May 22, 2006

The Beach at Agios Pavlos

This might be my last post from Greece, or maybe next to last. We head home in less than 48 hours and will be in transit before then. (Also I'm working on a weird old sticky Greek keyboard, the only one at this old beachfront hotel, and I can't find certain keys like the apostrophe and the dash -- wait, I just found them by unlocking the number lock! -- but it's still taking extra time because those marks are found under keys different from the ones that picture them.) A billowing curtain in this little cubicle is blowing against my left arm as I type, and the keyboard shelf keeps sliding in under the desk.

We drove down to the south coast of Crete through the mountains: beautiful green and rock-gray peaks and olive-growing valleys, untouristed farming villages, lots of yellow and purple wildflowers and clusters of red poppies. The White Mountains, so called not becausse of snow but because of limestone, which at the tops of some peaks makes tear-streak paths that look like ski trails.

At the end of the road is Agios Pavlos (Saint Paul), not exactly a village but a seaside location for one old hotel and three yoga retreats, who have chosen this spot for its beauty. (On the way, a Mercedes roadster passed us fast on a narrow turn and I said, "I'll bet that guy owns one of the yoga retreats," and sure enough, when we got here, the Mercedes was in the retreat's parking lot.) We took a room for two nights at the hotel, 25 Euros a night, a nicer room than in Santorini for less than a quarter of the price. We're overlooking the white/red/black rocky headlands and the black pebble beach and we have a big terrace from which to eat dinner and have drinks and coffee. The headlands are a lot like a smaller Big Sur: there are rocky grottoes you can climb into and through and over, and tide pools, although there seems to be a lot less tide pool life than in California. (Susan speculates on a difference between tidal life at shell beaches and at rocky beaches. Or maybe it's just overfished here.) The wonderful thing is that there's a succession of small beaches in the shape of linked sandy coves, with climbable rock between them. You can go from cove to cove for several kilometers, and while there are handfuls of people at the first one or two, the next ones are completely secluded. The isolation seems to make people want to undress: we've seen nude sunbathers and swimmers. This morning we plan to take a hike on the ridge above the beaches, see what's down below, and descend through the sand dunes, which sometimes have plank steps to help you. (We're not feeling any soreness from Samaria Gorge, by the way. And if anyone's wondering about our drinking the stream water there, those streams are the sources of the excellent bottled Samaria brand water we keep drinking, both from the bottle and the tap. You can see the pipes running alongside the streams. It's among the best water I've ever tasted. We also tried some in the middle of the village of Spili where there's a famous fountain, a long trough whose eighteen spouts are the heads of eighteen lions.)

This is a perfect place to wind down and experience nature after a vacation too full of boutique towns and traipsing crowds. Susan is a swimmmer and she's loving this place. We snorkeled together yesterday among the sponge-covered rocks near the shore, and saw a lot of little fish and some sea urchins and some lovely underwater rock shapes. We'll do some more of that today. And we'll sit at dinner and listen to the gossip of the yoga students: about what phase of the moon is best for getting your hair cut or for taking vitamins, about plans to open vegetarian restaurants. I'm thinking that if one were a heterosexual male at these retreats, one would either have a field day, or drive off in shock.

A couple of stray observations now that the vacation is about to end:

1. It's not true that Europeans aren't fat. We've seen some very significant pot bellies here. But I think it's only the men who are fat here, not the women.

2. As a corollary, it's not true that portions are small. Appetizers and desserts are always built for two, and main dishes are often immense. But people leave a lot on the plate.

3. Even at a secluded place like this, only a few women go topless. It's not endemic like you've heard. And some of the topless ones are Americans seizing the opportunity to break free.

4. If you're going to Greece, don't stay on one island for more than three days, unless it's Crete, which is by far the biggest. Do some island hopping and the places won't get stale. But since the most frequent ferries go to the most heavily spoiled islands, you need to do some planning.

5. Lonely Planet guidebook for the Greek Islands is inadequate in some ways. Its entries are often outdated, as if they've been carried through from earlier editions and not checked. Its recommendations are often the most obvious places; there's little exploration of the less well known hotels, and their restaurant recommendations have turned out poorly in at least two cases for us (see previous post for mention of a defunct restaurant they touted highly). I suggest using the Cadogan guide to the Greek Islands (a British publisher) written by Dana Facaros, someone who knows and loves Greece and writes well and wittily.

6. I'm trying to think of what I wanted to say next, but I can't. Or I'll save it for a later post. Or something. But be on the lookout for photos that we'll post after our return. Bye for now!