Monday, August 22, 2011

Greece, Days 4-5: Milos

(More or less related Flickr photos here.)

Neither Susan nor I knew anything really about Greece before embarking on this vacation, so we had little idea what to expect from our time here--especially as the country covers a large geographical area and is quite varied (Susan, of course, knows the history of Greek theatre, but this was not a primary directive for our vacation). I think our incentive to visit was more island beauty than archeological mecca, but we planned to experience something of both. Still, we naturally wondered what the proportion should be. We are historically more aligned with city vacations, liking to walk the streets and experience shopping and street fairs and city culture. But in the winter we have done several cruises in the Caribbean and Mexico, which are a more passive, island-y way to vacation. Greece offers both.

The plan we settled upon was to spend three nights in Athens, and then two nights each on two successive islands. Given the time needed to get to and from the islands, we concentrated on the nearest group of islands to Athens, the Cyclades. This group includes the most popular islands for visitors--Mykonos and Santorini--and the Cyclades also typify what most people think of as Greece: rocky islands with whitewashed houses clinging to the cliffs with blue roofs and shutters. I discovered a collection of web pages on Greece by the American expat Matt Barrett (a really useful and informative website--more on this later) and he had recommendations for people not hell-bent on night life (Mykonos, for example, he said should be avoided by anyone older than 25. That would be us). Based mostly on his recommendations, we settled on the smaller, less-well-known islands of Sifnos and Milos. And as our plans began to firm up, we decided to limit ourselves to a single island and make sure we had seen everything in Athens (we reasoned that two adjacent islands would likely be indistinguishable to us, and we'd just have to move all our stuff and spend time getting to and from to no good effect).

We also followed Matt Barrett's recommendations and used a travel agency (also the agency he recommended--Aegean Thesaurus) to do our bookings, something we've never done before. This ended up being a fantastic suggestion, and his recommendation of them is well-earned. They were very prompt and professional and they helped us immensely with all our planning. They approved of our initial itinerary and explained how well it matched our stated goals, and they were subsequently disappointed that we decided to drop Sifnos, though they understood the rationale. I think for most Greeks Athens is an unfortunate necessity of life, and they look at their island culture as their chief asset for tourists (after all, there are fabulous ancient ruins on most every island). We reasoned that we were always going to miss out on so much of the country's charms no matter our itinerary, and so we set our plans.

At 6: AM on Thursday morning our pre-arranged taxi was waiting outside our hotel to take us to one of the world's busiest passenger ferry ports, Piraeus--about 15 miles from the hotel. From there we caught a high speed ferry from Athens thru the islands of Sifaros and Sifnos and on to Milos, where another pre-arranged taxi was waiting (interestingly, a very normal-looking Chevy Caprice but with a stick and a diesel--ah, the automotive things we are denied!). From the port town of Adamos on Milos, we were driven about eight miles to a tiny spit of land on the Northeast tip of the island called Pollonia, and to our accommodation at the Apollon Rooms.

The contrast from Athens could not be much greater. On the drive from Adamos to Pollonia there were houses scattered across the countryside individually and in little groupings, but most of the land was empty--dry and rocky and with scrubby plants. Pollonia itself is a resort area, with a zillion little whitewashed cubes for rent and a bunch of restaurants with outdoor seating along the town waterfront. There are a handful of permanent residents, but most people are there seasonally to serve the even larger number of tourists. We had specified air conditioning and a pool if possible and the Apollon Rooms appeared to be about the only place in Pollonia that had these--once again, the travel agency had done very well. The walk from our room into town was maybe 1/4 mile or so, and we passed an excellent swimming beach on the way. We got familiar with this walk, going back and forth half a dozen times a day. There are things to see on Milos ("too little time!" we were told by the friendly hotel folks when we checked in and they pointed out recommended sites on a map of the island), but mostly they are of a geological nature, and a visit of any length would seem to require renting one of the many scooters available on the island (or a car, though there cannot be more than 50 miles of good, paved road on the island). There is bus service, and the buses are beautiful coaches and always full, but it would have been fun to explore the little side roads on a motorcycle. We debated, but decided to concentrate on getting lots of sleep and spending time in the water every day and trying each of the town's handful of restaurants. And in our two and a half days that was quite enough. While we both at first rather wished for more available to do, we gradually settled into a deep relaxation vibe. At the end we kind of wished we had booked just one more day, especially as we suspected we had already seen most of what we planned to see in Athens (and thus didn't really need the two full additional days that awaited us). But it is what it is, and we went with the flow.

Meanwhile, the travel agency was definitely earning their keep, keeping track of their VIP foreign charges (or so we like to think). In addition to all the help with planning, they were keeping an eye on our ferry bookings--and subsequent taxi bookings. The first day in Milos was letter-perfect, but on the second and third days there was a howling wind. The temps were still in the middle 90s with a cloudless sky, but the winds made swimming a bit problematic as the sand blew everywhere and the surf eventually got rather rough. On the second day (unbeknownst to us) some of the ferry service to Milos canceled because of the rough seas, and we received a phone call at the resort on the morning of our final day from the travel agency alerting us to potential problems. They said they expected the ferry to cancel again today (Saturday), and tomorrow was booked solid and we would be unlikely to get out until Monday. Our flight to Rome and on to Chicago leaves Athens at 6:AM on Tuesday morning, so we did not want to flirt with not getting back. So after a few phone calls we find ourselves on the slow 4:PM ferry, from whence I'm typing this. Again, had the travel agency not been keeping tabs on our plans, we would not have known we even had an issue until we had checked out and found ourselves at the dock with no ferry and no room. I begin to rethink the value of a good travel agency. The ferry out to Milos was a high speed ferry, averaging about 28 mph and getting us to our destination in about four hours. This present ferry is a huge, lumbering cruise-ship kinda thing, and it takes a good 6:20 to cover the same ground.

Once again, a taxi was waiting with our name on it when we walked off the ferry, and the hotel was expecting us even though it was midnight. Another gold star for Aegean Thesaurus.

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