From Crete to Athens

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Oct 6, 2013
  • Location: Crete

It’s an early Sunday morning in the town of Napflio, Greece. On my walk from our pension down to this bench near the sea I passed the only other humans awake at 7am, old Greek women in black going to church. Even as I type that sentence the church bells ring, a strange chime without melody, without the logic of seven chimes for seven o’clock. To my right the sun is just rising above the mountains to the east, and in front of me are two men fishing without poles, with just a spool of line and a barbed hook at the end that they toss off this pier.


Let me fill you in on how we got here. I left off in Crete a couple of days ago, an island that confused us because it didn’t have any of the iconic images of Greece—of blue-domed churches and white stucco villages that tumble down a hillside into the sea. None of that charm, and maybe that’s because Crete has been the plaything of villains throughout its history, most recently the Nazis that parachuted onto the island and razed whole villages in retaliation for their resistance. But we hoped on our three-hour bus ride from Chania in the west to Heraklion in the east that a more pleasing Crete would emerge.


No, not at all: still the unfinished apartments with rebar in the air, still the graffiti, still no pleasing color palette, still the dry landscape of crumbling rock where only olive trees can flourish. On the bus Dolora and I wondered if the fault is in our eyes that just spent five weeks in Italy.


“Our eyes were in a constant state of pleasure in Italy,” she said. “That lemony shade of color, the pattern of cobblestones, the random fresco of a Madonna, even the way they dress with an eye to color and a clean cut.”


“Did you see that mountain of shoes at the market, all those unmatched shoes just tossed onto a mound on a table? Sure, Greece might be broke and it takes money to repair a roof, but that doesn’t explain those shoes. Why not pair them up and present them nicely.”


A group of boys got onto the bus. One smelled so bad that we moved up a few rows. I told Dolora, “This’ll prepare you for India.”


We drove into Heraklion at 3pm, a vast unpleasing city where our overnight ferry to Athens was berthed. Six miles from Heraklion is the one archeological site, Knossos, that everyone visits in Crete. So there we went, and once again, our jaundiced view of Crete continued. A British man named Evans unearthed these ruins about 100 years ago, and rather than just dust off some dirt and leave everything in its own ruined place, he meddled. He had the columns painted, he had the frescoes redone, he moved the stones on top of other stones. All the signs at every stop were in praise of Evans but I wanted to strangle him. Dolora felt the same, and after a mere hour we were ready to leave.


Back at the bus station in Heraklion we gathered our packs and walked toward the pier for our ferry. It was chilly, probably in the high 50s, and I began to wonder if we brought enough warm clothes on this trip.


I was expecting our ferry to be some nice little trawler with a Greek captain smoking a pipe, but instead here loomed the ANEX SuperFast liner in the family of cruise ships. I was giddy. I wanted the cruise ship experience, the touch of decadence and pampering. We boarded the ship and rode up on an escalator.


“An escalator!” I said. “Imagine that: an escalator!”


That kind of country-bumpkin awe continued at every turn: a disco! a casino! a pool and hot tub (drained, but that didn’t dim the glee of this giddy Gomer). I splurged and bought us a room, rather than go the usual cheap route and turn us into refugees sprawled on the floor. That too turned me into a California school girl at a Justin Bieber concert.


“Sheets!” I exclaimed. “There’s sheets on these beds! And a bathroom… with a shower! I’m taking a shower tonight, or two, or three!” I flushed the toilet. “Look at that! It flushes with a whoosh!”


“I want to stay on this ship all week,” Liam said.


“See,” Dolora said. We’d always discarded the notion of a cruise vacation until she went on one to Alaska with her mother and sister, and since then she’s been proselytizing me. “We’re going on one of these babies next summer.”


How odd, that the range of all these experiences of the world tour would include a luxury ferry across the Aegean to Athens, but there you have it, and I luxuriated in all its decadence until at 2:30am I awoke from my top bunk in need of oxygen. The modest room seemed to have shrunk in the night to a sarcophagus, so up I rose and went outside, past all the pathetic refugees curled on the floors. In an instant I became a Louis XIV, scorning the heaps of rags at my feet with lice in their matted hair. Then I feared they would rise up in a spirit of revolution and lop off my head, so I hurried outside onto the deck.


There the wind was fierce, and I stared out into a wall of darkness with a vast roiling sea beneath me. Don’t these things capsize? Didn’t the Costa Concordia run aground and tip over? Is a black Mediterranean colder to swim in than a blue sun-drenched one? Those fears overwhelmed the lesser fear of getting guillotined by the working-class rabble, so back inside I went, back to my sarcophagus.


We docked at 6am. Backpacks hoisted, off we went down the elevators and out into the cold dawn of Piraeus, the port of Athens. We had two hours to kill before our rental car office would open. For a short while we wandered among the early workers and walked past the homeless huddled against walls, and then we found a church with its doors open. If ever a church was a refuge, this was it, and there we set down our packs and observed a Greek Orthodox Church. Mainly we observed the stout women sweeping the floors, tidying up the candles, washing the glass in front of the saints that people kiss in worship. It was that kiss that fascinated me. Older people strolled into the church and went up to these shrines, touched a metallic hand of the saint and blessed themselves in a unique way—head, heart, then down toward the ground—before leaning in for a kiss on glass. Such intimacy, such tenderness, such disease. Why not wipe a cloth across the glass after your kiss—or am I yet again revealing some American flaw, like hyper-hygiene?


The church has no pews, just chairs. Chalk one up for the Greeks over the Romans. Kneeling in pews is a torment—in fact, say the word “pew” and you’ll feel the disgust. There is ornamentation everywhere, sort of like the opposite of the sparse feel of an Apple store. There is no single focus for the eye, like the image in a Catholic Church of a mural above the altar of some grisly scene, like Christ crucified. Instead there is an ornamented gate in front that opened up in the center while we were there, sitting in the corner darkness with our backpacks at our elbows. Behind those doors a man began to chant, and the three worshipers in the church responded in a knowing way. Is this it: three very old men at their seats, two very old women sweeping the marble floors. Is all organized religion dying?


By 8:15am we were behind the wheel of our rental car. One fortunate part of our Crete excursion is that, by renting a car for a day there, I rid myself of a fear of driving in Greece. So off we went, stopping first for gas and receiving a free espresso from the very kind attendant. Then buckle up and off we went, helped by the miracle that is Steve Jobs. Yes, the voice of Siri on my iPhone guided us to take a right here and go up there and drive for so many miles. It’s a miracle. How does it do that? How are the roads of Greece programmed into this little object? In any case, off we went, bypassing Athens and heading north and then west toward the Peloponnese peninsula for five days in the thick of antiquity, of Corinth and Sparta, of Agamemnon’s tomb, of temples to Apollo.


The driving was easy. It was Saturday so the traffic around the region of Athens was light, but also these highways, built for the Olympics in 2004, were vast and modern and largely unused. We few drivers had a lane to ourselves, kind of like the sparseness of the Greek Church repeated out here on the highways. Within a few hours we were past Athens and into a new land of mountains lined with olive trees. We stopped at a roadside rest stop for gas. We were the only car. There were six gas islands, and we were the only car.


There is no self-service gassing up. A young man with his shirt tucked in trotted out and took my order of 50 euros, and just like earlier in the day when I received a free espresso with my gas, I now got a free Fanta because I paid with Visa. Nice, huh. Well, when we went inside the mini-mart to buy a bag of chips, the man said, “Pay chips with Visa and you get another free Fanta.”






“So I could do this all day, buy a little something with my Visa and get a free drink?”


“Yes, all day you can do this.”


We chatted. He told us that he learned English from watching television shows and movies and reading the subtitles. “I love the Hollywood movies. The bang-bang kill movies.”


I returned to our car, a Chevy Lacetti, and walked past a second car that had pulled in for gas. Two young girls were in the front seats, and they had noticed me and were giggling and returning their looks to me. What is that look? I need to know: What is that look? I desperately need to know: What is that look? Is it a Greek equivalent of Rosanna—“Oooooh, Richard Gere!”—or more likely, “Yo, check out the American dude, those pants and shirt, did he get them off a castoff pile in a market in Crete. And check out those flip-flops, and those toes! Have you ever seen such ugly toes!”


I drove off. We all sipped our free Fantas and dined on a bag of chips that can be found in Trader Joes, and enjoyed this three-lane superhighway all to ourselves. Corinth, here we come.








  1. J. Schiavo

    I’ve been to Crete! Souda Bay, in fact…with the U.S. Navy. I didn’t receive quite the hospitality you did, but it was a nice place to visit and I have fond memories of that trip…
    Shopkeepers were robbed, stuff was broken, drunkenness, I think somebody pulled a knife at some point. Ah, sailors…needless to say, that port visit was called early. None of it was my doing, of course! No, that was Venice 🙁

  2. Shannon

    I hear your voices in my head (yes, I hear voices) and am so delighted. Delighted by the mockery of shoes and sanitation. And, I DO love a good cruise story. Smiling in your honour!

    Miss you guys!

    P.S. Did you catch the European spelling of honour? So fancy! I’m kinda like that now…

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      You’re so sophisticated, Shannon. Do you go to the theatre? Is your life full of colour?

      We miss you fiercely. We’re always coming up with some kind of Lovgren phrase or memory. Our future is a future of cruise ships.

      Off to Olympia tomorrow. We’ll replicate the original games by sprinting naked. Good idea?

  3. stefan

    So it’s settled then. Lovgren-Toners. Norwegian Epic, June 2014. Done.
    ps–you know what that look was. You’re an animal, Toner. I even think your toes are pretty.

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      That means the world to me, coming from you, Stefan.

  4. sheila

    It sounds as though the island of Santorini may be the only place that will meet your expectations of Greece !

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