Skiathos | Part No. 3 : What We Needed

There are literally hundreds of photos that Allison and I took on Skiathos. I’ll share some of our very favorites that didn’t make it into Part No. 1 or No. 2 of these posts.

Here are more from the boat tour around the island that moody day.

DSC_0550

DSC_0554

DSC_0539

DSC_0598

DSC_0566

DSC_0623

On the far side of the island, the wind blows so hard, so consistently, that trees actually grow sideways.

DSC_0635

DSC_0665

Happily, those winds were pretty mild that day.

DSC_0675

DSC_0685

Our captain stopped the boat at a handful of remote beaches that day, each with their own unique beauty. Our last stop before heading back to port was to one of the small neighboring islands.

DSC_0027-2

DSC_0043

DSC_0060

Neither of us could believe the color of the sea there, or how incredibly clear it was.

The boat tour was a great way to end our long weekend on Skiathos. It was one of the most touristy things we did the whole time we were gone this spring.

 

Some of my favorite moments on Skiathos were in the down-time. We spent a lot of time hiking from place to place. I have fond memories of waiting in the sun at bus stops, passing the time taking photos while we waited for the bus to town.

DSC_0243

DSC_0242-2

DSC_0239

DSC_0241

I think back now on how luxurious it all felt, and how absurd it was for a couple of poor freelancers to be doing it. We did everything we could to stretch a dollar (or a euro, if you prefer). We even hiked on foot up that steep, ungodly hill to our house, rather than spend the 10 euros for the taxi. We cooked a lot of our own food, balancing that with sampling the local cuisine.

The few times we did eat out, we made sure to save Wi-Fi passwords for the restaurants we went to, since we didn’t have internet at our house; later, we would walk over and sit near those same restaurants just to jump onto their Wi-Fi . . . you know, to check our bank account and make sure we still had enough to make it back to Athens.

Skiathos was a special place for us. A much-needed break from work, from emails – and, frankly – from Athens. In stark contrast, Skiathos seemed completely set apart from the woes of the Greek economy and the dirty, unkempt, melancholy metropolis we would soon return to.

Skiathos represented something, I think. More than just a touristy destination, or a beautiful island paradise. It was the fruits of our labors, an achievement, and simultaneously it was luck, blessing, generosity, and serendipity. It was nature. Sweat. Sunburns. Smiles. Fresh lemons for our pasta.

It was just what we needed.

DSC_0088-2

DSC_0090-2

 


 

Of course there are way more photos. We’re posting lots more on our Facebook page.

Skiathos | Part No. 2 : Lalaria Beach

The morning of our boat tour around the island of Skiathos was cool and dreary – typically my favorite kind of weather – but only for when I’m smothered in blankets with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Not as ideal for when I’m swimming in the chilly sea, scantily clad.

The brooding clouds made the normally bight turquoise waters dark and mysterious. Hints of sunshine would fight to make its way through the mist only to be swallowed up again a few minutes later.

Our boat seemed sturdy enough on the calmer sea waters, though the array of crosses, talisman, and saints displayed optimistically at the helm echoed the foreboding feel of the weather.

DSC_0367-2

The northern part of the island juts out of the water forming huge, steep cliffs that on this day looked particularly dramatic above the stormy waters.

DSC_0511b

As we rounded the island, we caught sight of one of the most famous beaches in Greece, Lalaria.

DSC_0440

Lalaria’s smooth, gray stones that line the beach and the hollow arch in the rock have made it so popular among tourists and photographers that it has solidified Skiathos’ reputation worldwide.

After being there for only a few minutes, the clouds mercifully dissipated. The aquamarine waters, the pale jagged cliffs, brilliant purple wildflowers, and gray-green pebbles made this one of our favorite spots of the entire trip.

DSC_0483

DSC_0464

DSC_0452

DSC_0481

With the sun finally out, we were tempted to just sit on this beautiful beach and enjoy the warmth of the sun and serenity of the crashing waves.

Sitting on the beach was nice. But all of the sudden, I realized how silly it seemed to have come all this way and not swim out there. It would be cold. And I’m still a little scared of the sea creatures.

“Let’s just do it,” I said. He grinned in response.

01

02

04

03

05

06

 

08

Skiathos | Part No. 1 : Island Paradise

About a week after our arrival to Greece in early April, Jeff and I were invited to attend a dinner party with our host and her good friends. One of them was gracious enough to invite us to stay at her house on one of the islands up north, Skiathos. We excitedly accepted the offer, but decided to wait until our work schedule freed up a bit and when the weather would be warmer – and honestly, we had to make sure there was sufficient play-money to justify the cost of buses, ferries, taxis, etc.

Things lined up near the end of May. We traveled by bus from Athens to the port city of Volos, where we sat on the pier and ate a picnic lunch of hard boiled eggs and oranges before boarding a ferry to Skiathos. We were thrilled to see a small pod of dolphins swimming alongside our ferry, at one point, but they were too quick for the camera.

After about 45 minutes, the ferry slowed and we pulled into the main port of the island.

DSC_0068-2

Skiathos is a tiny island, about 7 miles by 4 miles, but played some significant historical roles as a key defensive point in the naval battles with the Persians and is also the site where the first modern Greek flag was created and flown.

To us, it was a quiet, beautiful getaway.

Away from the noisy, dirty (dare I say complainy?) city of Athens, Skiathos was charming, inviting, and cultivated. The friendly locals seemed very proud of their island paradise, and it showed in the way they kept the town freshly painted, the streets clean, and the beaches mostly undisturbed.

DSC_0124-2

DSC_0133

DSC_0222

DSC_0159-2

Luckily for us, we had arrived still early in the season, so we missed out on the throngs of college kids that would arrive in the months ahead. Most of the other tourists were our senior by about 30 years. Unluckily though, our early arrival also meant that the waters were still frigid.

The main part of town is very quaint with cobbled, winding lanes that seem to transport you back in time as you wander past churches, shops, homes, and restaurants.

DSC_0163

DSC_0177-2

DSC_0190
DSC_0205

DSC_0204

DSC_0152

DSC_0148-2

DSC_0153-2

One of the first things we did was find a private stretch of beach, where we took turns nervously stripping down and changing into our swimwear behind a rock while the other was lookout. We sat in the cold sand with the waves lapping at our feet and bright sun keeping us warm. This is one of several moments during our travels that we chose not to capture on camera; that memory is just for us.

Once we were ready for more exploring, we hiked back up the beach and started strolling around the town.

DSC_0067

DSC_0114-2

DSC_0111

DSC_0092

DSC_0058-2

DSC_0051

At this point, we took a taxi up the steep hills to the home of our host where we would stay for the next four days. Our host lives and works in Athens, but her mother lives here on their Skiathos property, with a delightful housekeeper who cares for her (and everything else).

It was lovely. We had the bottom floor apartment all to ourselves, separate from the rest of the large property. Outside, the grounds were covered in morning glories, roses, and lemon trees. Chickens roamed freely, miraculously undisturbed by the many cats (I counted at least eight) that shared the yard with them.

DSC_0074

DSC_0078-2

DSC_0079-2

DSC_0007-2

This is Artemis. I love her. She is one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever known.

DSC_0018-2

The housekeeper, Voula, had her own apartment on the property. She spoke no English. She was so sweet. She brought us freshly cut flowers, eggs (still warm from the chickens), tomatoes, feta cheese, milk, bread, and olive oil. Along with some pasta that we brought along, plus a lemon that we plucked from one of the trees outside, we now had everything we needed for one of our favorite pasta dishes.

DSC_0024-2

The next morning, we skipped the expensive taxi ride and walked all the way down to the beach. The views coming down the hill were incredible.

DSC_0030-2

DSC_0036-2

Cold as the water was, I waded in.

DSC_0042

Jeff put down the camera and followed me in. He was in about up to his neck, while I barely made it in waist-deep. It was then that I noticed something clear and plastic-looking floating near Jeff. I looked a little more closely. It was definitely a jellyfish.

The only thing I know about jellyfish is that they sting you and hurt really bad, and then you have to pee on yourself.

Now we could see them everywhere. We hurried out of the water, and made it out unscathed.

We decided it was time to find a nicer beach.

 

Skiathos boasts some of the best beaches in the world. One of the main beaches, Koukounaries (translated: pine cones), has a fresh water lake behind it, only yards away from the shoreline.  But it’s most famous for the powder-soft sand.

DSC_0271

DSC_0266

After our earlier close-encounter with the jellyfish, I was nervous of both scary underwater sea creatures and the cold temperatures. This time Jeff scouted it out first. Then I braved the waters. We waded for a few minutes in the cold water before Jeff went back to retrieve the GoPro camera. He came back out in the water and handed it off to me. Wanting to impress him and make a cool video clip, I impulsively took the first plunge.

001

002

We played in the water a while, ate another picnic lunch of hard boiled eggs and oranges, laid around, and finally packed up to leave. I made sure to collect some of the amazingly fine sand in a sandwich bag as a souvenir.

DSC_0258

We hiked for a while back to the road, then hiked a little more until we found a bus stop. We were pretty sun-toasted by the time we got on a bus back to the port. The AC was lovely.

Once we got back, we found a nice little lounge where we bought sodas and sat in the shade a while.

DSC_0227-2

It was getting to be evening-time, and we were ready for some food. I needed a Nutella crepe.

DSC_0229-2

Jeff went for the pork gyros (of course).

DSC_0231

Once we were fed, we went exploring again. This time, we hiked up to the clock tower on the hill.

From the top you can see the old Medieval fort, built to protect the island from marauding pirates, and far out at sea you can start to make out the amassing gray cloud of seagulls as they swarm incoming fishing boats.

DSC_0283

003

The views from atop the the hill overlooking the town are stunning and romantic. The misty, humid sea air gave the town a soft haze in the fading light.

DSC_0336

DSC_0305

DSC_0324

DSC_0337

004

Jeff set up his camera to capture some time-lapse, and we stayed up there relaxing until dark.

DSC_0344

In my research about this place, I had learned that there were certain amazing beaches on this island that can only be reached by boat. The more we thought about it, the more we wanted to take a boat tour around the island to see them in person. So, on the way home that night, we walked along the pier and found one of the old, weathered boat tour operators that offered exactly the tour we were hoping for.

We bought our tickets for the next day, and smiled the rest of the way home.

Serendipity at Thermopylae

Serendipity at Thermopylae

I’ve been wanting to share one of my favorite moments in Greece last summer. I’ll set it up, but I’m gonna start off with a tangent so don’t let it be too distracting.

 

PREFACE

I’ll try to set the scene.

When we took the boat back from Skiathos, we arrived at a port in Volos. We were about to buy bus tickets for the 4-hour drive back to Athens, but we got suckered into a Taxi ride all the way there, instead. For less money than the bus tickets. Remind me to tell you sometime about the part where Allison and I both considered very seriously the idea that we made a mistake by getting in the taxi, and were being kidnapped. We even got transferred from the first taxi to second taxi, with a driver who spoke zero English and was on the phone every 4 minutes. He was taking us well off course, and we ended up near a small airport. Allie, sitting to my left – directly behind the driver – leaned over to me at one point and whispered, “If it goes down, I’ll go for his eyes while you take care of the rest.” She was not joking.

 

SERENDIPITY

We were not kidnapped, of course, and I hate to tell a story about something that almost happened but didn’t. So that’s not what this post is about. 

I will say, though, that on that very same kidnapper-taxi ride back to Athens, about an hour or so into the drive, we randomly ended up taking a route along the coast that took us right past Thermopylae. It was fleeting, but I was thrilled to see it in person.

 

thermopylae

I’ve read that the sea (not in frame) used to be much higher, here, with the shoreline reaching roughly where you see that modern highway.

In the photo, above, you can see that canyon on the left side of the frame. Those are the “Hot Gates,” the route the Persians would need to take to continue their invasion of Greece (and the rest of Europe) back in 480 B.C.  And that highway you see there is the one that our taxi driver ended up serendipitously taking back to Athens.

 

AS THE STORY GOES

Thermopylae (or Hot Gates, in Greek) is the setting of the famous battle in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, fought alongside a Greek force of around 7000 against the Persian King Xerxes and his invading army of somewhere between 100K-150K, which was sweeping the globe. Many of the Greek city-states had already pledged allegiance to him, in order to save their necks. Athens and Sparta were among those who opposed Xerxes. The decision to march on Xerxes at Thermopylae was not popular, and was surrounded in political controversy.

The Battle of Thermopylae is famous for the Spartan’s heroic last stand in the narrow mountain pass on the shoreline of the Aegean Sea. Because of terrain, strategy, and the logistics of marching your army so far from home, going through the pass at Thermopylae was the only good route for Xerxes’ army. Any other route involved high risk of his army being cut off and stranded in Europe; but with the bridges they had already built, and the navy they had in the Aegean, the Persians theorized that if they held Thermopylae, they could march throughout Greece and well into Europe. It was here that, against overwhelming odds, the meager Greek forces held off the invading Persian host for three days.

There’s a ton more to the story, with many separate battles, naval warfare, and much more. But Thermopylae was arguably the hinge pin to all of it.

As the story goes, Leonidas led the small Greek force to Thermopylae and met the Persians at the entrance to the canyon. Man for man, the Spartans were far better warriors, and seriously outmatched the Persian soldiers/conscripts. And while the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by at least 14 to 1 (likely more like 20 to 1), the Persian numbers meant nothing within that narrow pass. The Greeks – more especially the Spartans – slaughtered wave after wave of the Persian invaders.

this_is_sparta

Yes, the movie 300 was a little dopey and not especially accurate. Fun, though.

 

After the second day of fighting, Leonidas and his men were betrayed by a local Greek, who told the Persian commanders of a small mountain pass that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas became aware of the betrayal, and – knowing the Persians would soon surround them – he ordered nearly all of the Greek host to retreat (later to regroup) while he stayed behind with his 300 Spartans and about 1100 other Greek soldiers. This group of roughly 1400 Greeks held the pass for one more day, securing the retreat of the larger Greek force. Many sources say the Spartans outlasted the rest of their Greek brothers in arms, until all were surrounded. Given the chance, they refused surrender.

All were killed. Their sacrifice helped to unite Greece and, in numerous ways, made possible the defeat of the Persians, and ultimately allowed for the formation and spread of democracy (an idea in its infancy at the time).

On a monument erected shortly after the battle is a short poem, whose translation comes out roughly:

Go tell the Spartans
Strangers passing by
That here, by Spartan law we lie

As you can see, I’m a real geek on the subject. It’s an inspiring story about a battle that profoundly affected the world in ways we’ll never fully understand. It’s a pivotal moment in world history. Who knows what the world would look like if Xerxes’ army was able to continue their march into Europe?

 

IT WAS ENOUGH

When we first arrived in Greece – because of some of the snags we hit with the crooks at Ryan Air – we had to choose which places we would and would not be able to visit. Remember that our business was about two and a half years old when we left, and we were doing this as minimalists, with an extremely limited budget; some have wondered why we went at all, with almost nothing in savings and such meager monthly income. It’s a fair enough question, from a conventional perspective. Maybe we had no business going at all.

Here’s my answer: If you have to ask why, the question is moot.

Anyway, you can imagine why I was disappointed when we had to re-assess our budget and I realized how just far out of the way Thermopylae is from where we were staying in Athens. We had to cut a few of the fun things, and visiting Thermopylae was one of them. Even when we went to Skiathos, the bus we took to Volos bypassed Thermopylae. It just seemed unrealistic to make it out there. I had written it off.

So imagine the grin on my face in the back of that taxi, when I saw the street signs on that coastal highway:

Θερμοπύλες | Thermopylae

With a start, I realized where we were. Allie did, too. She noticed the same green street sign and, excited for me, she asked, “is this it?” I looked eagerly out the right side of the taxi and recognized it in an instant. The Hot Gates.

“Yup.”

Looking on the narrow mountain pass, I remembered a passage from the novel Gates of Fire (award-winning historical fiction by Steven Pressfield), where a young Spartan in training (roughly equivalent of a squire) named Alexandros asks one of the veteran Spartan soldiers if he fears going to battle. The soldier responds by squeezing at the flesh on his arm and says:

“Never forget, Alexandros, that this flesh, this body, does not belong to us. Thank God it doesn’t. If I thought this stuff was mine, I could not advance a pace into the face of the enemy. But it is not ours, my friend. It belongs to the gods and to our children, our fathers and mothers and those of Lakedaemon a hundred, a thousand years yet unborn. It belongs to the city which gives us all we have and demands no less in requital.”

 

With reverence and wet eyes, I took in as much as I could as we flew along the highway. My inner-warrior relished the moment as I looked on the ancient battlefield where such heroes died for something larger than themselves. Allie knew what was going on, and squeezed my hand without a word. We didn’t stop the taxi. Our driver spoke no English, and I didn’t need to see the touristy souvenir stands anyway. We passed by at highway speeds, and within minutes it was well behind us. But it was enough.

VIDEO | Getting There – Part 6 Sparta on a Motorbike

VIDEO | Getting There – Part 6
Sparta on a Motorbike

Exactly one year and one day ago (as I write this), Allison and I rented a BMW F650GS and left our Athens apartment for someplace better. For those of you who appreciate more details, there’s a more contextual post about it here.

We couldn’t get out of Athens fast enough. We sped along the coast to Corinth, then south through the mountainous Peloponnese Peninsula. It was on this ride that Allison and I rediscovered just how much we belong in the mountains. Skiathos had shown us what a Greek island paradise is all about, and we loved it there. We needed it. But – for me at least – the beaches and sand didn’t hold a candle to what happened to my soul in the Taygetus mountains overlooking Sparta. This was originally going to be an over-nighter, leaving on Friday, staying the night in Sparta, and returning to Athens on Saturday. But waking up that next morning in Sparta, the mountains were calling to us. We answered.

We originally thought we’d take a quick ride up the canyon for a bit that morning, then get back on the road and head home. But once we found ourselves in those winding canyons and cloud-covered peaks, we abandoned all our planning and routes and schedules. We spent all day getting deliberately lost. It’s a lesson I learned in Morocco, and had to re-learn here:

It’s amazing what you can find when you shed your fear of not knowing where you are and replace it with the wonder of discovering where you are.

This latest video starts where we left off in Part No. 5 and takes you through Day 1 and 2 of our Sparta ride.

 

Watch the other videos on our home page by scrolling down to that section. Or click here.

 


 

Find more of my stuff on VAGABONDORIGINAL.COM or find me: