One place that I’ve neglected to say much about so far in my travel blogs is Greece, and in particular, the Greek Islands. My first trip there was with faculty and students from my university back in 2003 when I saw a Athens and spent time on the islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. A few years later I returned with another student group and saw much of the mainland before returning to Santorini for a second time. Since then I’ve made several more trips on my own and with friends, often returning to Santorini and Mykonos (which I did talk about in a prior blog post). I’ve also visited the islands of Naxos, Milos, Rodos, Symi and Corfu, so I thought it was time to share some of my experiences and show you why Greece is probably, after Italy and Hawaii, one of my very favorite destinations. To avoid an overly long post, I’ll talk about Athens and Santorini in this blog and follow up with another blog about some of the other islands soon, so stay tuned.
Almost any trip to the Greek Islands will take you through Athens, as there are very few direct flights to the islands from international destinations. While I much prefer the islands and am not as big a fan of Athens as I am of other European capitals, Athens is a good place to stop for perhaps a couple of days to break up an international flight and see some of the city’s famous sights. Athens is an immense city, and as you fly in or if you catch views from some of its higher points, you look out on a veritable sea of white buildings filling every nook and cranny between the many hills that ring the city. The intense sun reflects off the windows of these buildings and creates a dazzling, jewel–like effect that is impressive, almost gasp-worthy.
Athens boasts a truly beautiful airport and a clean and efficient metro system that can take you from the airport to the downtown area in about 30 to 40 minutes. My hotel of choice is called the Plaka Hotel, located at the foot of The Plaka (hence, the name!), a charismatic area of steep stairways, terraced restaurants, and beautiful trees and flowers just below the famous Acropolis. The hotel is clean, quiet and centrally located just 3 blocks from Monastiraki Square Metro Station. The staff are kind and polite, rooms are very comfortable, and the crowning jewel of the place is its rooftop bar, which features a spectacular view of the Acropolis and much of the city as well. On a hot night, when the Acropolis lights up and there’s a full moon over the city, it’s a magical place to spend a relaxing evening sipping a cold beer and soaking up the atmosphere.
Just down the street from the hotel is a favorite restaurant called O Thanasis, which specializes in meat kabobs, warm pita bread, Greek salads, and good beer. The waiters are friendly and it’s possible to sit outside and watch the world go by. Another place that I love takes a little work to find, but is well worth the effort. Going up the mazelike staircases of the Plaka, look for a place called Yiasemi (which means Jasmine in Greek). It consists of a few outdoor tables perched precariously on narrow stairs and terraces, surrounded by twinkling lights and flowering vines. There are some tables inside as well, which don’t have quite the same ambiance, but allow you to sample the same delicious food.
The restaurant specializes in small plates that are fun to share, or you can make a meal by ordering a small array of different dishes. For me the highlight of this place is dessert. I’m not a big fan of baklava, but Yiesemi provides a wide variety of amazing homemade cakes and pies. They have orange pie, a favorite dessert I’ve had on many of the Greek islands, as well as lemon pie, and a “chocolate thing” (as the owner described it) which is a roll of chocolate mixed with crushed nuts and cookies and then sliced to resemble salami. All of these are delicious, but the standout for me was the “milk pie.” People I have spoken with in Greece say that this is a simple dessert that their grandmothers used to make for them. It is hard to describe, but rests on a paper-thin phyllo dough crust, with a filling resembling custard, but which doesn’t taste like eggs; it’s more like, well, MILK, topped with a crunchy cinnamon crust. If you see this on a menu, be sure to try it.
Of course there is much to see in Athens; the Acropolis with the magnificent Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike is a must visit, and there are other beautiful spots including a temple dedicated to Hephaestus, god of fire, the ruins of the ancient market place, the Agora, and of course countless treasures from antiquity are housed at the National Archaeological Museum. If you don’t have time for the museum, you can also check out ancient artifacts in almost every metro station, as the city has set up beautiful display cases of things unearthed during the construction of its underground system. Enjoy a few days in Athens, preferably not too late in the summer, as it gets stiflingly hot, and then head to the islands to really get a flavor for Greece.
If you have a bucket list of places to see, be sure that Santorini is on it. If you don’t have a bucket list, make one and then put Santorini at the top of it. I would rate it among a handful of what I think are the most beautiful places on earth. You can easily catch a half hour flight from Athens or take a few hours to go by ferry, which rewards you with a stunning first look at the island as you arrive by sea. Santorini is semi-circular in shape, with a few offshore islands completing the circle here and there. In the middle of the bay is an active volcanic island, with hardened black lava flows pouring into the sea on all sides. Santorini used to be one huge volcano, but about 3,600 years ago it erupted, sending a huge chunk of the island sliding into the sea, causing tsunamis on many a Mediterranean coast and leaving just a narrow crater rim above the surface of the water. This eruption signaled the beginning of the end for the Minoan culture that thrived in the Greek Islands during this period and is thought to have fueled the Atlantis legend about a once great city or continent that sunk beneath the sea.
Except for a couple of small port areas, all of the towns on Santorini are up on top of the crater rim, clinging precariously to this long, narrow piece of rock that is as much as 1,200 feet above the sea. The major towns, Fira and Oia, are almost solid white, with a few blue-domed churches and a few pastel colored buildings thrown in here or there. When seen from the sea, the towns look like white barnacles clinging to the rocks above.
On my visits to Santorini, I’ve always stayed in Fira in one of two hotels that terrace down the cliffsides from the main street. One is Hotel Kavalari, with its gleaming white buildings and long outdoor stairways connecting terraces decorated with colorful flowers and trees and offering spectacular views out over the bay and the volcano. The rooms of the hotel are all uniquely shaped, designed and decorated, some with beautiful murals on the walls and enormous pottery vases and artwork; others resemble a huge cave, tunneled 30 or 40 feet back into the side of the cliff. Another hotel, the Panorama Suites shares an equally spectacular view and has a wide variety of room configurations, as well as a beautiful pool. This hotel provides a long list of breakfast items that you select the night before and you dine by the pool in the morning. There are eggs, ham and bacon, baskets of bread and croissants, a beautiful fresh fruit salad, delicious Greek style yogurt with honey, coffee and tea, and even refreshing lemon juice. To my surprise, I ordered pancakes one morning and got a plate of 7 or 8 small pancakes that looked like Johnny Cakes that we have in New England, along with a bottle of real Vermont maple syrup. Pancake aficionado that I am, I have to say that those golden little cakes ranked among the best I’ve ever had. The pool terrace is also great for a relaxing swim in the afternoon, while you drink giant mojitos and devour a “snack” platter of warm bread, fresh olives and capers, sun dried tomato, pesto, cheeses, salami and yogurt sauce.
One well-hyped activity on Santorini is that you can arrange to take a donkey ride from the port area up to Fira on a steep switchback trail. I did this once many years ago with a group of my students. Despite our being a group of 18, the tour operator informed us that they only had six available donkeys for us, so we would have go in shifts. Six of my students hopped on their donkeys and went trotting up the switchback trail. One of the donkeys was a temperamental animal who tried to buck its rider, so I was glad I’d waited. However, the tour company eventually could not round up any additional donkeys, so after dropping off the folks at the top of the cliffs, they sent the same “recycled” donkeys back down. Off went the second group of students and the donkeys now seemed a little more mellow after their long climb. After another half hour, the donkeys came back again, and it was my turn to ride, but I can’t say I enjoyed the trip. The animals were obviously exhausted by now and were sweating. I felt sorry for mine, but he immediately trotted out ahead of the group, and every so often he’d stop to catch his breath and munch on some grass. I spoke softly to him and petted him, glad that he could get a little break. However, at the back of our group two men with big sticks chased the donkeys up the steep path, screaming “Yalla Yalla!”, which is evidently an Arabic word also used in Turkey and Greece meaning “Hurry up! Go!” They wouldn’t let the poor animals stop to rest a bit and it was very unpleasant. Finally, not much more than halfway up the cliff, the men had us all dismount, and I thought we were stopping to let the animals rest and drink water, but the men just herded the animals back downhill again and left us to climb the rest of the way to the top in the considerable heat in the intense sun. It was not an experience I’d care to repeat!
There are a couple of archeological sites on Santorini. I once visited Akrotiri, which is sometimes called the “Pompeii of the Aegean” and concluded that Pompeii has nothing to worry about if there was ever a competition. Then there is Ancient Thera, which evidently is a pale shadow of Akrotiri. On a trip with students, I asked our tour guide if I’d be missing much by not seeing Ancient Thera, and she replied, “If I never have to climb up that pile of rubble again, it would be fine with me!”
That was all I needed to hear and instead, a large group of my students and I decided to mutiny from the Ancient Thera tour and instead opted to do a sailing trip to the volcanic island in the middle of the bay. It was still March, but the weather was mild and it was wonderful to be out on the water. The views back toward Fira and the mirror-like reflections on the very calm sea were fantastic. We reached the volcanic island and had 90 minutes to hike up to the caldera and back. The sun was hot, there is no shade, and as is true in most volcanic locales, walking on the loose lava stone was tiring, but the views of previous lava flows and the ground covered in a strange reddish-orange plant made for a surreal landscape. There was steam and some yellow sulfur deposits at the summit, and standing at the crater, the students seemed far more interested in my mini-lecture about what happened in the cataclysmic eruption that occurred here 3,600 years ago than they were in class.
By the time we’d returned to the boat, we were all tired and hot, and were excited that we’d have an opportunity to swim at some volcanic hot springs on the way back. The springs are located in a small cove that the boat could not reach, so we were told we’d need to dive from the boat into the 50-something degree Aegean and swim about 30 yards to the warmer water! My student John, an ex-marine, tore off his shirt and dived into the water, swimming like a missile toward the springs. Next off was Nick who worked as a lifeguard. He tore off his shirt, dived into the water and swam like a dolphin toward the springs. I was third, clambering down the ladder in my t-shirt to protect myself from the intense sun, hopping ungracefully into the cold water and dog-paddling after the guys. For about 15 seconds I really thought I’d make a very big mistake, as the water was very cold, but with the help of the warm sun, it really wasn’t so bad. After a couple of minutes, I turned to look back toward the boat and saw a dozen of my female students leaping off the boat and screaming bloody murder as they hit the frigid water. It struck me like a scene from one of the Greek myths.
The water gradually did get more temperate, but these are warm, rather than hot springs. The bottom was covered with mud and algae that didn’t feel very inviting, but it was easy to float and so I just bobbed happily. It was a great experience, except that I rubbed against some red rocks in the hot springs area that stained my bathing suit with rust colored iron oxide, which I learned does not come out in the wash. My students said that it looked as if I had an incontinence problem, which was not the look I was going for as I toured the Greek Isles!
Another must-do experience on Santorini is to hike the approximately 7 mile trail along the crater rim between Fira and Oia. I have made this journey every time I visit the island, and it’s always challenging, but well worth the effort. The hike will take about 3 – 4 hours, depending upon your level of fitness and desire to stop along the way. Leaving Fira, the first 90 minutes or so are relatively easy, despite being a gradual uphill climb. The trail takes you through some smaller villages, giving you spectacular views of Fira clinging to its cliffs, its white-washed buildings gleaming in the sun, cobalt blue swimming pools seemingly hanging in mid-air and ever bluer domes of tiny Greek churches poking out everywhere. Below the white and blue city are a thousand feet of rugged volcanic cliffs, brown, olive green, and occasionally brick red until they meet the deep blue sea. Gleaming white cruise ships are parked in the bay, with dozens of tiny shuttle boats pulling up alongside them to take passengers to the port. The shuttle boats remind me of little puppies or pigs suckling from the “mother ship” as they jockey for position.
As you get farther away, the trail becomes rougher and demands that you pay attention to your footing, requiring you to make a full stop to soak in the never-ending vistas. There is little shade along the way and I recommend doing the trip late in the afternoon to avoid the intense sun and to more fully appreciate the sunset once you reach Oia. This town is smaller and perhaps even more beautiful than Fira and has a wonderful array of shops and restaurants of its own, but beware that during the more touristy months, there is a mad rush to view sunset on one of the village’s highest hills. It can really feel claustrophobic and you will be dodging pushy, tank-topped tourists, trying not to step on stray dogs, cats and children, or the trains of brides’ wedding gowns as they climb to the look-out to get pictures taken with their grooms.
Of course, no visit to Santorini would be complete without sampling the amazing Greek cuisine. My favorite place is Noussa, located at the far south end of Fira and featuring tables on an upper deck that give you a spectacular view. The service is friendly and attentive, and some of the best dishes include tomato fritters, stuffed peppers, garlic bread with yogurt and beet spread, grilled octopus, and amazing giant prawns cooked in a butter and white wine sauce with rice. Wash that down with some of Santorini’s homemade white wine and you have a memorable dinner!
Another great restaurant outside of Oia is called Finikia’s Place. They too have a quiet outdoor terrace that is elegant but casual, and I still remember their delicious appetizers of sweet red peppers stuffed with local cheese. That was followed by a dish that looked like a Greek version of shepherd’s pie made with tender and flavorful goat meat, eggplant and topped with a crunchy, browned “yogurt crust”. My first bite was one of those wide eyed, OMG moments, and when I shared a taste (a SMALL taste!) of it with my friend, he declared it one of the most delicious things he’d ever tasted.
One other noteworthy place close to Oia is called Kastro, the Greek word for castle. Sit outside with a view of the illuminated castle of Oia and enjoy a delicious salad with pomegranates, soft cheese and oranges, followed by a lemon chicken with grilled peppers, and a lemon pie for dessert.
Finally, I have to say something about the Greek people. Contrary to many people’s expectations, most Greeks, especially in heavily touristed areas, speak very good English and are quite friendly. If you take time to just memorize a few pleasantries like Kalimera (Good Morning) or Kalispera (Good afternoon/evening), you’ll be fine. Still, language misunderstandings can always occur and are often quite funny. One time I returned to my hotel to shower before dinner, but had no hot water, despite letting the faucet run for a long time. I called the front desk and asked if there was any hot water. The front desk clerk asked, “Oh? You would like hot water?” I repeated that yes, there was no hot water and I needed some.
“OK, we’ll send someone.” I waited at least a half an hour and because I needed to meet friends for dinner, I finally submitted to a very cold sponge bath and shampoo. As I was getting dressed, there was a knock at the door. My host was standing there with a small tea pot full of…hot water! I swear he and I laughed for a full five minutes when we realized the extent of our misunderstanding on the phone!
I recall a wonderful evening when a group of my students and I took a caravan of taxis from Fira to Oia and I had a delightfully friendly driver in my cab, who played wonderful Greek music during the ride. When we arrived at Oia, he gave me his card and said I should call him if I needed a ride back. About 10 of us wandered Oia, taking way too many pictures, and then we bought some local white wine, cheese and ham and sat on a hillside overlooking the town to watch the sunset. We were joined by three hilarious Australian women, and a funny and charming Serbian guy named Drasko, who worked as a bartender in Oia. He ran off for a few minutes and came back with bottles of the local Santorini white wine to share with everyone as we laughed and enjoyed the amazing sunset.
After dinner, I called my cab driver and he soon arrived, with two other cabs behind him to accommodate all of us. He shouted from the window, “Where is Matthew? He must ride again in MY cab!”, and so off we went. I asked if he’d play the Greek music for us again – it was a CD of a local artist from Santorini, and suddenly he turned the volume up very loudly and held his microphone up to the radio. He was playing the music into his microphone so that the people in the other two cabs behind us could hear it too! When I asked him where I might be able to buy the CD he was playing, he took the copy of the CD out of the player and gave it to me as a gift! He also wanted to know if I was going to be in town Saturday, because this artist was playing at a local venue and the cabbie and his family were going to hear him. “You could come with us!” He was very sweet, but unfortunately I couldn’t accept his invitation, as I was leaving the following morning.
Though shop keepers are competing fiercely with one another and are keen on trying to sell you their wares, they can be quite gracious. On one visit I went shopping for one of the traditional, billowy white cotton shirts that are so popular in Greece. Of course, just as I’ve found in Italy, even the XL sizes here do not come close to fitting me, and even when a shop had a XXL size that looked OK when I was standing up, it was NOT flattering if I dared to sit down. Finally, I found one shop where the woman brought me a collar-less shirt in size L to try on. Amidst my protests that this would never fit, she insisted that it would be fine, claiming that this style was sized completely differently, and that I must trust her. She was right… not only did it fit, but it was roomy and comfortable, and I gratefully left the store with it.
To sum it up, Santorini can be crowded and hot, it is more expensive than other islands, and it is not a beach destination. If you do want to go to one of the island’s volcanic black or red sand beaches, which are well worth the effort, you will need to rent a car for the day and drive for 45 minutes or so. But there is a reason so many people come here: Santorini is stunning. It’s like no other place on the planet, and even a few days here will provide you with memories that will last a lifetime.