Part 9 (Santorini, Greece) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Santorini.  The most picturesque of all the Greek Isles, as I had been told over and over again by friends and family that had been there and loved it.  I will admit, my expectations were high heading into our third and final tour with The Travel Insiders.  We chose a tour called, “The Highlights of Santorini – The Black Pearl of the Aegean.

This was our only tender port so I did have a little heartburn about getting off the ship and up the cable cars by our tour’s assigned meeting time…I am a little, teensy bit OCD about being on time so I tend to get really crabby when I am late.

We did eventually get off the ship and to our meeting spot and we were about 10 minutes late…this means that I was almost in hives stressing about it, but I tried not to be too crabby!!!  (That only worked for part of the day!)

We got our tickets for the ride up the cliffside and hopped on the cable cars.  My mother is terrified of these things so I am pretty sure she kept her eyes closed the entire time, but if she hadn’t, she would have seen a pretty steep ride up the side of a volcano.

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Okay, it’s a little steep…but a quick 5 minutes and you are up to the top where you now realize that you are standing on the rim of a volcano.  From the town of Fira you can really see how the cone of the volcano used to look and you realize that your ship is parked right in the middle.  I know a bunch of really smart science and geology people have proven this volcano to be dead, but there is a minute when you look around at the throng of tourists and wonder which one you will toss over the side of the cliff in case an emergency sacrifice becomes necessary.

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We met our tour guide and she walked us around Fira showing us some lovely views and giving us the history of the caldera and how the island came to be so popular.  We wound through very crowded streets to get to our coach that would take us to Oia.

After a bit of a harrowing ride along sheer cliff walls, we arrived in picturesque Oia.  This is what everyone thinks of when they think of Santorini.   This is the white washed buildings with the blue domes, this is the endless vistas over the caldera, this is beautiful.

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In case you were wondering, yes I did notice the For Sale sign and yes, I do have that number written down!

Once in Oia, we were given plenty of free time to walk around, shop if we wanted and of course take pictures!

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You can see how incredibly close to the sheer dropoff these houses were built.  I know quite a few Greek nationals and I promise you, many of them are a schosh crazy…seeing how close to death these folks choose to live?  I get it a little bit!

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This may, in part also explain the abundance of churches for such a small island, between the cliffs and the volcano, I could certainly see wanting to stay on good terms with the Almighty!

After wandering around for a bit, shopping if we wanted, or desperately searching for a bit of shade, we meandered back towards the bus.  Our guide promised us a treat on the way back to the bus and she was not wrong!  Gelato!!

We stopped at Lolita’s Gelato and it is cute, kitchy, very greek.  BUT…and this is the most important part…the gelato is fantastic!  i don’t know if I would say it was the best I had on the trip, we did spend several days in Venice, but it was the best we had in Greece.  And we tried some in every port.  My son was on a mission to find the best gelato so he was certainly well equipped to make a determination.  We tried all the fun flavors, Cuban Lover: a blend of coffee and chocolate (my favorite); Zabaione, Stracciatella, and the flavor that they are famous for: Greek Viagra.  This is gelato flavored with honey and pistachios and it is fantastic.  If you can get past saying the name, it is totally worth it!

We then moved on to Pyrgos.  This traditional village is supposedly the least spoiled by tourism and still has many features of the medieval village such as narrow streets, fortified walls and secret passageways.

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Many of the houses are still inhabited mostly “as is,” small and built on top of one another.

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This village also has the best vantage point of the island.  It isn’t “untouched” by accident…the villagers could see an invasion coming for miles.  Remember those walls?  This is a fantastic example of a fortified city still around for us to see.

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Yep, you can see for miles and miles and miles.

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That’s Oia…way over there.  It took us about 30 minutes to drive here from there in the motor coach.

After some time for picture taking, we headed for a quick stop at the Black Beach of Kamari.

There are cafes and shops and things here that I am sure would make a lovely stop by themselves.  However, we were running out of time and really, I had to put my feet in the water so I could say I had been in the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

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This is from the beach looking back up the road we had driven on to get here.  The sand is indeed black, and I did put my feet in the Aegean.  A word of warning…if you go to a black sand beach in the Mediterranean in August, spend some time before hand studying with the fire walkers so you are prepared to withstand your walk from the side walk to the water.  Just saying.

Back in the coach to head back to Fira to wait in the incredibly long line to get to the cable cars down the mountain.  There is a path to walk, but it is hot and covered in donkey poo and there is no place to rest on the way.  I knew mom wouldn’t make it, so I waited the two hours to get to the cable cars.  This is likely not as bad when there are fewer ships in port, but still…its better than sitting on a donkey the whole way down!

For me, Santorini was the supermodel of the Greek Isles.  Pretty (stunning actually), but kind of superficial.  This was also my one disappointment with the tour I had taken, because of the time crunch we did not get to see the Venetsantos Winery, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to be on this tour.  Ah well, next time!

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Here is the port area where you catch your tender back to your ship hopefully still waiting where you left it, in the middle of a collapsed volcano cone!

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And there is the cable car track and the path back up to Fira…yeah, not walking it!  Back on board I was devastated to learn that SOMEONE drank all of the Aperol on the entire ship and I (I mean…someone) would now have to find another refreshing beverage to get me through the sea day tomorrow, and then…KINGS LANDING!!!  Well, I guess some people call it Dubrovnik.

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Part 7 (Thessaloniki, Greece) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Well, I am back from my Disney vacation and I will write more about that later, but let me tell you…I thought the Mediterranean in July was hot, it was NOTHING compared to Orlando in September!  But!  That’s a story for another day.  Onward and upward (or not) to Thessaloniki, Greece.

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece.  Having just come from the largest city (Athens) I can tell you that it may indeed be the 2nd largest, but it is as different from Athens as night to day.

I had not planned anything in this port, and hindsight 20/20 I should have.  There are many cool things to see, just not super close to the port.

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Here is the Rhapsody docked at the port.  All those buildings on the dock area are shipping and industrial.  No shopping or eating.  I needed to find a pharmacy, which shouldn’t have been too difficult.  In Europe all of the pharmacies have big green plus signs out front so we walked along this front street for a while.  We could see the famous White Tower of Thessaloniki in the distance, but it was certainly not a walkable distance for us (maybe for me, but my family often accuses me of trying to walk them to death!).

Along the way, there were some cafes, most with outdoor seating which already had plenty of locals sitting with their coffee.  Also along the way, we were accosted by a man trying to get us to buy his bracelets by striking up a conversation with my son, then just putting the bracelet on his wrist.  This was the only time we encountered something like this on this trip.  I am used to it in the Caribbean, and in fact this man was Jamaican, but I had not come across it on this trip.  However, just like in the Caribbean, a very firm “NO!” sent him on his way.

We passed some very pretty areas:

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I loved this tree!  We still had not found a pharmacy though.  We finally cut through a square and low and behold we found what we were looking for…we also found that we had been passing the really cute shopping district nearly the whole time, we were just two blocks off it.  Huh…see why I should have done more research?  At any rate, after our quick stop, we decided to head back to the ship, but this time along the populated streets!

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See?? Cute stuff.  But, it was hot, really hot.  And, as you may have guessed from my frantic search for a pharmacy, I was not feeling my best so back to the ship and its glorious air conditioning we went.  Plus!  We have Chef’s Table dinner tonight!!!  My favorite! So I wanted to be well rested!

Here is a picture of the Port Authority building…pretty impressive but it could use some shops!!!

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Back on board and looking forward to my favorite meal of the whole trip!!  The Chef’s Table!

You may remember that I have done the Chef’s table before on other cruises and have LOVED it both times!  I knew from past cruisers that the menu was the same as my meal aboard the Enchantment, but that one was super yummy so I was happy to have it again!  Plus, the pairings were really good so I was not concerned at all…until I sat down and looked at the menu.

Yes, the menu was the same, but the wines were totally different.  And not in a good way.  I am all about trying new wines, in fact I have another blog I write that details my standard selection method of picking wine just by the cool looking label so I am all for trying new things.  And I will agree that dry rosès are all the rage right now.  But lets all agree that Berringer White Zinfandel is not one of these, can we? Please?

What was fantastic about this particular Chef’s Table was the company.  Some times you get a good crowd and some times you do not.  We dined with a family from Texas that was absolutely spectacular and I am so happy we got to meet them.  The food was still great, the Braised Short Rib Ravioli is still one of the best things I have ever eaten.  I will continue to attend Chef’s Table on every cruise I go on, hopefully these wines were a one off!

Up next?  Kusadasi, Turkey.  Another surprising port…in more ways than one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 6 (Athens, Greece) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Ah, Athens.  If you are at all interested in history, mythology, government, religion, finance, politics, heck almost any subject can tie back to this ancient city in some way.  And no surprise, it has been inhabited for the last 7000 years continuously.  And not just inhabited, but a cultural, economical, and social centerpiece of the ancient world.  I had been looking forward to this port for FOREVER!  This city is in my bucket list top three.  Once again, we used The Travel Insiders as our tour and after our amazing experience in Katakolon, I was nearly giddy with anticipation!

Athens map

The port at Piraeus is very…very busy.  In addition to the cruise ships, ferries from all over use Piraeus as  their port to bring tourists, students, cars, etc. to Athens from all around the Isles. I was not prepared for that, and it probably threw me off a bit, but since we docked around 6am and did not have to meet our guide until 9am, I had plenty of time to put on my big girl panties and get over it!

We chose the Ultimate Athens Experience which was an 8 hour tour to include the Acropolis, the Olympic Stadium, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and some free time that we could choose to use shopping in Plaka or visiting the amazing Acropolis Museum.  Once all of our tour participants arrived, our tour guide decided to head straight to the Acropolis to try and beat the other tour buses there.  On our way, we passed though the heart of the city of Athens, you know, the real part where people work and live?  It is bustling to say the least, traffic can be challenging so having an experienced driver is an absolute.

We arrived at the Acropolis and I thought it was crazy busy already.  We bought some water and got our tickets.  The line was about 5 minutes long…compared to when we came out, the place was empty!  This was the first of our really challenging ports, mobility wise.  Olympia is quite a bit of walking, but flat for the most part.  Athens is not.  We climbed up, stopping at various sites to hear about different tidbits of history.

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I absolutely love ancient amphitheaters!  I love how important the Arts were to the people and the communities.  I absolutely feel we have gone backwards in that area.  But!  I got to see so many examples in so many ancient sites on this trip.  This one is standing at the Acropolis looking down the hill.  You can’t see it, but the Parthanon is behind me, can you imagine watching a show from there?  Incredible.

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So here is my view when I turn around.  Amazing, right? The detail and engineering that had to go in to something like this is mind boggling.  There was quite a bit of scaffolding and work going on around the other side.  Our guide assured us that there was not any attempt to restore any of these monuments, the repair work was really just to make sure it did not crumble any more.  As many tourists that flock there on a daily basis, I can imagine there is a vested interest in keeping it safely intact as it is.

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This is a much better picture of the difference between the original stone and the stone that has needed to be reinforced.  The white is new.

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And of course the most important tree in the world according to the ancient Greeks, the olive tree.

Our next stop took us to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course it was timed perfectly with the changing of the guard.  According to our guide, the soldiers chosen for this have very exacting standards, down to they have to be a certain height.

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We then moved to the new Olympic stadium…since we’d already seen the Original one in Olympia!  I am not totally sure that it is an improvement, but it certainly is impressive.

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We then headed towards Plaka, the old city.  This is where the best shopping and cafes were rumored to be, also the award winning Acropolis Museum was near here.  I was interested in seeing that, but I took pity on TJ, who is not a museum (or history) fan and we skipped it this time. Instead we wandered around the old city.  We started here:

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Hadrian’s Arch.  It is believed that this marked the old city from the new…the new being around 131 AD so…

We moved on from here into Plaka which is behind me in this picture, up the hill.  This area has been continuously inhabited since antiquity (really just means a long, long time but makes me sound like a smarty pants!).

I did not take any pictures in and around Plaka except of my food…but I can assure you that it is really a cute place to wander around!  The shopping was very good and all the merchants were hagglers!  I got some really great prices on clothes!!  Don’t underestimate the power of learning just a few words in the native language of whatever country you are visiting.  I promise you that a simple “Kalimera” will go a long way in Plaka!!

Oh…and the Baklava!!!

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Ah-May-Zing!!  I need to find a Yia Yia near me for the hook up on some local baklava!!  I am headed to the Yiasou Greek Festival today…maybe I can find some there!  I am really excited to go to this festival since I have been there so recently.  I will tell you all about it in my next post!!

Also next up, we visit Thessoloniki, Greece.  And the Chef’s Table dinner on the Rhapsody!  It has been my favorite experience on both the Freedom and the Enchantment…How will this one compare??

 

 

Part 5 (Chania, Crete) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Thursday we were in Chania, Crete.  I did not have a tour scheduled for this port, there were very few private tours that I found and in the research that I had done it seemed to be a fairly straighforward port.  Take a shuttle to the Old Town…hang there.

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It really did not turn out to be that simple.  Chania has been a city-state in Greece since around 1100 BC, but before that it was the center of the Minoan civilization.  I had read about an Archological Museum that had a collection of Minoan and Pre-Minoan items so I really wanted to see that!  We bought tickets on the shuttle no problem and hopped on the bus for the 15 minute ride into town.  This is where our best laid plans started to crumble.

We got off the bus and started to look around.  I didn’t really see any signs for “Old Town” but I may have missed them…There was a map right at the stop, but I am strangely terrible at map reading so its probably not in everyone’s best interest to follow me around!

True to form, I started off walking and it was soon apparent that I was going the wrong way!  Nothing about where we were walking looked like a quaint, historic Old Town Harbor.  We ran into our table mates from the ship, and turns out they were lost too so maybe, just maybe its not totally my fault!

By this time TJ and Mom were starting to get a bit fed up with walking around not finding things.  Plus, it was super hot and mostly uphill.  They decided to just head back to the shuttle and go back to the ship.  OD and I stopped for an iced coffee, wifi and a deep breath.  I gave him the choice to continue to walk around or head back, he wanted to soldier on…Minoan history and all that.  After getting us turned around AGAIN in the wrong direction (albeit not the same direction as before) I was totally ready to give up and head back.  So as we were standing at the bus stop to catch the shuttle back, I said, “What about that way?” We walked about 50 feet, turned the corner and BAM!  Old Town Harbor was right in front of us.  At this point we had walked up and down the streets of Chania for more than an hour in the hot sun.  So. Lesson learned here kiddos?  DON’T EVER count on me for directions.  Planning? Yep, I’m your gal, but actually finding what I’ve planned to do?  Not so much!  Also, if you are in Chinia, just get off the bus and walk forward, no turns.  It’s right there.

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So this is old town!  It is super cute!  The harbor is in the shape of a horseshoe out to the Venetian fortifications.  But, we are looking for the museum and without too much further ado, we found it.

It is housed inside a katholikon of the Venetian monastery of St. Francis. During the period of the Turkish occupation it was the Muslim mosque of Yussuf Pasha.  The exterior is totally nondescript with just a little sign by the door but once inside the architecture alone is beautiful even before you get to the collections.

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The museum has artifacts dating back 5000 years, no surprise when you think that this area has been continuously inhabited since the Minoan times.  Unlike many other historic sites whose population ebbs and flows, Chania has been continuously populated since the NEOLITHIC era, one civilization following another from Minoan, to Mycenaean, to Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Turkish all the way up to its present day inhabitants.  Pretty darn impressive.

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Many of the artifacts are remarkably intact and well preserved.  It is easy to see how they lived their lives and even easier to see it was not that different from our own.  Toys for their children:

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Home decor:

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And of course family portraits:

The one downside to the museum is that it is not air conditioned, so it can get hot and steamy.  Also, the restrooms are outside in the courtyard..they ARE air conditioned and super modern!  Not that you can tell from the outside:

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HeeHee!!  I’m just kidding…this isn’t the bathroom, although it is the courtyard, and the bathrooms are really modern and clean.  Still I thought the museum was really cool and I am very glad we finally found it.  After the museum, we wandered around the harbor a bit.  We saw the Venetian fortifications:

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And quite a bit of the Turkish influence:

 

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On our way back to the bus stop, we found a bunch of cute little shops and ended up at yet another honey tasting!

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All in all, I would say that I really did enjoy Crete…even though it took me a while to find the charming heart of Old Town.  Oh and the sail in/out is absolutely beautiful!

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Our next stop?? Athens!  My most anticipated stop!!

Part 4 (Katakolon) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

After a fairly uneventful, yet totally relaxing sea day, our first port of call was Katakolon.  Until I started planning, I was not familiar with this area at all.

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Of course, once I did a bit of digging and realized that this area was the site of the first Olympic Games, I knew that I needed to find a tour to Olympia.  After reading probably thousands of TripAdvisor reviews, I decided to go with The Travel Insiders – Ultimate Olympia Experience.  From first contact to the last minute, these people were a joy to work with.  I really liked the small group setting and Despina and Elana were both amazing at what they do.  If I am ever lucky enough to make it back to Katakolon, I am pretty sure I will be stalking these women, they know their stuff and I cannot imagine a better time in and around Olympia.

The tour began with Despina meeting us as we got off the ship and leading us to the very comfy minivan that was to be our transportation for the day.  After the rest of the group showed up (a total of 11 people) we set off for our first stop: a tasting of Greek specialties.

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So as you can see, we were treated to an in depth presentation of some of the more famous Greek products: olive oil, desserts, olives, honey and of course wine.  The gentleman that led the demonstration was clearly proud of what he was presenting and he had every right to be.  The honey was delicious, the olives fresh, the desserts were unique and delicious, the wine was lovely and the olive oil was some of the best I have ever tasted.  We were given some time to shop (I brought home honey and spices) and then we were off to the ruins at Olympia.

The first stop at Olympia was the Archaeological Museum.  This is where they display the artifacts that have been unearthed at the site of the ruins, which we will visit later.  The detail and craftsmanship in these artifacts is absolutely amazing.

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Nike of Paeonius (420 BC)

If you think about the fact that some of these pieces were made nearly 2500 years ago, it is really awe inspiring.

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Pediment from the Temple of Zeus (472-456 BC)

There is WAY more I could show you but we still have a few more stops before we head back to the ship so we had better move on to the ruins outside.

A short walk from the museum is the actual site of Olympia, the sanctuary and the site of the first ever Olympic Games in 776 BC.  If you have been to any other archaeological site of importance (Stonehenge, Acropolis,etc.) you have seen some pretty amazing things, albeit from a distance, behind ropes or fences.  This is not Olympia.  Here you walk among the ruins.  You can touch them, run your fingers along the same inscriptions that people touched nearly three thousand years ago.  For a Western Civilization and mythology fan like me, it was heaven on earth.

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There were, of course some places that were roped off, mostly for safety reasons I would imagine, but the size and scale of these ruins and what they stood for was nearly overwhelming to me.

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This is the entrance to the fields where the games were held. If you were caught cheating at the games, you had to have your name inscribed on one of the blocks along the walkway you were banned for life from the games.  It was a big deal.

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This is where Nero stayed when he would come for the games.  Yep, Nero. The Emperor.  He and I hung out in the same house.  It is almost beyond imagination.  And yes, for a big history buff like I am, I was totally like a pre-teen girl at a 5SOS (or whatever pre-teen girls are squealing over these days) concert the entire time .

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The Gymnasion (2nd c. BC)

This is where the athletes would train for things like javelin and discus.

Since we still have one more stop to go, it is getting close to time to meet the bus.  On our way out of Olympia, we stopped to get a couple bottles of water and ran into an impromptu Grappa tasting!!!  This was the coolest Grappa I have ever tasted, it was cinnamon!  Of course I bought a small bottle!!  Our next stop was a beach break and lunch.  Perfect timing for that, we were starving!!

We arrived at Agios Andreas.  A beach settlement situated on the site of ancient Pheia and mentioned by Homer a couple of times in the Iliad.  It’s kinda pretty…I can see why he may have thought to mention it.

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This was our view from the restaurant we stopped at for lunch.  I believe it is called Kastro.  If you eat and/or get a drink from there, the sunbeds and umbrellas are complimentary.  They also have restrooms/showers for changing.  We tried some pretty cool local dishes: fried local cheese, meatballs with tzatziki dipping sauce, a gigantic greek salad with halloumi and this:

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Octopus.  It was pretty darn good!  The tomatoes are so fresh there and really so is the octopus so how can you go wrong!

After a quick dip in the Ionian Sea, we got back in the van and headed back to port.  The entire day was one of the most amazing days of my life.  Katakolon ended up being our favorite of the Greek stops in no small part to Despina and Elana’s brilliant tour.  If you have a chance to tour with them, I suggest you do it…don’t hesitate, just do it.  You will not regret it at all.

Up next for us?  Chania, Crete.