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Traveling to Turkey & Greece

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Written by Wing Dunham.

Due to the fact that Delta couldn’t connect with other flights if they were chained together, we didn’t get to our Istanbul hotel (Barceló Saray–excellent) until about 8 p.m. and were too exhausted to do anything but find something to eat and stare out our little balcony at the mosques and the very busy street vendors and traffic below. So the following day we tried to make up for lost time. Everything we saw is in walking distance from the hotel.

First the Grand Bazaar. (It was a bit tricky finding an entrance because the place is surrounded by many, many more shops and vendors.) But once inside, and seeing how vast it is, we agreed to just take one “street” to get the flavor. It was all gold and silver jewelry. And dipping into a couple of side streets there were leather goods and silks and it was a glorious mix of colors and wildly exotic with men running about with tea trays for negotiating shoppers.

En route to our next destination, we watched a small band of Communists (we were told) carrying red and yellow flags and marching in protest, but no one could tell us what they were protesting.

Then the Blue Mosque where we waited because there was a service in progress. (A rug merchant generously offered to escort us to his shop while we waited, but we declined.) Once inside we simply gaped at the beauty of the building. You can take pictures, but unless you have an extremely fine camera they’ll most likely turn out under lit and good only for memories.

After that, the Aya Sophia, which, to my mind, was even more awe-inspiring than the Blue Mosque. Just exquisite. Most images from the early Christian times are obliterated but in a way that looks like marble. However there is extensive restoration being done. We climbed the winding stone passage to the “mezzanine” which seemed like it was 3 stories high and from that vantage point the mosque is even more breathtaking. Later, after having a soda in the courtyard, we admitted we were done for the day.

Had a meal at a small restaurant nearby which was filled with families and children and much noise and busyness. Then we wended our way back to the hotel, running the gamut of street vendors selling everything from perfume to cigarettes to ladies’ shoes, men’s jackets and kebabs.

ATHENS

Our flight was blessedly without delay; we were met at the airport and taken to the Electra Palace, another excellent hotel. We settled in and then set out for an exploratory walk around the block in search of a place to buy cocktail material. Along the way we stopped at an outdoor cafe which was almost full but did have a table for two. Turns out all the other customers were British expats and this was where they regularly gathered after church and proceeded to get slightly squiffed. We had our first taste of raki there, free because JD’s hot dog came with everything but the hot dog. Much hilarity all ’round. Returned to the hotel courtyard for snacks and cocktails.

Next destination was a neighborhood I’d read about, Anafiotika, at the foot of the Acropolis. Never found it because I’m directionally challenged, but had a lovely long walk. Back down to the Plaka and more shopping…for me. JD throws in the towel and says he’ll meet me back at the hotel. It’s looking like rain but I duck into a jewelry shop and admire a lovely little silver pin, crafted by the shop owner. “How much?” He answers, I sigh and say no, if it were half that much I would splurge… “You have cash?” he asks. Yes. He says he will sell it to me for half. I was dumbstruck…and delighted. Returned to the hotel in a downpour, the only rain we experienced during our entire trip.The next day, map in hand, we set out to find the Plaka which we found with the help of several shopkeepers. (Later we figured out that it was about 3 blocks from the hotel–just as you said, Joy.) Shops and cafes everywhere, not the “plaza” setting I had imagined. Crowds of people, wonderful shopping, lovely cafes.

Next day, the tour. Sadly, not that wonderful. Or should I say, not to our taste. Every minute of that long morning felt like a history lecture almost devoid of humor or interesting asides. We were taken to the modern Olympic stadium which we couldn’t get near enough to see. We drove by what I understood to be a wonderful botanical garden, we drove by several statues and buildings none of which we remembered by the afternoon. Finally we arrived at the Acropolis, and followed our guide who stopped and talked once in a while. JD dropped out about halfway and said he’d wait at the bottom. For me, an overweight 67-year old, that was one hell of a climb but I was determined to see the porch of the Caryatids and the Parthenon with my own eyes, and I did, panting and gasping all the way, and elbowing my way through the literally hundred of fellow tourists. But we had to scurry back down to the bus so we could make it to the New Acropolis Museum on schedule. Harrumph.

Museum was beautifully built and housed a magnificent collection of ancient pottery and sculpture. But we split off from the group and headed out to freedom and back to the Plaka for lunch. Wandered around and people-watched some more then, even though we knew we weren’t far from the hotel, we caught a cab. When he heard we were going to the airport in the morning, he said he’d pick us up at 9 and get us there in plenty of time. “Honest?” Of course honest, 9 a.m. be ready. HAH! A plague on taxi drivers. Finally the hotel called a cab and the wonderful driver got us to the airport with a whole 5 minutes to spare.

SANTORINI

The Dana Villas. Wonderful! Picture perfect views, great room service, lovely room and only one drawback–we were 137 steps from the street. Because most of these hotels and villas are located on the cliff side of the island, the climb is probably typical. But since I’d left a good part of my knees at the Acropolis, it was a challenge…for both of us. The next day we decided to walk into town (Fira) to find the location of Nickolas restaurant. Although we had planned to go what was designated as the short route into town we ended up on the cliff walk, a happy accident. Very nice walk with many great photo ops including the steps up from the tour boats to the town via donkey, foot or cable car. At this point we headed inland to find the town square. Turned out to be the Bataan death march in the totally wrong direction under bright blue skies and blazing sun. Finally I dragged my very wilted husband into a little cafe called “Salt & Pepper” where we were greeted effusively by a lovely woman who could immediately see our condition. I asked “Is it air-conditioned?” and she said “Yes! Yes my darlings! Come in, come in!”  After a little salad and a rest, we figured we could stagger on, but she appeared with a warm chocolate brownie topped with ice cream and strawberries. Oh, but we didn’t order this, we protested. “No, no, this is for you!” she said, “For you!”
We forged on, finally found Fira…or Fierastefani. They sort of blend together I think. Caught a taxi and returned to the hotel. Big naps. Dinner was Moussaka and fried tomato balls, delicious as was the white wine.

The following day the hotel arranged a tour for us, starting about 5 pm, with Vicki, a charming, happy woman who was born and raised on Santorini. She was full of interesting information about the island, earthquakes, the volcanic eruptions, crops, how grape vines are trained into baskets so the leaves protect the grapes, and why there are so many tiny churches perched high on the hills–built by sailors/fishermen in thanks for a safe return from the sea. After a trip all around Santorini, she headed for Oia, famous for its sunsets. Very pretty, many many nice shops, jewelry galore. But after about an hour, she said “Now I’m going to take you where you really will have a better view of the sunset, the Santo Winery” And it was as promised, plus their dry white wine was excellent. Afterwards she dropped us in town at Nickolas so we could experience the place. It was very busy and we beat the dinner crowd by about 7 minutes. Food was good but not drop-dead wonderful.

CRETE

Remembering our travel rep’s admonition that we absolutely must must be at the ferry by 12:30, we had the hotel call us a cab for 11:00. Another no-show. Supposedly they called again, but still no cab and we’re worrying that we won’t catch the ferry. Saved by the posse! Two Americans from the Embassy in Athens heard us grousing and gave us a ride down to the port. Turns out the ferry wasn’t scheduled to leave until 5:30. But ultimately we reached Crete, were picked up and taken to the ever-so-fancy Aldemar Royal Mare in the middle of nowhere as far as we can tell, because it’s dark.

Yes, the hotel compound was definitely luxurious… the ocean, 3 swimming pools, 5 restaurants, tennis courts, putting green, high end shops, spa and on and on. Our balcony overlooked one of the pools and at 11:30 every morning “Mr. Animation” arrived to conduct very spirited water aerobics and games at the top of his powerful lungs. But, that said, it was indeed a compound. Unlike Istanbul, Athens and Santorini, you couldn’t just walk out the front door and explore the city of Heraklion. The Royal Mare is a destination in itself and it is in the middle of nowhere. So we hired a guide to show us Knossos and the city of Heraklion.

Emmanuel Tsagarakis was a delightful man, born and raised in Heraklion. He was very knowledgeable and able to impart a huge amount of historical information about Knossos and the Minoan culture and keep it all interesting. We had a once-over-lightly tour of Heraklion, including the harbor and the Venetian fortifications, and ended up in the city square for a drink and a snack. It was just enough for us, and completely enjoyable. When we returned to the hotel, Mr. Tsagarakis actually had to harangue the gate keeper to let us back in.

The next morning we had to up at the inhuman hour of 4 in order to be at the airport the required 2 or 3 hours prior to departure. But no worries, the man who met us when we arrived in Crete said we were on his schedule to pick up and take to the airport. Again, a plague on Greek taxi drivers. Twenty minutes after he was supposed to arrive, the hotel called another cab which arrived promptly and while en route we got to hear first-hand the driver’s diatribe about the rotten economy and how he now had to support his son, daughter in law and their many children.

And on that note, we returned to the United States of America.

  • WEATHER–perfect
  • FOOD–all perfectly tasty, especially the bread (always fresh), the tomatoes (one forgets how sweet and juicy real tomatoes are), the yogurt and the olive oil.
  • LANGUAGE–a bit of a problem in Istanbul, but not insurmountable; no problem in Greece
  • TRAFFIC–you would have to be insane to try and drive in these cities. Half the population drives motor bikes and half of those drivers clearly have a death wish.
  • PRICES–The exchange rate stinks; we just figured that one Euro = about $1.50. You can haggle a bit, particularly if you have cash. (Didn’t buy anything in Turkey.)
  • PEOPLE–Very accommodating, friendly and patient with us when we couldn’t quite understand the accent. And of course they all knew we were tourists, but often had to ask if we were American or Canadian.
  • CLASSIC TRAVEL–Our only complaint is that you should have told us we needed to at least double the time we spent. So much to see, so little time. Would we do it again? Yes, but there are so many other lands to visit… so we’ll be back. THANK YOU!