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Turkey and Greece, 2000
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Ia, Santorini Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
The Greek Islands I: Crete, Santorini, Naxos

For the next week, we hopped among the Greek Islands, starting with Crete. We took the ferry to Iraklion, the largest city on Crete, and spent our whole two days on the island there. Despite suffering much damage during the Second World War, Iraklion is still full of charm and interest. Several centuries of Venetian rule left their mark on the city. A few of the old Venetian buildings and monuments in the city center either survived the war or have been restored, including the famous Morosini fountain with its three sculpted lions. The Venetians also built the massive walls which still encompass the older part of the city. Away from the immediate center but within the walls of the Iraklion lie several well-preserved old neighborhoods with a more indigenous flavor: here whitewashed or pastel-painted one and two story houses squeeze together along narrow, winding lanes.

Iraklion also has a decidedly urban feel to it, which was a pleasant surprise to us. The streets teem with life, commerce, and traffic, even in the evening. Unlike Athens, however, much of the traffic here is on foot, which makes the bustle more pleasant.

We also took a short trip from Iraklion to see the ruins of ancient Knossos. The ruins here date back to the second millenium B.C. -- hundreds of years earlier than those we saw elsewhere in Greece and Turkey. The stark, squat-columned Minoan style isn't nearly as refined as Classical or Hellenistic architecture, however.

After Crete we visited three islands in the Cyclades, the archipelago which lies east of the Peloponnese and north of Crete. First, we went by ferry to Thira, which is better known in the English speaking world by its Italian name, Santorini.

Santorini is the remainder from a huge volcanic explosion -- think Mt. St. Helens, but with the rim of the resulting caldera a few hundred feet above water level in the middle of a sea. Most of the island's villages are set along the rim of the caldera, perched at the edge of sheer cliffs dropping into the central harbor.

Roman Catholic Cathedral, Naxos Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
In addition to this spectacular setting, the villages also stand out because of their architecture. The vernacular Cycladic style of building predominates here. From a distance, houses look like collections of children's blocks of various sizes all put together and drenched in white paint. Each building joins together a set of flat-roofed or barrel vaulted units in an apparently unplanned way. But the harmony of all this seemingly haphazard construction is undeniable once you are actually in its midst. Because they are painted white and built up from smaller blocks of a similar type, the buildings seem to flow into one another. Santorini takes its unique charm from the way this serene architecture complements its dramatic topography.

Our hotel sat on the very lip of the caldera, looking out over a cove toward the town of Firostefani. We were just north of the island's main town, which also goes by the name of Thira. The path between Thira and Firostefani went right by our front door, and we were able to spend many delightful hours walking through each place. We also took a bus north to Ia, an equally picturesque village at the northern tip of this island.

Naxos Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
After a day and two nights on Santorini, we took an early-morning ferry to Naxos, which is in the center of the Cyclades archipelago. We spent only a few hours there, all in Naxos town, the port and main town on the island.

The old town of Naxos is built up on a small hill overlooking the harbor. The district atop the hill, the Castro (the name comes from the old castle which once surmounted the hill), contains many large old Venetian villas and a restored Roman Catholic cathedral. The district lower on the hill and to the north, Bourgos, also has a notably Italian flavor. We walked along a tourist-pleasing maze of alleys through both neighborhoods.


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