4,000-year-old Minoan palace, Greek mythology, and estimated to have been settled as early as 9,000 years ago. The current site is both fascinating and disappointing. Fascinating because of the technology employed millennia ago including flushing toilets and pressurised waterpipes, disappointing because some wally of a Victorian thought he’d try to reconstruct the palace which just makes everything look a bit odd and out of place. Ironically, one of Europe’s largest ever volcanic eruptions destroyed the continent’s supposedly oldest city ending the Minoan civilisation and it was this very much still active volcano we were about to visit. Santorini.  

Misery

I’ll cut straight to it, Oia in Santorini is undoubtedly picturesque; any idiot can point a camera in any direction and get a good shot, but it has to be one of the most overrated and soulless places on the planet. A glorified shopping mall selling glorified tourist crap including jewellery and dresses no one will wear again at glorified prices with a glorious view. All the while the whitewashed walls radiate heat and cook anyone who dares walk through the crammed streets as girls pose with their boyfriends furiously shooting an iPhone 13 plus. One guy even proposed among the mass of onlookers, even crazier, she said yes. Never has there been a less original proposal. The chic hotels and guest houses that cling to the side of the cliff, with their private swimming pools and stunning views are epic in their own right but they are not alone, forming just a single hole in a giant honeycomb of misery. Maybe people like having no privacy and are happy to pay for it, but call me old fashioned, I’d rather pay to get away from my neighbour and have a private pool which I could lounge around in naked with no idiot, such as myself, walking by in search of a good picture. There is a sweet spot between the main tourist strip and the guesthouses, a mid-layer of backstreets that should you dare explore will provide the opportunity for excellent photos without the crowds but ultimately, you’re taking pictures of a holiday resort with the added disappointment that there is less to do than even at Butlins. The island itself, blown apart and taking the Minoans with it is its only point of interest, otherwise it’s a heap of volcanic rock, windswept where nothing grows, even the water is undrinkable. The hurricane force gusts will carry away all you hold dear on the beach; it will fill your dinner with dust and grit if you’re really unlucky and scare your girlfriend as it howls throughout the night. There is no point to any of it. A day at most is all that’s needed, it quickly becomes boring, prices double as soon as you enter the whitewashed streets, roads creek under the pressure of coaches, Africans haul the luggage of tourists up and down the steep steps. A visit in July exaggerates everything, with the shoulders of the season I’m sure offering an altogether more pleasant experience but ultimately nothing changes, both Fira and Oia are simply overpriced, overrated and sold-out.

Thankfully we were staying in Perissa, a small beach town and 40-minute drive from the misery of Oia. Perissa may not be the most charming of places but it was far more relaxed with a good beach, plenty of good food including the best gyros in Greece, and most importantly considerably less people. Still, out of 227 inhabited islands in Greece, Santorini should be the last to visit, in fact just skip it all together. Ultimately Greece has always treated me incredibly well and she didn’t fail to deliver on our final night in the country for in between the gale-force gusts of wind, in a peaceful restaurant by the sea, I was served a huge plate of gyros alongside a huge Greek salad and plenty of house white wine. After all, we will always be happier if we take a few steps away (or 40-minute drive in this case) from that supposedly perfect Instagram shot.

Check out the tour here.

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