Greece

The Acropolis from the breakfast area on top of our hotel

We’ve been to Athens quite a few times. Whenever you come to Greece you are very likely to fly into or out of Athens — or both. Because it is the epicenter of one of the world’s great historical civilizations, you usually spend a couple days doing the obligatory sights. Those would include the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the museum of archeology, and a few other good ruins.

Jim glows at a great rooftop restaurant with fantastic food that we’ve been to several times

But we’ve done all of those things multiple times, and this time we just didn’t feel like doing any of them. So we were very bad, very lazy tourists.

I think Athens gets kind of a bad rap. Many people do make their one- or two-day stops here, including those obligatory visits to the top sites. And then they kind of dismiss it as a destination unto itself. But since I first came here 34 years ago, I have always really liked this city. It has a gritty kind of beauty. It has great food (but beware the many tourist traps; do your research). And it has a very cool nightlife scene. It’s a city that just has a ton of cool spots to have a drink or linger for hours over an espresso.

Unfortunately, our lazy visit ended on a negative note. After a nice lunch at an Indian restaurant, Jim’s wallet sort of inexplicably disappeared. He had used it to pay the lunch bill. And then we walked a short 10 minutes back to the hotel, at which point he noticed it was gone. Only two things could have possibly happened in that short window of time. He might have left it in the restaurant — but they claim they never saw it. Or he got pickpocketed — though the streets weren’t remotely crowded, so that seems so unlikely. We have a bad feeling that someone in the Indian restaurant kept it for the cash. Nobody has made any attempt to use the credit card or ATM card, so it doesn’t seem like a professional job. Ugh! So much hassle to deal with those things now!

Our hotel had a great rooftop bar with views of the Acropolis, so we encountered culture from a distance

On our other evening out we stopped at one of the cool bars in one of the cool neighborhoods that makes me love Athens

This is the kind of grittiness that makes Athens tick

After a month in Cyprus and Greece we were actually getting a little tired of Greek food, so we had our last lunch at an Indian restaurant. At this moment we are happy because the food was great. Too bad a lost wallet was in our immediate future.

Rhodes – an amazing medieval town made even more atmospheric in a rainstorm

Three years ago Mark & I spent a week on the island of Rhodes and fell in love with it. So when Bart & Ann suggested they wanted to experience one island in addition to Crete we leapt at the chance to go back. The bad news was that because of scheduling issues we only had three days to enjoy it; the good news it was at least as beautiful as we remembered it.

Of course one of the reasons we love Rhodes is because there are cats everywhere

There were definitely a few bumps in the road (bumps in the Rhodes??) for us. First, when making the reservations for two rooms a couple months ago Mark made a mistake. He booked the first room (at Spirits of the Knight, a hotel we loved three years ago) just fine but then somehow booked the other room for a week earlier. They graciously canceled that early/erroneous reservation but didn’t have any rooms at all our first night. Instead we had to stay one night at a different hotel before moving to Spirits of the Knight the next day.

And then our arrival was all messed up. We’d arranged with our hotel to pick us up at the airport but they didn’t show up. Traffic, they said. So we took a taxi to the town gates where they were supposed to meet us because ordinary taxis can’t come into the old town. They didn’t show up there either. Very frustrating.

And then as though those annoyances weren’t enough we had more rain our first days than we’ve ever seen in Greece. OK, it seems as though it never rains at all in Greece though apparently the weather saves it all up for one huge burst. Over several hours it just poured, water running like a river down the cobbled streets as we tried in vain to avoid getting our feet soaked.

In other words Rhodes wasn’t perfect. It was damned good, though. The hotel we spent our first night – the oddly named In Camera Art Boutique Hotel – turned out to be even better than the Spirits of the Knight that we’d loved three years ago. They weren’t great at that whole “transfer from the airport” thing but we had a beautiful room. And even in the pouring rain the old town is simply beautiful, one of the best preserved medieval towns you’ll find anywhere in the world. In breaks in the weather we had opportunities to just wander, to walk at length in what was once something like a moat separating the town from the exterior walls, and to walk on top of the historic walls themselves.

There are some serious medieval remains here

Then there are two of the things we loved the most from three years ago. On our first visit we stumbled onto a dentist office just as it was time to get our teeth cleaned and thought he was really good. So this time we went back. The dentist, one Victor Panagiotakopoulos if you can believe that name, lived and studied for a while in the U.S. and just does a great job. I wonder if there are any other tourists in the world who look forward to going to Rhodes so we can get our teeth cleaned.

Mark and Victor Panagiotakopoulos, with Mark’s newly cleaned teeth

And finally there was one day at the beach. After some pretty intense thunderstorms the weather cleared for our last day so Mark & I headed to our favorite beach from our earlier visit and enjoyed it – and the little Greek taverna at one end of the beach – just as much as we remembered it. Bart & Ann wanted to go to something more remote (and they did) but we had such great memories of that urban pebbly beach with the diving platform that there was no way we would miss it on our one day of beach weather.

The diving platform anchored well offshore from our favorite beach. And just in case you don’t recognize me, yes that’s me mid-jump.

The three days went fast and then Bart & Ann were headed back to the States. This was our third stay with them during this adventure and they are just so easy and fun to travel with. It’s good enough that we ended it considering trying to schedule a bike trip next spring in Bart’s native Netherlands during tulip season. We’ll see.

Meanwhile Mark & I are off for a short stop in Athens before continuing on to Azerbaijan. I mean, who hasn’t always wanted to go to Baku?

One of the entryways into the old town

The narrow streets of the Rhodes

A view across the rooftops from the city walls

The main square during a downpour

Cats love Rhodes too

At the airport in Rhodes we saw this sign telling tourists that establishments are required to accept credit and debit cards and they don’t have to pay if they don’t get a receipt. Bart observed that this is probably a requirement of the European bailout of Greek debt, caused in no small part because of tax avoidance. Mark and I are always annoyed when restaurants claim their credit card system isn’t working, since we figure it’s just a way of avoiding the fees and/or taxes, so we liked this sign.

More beauty in the old town

Mark walked a long time in this area between the exterior walls and the old town. I was being lazy.

Eventually, yes, the sun came out

Feels very olde-fashioned, no?

The old town is chock-filled with great sights like this

And yes, cats

Traveling with Bart and Ann is effortless fun. Here we are making the best of a day of unpredictable weather.

After our stop in Heraklion we met up with Bart and Ann again and travelled east to a fairly low-key resort town called Elounda. The town was okay, but the surrounding area was really beautiful. The Spinalonga peninsula juts out from the mainland near here, forming a gorgeous bay. Beyond the peninsula, Crete’s eastern mountains loom, so that views in every direction feature bands of various shades of blue. The bay is dotted with beaches in various directions, so you are never too far from a good swim.

Coffee time

High atop Spinalonga island

Two things did go wrong with our visit here. First was the weather. This is my fifth visit to Greece, and I’ve rarely ever encountered anything other than hot, dry weather. It almost never occurred to me that anything else existed here. And September is supposed to be an ideal time to visit. But we just had a few days of moody, rainy, grey weather, with an occasional respite of sunshine.

The second problem is that we rented an apartment on AirBNB that turned out to be a loser — one of those that looks much better in the pictures than in real life. Jim and I generally avoid AirBNB because of the wild unpredictability of what you get. But Bart and Ann are bigger fans, and it can be fun sharing a house with friends. But this place just felt crappy. Two of the three bedrooms were on an entirely subterranean floor, with the only light coming from the below-ground portion of a light well. These rooms were dark and depressing. Furnishings and towels and bed linens felt like cheap hand-me-downs from someplace else.

But none of this could stop the four of us from having a great time. We beat the weather by playing lots of cards. We survived the poor-value apartment by making lots of jokes. And when the weather took a surprise turn for the better we reveled in the sunshine on a wonderful beach. And of course we talked politics incessantly, as we are wont to do with these two.

And last, but not least, we also visited a leper colony. Spinalonga island is not just any leper colony. It’s an island dramatically situated in the bay with ruins of a 16th century Venetian fortress, later Turkish reinforcements, and the town that served as many as 1,000 resident lepers in the early to mid-20th century. Best leper colony we’ve ever been to.

A beach taverna in gloomy weather still has a certain charm, as taken in by a pensive Ann

Frolicking on the beach under moody weather

The pool and terrace were the nice part of our house, especially on the morning when the when the weather started to turn our way. The photos on the AirBNB site were all taken from masterly angles so that you had no idea these ugly electric wires were there.

Once the weather turned nice we settled on this amazing beach. That’s Spinalonga island, the former leper colony, on the right.

Approaching Spinalonga island on a ferry

Climbing among the fortifications on Spinalonga island

Jim reaches the summit of the island

One of the dramatic entrances to the leper colony

Jim poses with his namesake in a chapel to St. George on Spinalonga island