Greek (Cyclades) Islands & Athens

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June 5th 2018
Published: June 6th 2018
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Cyclades Islands and Athens

Friday, 18 May – Santorini, Cyclades (Greek Islands)

The trip from Lucerne to Zurich Airport by train was pretty, and we thought it was quite cool that they had a train that went direct to the airport from half way across the country. Those Swiss have thought of everything!

The flight from Zurich to Santorini was scenic as we flew over the Italian and Austrian Alps, Venice and down the Croatian coastline. I really liked the fact that the captain did the welcome in person at the front of the cabin prior to departure, and provided intermittent sightseeing tips along the way. Things like “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you are in the right side of the plane you will see that we’re flying over the Croatian Islands, with Split coming up. On the left you’ll get a great view of inland Croatia.” Etc etc.

Departed in 18C and arrived in 27C. What a welcome contrast from the cooler Spain, Portugal and northern France!

I had booked a mini car rental because we only needed to drive 10km from airport to apartment, and we literally were given the smallest car they had, a Toyota Arygo. We could only fit two suitcases in the boot with the back seats unlatched, so we stashed the two backpacks in the middle of the back seat and everyone held their day packs on their laps. Mum and I were pressed up against the windows because that back seat was jammed to the roof. We had to pick up shopping on the way as well, so that sat on the floors between people’s feet. It really was a game of “how many people can you fit into a mini.” You should have seen it – it was hilarious! It shall be henceforth known as the clown car.

It was night when we arrived so we’ll see the view in the morning but the towns are like glittering gems on the hillsides.

Sabbath, 19 May – Santorini

Awoke to a view that evoked a “wow” comment from the peanut gallery. We are 250m up on a cliff overlooking a small beach below, looking out upon the Santorini caldera and its volcano. We are at the southern end of the island just outside the original settlement, Akrotiri. The caldera is 12km x 7km and it’s certainly a most impressive sight. The water isn’t as turquoise or light as I was expecting. I was expecting azure rings around the immediate coast but it is a dark blue ocean colour that laps the shores.

We had worship after breakfast and sat around talking. Eventually Dad, Dwayne and I went down for a swim off the rock beach after breakfast, whilst Mum had a snooze after a terrible sleep. The water was cold, but refreshing, and we stayed in for about 30 minutes before we returned to the apartment for lunch.

Santorini is barren, rocks everywhere with hardly a tree in sight and very little shade so we decided to have a Sabbath nap in the afternoon to avoid burning like match sticks. By 5pm it was a great temperature so we drove down to the black “sand” beach, which was not actually sand but thousands of tiny pebbles. We stayed in for 30 minutes bobbing with the waves and watching the catamarans come and go with their tourists on board.

Had haystacks for dinner. Accidentally mistook vanilla yoghurt for sour cream due to our shocking Greek. Note to self: Vanilla yoghurt is a terrible substitute for sour cream.

Sunday, 20 May – Santorini

Drove 45 minutes to Oia (pronounced E-ah) in the clown car and had a great time exploring all the little walkways that weave their way around town. There are shops that line the classic white and blue buildings along the walkways, with everything from souvenirs to jewellers, fashion designers, art studios and eating places that boast the best views in town. Due to the 3 cruise ships that docked in port today, the streets were crowded but that’s the Greek Islands for you. Strangely enough, hardly any Indians. It seems Switzerland is the flavour of the month for sub-continent travellers. Whilst it was unusually overcast, it was still hot in the sun and we were thankful for a cool breeze and the odd shady patch. We managed to get our postcard photos of white washed buildings and blue domes overlooking the caldera below.

Next stop was Fira, which is half way between Oia in the north and Akrotiri in the south and is the biggest town on Santorini. It is famous for its steps from the old port up to the top town, and the donkeys that walk up and down them with tourists and supplies. There is also a cable car but the donkeys give it a traditional feel. I wanted to ride a donkey and for only €5 one way, I was keen to go down via cable car and come back up on the donkey. Unfortunately, the line for the cable car was around the block with all the cruisers returning to their tenders, so we decided to give it a miss. We opted to sit at a cliff top restaurant and have iced coffees instead.

For our last night we decided to eat out for dinner. We ventured to Captain Dimitris, which is essentially one woman’s restaurant tacked on to her kitchen. We ordered a fava dip, Greek salad, beet salad, tzatziki and tomato fritters all for starters, followed by roasted eggplant, ratatouille and Mama’s moussaka. Oh my goodness – it was so much food and all very yummy! We were as full as stuffed capsicums! The beet salad was my favourite with the moussaka a close second. The tomato fritters were the most surprising because they were very tasty but nothing like we’d expected. She even bought us free dessert at the end and asked us to guess what it was. It was piped yoghurt with an orange candied something on top of it. When we had finished and she came over to ask us what our guesses were, I got it right first time! It was thin and short julienne shaped carrots that had been soaked in lemon juice, sugar syrup and honey, and it came out looking and tasting like marmalade. She was impressed that I guessed it, because most tourists can’t think of anything beyond orange peel. We were the only tourists in her little digs, and for only €35 per couple, we couldn’t have been happier with our pick.

Last stop was the southern lighthouse and a view of the sunset. We only just made it in time to see the sun set behind a layer of cloud above the horizon. It was a great way to finish our Santorini stay.

As amazing as Santorini is due to its unique caldera setting, we reckon Turkey and Croatia leave the Cyclades (pronounced Ki-kla-des) Islands for dead when it comes to water colour and breathtaking coastlines. Hvar, Bodrum and Symi are as good as anything I reckon we’ll see here. Having said that, I’d like to see the Ionian Islands over on the west coast before making any final judgements. Mainland Greece and the west coast will be another trip.

Monday, 21 May – Naxos

Our ferry wasn’t until 3.30pm so we checked out late, packed all the clowns into the tiny car, drove to Red Beach to dangle our feet in the water and munch on our homemade lunch. We made our way to the port, dropped off the clown car to the dude standing in the car park and boarded the huge ferry for the 2hr trip to Naxos.

First impressions is it’s a cute little town and quite cheap compared to Santorini. We are looking forward to exploring more of it tomorrow. We were blessed with an incredibly orange sunset as we ate dinner on our sea view balcony.

Tuesday, 22 May - Naxos

We love Naxos! There are winding alley ways with white and blue shops tucked away into hidden squares. There are no cruise ships here so it has a chilled-out vibe with the locals and tourists all blending together in equal numbers. There are pretty beaches that you can walk to, with the really stunning turquoise beaches being a mere 30 min bus ride.

It’s also a lot cheaper here for both food and accommodation. We were paying €170 for a 2-bedroom apartment per night in Santorini and here we’re paying €60 per night. Food is also cheaper with mains around €7-14 as opposed to €13-25 in Santorini.

The waterfront marina is lined with yachts and catamarans offering day cruises to islands like Mykonos, Paros, Iraklia and Koufonisia. We were supposed to spend 3 nights in Naxos and 3 nights in Mykonos but after seeing how much it was going to cost to stay on Mykonos, we decided to extend our stay in Naxos from 3 to 6 nights and do day trips instead.

Evening in Naxos is also very cool. Everyone comes out to play and the waterfront throbs with people in restaurants, Greek music and lots of activity. The marina is lit up as we enjoyed a stroll in the warm night air. After dinner we wandered to the ruin of the Temple of Apollo on the point overlooking the bay and watched the sunset. It was even better than the sunset on Santorini. Just beautiful!

Santorini is good for a day, but Naxos is better.

Wednesday, 23 May – Delos & Mykonos

Our day ferry departed at 9am with a first stop of Paros and then on to Delos, where Dwayne and I alighted. I would have preferred to have had the whole day at Mykonos but Dwayne wanted to see the ruins and he wouldn’t have done the 3hr visit on his own, so we went together. The whole island of Delos is an archaeological site and the mythological birthplace of Apollo. There is a small museum with statues and relics dating back to the 6th century BC, but its hey day was the Hellenistic period. There are ruins of temples, markets, a 6500 capacity amphitheatre, houses with mosaics and the famous Terrace of Lions, given to the island by the people of Naxos.

To someone who hasn’t seen a lot of ruins, it can be quite an interesting site because of the plethora of things to see over such a large area. It wasn’t as well preserved as Ephesus or Pergamum, nor was it as enchanting as Termessos, but at least we can say we’ve seen it. Apart from 30 minutes in the museum, it was out in the open for 2.5hrs with no shade and 27C. The breeze was one saving grace but unfortunately not enough to stop Dwayne from getting mild sun stroke (even with his hat, collared shirt and sunscreen).

We boarded the ferry at 1.30pm for Mykonos and met up with Mum and Dad for lunch. The plan was to then explore the town of Mykonos, take photos of their iconic windmills and go for a swim at a turquoise bay. Unfortunately, the sun stroke got the better of Dwayne and after tracking down some Ibuprofen, he lay down on the beach adjacent to the port for the rest of the afternoon. I had a swim with Mum and Dad but there was no exploration of the town nor walking to the windmills or secluded bays. When we got up at 4.45pm for the 5pm ferry, Dwayne walked 10m and ducked into a side street for an almighty chunder session into a plastic bag. We made it home on the ferry without issue where he trundled off to bed and the three of us went out for dinner as planned.

I feel quite unsatisfied that Mykonos
remains undiscovered on my part. The little we saw looked cute, if very touristy.

Thursday, 24 May – Cruising the coastline of Naxos

In our travels along the marina we had talked to a number of cruise operators and one of the catamaran operators had offered a €20pp discount. We figured that a cat would have more seating and shade than a single hull yacht, so we made a booking on Wednesday for a Thursday cruise. It left bright and early at 8.30am, with 3 other couples. At the start of the cruise during the captain’s briefing, he asked if any of us smoked. Zero hands. I had a bit of an internal laugh because I figured everyone had to be from English speaking countries, as the smokers these days generally come from France, Spain and Greece. As it happened, I was right and only the Greek crew members smoked throughout the day.

The captain finished his briefing, went to the helm and after a brief round of awkward stares and pauses between the guests, I introduced myself and Dwayne, and everyone followed suit. Two couples were from Pittsburgh and even went to the same Uni but didn’t know each other, one couple was from Melbourne on their way to a new life in London. All three couples were in their late 20’s and then there was the four of us.

At the time of booking I had asked to book the cruise to Koufonisia and the company said that they will sail there if the winds are not too strong. I was excited when the day dawned without a breath of wind so when I asked the captain about our itinerary, he said we were doing the South Naxos itinerary and not Koufonisia. I was quite disappointed because they knew how much I wanted to be on whatever boat was doing the Koufonisia itinerary, but nonetheless, our first stop at a secluded bay provided the turquoise waters we had all wanted to swim in. The water was cold but oh so beautiful with crystalline views all the way to the rocky bottom metres below. There’s nothing better than swimming off a boat in a remote location!

Stop 2 was at Rina Cave, where the waters again are clear and green and you can jump the 6m from the top of the cave to the water below, if you’re up for the adventure. I was happy to jump and Dad, not to be outdone by his daughter, also took the plunge, which was lots of fun. After a swim we returned to the boat for a lunch of pastitsio and Greek salad, followed by another swim for those that were keen. The captain and deck hand like to sing so they had their guitar out and shared some of their favourites as we lounged after lunch. One of the couples from Pittsburgh was on their belated honeymoon so the hubby asked the captain on the sly if they could sing their wedding dance song, Stand By Me. As they started to sing, the wife jumped up only to find that her hubby was already standing there asking her to dance. It was very sweet! They swayed on the cat, we all crooned with the captain in the chorus and many brownie points were won! 2.5hrs later we started the return journey.

Stop 3 was Aliko Beach, which was the only stop where others could access the bay via car. It was a long, sandy beach and whilst we were far from shore, the water was still a brilliant turquoise. Most of us were shivering by then because the afternoon wind had picked up and the two swims earlier meant our togs and towels were still damp. However, Dwayne, Dad and I went in because it was the last opportunity to enjoy swimming off the boat. 15 minutes later we were back on board and on our way to the marina.

Everyone on board mingled well once the cruise started in the morning and got along famously enough that as the cruise was pulling in to port at the end of the day, the young’uns suggested extending the day into dinner.

It was a great cruise and the crew were lovely, but we were annoyed that they didn’t clarify which itinerary we were on until the boat had sailed. Had we known they were going to bait and switch, we would have chosen another company. I could see other cruises going to Koufonisia because the winds were favourable but our captain seemingly felt it was too much bother. The 2.5hr lunch stop at Rina Cave was too long and it was obvious that they had dropped something out to stay that long. I was also a bit miffed that the brochure said there was 4 stops and return at 6.30pm, and we only had 3 stops with a 5.30pm return. We could hardly complain because we got the cruise cheaper than the others who were paying full price, but I do wish they had done the itinerary that is on their website rather than captain’s choice, which is what we got. I wouldn’t go with that group again – not when there are a number of other cat operators on the marina - but the cat was certainly the way to go over a yacht.

Still, it was a magical day on amazing waters and a highlight of our time in the islands.

Friday, 25 May – Naxos

We went inland today to a traditional village called Halki. It’s a tiny village but had a number of art studios and artisan workshops – a weaving loom, jam workshop, distillery etc. We got some great photos of bright pink flowers against the traditional white and blue houses, and had a quick bite to eat at a café before the return bus trip. I don’t think I’d like to stay inland compared to the sea, but the terraced olive trees make for a nicer drive than some of the other islands which are completely bare.

Sabbath, 26 May – Naxos

After worship we took a stroll down to the marina and along the waterfront to the baths. The wind had picked up significantly and most of the cruise boats were in port. We sat on the steps at the baths overlooking the bay and breathing in the view and peace of relaxation.

In the afternoon Mum and Dad went back into town for a swim at the baths and by all accounts, it was quite pleasant out of the wind and the water was cool and refreshing from the 25C sun.

I’ve enjoyed Greece from a food perspective. I’ve had moussaka, Greek salad, fried potatoes, donuts with chocolate, gelato, crepes and local cakes. Naxos especially has so many good menus that I could spend 2 weeks on the island just going to a different restaurant each day. I’ve yet to have their traditional gyros or souvlaki, so that will be on the menu for Athens. Everything has been tasty though and I’ve really enjoyed dining out.

Speaking of dining out, we had haystacks for dinner and then went into town for dessert. It was a progressive dessert because Dwayne and Mum got crepes and then we walked to the end of the marina and I had homemade donuts drizzled with chocolate and then Dad went to a bakery for a parfait of some sort. Wandering the town each night has become a bit of a tradition for us. Whatever weight I lost in Morocco, Spain and Switzerland, I’ve put back on in France and Greece.

Sunday, 27 May – Athens

We said a sad goodbye to Naxos and caught the 6hr ferry to Athens. When in the planning phase a year ago, we tossed up between a Turkish cruise and Greek Island hopping. We chose the hop because I figured we’d be cruising between islands and would get good views of pretty bays and azure waters. Not so. Greek ferries are no substitute for a cruise and in future, I’d look for a cabin charter where financially possible.

A couple of things about Greece I’ll remember, is the prolific smoking, stray cats everywhere and bad BO Every country has their dirty habits but the BO and smoking are certainly more noticeable because they affect people around them, as opposed to other habits that are less visible.

Anyway, we arrived in Pireaus Port and made our way to our apartment. It’s a spacious apartment for only €50 per night for 2 bedrooms, but unfortunately the suburb is a standard Athens suburb – run down and a bit dodgy. After dumping our luggage we made our way to the Acropolis for sunset views before a quick dinner and back in time for Mum and Dad’s airport transfer at 10pm.

The Acropolis was a “wow” moment. The way it sits atop the imposing cliff, bathed in the golden light of sunset, is very impressive. Mum and Dad were thrilled to have seen it before they flew out, as they didn’t think they’d get to see anything due to our late arrival in Athens.

After basking in the history, we made our way to a restaurant called Lithos. It’s number 13 out of 2000 restaurants on TripAdvisor. As we left the train station and started making our way down the dodgy streets, we were all thinking “What has Renae gotten us into?” Then we turned a corner and – voila! – a maze of little streets packed with outdoor tables, music and hanging lights strewn above the walkways. There were many old houses that had been turned into restaurants and these adorned every side of the street, as did the ivy and other greenery. It was a gorgeous haven of romance, chic, vibe and bustle. You would have no idea these streets exist if someone didn’t tell you about them or you didn’t stumble across them. Anyway, our restaurant was in this area called Psyrri, and while it was one of the bigger restaurants, it was packed. Very upmarket too with white tablecloths and the like, which surprised us because I chose it based on their budget prices. The owner graciously found us a table and we ordered a series of appetizers to share. We had fried cheese balls, feta parcels with pomegranate sauce, zucchini croquettes, grilled vegetables, bread and tzatziki, as well as a chicken souvlaki for Dwayne. The servings were huge and mostly between €6-7 per starter. Even the mains were only €10. We felt very blessed to be spending our last meal together at such a fancy place (by mistake!) and it was definitely one of our favourite meals on this trip.

Got back to our apartment and said goodbye to the parents as they jetted off to Hong Kong on an abominable 1.15am flight. We’ll be on the same flight in 2 days’ time – thanks Qatar – not!

Monday, 28 May – Athens

We came to Athens with very low expectations, hearing that it was kind of a dump and to spend as little time here as possible. We have been pleasantly surprised at how much there is to like. It’s quite a melting pot of visitors – lots of local Greek tourists, French, Germans, British, Americans, Italians, Chinese and Japanese. Not many Aussies but you do come across them occasionally. Aussies tend to be more independent travellers in groups of 2-4. I rarely see large groups of Aussies together.

With a forecast of 29C we headed straight to the Acropolis at 8.30am to beat the crowds and the heat. What an amazing site to explore! Of course, the hero of the site is the Parthenon, which was built in the 5th century BC, razed in the 2nd century AD, rebuilt in the 4th century AD, amended with Christian Churches and Ottoman Mosques between 700-1400’s and then blown apart in the 1600’s. Many of its sculptures were pillaged by Lord Elgin of Britain at the end of the 1700’s and today, it stands partially restored and still amazing tourists from all around the world. I’m sure if I built a house today, it would not be around 2500 years from now. It’s an amazing piece of architecture. There are other temples on the site and they all add to the aura of the place. The only thing that detracted from it was the mammoth amount of scaffolding covering the entire front of the Parthenon. It is going to be there until 2020 – such is the price of restoration. We were glad we got there early because the sun had a sting by 10.30am and the massive queue of arriving tourists we saw on our way out affirmed the need for early starts.

We explored the northern, eastern and southern slopes of the Acropolis and marvelled at the Herodotus Odeon, which will host a Sting concert next month. After a quick lunch of gemista (stuffed peppers) we moved on to Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Zeus, which was the largest temple in Greece. Started in the 6th century BC but not finished until the 2nd century AD (some 640 years later), it consisted of 104 colossal columns. Unfortunately it was ruined in the 3rd century AD raids that sacked the Acropolis and was never rebuilt.

We visited the Panathenaic Stadium, built in 330BC and made entirely of marble. It seated 50,000 but was abandoned after the 4th century AD. It was excavated and restored in time for the first modern Olympics in 1876. These days it’s used mostly for concerts but they do end the annual marathon here. For €5 you can tour the site and run on the black track.

Final stop was the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This spectacle is wonderfully weird, although taken with the utmost sincerity by the soldiers who perform their duties. It happens on the hour every hour, where 3 soldiers march from the back of the crowd to the front, and two of the new soldiers replace the current two soldiers, who have been standing motionless, in the heat and bizarre uniform, for an hour. The way they march is what draws the crowd to begin with. It looks like something out of a Mr Bean episode with high knees, pirate shirts and fluffy pom poms on their shoe tips. The tassles that hang from their helmet are used to wipe the sweat from their faces when they are first positioned at the start of the hour. Once they have been inspected, wiped down and set in their place by the inspecting soldier, they do not move a whisker for the next 55 minutes. I often wonder what would happen if a bee or wasp was flying around their face. Anyway, it’s quite unique and worth the time to respect what these guys do. They are hard core!

We then grabbed a cheap souvlaki for dinner, walked to Filopappou Hill and watched the sun cast a golden light on the Acropolis. It was dark red on the horizon and illuminated the clouds with its burnt colour as it sunk out of sight. We then watched as the floodlights around the city came on and lit up the major monuments including the Acropolis. Again, we were impressed at how awe inspiring that monument can be in all shades of day.

Tuesday, 29 May – Athens

Another round of ruins to see – the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library. The most impressive of these was the Ancient Agora, with its amazingly restored double storey stoa. It’s a large site that housed many buildings that dominated ancient everyday life. There was a big commercial building, council chambers, houses, temples, bath houses etc. It was the marketplace of the city and the gossip centre of society. It’s amazing to us that Athens went from being the centre of the world until nearly the birth of Christ, declining during Roman rule and ending up being a small fishing village until the 1800’s. It’s certainly not a small village anymore!

By lunchtime it was blazing so we went back to Psyrri and had a quiet Greek lunch underneath a garden trellis. In the afternoon we hit the modern Acropolis Museum, which focuses on the history of the Acropolis specifically. We could have gone to the National Archeological Museum, which covers Greek history more broadly, but we’d heard it can take a whole day for history buffs so we decided the modern museum was a better fit for our 3-4hr timeframe. We looked at pottery and sculpture displays but the most interesting was the top floor, which is a modern replica of the Parthenon. There are 17 non-descript concrete columns on each long side of the museum, and 8 columns on the two short sides – the same dimensions of the Parthenon without any of the marble or sculpture. Above the pillars is the original marble frieze that used to ring the top of the Parthenon before it was removed for preservation. Each section has an explanation of what it is, and the sections that are missing either have a replica mould or nothing, together with an explanation of why it’s missing or a replica (i.e. the real one is in the British Museum). I wish we’d started up there and worked our way down because it was the most interesting of the museum pieces.

After the museum we returned to our apartment, had showers and changed, and checked out for our flight to Hong Kong. We’ll be able to test Qatar Business Class.

While I thought cruising Croatia and Turkey was prettier than the Greek Islands from a water perspective, we’ve still had a great time in Greece. The people were lovely, the food was great and the prices were right (Mykonos excepted). We’ll definitely return to Greece on another trip and focus on exploring the Peloponnese Peninsulas as well as the Ionian Coast up through Albania.

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