THREE GREEK ISLES
Spontaneity in an Authentic Environment
By Jane Jamison
Santorini, Milos, and Crete are all part of Greece; yet each is individually unique. Santorini is a tourist magnet with pristine architecture and great seascapes. Milos is small, intimate, and personable. The larger Crete offers both cultural history and authentic villages and cities. Each is photogenic and worthy of photographers’ time and efforts to capture the beauty of these gems of the Mediterranean.
PWA affords carefully curated adventures on each of these three islands in a way that no cruise or typical tour can. PWA provides spontaneity in an authentic environment. Of course, a little luck and expert mentoring are nice, too. PWA’s signature approach to these three isles is definitely the premier way to experience the authenticity of Greek life.
The primary joy of traveling is the opportunity to meet and interact with locals. Emporio, a small village in south central Santorini, was one of the most authentic we explored. We arrived early one morning just as a fisherman was unloading his catch into the back of a pickup truck so the vender could sell the fish (and the cats could drool).
We then just wandered through the maze of narrow, winding “lanes” through the residential area. We never knew exactly where a lane would lead. We were able to photograph dogs looking over the walls of gardens, steps with flowerpots, and a lovely widow carrying her bag from the market home. It was just the type of authenticity that PWA is famous for providing guests.
Unique to the Greek culture is the practice of widows continuing to wear black for a lifetime. So their status was obvious when we saw or met these lovely ladies. Our venture into the high mountains outside Rethymno, Crete, to the tiny village of Anogia allowed us to interact with some special widows and townspeople. These now-elderly ladies began selling their weaving and gorgeous handiwork as young women after all the village men were killed in World War II. We were greeted warmly, invited to buy some of their handcrafted tablecloths or other goods, and treated to a delicious dinner of freshly barbecued goat and sides in a “mom and pop” café. Nothing could have been more authentic; everything and everyone was local.
Fishermen in the marinas and on the rocks are definitely “real Greeks.” Watching them clean their nets, prepare fish for the markets, sell their wares at seaside or in the markets was a chance to experience a bit of their everyday lives. Even lone casual fishermen out for a relaxing afternoon or evening on the rocks became great photo opportunities. We enjoyed walking along marinas, checking out the various boats or rocks, and seeing what fishermen were doing. Despite being in the midst of their chores, each one welcomed our curiosity and always granted photos.
To have an authentic look at a town, visiting markets is a must. Chania’s market in the Old Town was a great opportunity to mingle with local residents, both vendors and shoppers. The vegetables were beautiful; the snails were alive; and the olives and grape leaves were plentiful. A lovely widow, whom I had captured while she was examining vegetables, was put on “Alert—Photographer” status by a friend. Instead of turning away, she gave me a huge smile. One vendor actually became part of his display of tomatoes.
Each PWA adventure seems to include some “surprise” opportunities to capture unexpected images. This trip was no exception. One morning in Oia, Santorini, Laurie Cohen spotted a wall that was perfect in the morning light for a background. Just when he wished for a model to stand in front of his background, he spotted a couple (the guy was taking photos of the young woman). He just spontaneously asked the guy if we could borrow his girlfriend for some photos. The result was having a great model for our shots—and her boyfriend or husband also getting to share in the photo shoot.
On the morning of our boat ride in Milos, we arrived to find that there would be a slight delay. That worked well, though, when we met a short, barefoot guy who told us he would be our captain for the day. He wasn’t, but our chance meeting resulted in another spontaneous photo shoot with this iconic Greek. Whether candid shots or posed portraits, he was a natural—and quite a character, calling me “Paparazzi.” I think he was probably hired by the real captain to market the tour by engaging tourists for the trip. He certainly engaged us!
While in Rethymno, Crete, we ventured outside the city to the tiny village of Arkadi, where a memorial to 10 Christian martyrs is located. While we were trying to decide directions, three young teenage girls who had just finished final exams had been dismissed for summer break. They spoke English and decided to be our tour guides. We gladly accepted their spontaneous offer. Delightful! They took us to the church, explained the significance of the tomb, and introduced us to a lovely widow whose shy smile I was finally able to entice.
Sometimes even the best plans require spontaneous adjustment. As we left the comfortable Aurora Luxury Suites for the traditional “Welcome Dinner” in Imerovigli, Santorini, we began to see a mist that rapidly became a dense fog. Our perfect spot to view the sunset from the open-air terrace at La Maison became an intimate dinner where we could only see each other and the other diners—not even the sea. However, just as we finished eating, the sun broke through the fog, giving us a nice view of the houses along the cliff. Luck!
The Sea and Beaches
Of course, because the Greek Isles are surrounded by the sea, they have great beaches and boats. We ventured to Ammoudi Bay, located on Santorini’s northwest tip, where we hoped to reserve a catamaran tour. While the prediction was for no wind and, thus, no sailing, we did spot some interesting sites, including several octopi hanging to dry for the eateries along the bay. A really unique and authentic experience!
A major highlight of this adventure was our tour on a large schooner yacht circumnavigating Milos. The excursion included a 6-7 hour tour in the company of only about 15 other guests on this large vessel, complete with a full buffet meal and five stops. During three of these stops I spontaneously took advantage of the guide’s invitation to jump from the rail of the boat into the Mediterranean Sea for a dip or a swim. That surprised even me! Our amazing tour allowed us to see areas that can only be reached by 4-wheel drive as well as some areas we had visited by car and now got to see from a sea perspective.
Nor far outside the city of Chania, Crete, we found beaches that were just stunning. While perhaps easy to get to by boat, these gorgeous beaches were difficult, to put it mildly, to reach by car. Only a 4-wheel drive could maneuver the steep, narrow, gravel “path” to perhaps the most famous, Balos Beach. We encountered curious goats, bees at work on the thistle plants, and treacherous cliffs. But the view from high above the beach was well worth all the effort to get to the viewing spot.
We thought we would swim the following day at Stavros Beach, but rapidly realized it would have been extremely precarious to try to navigate down the long, steep cliff with no pathway. So we talked to locals and found another great beach with easy access; we parked about 10 steps from the water and had a relaxing swim on our final afternoon. This spontaneous change in plans was much safer!
The very tiny fishing villages with their boat garages on Milos enchanted me. We visited three: the famous Klima, an artists’ haven on Areti, and tiny Fourkovouni. Klima’s colorful houses, garages and shops were beautiful in the late afternoon/early evening. We also saw this village from the sea on the schooner. Residents were busy preparing for the upcoming tourist season by painting every surface in sight. My personal favorite was Areti, where I spotted three artists sitting in the early morning light with pallets working on very different paintings or sketches. All welcomed our taking photos of both them and their work. The small cove was quiet, peaceful, and inviting. Fourkovouni was even tinier, with only a few houses. The colors of the sea here were just as dramatic as all of the turquoise seas surrounding Milos.
History and Culture
Crete, the largest of the Greek Isles, is an elongated rectangular-shaped island south of Milos. It has both metropolitan cities and small villages. And there were archeological and mythological sites and museums that tell the story of Greece and Western Civilization.
In Heraklion, Crete’s largest city, it was only a short drive from the elegant Legacy Gastro Suites to the remains of the old city of Knossos. We wandered around the grounds in the early evening to see remains and restorations of ancient structures. Excavated in the early 1900s, it is a good replica of ancient Greek civilization and considered to be the oldest city in Europe with roots back to the Stone Age and the Minoan culture. We also visited the Archeological Museum in this metropolitan city.
The city of Rethymno, west of Heraklion on the north shore of Crete, is the third largest in Crete. However, it felt less like a metropolitan area and more like a small city. We took most of a morning to explore the Fortezza, the massive Venetian citadel that dominates the Old Town. We arrived early to avoid the tourists and, thus, had great access to the ruins and views. One area that I particularly enjoyed, in addition to the terrific views from high parapets was the catacombs housing ancient tombs and memorials.
A favorite spot for me tied to Greek mythology was the mid-sized Cretan city of Agios Nikolaos (sometimes just called Ag Nik). Located on beautiful Mirabello Bay and “bottomless” Lake Voulismeno about 30 minutes east of Heraklion, its beautiful marina invited us to walk and view the various ships and boats. We decided to relax with a short tourist tram ride, then to explore some of the features of the port area, including a sculpture of Zeus (in the form of a bull) ridden by the young girl he abducted (Europa). But it was another large sculpture of a goat horn (Horn of Amalthea) that caught my attention with the sunlight making it almost translucent.
Sunrises and Sunsets
While amazing sunrises and sunsets are quite common on these Greek Isles, no adventure can predict or guarantee truly spectacular ones. That’s where our luck supplemented authenticity in June 2019. Oia became our “go to” spot for sunrises on Santorini. Located on the north tip of the island, we had our choice of several different spots to set up tripods. Our first morning there we experienced one of those “hard to believe sunrises” that simply lit the sky, then cast a pinkish glow on the typical white buildings.
Just as Oia had been our “spot” for sunrises on Santorini, the white rock, moon-like surface of Sarakiniko immediately became our first choice on Milos. Located on the north side of the island in a bay, we had great views of both sunrise and sunset. I never tired of the landscape of this spot with its rivulets, unusual rock formations, and seawater creating crevices in the rocks over time.
While Crete didn’t seem to have sunrises or sunsets as dramatic as the other two islands, there was good luck on our last evening at the marina. A red glow lit the sky, and people watching the sunset became small silhouettes against the glowing sky as boats shone with the dying light.
On our last evening in Santorini our choice for sunset was the southwest tip of the island where a lighthouse would serve as the foreground. There were only a handful of others there to see the sunset, and we climbed up the cliff so that they were far below us. We were treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen—on all sides. It was a lucky choice of location, for sure, since we could shoot all three directions just by swiveling our tripods around.
The adventures on these three islands will stay with me the rest of my life. Beautiful scenery, lucky sunrises and sunsets, gracious and friendly people, an authentic view into Western Civilization—what more could anyone ask of an adventure? Thanks, PWA and Laurie Cohen!