Greece Plans To Keep Rowdy Tourists Out Of Town

Greece club signs
Roger Price, Flickr

Disrespect the locals a few too many times and they may decide to shun you from the local enclaves and relegate you to tacky tourist ghettos. Unfortunately, that may be exactly what’s in store for visitors headed to the Greek islands.

Locals there say they’ve had enough of debauched tourists who have been wreaking havoc in the otherwise beautiful and peaceful Mediterranean region. Their solution? Set up segregated tourist zones to keep the riffraff out.The drastic plan is under consideration after a recent spate of incidents involving bar brawls, rowdy behavior and the stabbing of a British teenager on the island of Crete. The Greek islands attract huge numbers of young pleasure-seekers who are eager to party, much to the unhappiness of locals. To get around the problem, they’re looking at establishing “tourist strips” far from town where foreigners can go wild without bothering anyone.

If the Greeks do agree on the plan, it’ll be a sad day for travelers who actually want to experience everything the islands have to offer. Visiting a city that’s split in half — with locals on one side and tourists on another — is not really visiting the city at all. Think of the tourist strip in Cancun, which is nothing like the real Mexico, or Times Square in New York, which is far from representative of the Big Apple. Do we really want all of our travels to feel like a trip to the Vegas Strip? If we want to continue having authentic travel experiences, it’s time to step up and treat the locals and their way of life with respect.

Lost And Found: How Uncertainty Makes Travel Memorable

As the bus begins to pull away from the bus stop in Chania, I catch the old man’s eye again, giving him a thumbs-up through the window. He stares back blankly – then leaps to his feet, waving his arms, pointing, shouting. I raise my hands in an uncomprehending shrug, keeping the palms turned inward to avoid flipping him a mountza, the traditional Greek insult. He shouts louder, as if volume alone could break through the language barrier that had us miming to each other a few minutes ago. Then his body slumps into a pose recognizable the world over – “Oh, you bloody fool” – and that’s when it hits me in the stomach.

I’m on the wrong bus.

I have an hour before my ferry leaves the port of Souda, taking me away from Crete and back to mainland Greece. If I don’t hit that ferry, my carefully engineered schedule slithers through my fingers and I’m left untethered, without local knowledge, a decent enough grasp of spoken Greek or the money for new tickets. Without that ferry, I’m lost.

I sit down, by order of my knees, and stare out at the dusty, baked scenery as we rattle God-knows-where-wards. And then something strange happens. Panic ebbs away. I start to appreciate how lovely the light is, the rose-fingered sunset fading through the spectrum into that special glowing blue that enlivens domed roofs and door-frames right across Greece. I’m warm, I’m well fed, and I have no idea what is going to happen next – and it’s this last feeling that is so intoxicating right now.

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy?

When most people travel, they seek the unknown – either in a familiar, packaged, piecemeal form with the help of guides and tour operators, or the raw, improvised version that’s so popular with people young enough for their nervous systems to take it. I go off the beaten track using a third approach, which I like to call “Oh You Bloody Fool.” Somewhat appropriately, it’s a way of travel I accidentally fell into. I go places, things go wrong, and I fall through space, screaming. This is usually, but not always, a metaphor.

There’s a perverse joy in having your travel plans collapse around you. I’ve missed many flights and will doubtless miss many more. Once I get over the initial shock, once I’ve leaned against the nearest wall and cursed everyone up to and including the Wright Brothers, a calmness steals over me. I change. Lacking any alternative, I’m forced to become the person who can deal with this mess. My senses fly open, taking great gulps of the world around me, collecting data for my suddenly hyperactive brain to sift through in search of Life Or Death Answers. My heart thumps. My jaw sets. No time to waste – and off I go.

In “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” (2006), Rebecca Solnit says:

“The thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade getting lost. I’ve been lost on England’s North York Moors in the middle of a rainstorm with the light fading – one of the few times I’ve genuinely hated not knowing my location. I’ve blundered across Berlin at 4 a.m. in search of my hotel, clutching a rain-dissolved paper map. I’ve suffered a thousand deaths of embarrassment in front of strangers, and I’ve eyed other travelers – so competent, so self-assured – with a mixture of envy and hatred. Why can’t I land on my feet instead of my face? Why does it all have to be so hard?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy? When it’s easy, it’s a non-experience that our memories can’t get a grip on. Thanks to the miracle of GPS, we need never be lost. We can get from A to B knowing exactly what B looks like and having a machine dictate the entire route to us. Our technological support networks are vast and all-powerful, and our guides, physical and virtual, know more about the places we’re going than we ever will. We are mired in certainty and we need never put a foot wrong. But what if that’s not what we need – or why we travel at all?

I’m not pondering any of this as my bus takes me away from Chania. I’m fully in the moment, hunting for clues to where this bus is going, scanning the horizon for landmarks that tally with the map in my “Rough Guide.” There are 11 people on that bus. One lady is wearing a brown hat; one man has spectacularly hairy ears. These details are unforgettably burned into me by an elevated level of awareness …

I’m having the kind of travel experience I left home in search of.

Ten minutes later, the port of Souda hovers into view, and I realize, with curious disappointment, that I’m saved. I’m on the right bus after all. I unwittingly compensate by getting off the bus far too early, forcing me to sprint the final mile with a fully-laden backpack, and then I spend the first hour of my ferry ride lying semi-naked on the cool metal floor of my cabin, trying to bring my temperature down. The rest of the journey is a self-recriminating haze.

These days, being lost is at the heart of the kind of travel I love, filled with stories I don’t know in advance, positioned along the uncomfortable line between serendipity and disaster. Occasionally wild uncertainty is thrust upon me, as when I was robbed of my passport in Düsseldorf, seven hours before my flight home to England. (Ever wondered how long a UK emergency passport takes to put together? About six hours.) I’ve learned to appreciate these experiences for what they are – a living hell at the time, a treasure-trove of travel memories afterwards. All that said, I give myself lots of leeway nowadays, spacing out connections and over-budgeting where I can. I may be a bloody fool, but I’m not stupid.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

The World’s Best Gyros?

gyrosThe Italians have their pizza, Mexicans have tacos, America is the home of the cheeseburger, the Germans dig their sausages and the French eat crepes. In almost any country there is one ubiquitous food staple budget travelers can count on for inexpensive sustenance. I recently spent six weeks in the Greek Isles, where the Gyro is king.

By my own informal calculation, I think I ate about 30 gyros while in country. I’d hate to have my cholesterol checked, but I’d guestimate that my level went from 210 to about 250 while in Greece. So my arteries might be very clogged, but I had some awfully good gyros and never spent more than €2.5 anywhere. In fact, I’d say the average price of a gyro in the Greek Isles is a paltry €2, making them a must eat treat for anyone traveling on a budget in Greece.

I got sick of eating gyros at times – I even resorted to eating at a couple of crap Mexican restaurants – but if you want something fast and cheap on the Greek Isles, there aren’t a lot of other options. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one gyro place from another but there was one establishment called Thraka (charcoal in Greek) in Chania on Crete that stood out from the pack.

I knew I had to try it the first time I walked past the place, which is located just past the Old Town on busy Chatzimichali Ginnari street, just down from a pet shop. While every other place had a smattering of customers, Thraka was packed with locals devouring gyros, souvlaki and kebabs. Aside from the cheap, mouthwateringly delicious gyros, you can also get a three skewer plate of souvlaki for €5 and kebabs for a ridiculous €1 each.

What makes the gyros at Thraka special? For me, it’s the quality of the pita, the meat and the tzatziki. And the fact that you leave full after spending €2 is an awfully nice bonus. My vote for world’s best gyros actually goes to a place called Samos, in Baltimore’s Greektown, but like all gyros in the U.S., they go for twice the price you pay in Greece. Check out the video but be forewarned – you’re going to want to run out and get a gyro when you see it.

A Walk Through Chania’s Old Town In Crete

chania old townTrying to find a vacation destination where you indulge both your curiosity and your desire to lounge on the beach can be a chore. The most interesting cities are often nowhere near a good beach and the best beaches often have very little else to see. But if you’re looking for a small city that’s packed with history and is close to world-class beaches, consider checking out Chania, an atmospheric old town in Crete that was built by the Venetians on the ruins of the ancient Minoan settlement of Kydonia in 1252.

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Chania’s Old Town (see video below) is a lively stew of colorful old homes, narrow lanes filled with outdoor restaurants, and architectural treasures. On sultry summer evenings, the streets are packed with children playing in the squares, couples enjoying romantic meals and partiers guzzling beer and ouzo.Chania’s Archaeological Museum is small but packed with must-see mosaics, statues and artifacts. And when you’ve had your fill of history, head about 15 minutes northeast of Chania to Kalathas Beach, a beautiful sandy beach that has very shallow, clean water and a good taverna right next to the beach.

Initially, we stayed at the Halepa Hotel, just outside Chania’s Old Town, but, despite the glowing reviews we read on Trip Advisor, we thought the place was overpriced given its location and small rooms. We moved to a small, brand new boutique hotel just off the harbor in the Old Town called the Palazzo Duca, which turned out to be cheaper, nicer and in a much better location (see video). But one word of caution about Chania – we were there in June and it was already getting quite hot, so you definitely want to visit in the shoulder season.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Among The Thugs In Crete’s Package Holiday Hell

thugsThe young man standing in front of me, showing off for his friends, was so ugly and repulsive that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He had a long, broken nose, thick, dark eyebrows, a cold, vacant stare and a long, skinny, sinister looking face that was covered in Maori tattoos. He might have simply been an unattractive young man if it weren’t for a prominent swastika tattooed across his chest.

I hated being in his vicinity. Even sharing the same beach with him made me feel tainted in some way but at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was surrounded by friends, a couple had the same working class British accent as him, but others sounded as though they were from Scandinavia. None appeared to be neo-Nazi skinheads, so how could they be on friendly terms with this thoroughly repellant individual?

The Nazi thug, who appeared to be about 30, also had a Scandinavian girlfriend, about 20 years old or so, and cute. Was dating this reprehensible human being a little rebellion or did she somehow find him attractive?One never expects to spend a summer holiday in the company of neo-Nazi thugs, but that’s exactly what happened one day two weeks ago, when I found myself on Platanias Beach, a horribly tacky, crowded resort in Crete that’s filled with working class package tourists from Northern Europe.

We met a very nice student named George on a bus who recommended we take our children to the beach at Platanias, but as we passed row after row of cheesy tourist traps and seedy looking motels driving towards the town from Chania, I couldn’t help but wonder if the beach itself would redeem the dismal main drag.

We weren’t clear on where to park as we entered Platanias town, so my wife stopped in a café to make an inquiry and a young Norwegian girl named Helena said she wanted a ride to the beach anyways, so she hopped in the front seat with me, as my wife retreated to the back with my sons, ages 2 and 4.

Helena said that she’d been coming to Platanias for years and loved the place, though she hadn’t been anywhere else in Crete, so she had no real basis of comparison. She worked each summer at a beach bar and I asked her how this was possible since Norway isn’t a member of the European Union.

“We’re not members?” she asked, surprised by my query.

“No,” I said. “I think there was a referendum a few years back and Norwegians decided not to join.”

“I don’t remember that,” she said. “I thought we were in the E.U.”

As soon as I saw the beach, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment. It was our last day in Greece, and over the preceding six weeks, we’d been privileged to see so many beautiful beaches, but this place was a mess. First, it was extremely crowded, so much so that one could barely see the sand. Second, there was a red flag up on the beach, indicating that the water quality was dangerously bad, and third, there were all kinds of tough looking punks, like the neo Nazi, getting hammered, even though it was only 11 A.M.

But the beach bar where Helena worked had a playground and before my wife and I could get back in the car and go elsewhere, our kids were already hooked, so we resolved to stay for a bit. She got a lounge chair and I settled in at a table at the beach bar to get a little work done.

I ordered a bottle of water but the waiter brought me a draft beer to go with it.

“First one’s on us,” he explained.

“But I don’t want a beer,” I said, defensively. “It’s not even Noon.”

“You don’t want a free beer?” he asked, clearly confused by my abstinence.

“Well, I don’t drink,” I lied, just to bring the conversation to a close.

“You don’t drink but you came for vacation in Platanias?” he asked, before breaking out in laughter.

Shortly thereafter, the Nazi settled in 10 yards in front of me, and two British women who might have been a member of a rugby team if they were 30 years younger, engaged in a spirited conversation within my earshot about the prices various beach bars charged for a pint. The search for a cheap pint seemed to be the most important component of their holiday.

Helena told me we should stick around for a “Zorba Dance Party” at the bar that would feature plate throwing and other nonsense, but as soon as we could pry our kids out of the playground, we got back in the car and headed east to Kalathas, a beautiful, unspoiled beach just east of Chania that we’d been to the previous day. After a great final afternoon at the beach there, we wondered why anyone in their right mind would go to Platanias.

“It’s because they have no clue,” said another George, who managed the hotel we stayed at in Chania and was less a fan of Platanias than the younger George we me on the bus.
“They come here on a package tour, the bus picks them up right at the airport and brings them straight to the hotel in Platanias. They have all their meals right there and they don’t even come here to Chania, even though it’s only a half hour away.”

The next day at the airport, I saw hundreds of pale-faced package tourists being herded like cattle onto buses and I felt terribly sorry for them. They were headed for Crete’s horrid north shore beach ghettos that have all the charm of an American strip mall. I wanted to stop them and shout, “No! Don’t let them take you to Platanias! The water is dirty, the beach is crowded and there’s even a Nazi!”

But there is no point in projecting your tastes upon others. Most of the people getting on those buses might actually like it there- the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and many who go there are in the mood to hook up while on holiday. And if all the crowds went to Kalathas then it wouldn’t be as nice as it is. So long live Platanias and all the other dreadful package tourist ghettos in Crete, sadly enough they help preserve the character of the rest of the island.

(Image via Neatjunk on Flickr, note that the author did not meet or photograph the individuals in the photo)