More travels: From Crete to Istanbul

May 17, 2020 • 11:45 am

I’ll continue with my Wanderhalbjahr odyssey through Europe, as well as bits of North Africa and Asia (Turkey), as a form of self therapy—one suggested by Matthew to help relieve my anxiety about not being able to travel during the pandemic.

We last left off in Sitia, a small fishing village at the northeastern end of Crete where my girlfriend and I lived for a month. After several weeks of absorbing the atmosphere of a small fishing village (sadly, now a resort), it was time to move on. Checking with the port agent, we found there was only one ferry out of Sitia, and I recall it went once a week. Fortunately, it was going to Athens via the island of Santorini (also called Thira).  Here’s the whole route we took to Istanbul:

Santorini is a small island (91 km² with a population of about 15,000), the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera. The volcano, which exploded about 3600 years ago, is said to be responsible for the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete, though this is disputed. What is not disputed is that this is indeed the remnants of a volcano, that it blew up in a tremendous explosion, and that the volcano is still active. You can clearly see the volcano shape and visit the smoking fumaroles of Thólos.  Sadly, though I have pictures of my trip from back then, they are all Kodachrome slides, and I’ll have to do with pictures from other people.

The caldera is clearly outlined above .

The place to stay in Santorini is in the main town of Thera, which has a western view over the crater and the Aegean sea. It’s a colorful whitewashed town, and full of cats. We were not rich then, but we did splurge a bit for a room with a view, which was still cheap in 1973 (it’s not now).

Yes, Thira is a tourist town, and was back then, though less so, but the view justified the visit. But I’ve seen it and wouldn’t go back.

Tourist boats dock below Thirda once a day, disgorging a lot of daytrippers who hire mules to ride the hundreds of steps up the crater wall to the town. Those mules have a hard life, for they just go up and down, often bearing those who are overweight. We, of course, were proud, and hiked up from the ferry wearing our backpacks. Here’s a video of how the cruisers do it:

If you get a decent hotel, you can have a balcony overlooking the crater to the west, and then relax on the balcony to see one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. In my view, it ranks up there with Mount Everest, Machu Picchu, Antarctica, and the Taj Mahal as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There are few finer things on this sphere than kicking back on a balcony with a bottle of Santorini wine (they do make good wine there) and watching this. I have never seen a more beautiful sunset.

After about a week or so visiting the island (there’s a black lava beach on the west side and some archeological digs of Minoan remnants), we took the ferry back to Piraeus, the port of Athens, and then hit the road, hitchhiking north to Thessalonika. Near that big town an old college friend worked on a communal farm, where we stayed for a few days. Our goal beyond that was Istanbul.

Thessalonika doesn’t have much to recommend it to tourists, which is why it’s a good place to visit. For it was there we first experienced the full measure of Greek hospitality. We walked to a taverna near the farm for a meal, and of course were the only non-locals there. As we sat there eating a main dish, other dishes began arriving at our table: carved cucumbers, cheeses, olives, glasses of retsina, and other goodies. They were sent by the other diners, for as they hit the table we looked up and saw the moustachioed diners (men, of course) grinning at us and raising their glasses.

After a while everyone got soused and then the dancing began: the classic Greek dancing as seen in the movie Zorba the Greek, beginning slowly with delicate steps and snapping of the fingers. As the music got faster, the Greeks started throwing plates on the ground, breaking them (This is absolutely normal.) The fellow-feeling between us, even though I speak little Greek and they spoke no English, was something I’d never experienced: we were celebrating our humanity with wine, cucumbers, and broken plates.

Of course hospitality runs in Greek veins like pine sap in retsina, but that was a special night.

Then it was time to hitchhike to Istanbul.  Hitching was rough that day. Even though the distance from Thessalonika to the border crossing past Alexandroupolos is only 233 km, it took us all day to even get close to the border (there isn’t much car traffic on the road), and, as the sun set, we realized that there was no way we were going to get to Istanbul, much less Turkey. We put down our ground cloths in a nearby farmer’s field and unrolled our sleeping bags as the stars came out. (I love sleeping under the stars, and spurn tents unless it’s freezing or raining.)

As dawn approached, I felt like somebody was punching me in the back—repeatedly. It freaked me out, and I woke up screaming. It turned out that I’d pitched my groundcloth over a groundhog hole (or whatever is the Greek equivalent), and the poor rodent was trying to make his morning exit, bumping my back.

Well, that got us up, and we walked to the road and stuck out our thumbs. Hours passed. Morning trundled toward afternoon, and there were barely any cars, much less rides. Then, around noon, a big Mercedes bus came by. We thumbed it, too, and, mirabile dictu, it stopped.

It turned out that it was a bus full of hippies going from Europe to India: the classic hippie cross-country route of that time. I got on, said we were going to Istanbul, and the driver told us he’d take us there for $5 each. Done! What a bonus! (Old hitchers from the Sixties, by the way, must recall the elation they felt when they saw a Volkswagen van approaching. They were invariably driven by hippies, and your chances of getting a ride were high.)

As we approached the border, the driver said that if we were carrying any drugs, we’d better get rid of them. The Turkish penalties for drug “smuggling” were well known, and documented five years later in the horrific movie “Midnight Express” (written by Oliver Stone), in which Brad Davis is caught smuggling hash out of Turkey and has an unspeakably hellish time in prison before escaping. I can’t remember if anyone ditched their drugs (I’m not dumb enough to carry any when traveling), but, sure enough, when we got to the Turkish border the guards came aboard and basically ripped the bus apart, even prying up bits of the floor. I was scared the whole time that they’d find something and somehow it would get pinned on us.

But they found nothing, and the bus rolled on. Several hours later it pulled up in front of the epicenter for traveling hippies in Istanbul: the Pudding Shop, where stoned hippies would gather to swap tales, find transport, and eat the variety of wonderful Turkish sweets.

I won’t describe Istanbul, except that everyone must go there some time. And it was at the Pudding Shop, after a week or so, that we found a young Canadian couple who, for gas money, would drive us back to Greece and then up most of the coast of Yugoslavia towards Germany.

I must get some of those slides scanned some day. I have over ten thousand of them.

Here’s the Pudding Shop in 2010 (real name: Lale Restaurant), which has its own Wikipedia entry as a gathering place for denizens of counterculture. Though I’ve been to Istanbul several times since 1973, I haven’t returned to the shop.



24 thoughts on “More travels: From Crete to Istanbul

  1. My experience in Turkey was a bit earlier than yours & different destination. In 1969 I spent a month near Izmir, Turkey, at Cigli, AFB. It is pronounced like Chili. Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey, located on the Aegean sea about 200 miles south of Istanbul. It was one of many TDY’s I went on but the only one to Turkey. It was quite an experience and education at the same time.

    1. I forgot to mention by the way, you can take those old Kodachrome slides and have them turned into digital photos. It is not that expensive. I did that with a bunch of mine including photos in Turkey of the Lost Cities of Ephesus.

      I could also tell about a kind of tragic story on a bus ride to a beach in Turkey but will not go into that.

  2. While in the Navy, I was stationed on Crete from 1995 to 1997, at a base at Souda Bay near “Chania” (also spelled Hania and Xania). while there, also made trips through MWR to Athens, Rhodes & Cairo and made a few trips to the remnants of Knossos at Irakleion and many other sites on Crete. Much enjoyed my time there – so much to see and explore, including the natural wonders as well as the art and history of several thousand years.

      1. I also brought back an orange tabby cat,Julie, I found when she was a kitten, wailing from a branch on an olive tree near my apartment in October 1995. She was my constant companion up through August 2014, almost 20 years.

  3. As the music got faster, the Greeks started throwing plates on the ground, breaking them (This is absolutely normal.)

    Not the place, I take it, to bring the super luxe Wedgwood Runnymeade bone china set one inherited from one’s Nana.

    1. Yez, I can’t help feeling there was the qualifying statement “in Greece” missing after “absolutely normal”.

  4. Re: scanning slides. There’s an only moderately expensive way to get it done. My plan this spring term was to start scanning the thousands of plant slides I have by hiring a student in the Work Study financial aid program and having her do it. (I’d found that rare student who had lots of aid left in spring and was willing to do this boring job.) The university library has a bulk scanner that students can use.

    COVID-19 intervened. The scanning couldn’t happen. Maybe next year. Or the year after that.

    The nice thing about Work Study students is that I pay only a fraction of what the student receives.

  5. For about the third time, Jerry, I sure hope you’re going to weave these evocative stories into a proper personal/scientific memoir. You’d have a lot of customers: maybe 71,055 or even more!

  6. “It turned out that it was a bus full of hippies going from Europe to India: the classic hippie cross-country route of that time. I got on, said we were going to Istanbul, and the driver told us he’d take us there for $5 each.”

    I remember one of these buses. I was in a camping with my brother in Turin, in 1969. The bus was a large, banged-up British coach from about 1950 with a driver who was over 60, and who had long white hair, just like the hippies that camped on the bus. He had open seats on the bus and was yelling out of the window: “Destination India! 10 dollars (or something of that order). The camping management had put two tables on top of each other, and on top of that a huge television set. And one night we, and a large crowd of campers and hippies, watched the flickering images of Buzz Aldrin doing his first steps on the Moon.

  7. The plate breaking tradition has travelled with Greeks outside of Greece. We had a Greek friend in Los Angeles, CA who celebrated my 21st birthday with my husband and me at a wonderful Greek restaurant in a seedy part of L.A. (a drunk in the doorway next door whom one had to walk over or around.) The food was absolutely wonderful (first taste of Baklava). I got used to the Ouzo. Then, my friend insisted that I had to break plates. Freaked me out. I didn’t think I could do it as I had been a very clumsy child who had broken more than my share of glassware, etc. However, I managed to joyously celebrate my special birthday by breaking plates.

  8. ‘ everyone must go there sometime.’ Istanbul is an amazing place. I lived there for four years, 2008 to 2011, and usually visit once per year (not this year obviously). My wife goes about 4 times per year to visit her mother and other family. Never ceases to amaze me that people from places like New York ask re Istanbul ‘Is it safe?’ I would happily walk home thru the back streets of Istanbul after a night’s drinking, and wouldn’t do that in NY, or London, or Sydney.

  9. ‘The fellow-feeling between us, even though I speak little Greek and they spoke no English, was something I’d never experienced: we were celebrating our humanity with wine, cucumbers, and broken plates.’

    That is lovely.

  10. My wife and I were on (at?) Thira in 2015. While it is a lovely island and the archaeology and geology are fascinating, it has become terribly touristy. Reminded me of the east coast of Florida or the Côte d’Azur. That tells it all.

    A suggestion for you mémoires. I’d love to hear about your adventures in biology. I can’t imagine how you catch drosophila, even less how you tell one from another.

  11. Hi Jerry,

    I hope you do scan your slides. I did my own, using an Epson V500 Perfection scanner (the current version is the V600), which does through-transmission scanning for negatives and slides (positive transparencies).

    If took me several years, 20-30 minutes a day to get through all of my slides, mt Dad’s slides, and my own B&W negatives (my Dad’s tens of thousands of B&W negatives awaits my retirement); but it was well worth it. Just being able to archive the digital images makes it worth the effort. I need never fear entirely losing my favorite images of a lifetime.

    I also recommend using either Photoshop Elements or Lightroom to process the images. They help you keep track of your (thousands of) images and I apply a universal minor global set of “tweaks” to Kodachrome 64 slide scans that make them appear as they when projected.

    Some data on scanning and so on are on this page. It’s a little out of date; but still some good information.

    There are services that do scanning; but be sure to pick a good one. I’ve had way too many originals come back from photo printing shops (even highly reputable ones) with horrible thumb prints on them — which are very difficult to remove or clone-out in SW.

    1. Scanned Kodachrome example*:

      Scanned Tri-X Pan example:

      * Relatively low resolution version for posting online. At 6400 dpi (the V500 goes to 12,000 dpi) you get about 9 pixels per grain of Kodachrome 64. 2400 dpi is plenty good for almost any use, including printing pretty large (e.g. 13 X 19 inches).

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