Off-Season Travel: Greek Island-Hopping

History is never far away in Greece, which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.
History is never far away in Greece, which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.

The barman was so pleased to see a traveler that he bought me a beer, and we began talking. Over the next few days, every time I visited his tavern, Satiris would talk to me about the history of Rhodes and Greece in general, giving me insight into the ancient culture of his people.

Rhodes, inhabited since Neolithic times, was conquered by many rulers, including the Minoans, the Persians and Alexander the Great. The island was part of the Byzantine Empire for a thousand years beginning in 297; it then belonged to the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, starting in 1522.

Rhodes was seized from the Turks by Italy in 1912, and was united with Greece in 1947. The city was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the legendary Colossus of Rhodes — a giant statue of the god Helios, which stood roughly as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty.

Satiris seemed to enjoy having the the opportunity to explain the history of his island. During the summer, when he is besieged by tourists he would only have had the time to say: “Yes sir, what can I get you?”

As I wandered through the streets of Rhodes, the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe and a World Heritage site, I had the place to myself. Not entirely, though, as I met a young German author who was on a writer’s retreat while working on his second novel. And I drank many a beer with a small group of British expatriates, some of whom had lived in Rhodes for years.

This is what I had hoped for — contact with locals and the chance to observe places in an unhurried way, not as one of a tourist throng.

I managed to drag myself away from Rhodes by buying a ferry ticket to Crete, Greece’s largest island. The ship eased out of Rhodes’ harbor at 4:30 in the morning, and before long, dawn was breaking to reveal a perfect blue sky and a calm sea.

Standing on deck with the sun on my face, I felt as though I was in another world. No traffic or noise or clutter of the manmade world, just the sea, the open horizon and millennia-old islands.

We arrived at our first port of call, the tiny island of Halki, population 300. A ribbon of pastel-painted cottages clung to the harbor, while craggy mountains rose behind the town. When the ship docked, locals scurried off with string-tied bundles of who knows what, and battered vans and old trucks trundled up, then down the loading ramp. For many of the islands the ferry is their lifeline; they have no other means of supply.

Crete (population 650,000), the largest Greek island, at the southern end of the Aegean Sea, appeared as a dot on the horizon, but soon the sheer rugged beauty of the terrain became apparent. Mountain ranges fall precipitously to the sea, and a narrow plain on the north side of the island allows for habitation.

I spent most of my time in the town of Hania, also known as Chania, which is Crete’s second-largest city. Situated on the northern side of the island, Hania is considered Crete’s most beautiful town.

This area has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years, making it one of the oldest recorded communities in the world. Sitting by the Venetian harbor in warm sunshine, I could gaze up at the backdrop of the 8,045-foot-high (2,452 m) White Mountains a few miles away, still covered in snow.

In addition to relaxing, I took in the sights: A 15th century lighthouse and the Mosque of the Janissaries along the harbor, the synagogue Etz Hayyim, in the Topanas District, believed to date from the 16th century, and Greek Orthodox churches. The city is filled with museums and art galleries, and it has a fascinating old town just behind the harbor.

As in Rhodes, I found someone with the inclination and the time to talk. I was guided around by an English lady who had fallen in love with the island some years ago. Apart from the scenery and sights, it’s the hours of conversation over coffee or beer that I will remember from this trip — and, of course, the absence of too many tourists.

Many people travel to relax on the beach and party — and why not? But for a different view of another country, the off-season has much appeal. As I wander around another one of Crete’s picturesque harbors, I see a ferry tied up at the jetty. Now, I wonder where she is sailing to …

If You Go

Greek National Tourism Organization