The Greek islands
Hundreds of books have been written about the Greek islands, and about who should visit which one and why. I unfortunately do not have the time to visit many islands on this trip, but would still like to have a global understanding of how they relate to each other, and how they are different from mainland Greece.
Greece shares its northern continental border with Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, while the country dissipates into the sea in any other direction. Greece itself is a peninsula and whichever part of the country does not qualify as another peninsula of the main peninsula is an island. Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos align the west coast, while an abundance of islands lie scattered in the triangle formed between Greece`s east coast, Turkey`s west coast and the island of Crete in the very South.
`Crete is the most extreme place of Greece`
Few of the islands are as isolated as they look on a map, except during bad weather when they risk being isolated from the world for a few days. All inhabited islands can be reached by ferry, hydrofoil (`Flying Dolphin`) or catamaran (`Flying Cat`), while many of them have airports that are directly accessible from Athens or even abroad. To have an idea about the size of the Greek archipelago, count no less than 12 hours to reach Crete from Athens`s habour Piraeus, and up to an entire day and night to get to the most distant ones like Rhodes. Fortunately for travelers, one island is never very far away from the next one, making the Greek archipelago a perfect destination for Mediterranean cruises.
The islands share a great deal of characteristics between themselves. White and blue are recurrent colours. While white paint serves to reflect the sun and keep out the heat, the explanation for the many different colours of blue is the same one why so many houses in Sweden are red: the blue dye is produced from a locally available ingredient. The islands also resemble each other in their lay-out. The inhabited ones have a harbour to accommodate ferries and small cruise ships. The main port is typically surrounded by a boulevard that is home to a wide choice in cafes, bars, pensions and hotels. The port is a thriving location in summer, but most of the commercial activity comes to a standstill in winter. Some shops only open up between the arrival and departure of a cruise ship. For the rest of the day, the owners hang around the port talking to each other, having coffee or playing tavli ? as long as they are not preparing their businesses for the next summer.
Reaching any possible next village from the main port is not always easy. Just like Greece`s famous secluded beaches, the villages are separated from one another by rather mountainous area, making a small boat a very practical means of transportation. Getting to the heart of an island may be worth the while. Many of them hide some remnants of ancient empires, all surrounded by little more than rocks, cactuses and dusty vegetation.
Despite the many similarities, all of the islands have a distinct identity of their own. Santorini, locally known as Thira, is probably the most recommended island of all. Sophia (26) tells me that the island owes its existence to the explosion of an old volcano: `Its landscape is therefore very different from all other islands. It rises straight from the sea on the outside, while the volcano`s centre point sank and transformed into a valley.` Santorini features on many Greek postcards, especially thanks to the consistent and photogenic use of the traditional white and blue in its architecture. Beside that, every Greek marvels at the idea of a sunset at Santorini, which to them looks more beautiful than any other sunset anywhere else on earth.
Crete is the largest Greek island by far. It is even sufficiently big for Greeks to forget listing it as an island, and big enough for the Cretans to see it as a country of its own. The way Greek people think of Cretans is similar to the way Europeans think about Greeks: passionate, hot-blooded, chaotic and close to madness. Alexandros (23) and Alexandros (28, both in photo) call Crete a very extreme place: `They live life to the full, as if they are not afraid to die. Honour is very important to them, and they revenge is an accepted way to protect their honour if somebody has damaged it. `If you do something to my dog, I will kill your cat.` An eye for an eye, which is known as the Vendetta code and it`s advisable to watch your steps because even though gun possession is not allowed anywhere in Greece, the Cretans have their own rules about that.`
People from Crete are said to have a remarkable sense of humour, somewhere between sarcasm and humiliation. Also, they are known for their Madinadas, a type of spiritual poetry they put assemble on the spot. They must be aided by their raki, a liquor that makes you light in the head from the first sip you take. Crete is also the island where the best pot is produced, and they are also good at growing cherry tomatoes and bananas.`
Many of the Greek islands have some kind of local food to be known for. For Egnia, just across from Athens, it`s pistachio nuts. The island of Kefalonia is known for its meat pie Kreatopita. Some other islands excel at non-edible specialties or activities. Paros is known for its white marble, Egina used to be the capital of the Greek empire and the island of Hydra has got no cars or motorized vehicles, only donkeys. Hydra is Greece`s second most expensive island. Its traditional appearance has made it attractive to a particular blend of tourists, ranging from artists to affluent business men. It is also home to the world-renowned Greek marine academy. A small group of islands locally known as Kufonesia would serve as a nice example of the opposite extreme. `If you visit those islands, it`s like traveling back in time. Most people work in the fishing industry and their cars are old and rusty. Comparable to the image we have of Cuba`, Alexandros-23 says.
Every island has another particular reason to attract visitors. The island of Mikonos, about 8 ferry hours away from Athens is Greece`s most expensive island, but that doesn`t keep herds of international tourists from visiting it in summer. Mikonos`s atmosphere is best summarized as trendy and gay, and the island is seen as the capital of Greek clubbing. Ios, Kos and Zakynthos compete for the same title, even though the local population may at times regret having opened their doors to so many party animals. Artemis (25) says that on Zakynthos, the locals call British tourists `terrorists`, because of their uncontrolled behaviour when they get drunk.
South of Crete, the island called Gavdos serves a bit of a hippy island. It is a popular destination for beach camping and nudist facilities ? both of which are not necessarily advisable on most of the other islands.
Kostas (39) tells me that islands situated close to the mainland usually `import` their products from the nearest point on the continent. Those located close to the Pelopponesos are well-off, while the ones close to Turkey have more of a problem. Inhabitants of Rhodes or Karlovasi may go shopping in Turkey for personal shopping, but the supply to their supermarkets and restaurants will come from Greece. Or straight from the sea, because all of the islands have an active fishing industry. Fish is sold directly from boats in the harbour, skipping the phase of distributing it to a physical market place and allowing for ultimate freshness of the products.
Greece`s star-shaped transportation links look similar to the railway network of France: most movement takes place along the lines to and from Athens. From pretty much everywhere to Athens and from Athens to pretty much everywhere.On average, traveling between different islands is more popular for tourists than it is for the inhabitants of the islands. Rather than using their long winter holidays to see other islands, the inhabitants of the islands prefer to stay on their own island, to work and live in Athens for half a year, or to celebrate a long holiday in a far away country.
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