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Lonely Planet profiles NE Aegean plus 4 ‘secret,’ timeless islands

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Lonely Planet magazine

Greece gets front-cover prominence on the cover of the Lonely Planet newsstand issue for May 2018

 

The secret’s out: I had a strong hunch I might find something interesting to read about Greece when I walked into the magazine department at my local bookstore yesterday.  When I turned into the travel section, my premonition instantly proved accurate — standing at eye level on the front shelf was the latest edition of Lonely Planet, its cover graced with a photo of a blue-roofed Greek Orthodox church illustrating its “Secret Greece” feature story. 

In another pleasant delight, I realized I had seen that very same church in person — on Astypalea, during our island hopping holiday in 2009.

Astypalea is one of seven islands featured in Lonely Planet’s May issue and, in another curious coincidence, the article about it recommends staying in the very accommodations where we spent several nights: Fildisi Boutique Hotel

The magazine highlights two other islands we have been to — Hydra and Sifnos — and, in yet another surprising stroke of serendipity, spotlights four more that I had been seriously considering for our upcoming vacation: Lesvos, Chios, Ikaria and Kythera. (We have already made plans to spend our time in and within sight of the Peloponnese, but Lonely Planet suddenly has me wondering if I may have made a mistake.)

 

 

The main focus of the magazine’s Great Escape cover feature is the Northeast Aegean group of Greek islands; specifically, Lesvos, Chios and Ikaria. Stepping ashore on these particular isles “introduces olive farmers and wild honey, hidden villages and untouched beaches, and perhaps the secret to long life,” the feature story introduction says.

Reading the Lesvos profile quickly made me crave Greek cuisine, though I should have expected that given the article’s headline: “Savour the many flavours of Greece on Lesvos, from olive oil to ouzo and orange wine.”

The second feature story invites readers to “discover a centuries-old tradition of mastic cultivation and the fortress-like villages that grew rich from it” in southern Chios.

The third main article introduces Ikaria, one of the world’s unique Blue Zone locations where residents “enjoy longer lives than anyone else in Europe.”

One-page mini profiles for Astypalea, Kythera, Sifnos and Hydra appear in the magazine’s “Secret Greece” feature as examples that, “even in the well-known Greek island groups,” visitors can find “the odd place that’s little changed over the decades.” Each profile includes short thumbnail descriptions for “Why am I going?”, “Where should I stay?”, “What am I eating?”, and “What am I drinking?”

The island articles are all good reads, and just might entice you to consider the Northeast Aegean for a future trip to Greece, especially if you haven’t considered that region of the country before. (They probably will make you feel peckish for Greek food and beverages, too.)

See if you can find a copy of the magazine at your local newsstand before it sells out.

 

Planning to drive while visiting Greece? Don’t leave home without an IDP

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car on the coast of Crete

Want to drive around Greece so you can enjoy the spectacular scenery, like this amazing vista near Paleochora on the southwestern coast Crete? Be sure to carry a valid International Driving Permit (IDP), or you could get hit with a fine up to €1,000 if you’re stopped by police and can’t produce one for inspection. 

 

Pack your permit!: If you don’t live in the EU and you plan to rent a vehicle during your holiday in Greece, make sure you obtain a valid International Driving Permit (IDP) before you leave your home country. You could face hefty fines if you’re stopped by police and can’t produce an IDP while driving anywhere in the country.

Greece has long required tourists from non-EU countries to carry IDPs when they drive, but many vehicle rental agencies haven’t demanded to see the document before handing over the keys, requiring tourists to show only the official driver’s licence issued by their home state, province or district. I have never been asked if I had an IDP, and when I have offered to show it while signing car hire paperwork, rental agency staff have told me they don’t need to see it. However, If I were to be stopped by police for any reason, I could be penalized with a fine for not having an IDP, and if I were involved in an accident, my vehicle insurance coverage could be declared void because of my failure to possess an IDP.

New Greek transportation rules now put the onus on both foreign drivers and vehicle rental agencies to ensure compliance with the IDP law — or each party could face potentially steep penalties for violations.

 

 

 

According to media reports,  including a May 14 2018 newsbrief on ekatherimini.com and a May 15 2018 report on Greek Travel Pages Headlines, motorists from non-EU countries now must have a valid IDP in their possession in order to rent a vehicle and drive, or they could be fined up to €1,000 if stopped by police.  The rental agency could be hit with a similar fine plus face an additional, stiffer penalty  — the vehicle could be seized by authorities. Groups representing rental agencies throughout Greece have protested the new measure and have called on the government to reconsider the legislation.

IDPs are issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA),  in Australia by the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), in Canada by the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), and in other countries by authorized motoring groups and clubs. They can be obtained by mail, or during a visit to a local auto association office, but must be obtained before the driver leaves their home country.  Passport-style photos are required for the permit, but if applicants don’t bring any the IDP issuing office can usually take photos on the spot. They will of course charge a fee for taking the photos, as well as for issuing the IDP. The last time I obtained an IDP, it took less than 10 minutes for my photo to be taken and my permit to be validated and issued.

Why is an IDP necessary in the first place?

The Australian Automobile Association explains the main reason in this succinct note on its website: “IDPs are a special permit for tourists, authorised by a United Nations Treaty for the purpose of allowing motorists to drive internationally without further tests or applications provided their domestic drivers licence is valid. An IDP is proof that you hold a valid drivers licence in your home country at the date of issue of the IDP and should be carried with your domestic drivers licence.”

 

Mykonos ATV riders

Four young ladies ride ATVs past a whitewashed church on Mykonos. New rules banning 50cc ATVs from paved roads have sparked outrage from vehicle rental agencies on the island, but apparently have been suspended so the federal transportation ministry can further study the matter and consult with stakeholders.

 

Another new Greek transport regulation would apply to rentals of ATVs, or quads, as they are often called.

In many popular Greek destinations, two kinds of ATV have typically been available for rent: 50cc vehicles, which could be rented only if the driver had a valid driver’s licence, and 150cc models, which could be rented only by drivers who possessed a valid motorcycle licence. Under new rules that were being put in place for this season, 50cc ATVs cannot be driven on asphalt or paved roadways, so that essentially means the vast majority of tourists won’t be able to rent them to get to the beaches and other places they would most like to visit. 

 

 

The rule outraged rental agencies, particularly on Mykonos, where ATV fleets consist mainly of 50cc vehicles. Dozens of companies and individuals rent thousands of ATVs on Mykonos, and face the prospect of losing the vast majority of their business — and income — if the new law is enforced. The IDP requirement will make the situation even worse, since most tourists don’t have IDPs (in fact, many aren’t even aware that they’re supposed to have one if they want to drive overseas.)

The association representing Mykonos ATV owners and rental agencies has complained to the transport ministry, and has staged a number of protests over the new legislation, to try to convince the government to reconsider and overturn the new rules because of the detrimental impact they will have on tourism.  Since the association hasn’t received an official response, its members conducted a blockade at the Mykonos New Port on Wednesday May 16 to call attention to the issue. 

In reports on social media, the ATV owners’ association announced it had called an end to the port blockade after transport ministry officials announced that rules regarding the controversial ATV ban will be suspended so the government can meet with stakeholders to discuss their concerns and consider the issue further. 

I will update this post if or when further information about the driving regulations becomes available.

April landslide prompts renewed warning of 5-year-old ban on visits to Santorini’s Red Beach

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Red Beach Santorini

With its breathtaking backdrop of soaring crimson cliffs, many tourists regard Santorini’s Red Beach as one of the top “must-see” attractions on the island. This image appeared on the Travel to Santorini page on Facebook.

 

Red Beach Santorini

Red Beach has officially been closed to the public since 2013 because of rockfall risks, but thousands of tourists ignore warning signs and visit regardless.  This photo, posted to Facebook by Hui Lin, shows a newlywed couple walking in the water at Red Beach on February 25 2018.

 

Red Beach Santorini

 Luckily, no-one was injured when a landslide struck Red Beach on April 13 2018. This photo by Costas Konstantinidis shows the huge pile of sand and rock debris that slid onto the southern end of the beach.  The photo appeared in Greek news stories reporting on the latest rockfall.

 

Beautiful but dangerous:  “Attention! Danger of landslides. No entry.”

That’s the warning on signs posted along the access path to Santorini’s world-famous Red Beach, but each year thousands of tourists have ventured down to the beach regardless, to sunbathe, swim and shoot those all-important “I was here” selfies.

Scores of people will probably visit Red Beach again this year, even though a landslide in mid-April confirmed there’s an ever-present danger that sections of the tall crimson cliffs that tower above the beach could collapse on them at any time.

Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and unusual beaches in the world, Red Beach resulted from the natural erosion of the cone of a small volcano. Comprised of loose layers of slag (volcanic cinder), the cone’s steep southern slope developed large cracks and fissures during seismic and volcanic activity; eventually, sections of the slope crumbled and slid seaward, creating the dramatic cliffs that rise above the stone and pebble shore today.

The cliffs have been studied extensively by geologists and volcanologists from Greek universities and the Institute for the Study and Monitoring of the Santorini volcano, who concluded that further erosion cannot be stopped or prevented.  Since landslides are unpredictable and instantaneous, they urged island authorities to take steps to keep people from visiting Red Beach and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.

 

Red Beach Santorini

This aerial image shows how the slopes of a former volcano cone have caved in and crumbled onto Red Beach over time. The photograph has appeared on many social media sites, including the Akrotiri and Knossos community page on Facebook, but I haven’t been able to find the original source to give proper credit for the image.

 

The island municipality did close Red Beach to the public after a major landslide occurred in August of 2013, but most tourists have simply walked past the “no entry” signs that were put up. It’s possible many of the travellers weren’t aware there have in fact been major rockfalls, or perhaps they have thought the risk of one occurring during their visit was so infinitesimal it wasn’t worth worrying about. After all, if it was so dangerous, why would local and national travel and tourism businesses continue to recommend that people go there?

Valid point indeed, since some Santorini tour agencies offer boat trips to the beach, while a variety of island hotels and travel businesses regularly encourage visits to Red Beach in photos and comments posted on their social media accounts. Enterprising local residents also have set up rental lounge chairs and umbrellas on the beach, along with a snack canteen — apparently in blatant violation of local regulations. And Aegean Airlines recently raised some eyebrows when it featured Red Beach on the cover of its in-flight magazine for March & April 2018, and in several photographs accompanying its feature story “The hidden treasures of Santorini” (one of the pics showed a female fashion model posing in front of a debris pile from a small landslide).

 

 

 

Will anything change as a result of the most recent rockfall, which occurred on April 13?

According to reports posted on the Greek news and information websites Atlantea and LIFO,  among others, the latest landslide prompted island authorities to issue a press release reminding people that “access to the Red Beach is forbidden” — as it has been since 2013 — so the beach remains off-limits for sunbathing, swimming, walking and other activities.

“The area has been marked with warning signs, and it is urged by all those involved with tourism to respect these prohibitions in order to avoid accidents,” the municipal press release is quoted as saying.

But since the “no entry” signs have been ignored for several years already, the municipality ultimately may have to consider installing physical barriers to ensure that people keep off the beach. As of this writing (on April 30 2018), tourists were still live-posting photos and reviews of Red Beach on their various social media pages, with some commenting that they noticed the hazard signs but went onto the beach anyway because they saw other people there.

If you’re planning to visit Santorini but don’t wish to risk a visit to Red Beach, you can instead view dozens of photos of it in my May 2016 blog post The bewitching but dangerous beauty of Santorini’s Red Beach.

 

Aegean Airlines Blue Magazine

The cover photo for the March/April 2018 Aegean Airlines in-flight magazine shows a fashion model posing near rocks  at one end of Red Beach.  There are more shots of models on the beach in the magazine’s photo feature on Santorini’s natural “hidden miracles.”

Greek Island icons & landmarks: The blue-domed church high above the sea on Santorini

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Agios Theodori Church

Photos of Agios Theodori Church have inspired countless people to visit Santorini and other places in Greece — or to dream of going there

   

Greek Islands Icons & Landmarks is a series of occasional posts about curious, unusual and extraordinary sights and places we have seen on our travels in the Greek Islands

 

Celebrity dome: It’s a quintessential image of Greece:  a cute white chapel with a shiny blue dome, accompanied by a white belfry with three bells, sitting high above the sea on Santorini.   

It’s called Agios Theodori, but like thousands of other churches in Greece, few people outside the country know its name. Nevertheless, it’s a familiar sight to millions around the world, since photos of the church have appeared for decades on travel posters, tour materials and in guidebooks, newspapers and magazines. Along with the Acropolis in Athens, that little whitewashed, blue-domed church is one of the main images people associate with Greece.

I recall seeing pictures of Agios Theodori in the early 1980s, first at restaurants in Windsor, Ontario and Detroit’s Greektown, and then at travel agencies and restaurants along Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s Greektown, which was just a few blocks from where I was living at the time. That was long before I ever considered going to Greece, but the pictures of that blue-domed church stuck in my mind.

 

Agios Theodori church

 

Agios Theodori church

 

 Over 20 years later we finally made it to Greece,  and Santorini was the last stop on our island-hopping holiday. Although I hoped we would see the famous blue-domed church, I didn’t know where to look for it. I figured that if we came across it while exploring the island, that would be great, but if we didn’t get to see it on this trip, perhaps we would some other time. 

Imagine my surprise and delight when, only minutes after checking in to the Santorini Palace Hotel in Firostefani, we walked to the tip of the caldera cliff nearby to check out the views — and saw Agios Theodori church just a few meters directly below us. I was slightly stunned at first; it felt like the familiar image I had seen in print so many times had suddenly come to life before my eyes. 

So was it as breathtaking and impressive as I had anticipated, after seeing it in photos all those years? You bet! There was absolutely no disappointment here —  the live view was spectacular. And to think the church was only a few dozen meters from the front door of our hotel! Now what were the odds of that happening? 

 

Agios Theodori Church

 

Agios Theodori church

 

Agios Theodori Church

 

We saw Agios Theodori church again, on each of our subsequent visits to Santorini, and it was still impressive to see. If we ever go back to the island I’m sure we’ll pass through Firostefani so we can take another look.

 

 

Below are several photos I found online, showing the church from perspectives we didn’t manage to photograph ourselves. There’s also a map indicating where Agios Theodori is located, should you want to see it in person yourself.

 

Agios Theodori church

The Agios Theodori belfry is seen in an image from the Petr Svarc Images page on Facebook

 

Agios Theodori Church Firostefani

The front of Agios Theodori church as seen from “street” level — actually, from the footpath that winds along the top of the caldera between Firostefani and Fira. Ting Lin shared this photo on Google Images.

 

Agios Theodori Church

 Also from Google Images is this photo by Charles Cheng, capturing Agios Theodori at sunset

 

Agios Theodori church location

Agios Theodori church is marked as “Three Bells of Fira” on Google maps, but it isn’t in the town of Fira — it’s a 10- to 15-minute walk away if you follow the clifftop footpath from the cable car station and walk north toward Firostefani (keeping the sea on your left side).  To see it from the “travel poster and guidebook perspective,” make your way to the Santorini Palace Hotel. From the hotel entrance, walk up the short slope toward the sea, and head for the low wall at  the edge of the parking area. Look down to your left, and enjoy the view!

 

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