November 1999 - It all began last Spring when SPRINT told Charlanne that she had to cash in all those years of long-distance "points"! The choices were London, Paris and Athens, so since neither of us had ever been to Athens, our fate was decided! We chose October for our trip because the weather would still be good and the summer crowds mostly gone, so we had plenty of time to plan a detailed itinerary for the 20 days we would be in Greece. Our mutual decision, though, (contrary to BOTH our natures) was NOT to plan an itinerary-- truly an adventure for two veteran "planners"! The one concession to tradition was to make a reservation for the first couple of nights in Athens; after that, we would go wherever our hearts (and the Greek ferry system) took us! We did enjoy studying brochures about the different parts of this interesting country-- the Peloponnese or Mt. Olympus on the mainland; the Sporades, Cyclades, Dodecanese Islands, and such "big names" as Crete and Rhodes!
The summer seemed to zoom into September, and soon it was time to pack our bags. By the time we boarded our Air France 747, we were pinching each other, saying, "We're on our way to GREECE!" and "Tomorrow morning we'll be in ATHENS!" And sure enough--- we were!
Feeling very fortunate that neither of us suffered much at all from jet-lag, as soon as we were settled into our hotel we headed into the "Plaka," the heart of the tourist district, where we found the usual bounty of T-shirt and souvenir shops, street vendors, restaurants, and a generous smattering of glittering jewelry shops. (Charlanne had heard from Lisa that the jewelry shopping in Greece was wonderful, and she wasn't disappointed!) As darkness enveloped the modern city, above it all the ancient Acropolis glowed with a thousand spotlights that made it seem to hover like a spaceship in the sky above us, even more ghostly than during the day. Beneath its shadow, we had our first "REAL" Greek salad at a lively outdoor restaurant where a group of Greeks were celebrating some happy occasion with lots of laughter and singing!
Back in our hotel in the pretty and relatively quiet Kolonaki District, we stepped out on our balcony to discover neighboring Mt. Lycabettus illuminated, too! There appeared to be a church on top, so we determined to take the funicular up for the view from Athens' highest hill on another day.
Saturday, October 3, our first full day in Athens, we couldn't wait to explore the Acropolis. With our expressive Greek guide, Maria Miranda, we saw how the ancient Greeks created these engineering marvels without the help of modern technology-- or slaves! Gigantic "slices" of marble were stacked onto central "pegs" of wood to create the tall columns of the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike, while the Erechtheion's portico is supported by six "caryatids"-- statues of young women. It was breathtaking to realize that we were walking on the same marble blocks that Pericles trod in 510 B. C. when the Delphic oracle declared this spot should be the home of the gods! In contrast, just below the entrance to this magnificent monument to paganism, we scrambled up the humble granite hill, Areopagus (or Mars Hill), where St. Paul preached and won his first convert to Christianity, Dionysius.
We lunched on the breezy patio of Nefeli Cafe, then wandered through the narrow, winding streets of Anafiotika, a typical Cycladic village nestled against the breast of the Acropolis. We delighted in the neat stone and stucco houses with their red-tile roofs and "drapes" of magenta bougainvillea. Then it was back to the Athenian Inn for a brief rest before watching sunset from the top of Mt. Lycabettus!
Sunday morning we were up early to board a bus for a full-day tour to Delphi. Our guide, Dorina, pointed out fields of cotton and tomatoes, and groves (or is it orchards?) of olives, pistachios and peaches, while our driver, Kostas, skillfully navigated the hilly, winding roads of the Greek countryside. It was a brilliant sunny day, and the marble ruins and towering cedar trees of Delphi stood out in startling relief against the deep Aegean blue sky. We learned that the "Oracle" was the place where advice was given to a specially chosen virgin, then interpreted by priests, rather than what is often mistakenly assumed to be the person that gave the advice. After visiting the museum at Delphi, where we learned the differences between Minoan, Mycene and Hellenic sculpture, we made a quick stop at another archaeological site, the Temple of Athena Pronaea, the proceeded to lunch at a beautiful ski lodge on the side of Mt. Parnassus. We had a typical Greek meal of moussaka, salad, kebabs, fried potatoes and spice cake, and it was served at the usual lunch hour for Greeks, but LATE for us-- 3:00pm! Next we stopped briefly at the village of Arachova, where we saw beautiful wool tapestries and carpets that the region is noted for. Back in Athens after a long day's touring, we grabbed a quick dinner at Neon, a self-service cafe that had great salads and the BEST homemade pistachio ice cream!
On Monday Athens was a different city altogether-- filled with traffic, noise and pollution! After finding a travel agent downtown to advise us on how to begin our exploration of the islands, we headed back to Neon for lunch, then struck out for the Archaeological Museum of Greece. We had a wonderful tour with Andromake, an aspiring model, who knew a LOT about Greek art and history, then we rested our weary feet in the Museum Garden Cafe, where we cooled off with a beer (Bill) and an ice cream soda (Charlanne). Our feet were still tired, and we knew that it will be difficult to get a taxi back to our hotel (a short taxi ride, but a long walk), so we decided to be really adventuresome and try the bus! After we finally figured out how to get tickets, Bill accurately read the map to get us on a bus that took us within a few blocks of out hotel! After a short rest we were ready to climb the stone steps up to the funicular to the top of Mt. Lycabettus to watch the sun set and the moon rise. We decided to dine at the top on the patio of Restaurant Dionysos, where we could watch the lights of the city come on below --beautiful!
We rose early with excitement on Tuesday, for this morning we would board a ferry that would take us to the island of Naxos, in the middle of the Cycladic Islands. We had decided rather than try to do too much, we would visit only a few of the Cyclades, and save the other islands and the rest of the mainland for future trips. We picked Naxos because it is centrally located in the Cyclades, a six-hour ferry ride, which we figured was long enough for one day, and from there we had numerous options of where to go next. The island also sounded particularly interesting with lots of agriculture and less tourism that many of the others. Sticking to our resolve to be free-spirited, we had made no reservations, but had perused our guidebooks and decided to seek out "Despina" when we reached the port. She was supposed to have several accommodations and lots of good information for tourists. We weren't disappointed.
After a smooth, relaxing ferry ride we disembarked at Naxos in brilliant sunshine, and found a fairytale of a Greek island village, with sparkling whitewashed houses scrambling up a hillside topped with a fortified castle and the ubiquitous church steeple. Just as our guidebooks promised, Despina was at her waterfront office, and soon she was escorting us to "Chateau Zevgoli," a typical Greek pension, up narrow, winding walkways and steep stone staircases draped with magenta bougainvillea. (poor Bill had to lug our big suitcases-- no taxis or bellmen or even luggage carts!) Our efforts were rewarded, though, with a charming room decorated with Greek antiques and lace and with a window curtained with bougainvillea overlooking the azure Aegean! Already we were looking forward to a good night's sleep without the noise of the city!
Soon we found ourselves wandering the labyrinth of Old Chora Town. Lace-curtained apartment windows were interspersed among cheerful tavernas and colorful boutiques proffering ceramics, jewelry, and cotton goods. We snapped pictures with abandon, enchanted by the striking contrast of bougainvillea, geraniums, and hibiscus against the stark white stucco walls, and that against a sapphire blue sky. Churches would suddenly appear before our eyes, nestled among the homes, restaurants, and shops as if trying to disguise themselves as human habitations rather than the abode of God. For dinner we settled on a charming taverna, Manoli's garden, where we dined on a simple wooden table covered with plastic and then a sheet of what resembled paper toweling. (We soon discovered this to be a typical table setting for a Greek taverna.) Overhead hung yards and yards of fishnet dotted with floats, as if they had been hung up from the day's work to dry. In this seafaring atmosphere I chose a swordfish souvlaki, while Bill tried the house special--chicken in yogurt and wine sauce. For appetizers we were thrilled to find "lmezedes," a sampler of traditional Greek salads-- stuffed grape leaves, tuna salad, feta cheese, eggplant salad, fish roe salad, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, olives. We also decided to try "retsina" ("resinated" wine, or the barrel scrapings from white wine) and were pleasantly surprised to find it had a hint of eucalyptus flavor, which we both loved!
After a great night's sleep with the sound of waves sighing to sweeten our dreams, we rose early to experience Chateau Zevgoli's typical Greek breakfast-- boiled eggs, bread and butter, apricot juice and WONDERFUL yogurt and honey-- another new taste for us, which we LOVED! (The yogurt was so thick, smooth and creamy that it resembled ice cream more than our "American-style" yogurt--MMM!!!) Following our plan of "no plans," we decided to rent a car and go where our eyes took us! We did take along a map, but it would have been hard to get lost, since there was just one main road around the island. Along the way we were surprised to see grape vines growing along the ground rather than on trellises, and the hillsides were all terraced for growing olives, grapes, pistachios, potatoes and tomatoes. We saw evidence of the Venetian heritage of Naxos in Bellonia Tower, which is still inhabited bya local family; windmills that powered grain mills in the past; snow-white monasteries and churches with the sky-blue domes we had seen in so many pictures. We saw frescoes dating from the 6th and 7th centuries in the Byzantine church of Panayia Drosiani, then stopped for a "frappe" (iced Nescafe with milk and sugar) in an old stone cafe in the village of Filoti. At the foot of Mt. Zas (Zeus) we picnicked on feta, bread, pickled vegetables and cookies. Near the coastal resort town of Apollonas we climbed a hill to gaze at an unfinished 35-foot kouros (marble statue ofa young Greek god) abandoned to the elements. Inland we followed directions to a hidden garden in the midst of a private orchard where another abandoned kouros lies, and to our surprise we also found a tiny "watering hole" where we discovered a local liqueur made from the leaves of the citron tree. After sampling a taste from an ancient Greek woman who spoke no English, we decided to get a whole bottle to take home with us! Continuing back to Chora-town we spied a great white gash in a mountainside, which turned out to be a marble quarry! At the end of the day we felt like we had truly seen what life has been like through the centuries on a Cycladic island. We had one of our best meals of all tonight in Vasili's Taverna-- the best squid we had ever tasted, swordfish, and more wonderful Greek potatoes. We also discovered another Greek wine we liked, Apelia, and couldn't resist sharing a dessert of yogurt with honey topped with fresh whole almonds!
After enjoying another wonderful Greek breakfast at Chateau Zevgoli, we said our good-byes to housekeeper Milda, then headed for our ferry to Santorini. Approaching the port of Fira from the north, we were treated to a beautiful view of the picturesque village of Oia bathed in the gold of a lowering sun. Once on shore we took a taxi to Kamari Beach, where we were able to negotiate an amazingly low price for a room in the 4-star Hotel Aphroditi. We had chosen it because it seemed to be very quiet, nestled against the cliffs at the south end of the beach, and we were pleased to find a LARGE room with marble floors, a REAL bathtub, and a balcony overlooking the pool-- all this for about $55 US, including a HUGE breakfast buffet! Soon we were exploring the black-sand beach lined with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, apartments and shops. For dinner we walked to a taverna in the small village. Alexander's had been recommended by the desk clerk at the hotel, and we were delighted to find on the menu a sort of Greek sampler platter for two, so we tried some MORE new Greek dishes, namely Imam (eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, peppers and onions), a stewed veal in a sort of barbecue sauce, delicious moussaka, and risotto with a tangy tomato sauce. They also served us (complimentary!) a shot glass of ouzo (a licorice-flavored Greek liqueur) for a cocktail and a snifter of Metaxa (Greek brandy) afterward.
After "chilling out" on the beach and beside the pool on Friday, we were ready for a full day's touring on Saturday. We chose the tour called "See Santorini in One Day," and indeed we did! Our guide, Magdalena, was once again VERY knowledgeable and spoke EXCELLENT English. We began by exploring Akrotiri, a wonderful archaeological treasure. It's a Minoan city buried by a volcanic eruption 3600 years ago! It was discovered in the 1860s by workmen quarrying the volcanic ash, but not until 1967 did a Greek archaeologist begin excavations. It was amazing, and a little bit eerie, to walk along streets and peer into houses in a city the flourished in 2000 BC!
Next we were taken to the port to board a traditional wooden boat to cruise to Nea Kameni, a lava islet that broke off from the mainland during the huge eruption that blew apart Santorini around 1450 BC. We climbed about a mile over the coarse volcanic rock to peer into the crater's steaming holes and inhale its acrid sulphur, then our boat took us around to a cove where we could swim in a natural sulphur spring. Our next stop was the beautiful island of Thirassia, which also used to be part of the main island (officially named Thira). Here we climbed 150 rugged, sloping stone steps (each one about 30 feet in length!) to the village of Horio. We stopped at the top for a cool frappe at a lovely terrace cafe, then walked on to the center of the village where we experienced one of those "perfect moments." Following the sound of church bells, we rounded a bend just in time to see a Greek Orthodox priest tugging on the ropes which were making the bells ring! He was bearded and wearing a long black cassock and tall black hat, the traditional dress of priests in Greece even today. We snapped a few quick pictures, watched him tie off the bells and re-enter the church, then in a few moments we could hear his melodious baritone echoing throughout the church and out into the village as he began to chant the mass!
Soon it was time to make the rocky descent back to the boat and head for the village of Oia, where we would watch the sun set over the Aegean. At the prospect of 250 of those long, rocky steps to reach Oia, we decide to take a "taxi" (donkey!) this time. The trip was a bit quicker, and a whole lot more frightening, if easier on our feet! At the top, we found the village a warren of narrow stone walkways lined on either side with shops overflowing with gold jewelry and colorful shawls and sarongs, interspersed with inviting restaurants, churches and whitewashed villas. We headed first for a windmill that was perched at the very tip of this spit of land, took a few photos, then decided an even better spot for watching sunset was from the castle which sat on another promontory. From here we could enjoy the play of golden light on the village spilling over the edge of the russet cliffs of Santorini, and watch the sun drop into the sea behind the parade of passing ferry boats and cruise ships.
Sunday we spent a lazy day lounging by the pool and making our travel plans for the next day, when we would head for Mykonos. Another new dish at dinner-- "grilled" feta, which had been wrapped in foil with tomatoes, onions, peppers and oregano--- WONDERFUL!
Rising early Tuesday morning we noticed that the mountains beyond our hotel were tinged with red, so we hurried out to the beach to see the most beautiful, brilliant red sunrise we had ever experienced! It was as if the whole sky were on fire! What a thrilling way for Nature to send us on or way from Santorini to Mykonos! As the sky faded we headed for Fira to climb aboard the "Flying Dolphin" hydrofoil. We were pleasantly surprised at the comfort and quiet, and enjoyed the sensation of rising up on our "wings" as we gained speed over the water. In three short hours we were on the dock in Mykonos Town, being met by "Voula," who spirited us away in her van to our private villa overlooking Ioannis Beach! She first showed us a small downstairs room with a bath, then led us upstairs to what she dubbed "Paradise," and sure enough it was! Encompassing the entire top floor of the building, the apartment sported gray marble floors, marble kitchen sink and counter, marble bathroom walls, and a typical European SHORT bathtub, toilet and sink. Best of all, the living room and bedroom opened onto a large balcony with a built-in stone bench and table overlooking the beach, the blue Aegean, and Delos and Naxos beyond that! All this for just $42 a night!
As soon as we were settled into our apartment we headed for the lone taverna that was open on the beach. This was the QUIETEST place we had been yet: it was obvious that the tourist season was over here, since even the hotels and most of the restaurants were closed down for the winter. Back up on our balcony, we found it difficult to stop gazing at the sparkling sea, and soon we were treated to a welcoming party by a pod of frolicking dolphins! That afternoon we were challenged to decipher what we needed at the supermarket to prepare our own breakfast, but we managed to find yogurt, honey, bread and coffee to stock our fridge. After watching sunset from our balcony, we climbed back down the hill to discover a wonderful restaurant hidden behind some palm trees on the beach. At Christos we were treated to fresh mussels, calamari and an assortment of fresh vegetables grilled on an open fire underneath a shelter of thatch right there on the beach. Paradise didn't seem so great when we were attacked by mosquitoes in the night! Not much sleep, but in the morning...
Just as we were cleaning up our breakfast of yogurt and honey and "camp coffee" boiled in the only pot available in our small kitchen, Voula appeared inviting us to breakfast downstairs! We declined her "home-raised" eggs, but agreed to join her for a cup of real coffee. When she brought out a generous hunk of warm-from-the-oven coffee cake flavored with orange and raisins, we succumbed and enjoyed a delightful second breakfast on the patio while chatting about things to do on the island. Voula also informed us that the downstairs was always unlocked and we should help ourselves to her coffee pot and homemade cherry preserves each morning!
Soon we were off to catch the bus to Mykonos Town to explore and photograph this adorable Cycladic village. We found a maze much like Chora Town on Naxos, but much more extensive. We arrived at the waterfront just in time to see the fishing boats unloading their catch, and to meet Petros the pelican, the fishermen's well-fed mascot! Then we found ourselves climbing up one of those narrow stone allees and exploring an old windmill that offered a splendid panoramic view of the village and bay. After a lunch of fava beans in tomato sauce, a Greek staple, we wandered the labyrinth once again, unable to resist taking more photos of the interesting churches, pristine houses and inviting shops lining the flower-draped passageways. Returning to our little hideaway when our feet finally gave out, we decided to go back to the taverna down the hill for a quiet dinner. We wondered at first if it was open, the whole beach seemed so deserted, then we were happy to see some lights on. Apparently, though, they were shutting down for the season, but they were willing to accommodate us with a simple skewer of pork and some fried potatoes. Eerie, yet romantic, we had the sleeping restaurant to ourselves!
Wednesday we walked to nearby Ornos Beach to rent a scooter to go exploring for the day. We first headed east to Kalafatis Beach, which was beautiful, but deserted. The clouds which had been threatening soon filled in and opened up, and just in time a roadside taverna appeared, where we pulled in to shelter with some other biking couples. After warming up with a cup of hot tea, we decided the rain was going to stay a while longer, so we ordered a lunch of stuffed mushrooms and a stuffed potato, to be topped off with a snifter of Metaxa. By the time that was finished off the sun was back out, so we continued our journey to Ano Mera, where we visited an ornate monastery built in the 1700s and containing 16th-century icons from Crete-- beautiful! Next we headed north of Mykonos Town to Stefanos Beach, which is popular in summer but now nearly deserted. Beyond, mansions with spectacular views dotted the hillsides. Back in Mykonos Town, we waited out another shower in a smoky taverna, then headed back to turn in our bike and freshen up for dinner.
Thursday and Friday Charlanne spent in bed with a cold, thankful for that spectacular view, while Bill went to the store for chicken soup and more yogurt and honey! Friday night was one of our most memorable meals. We chose Kounela's Taverna, where Mykonians go for fresh seafood. We were led to the cooler and showed the catch of the day from which we chose our dinner-- HUGE shrimp and a sea bass. While we munched on salads of cold potatoes, zucchini and cabbage, the fisherman himself grilled our "catch" over a charcoal fire just outside the door! MMMMMMM!!!
Saturday we experienced yet another Greek mode of transport-- a caique, which is a "rustic" (an understatement) steel diesel-powered boat made for going short distances. It was a VERY windy day, and consequently a rough ride, but thankfully short, to the nearby island of Delos, which was from 1000 to around 100 B. C. the religious and trade center for the entire Aegean. The tiny islet is literally covered with an amazing array of ruins, including an agora, numerous temples, a gymnasium and stadium and the well-preserved House of the Dolphins. The highest point, Mt. Kithnos, is the supposed birthplace of Apollo.
Sunday we said our sad "Good-byes" to our favorite island and our dear hostess Voula. We were excited, though, to experience yet another type of ferry, a high-speed catamaran, which took us smoothly and comfortably back to the port of Raffina. From here we took a bus back to Athens and the Athenian Inn, where we were pleased to find they had reserved our same sixth-floor balconied room for us. Tonight we had more excitement in store, for we had made plans to meet Bill's H-P friends Judy and Jim Dicso (L) and Mike and Irene Bandy (R), who had been on a cruise in the same waters we were exploring this past week! (In fact, we saw their ship in Mykonos, but had no way of getting in touch with them!) Imagine going all the way to Athens to meet friends from New Jersey and California! We had a wonderful "Last Supper" of mezedes, ouzo, and plenty of Greek wine in Restaurant Kellari at the Hilton. What a perfect conclusion to our dream "Odyssey"-- we had traveled back in time some 5000 years, and now had come full circle back to our 20th century reality.
Article and photos copyright 1998 by Charlanne