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Greece offers sunsets, beaches, and ruins

by Charlie Wagner

The Parthenon is shown undergoing reconstruction during a<br>visit to Greece in mid-May. Photo: Charlie Wagner
The Parthenon is shown undergoing reconstruction during a
visit to Greece in mid-May. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Imagine a place with delicious food, beautiful beaches, incredible museums, and world famous ancient ruins. My husband and I found all that in Greece, plus great hiking. Everywhere we went the locals were warm and welcoming, and we never encountered a hint of homophobia.

Most Greeks we encountered spoke some English so traveling on our own was easy. We learned how to say "please" and "thank you" in Greek and people appreciated that.

Because we were especially interested in Minoan culture, we spent half our time in Crete. The island has dozens of certified clean beaches (http://www.blueflag.global), many with turquoise-colored water, and in spring an abundance of wildflowers. We also explored Athens and visited the legendary islands of Mykonos and Santorini.

In Athens, we stayed at Hera Hotel (http://www.herahotel.gr), where rooms are quiet and the breakfast is generous. From the airport, you take the metro to Akropoli Station in about 30 minutes. The metro, and Athens itself, is clean and feels safe.

Woozy with jet lag, we ate at one of the nearby tourist-oriented restaurants. While the food was nothing special, we enjoyed talking with our waiter about the current economic situation, a favorite topic among Greeks.

Our favorite restaurant was Manh, Manh (http://www.manimani.com.gr) whose dishes are based on the Mani region. House-made ravioli was two carefully prepared filo purses filled with a delicious mixture of Manouri (a type of feta cheese), cured beef, almonds, red peppers, and tomato sauce. For dessert, we had Milk Pie, a beautiful custard pie in miniature with cherry pieces inside, covered with a burnt meringue topping.

Strofi (Rovertou Galli, 25) is expensive for merely good food but has a panoramic view of the Acropolis. Having a glass of wine as you gaze at the floodlit Parthenon is unforgettable.

 

Two perfect days in Athens

Athens demands at least two full days and any visit should at least include the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the National Archeological Museum, and either the Agora or Syntagma Square and its immediate area.

The Acropolis contains multiple structures, most importantly the Parthenon, and deserves its reputation. Artisans are currently reconstructing the damaged columns of the Parthenon so now it looks like a construction site. Eventually the colors of the old and new segments will blend. Sculptural elements have been moved to the Acropolis Museum.

Also on the Acropolis are the renovated Temple of Athena and the delightful, renovated Erechtheion, with the famous Caryatids, structural columns in the shape of lovely women.

Opened in 2009, the Acropolis Museum (http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr) is the most important museum in Athens if you have time for only one. It highlights Greek readiness to have important pieces of the Parthenon returned by France, Denmark, and, especially, Britain.

Within easy walking distance is Anafiotika, a neighborhood with whitewashed houses built by people from the island of Anafi in the mid-1800s. Nearby and more interesting is the largest temple in mainland Greece, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, completed in 131 A.D. by the Roman emperor Hadrian. You can sit peacefully and admire the temple with the Acropolis and Parthenon visible in the distance.

The National Archeological Museum (http://www.namuseum.gr) has an extensive collection of ancient artifacts, including countless gorgeous male and female statues, often naked. But don't try to take a picture standing next to a statue while matching its pose. "Posing" is against museum rules.

The Agora, or ancient marketplace, was the center of Athens for 800 years, starting in 600 B.C. Our favorites were the Stoa of Atallos, a reconstructed ancient shopping mall with a collection of sculptures found in the Agora, and the Temple of Hephaistos, one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. In continuous use since 415 B.C., the temple has also been a Christian church and a Muslim mosque over the centuries.

Just outside the Agora is the Monastiraki Flea Market, open every day and more of a street bazaar than a true flea market.

 

Gay life in Greece, then and now

Greece has a special resonance with many gay men since historians acknowledge that men in ancient Greece lived openly in what we today call homosexual relationships. Some historians even claim men in ancient Greece often appeared naked in public, but are silent on whether they carried a towel.

In modern Greece, LGBTQ life is generally more discreet, with the possible exception of Mykonos. Greece does not allow same-sex marriage but has civil unions, and there has been an Athens Pride celebration (http://www.athenspide.eu) since 2005.

We visited the hip and gay-friendly Gazi district at night and saw many lively open-air bars, including LGBTQ-friendly Del Sole Cafe on Voutadon. Dinner at the hard-to-find Athiri restaurant (http://www.athirirestaurant.gr) was excellent.

We stopped by BIG, the bear bar of Athens (www.bigbar.gr), and found it quiet at 10 p.m. The friendly bartender suggested we visit after 11 on Friday or Saturday. BIG organizes an annual weekend party called Haircules (http://www.haircules.gr).

 

Western Crete

The snow-capped White Mountains loom over Hania, Crete. Photo: Charlie Wagner

We flew from Athens to Hania, a perfect base for exploring Western Crete. The snow-capped White Mountains loomed over the city, Crete's second largest.

Hania has few architectural gems but does have quirky sites like a church with both bell tower and minaret, as Crete was an Ottoman colony for over 350 years. It's dotted with partially excavated Minoan ruins and has several small museums.

We rented a small house through http://www.VRBO.com in the former Ottoman Quarter. With three floors, the modernized house was spacious for two people and only a block from the waterfront.

The pedestrianized waterfront is lined with restaurants full of locals and tourists. Our favorite waterfront restaurant was Ta Neoria, where I enjoyed my first bite of a very fresh Cretan octopus, a local favorite. For lovers of meat and potatoes, we recommend a lunch spot called Kouzina (Daskalogianni 51) where we shared a large platter of lamb, beef, chicken, and pork with frites.

A weekly farmers market happens on Saturday morning on Minoos Street and includes vendors with organic produce. We saw a fantastic selection of cheeses and olives, exotic fish and vegetables, and live rabbits. The farmers knew enough English to help us.

One night we visited Ta Duo Lux Bar, recommended by the BIG bartender. One guidebook described it as "a perennial favorite among wrinkle-free alternative types," but we visited anyway. My gaydar registered nada but maybe we were again too early.

Neo Hora Beach is an easy walk so we spent a warm afternoon there and enjoyed the gently sloping beach.

We found Sunflower Guides the best for car and hiking itineraries. Greek drivers are much better than their reputation, though when you drive on most roads you are expected to drive half on the shoulder so other vehicles can pass easier.

On our first day with a rental car we headed to one of the famous turquoise beaches called Elafonissi. The water was as beautiful as promised, but the day was windy so we strolled on the beach. When we reached the supposedly gay eastern end, we encountered only one very friendly clothed guy.

We were interested in seeing the famous Samaria Gorge but heard we'd be joining hundreds of others so we decided to hike the shorter Diktamos Gorge, which the Sunflower Guide described as "mostly boulder-hopping." And we did just that for six long hours.

Along the trail we encountered small herds of goats that fled as we got near. More alarmingly, we saw carcasses of goats that had tried to climb out of the gorge but did not made it. Great wildflowers though.

We circled the Akrotiri Peninsula by car and stopped at the beach where "Zorba the Greek" was filmed. The highlight of Akrotiri is Moni Agia Triadha, established in the 17th century, where seven monks now reside. As you approach the monastery, you pass groves of grapes and olives used by the monks to make wine and organic olive oil. The building glows a beautiful orange in the late afternoon sun.

 

Eastern Crete

We traveled by bus to Heraklion, the largest city on Crete and the most convenient base for visiting the premier Minoan site, Knossos.

The Minoan culture rose and disappeared under mysterious circumstances and their written language, among the world's earliest, has never been deciphered. Minoan culture lasted from about 2000 B.C. to 1450 B.C., when it was gradually replaced by the Mycenaean. Minoan murals illustrate a culture with gender equality, extremely rare in the ancient world.

Our VRBO apartment was smaller than Hania but was completely furnished.

If possible, start by visiting the spectacular Archeological Museum of Heraklion. It has the largest collection of Minoan artifacts, including the famous mural of people leaping over a charging bull. Some historians believe this was a way to prove fitness for bearing children since men and women both participated.

Heraklion is a pleasant city for walking. The waterfront is mostly used for ferries and large ships, but don't miss the Koules Venetian Fortress. It was completed in 1540, has fascinating interactive displays, and a panoramic view from the top.

The Historical Museum of Crete has the only El Greco painting in Greece, a good audio tour in English (rare in Greece), and covers the Byzantine era through World War II.

At night, you can join hundreds of happy people strolling around Liontaria Square. Fatto a Mano (Liontaria Square, 2) has unusual ice cream (try Rice and Rakomelo). Kirkor restaurant (Liontaria Square, 29) is renowned for Bougatsa (3 euros), a Cretan cheese pie served with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

Peskesi (Kapetan Haralabi, 6), whose menu is inspired by the Minoan diet, is excellent and all ingredients are from its own farm. Their wine list is exclusively Cretan and they have some vegan and vegetarian dishes.

We drove to Festos, a major Minoan site that gets only a fraction of the visitors to Knossos. Reconstruction here has been kept to an absolute minimum so it's much more difficult to comprehend. Hire a guide if you can. Nearby Gortyn, the main city in Roman times and home of the famous Law Code of Gortyn, is worth visiting. That code spelled out property rights for women, a radical idea in 500 B.C.

Don't miss Matalan Beach where in the 1960s Joni Mitchell and hippie friends lived for free in caves. Lunch at Scala Restaurant is very good and the beach is perfect for swimming and lounging. Clothing-optional Red Beach is a steep 30-minute walk away.

Another day we visited the Lasithi plateau, famous for its picturesque windmills, where we had a delicious lunch at Skapanis in Mesa Lasithi. Most of the windmills did not have their sails because they are only used in late summer. In the same area is famous Dikti Cave, where Cretan legend claims Zeus was born. Cretans believed he was reborn, grew up, and died every year. This was mildly scandalous to other Greeks who believe Zeus, as a god, was immortal.

The closest gay beach to Heraklion is about 1.5 km west of Hersonissos, directly in front of Saradari Fish Restaurant. We saw some rock shelves but no sand, and several naked guys enjoying the windy day.

 

Santorini

Santorini is an island whose villages have beautiful whitewashed houses with blue doors, some overlooking the dramatic Caldera.

We stayed at the bargain Pension George (http://www.pensiongeorge.com) just outside Fira, one of the two main villages on the island. George has a pool that is private enough to feel like a resort. A pool is a valuable amenity in Santorini as the island is not known for its beaches.

The most desirable Fira hotels face the Caldera, which makes for a great sunsets, but might mean you are part of the view. And when there are multiple cruise ships docked in the harbor, thousands of tourists overwhelm the small village.

Buses run often so we took one to Ancient Akrotiri, where we hired another excellent tour guide and viewed the best ruins on the island, completely covered for protection. Visit the excellent Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira to see the removed artifacts. The Archeological Museum is skippable. Recommendable restaurants are Camille Stefani and for seafood and, for caldera view, 1500 B.C.

The other main village on Santorini is Oia, a white and blue village with marble-paved pedestrian lanes. Oia is more chic and expensive than Fira but has fewer tourists. Restaurants were the most expensive of our trip.

For those who stay overnight, watching the sunset is the main activity. Dinner at good, though not fabulous, Sunsets Restaurant was about 140 euros with wine, but the view was incredible.

Don't miss the delightfully quirky Atlantis Books, whose walls have quotes from writers and poets and where a young employee explained how he sleeps on a cot above the bookshelves.

We rented a car to visit the other major ruin on Santorini, Ancient Thira, a city started around 800 B.C. and built high on a mountain. A visit requires walking along an exposed ridge with a huge drop on one side. If you have acrophobia, skip this one.

Santorini has many wineries and several produce exceptional wine. I recommend the combination winery and art gallery called Art Space (http://www.artspace-santorini.com), whose talkative owner loves to give free tours.

 

Skyla Versai and Dinn Papas perform in the Elysium Sunset Cabaret in Mykonos. Photo: Charlie Wagner

Mykonos

We took the high-speed ferry to Mykonos and stayed at the Hotel Geranium (http://www.geranium-hotel.com), whose owner told us he purchased the hotel recently. We were given a huge room but the free breakfast was temporarily not available. The pool was large and clean, but across a busy road from the lane to Mykonos Town. All of the guests were gay men.

Mykonos is a charming whitewashed village and large enough that tourists are dispersed. We had an excellent dinners at LGBTQ-popular Fish Tavern Kounelas, near City Hall, and Kastro's, on the waterfront in Little Venice.

A short walk from our hotel was the Elysium Hotel and Sunset Bar (http://www.elysiumhotel.com), the liveliest LGBTQ resort at the time we visited. The Sunset Bar is on a terrace with an incredible view over Mykonos town and serves an excellent lunch. There's a different live show every night featuring talented drag queens and sexy dancers. Drinks were pricey but there was no cover charge.

Mykonos has beautiful sandy beaches. Both locals and visitors said good things about the gay beaches. One gay local said his favorite was Paradise Beach in front of the Jackie O' Beach Club. Another mentioned Elia Beach and nearby Agrari Beach, which he described as "mostly nude and for the sexually adventurous."

I strongly recommend an excursion with guide to the tiny island of Delos, ancient shrine, sacred treasury and one of the most important archeological sites in Greece. Delos became the most important commercial center in the Eastern Mediterranean and ultra-wealthy residents added temples to their hometown gods.

Plan on spending a day here if you want to see the entire site and the museum. There's a restaurant, a gift shop, and beautiful wildflowers throughout the ruins.

Don't miss the monument dedicated in 300 B.C. to Dionysus, god of pleasure and protector of those who do not belong to conventional society. There's something for everyone in Greece.

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