Geia sas (hello), and welcome to Greece! This mythical land offers idyllic, laidback villages, a rich history, and some of the best sunsets in the world. Greece has earned its name as the cradle of Western civilization, as it is home to some of the world's greatest ancient monuments. After exploring some of our own ancient history, it’s a short journey out on the water to experience some of the most beautiful islands scattered across the Aegean Sea. Our goal: finding our favorite Greek isle.
We arrived in Athens on a morning in late May to a sprawling and congested city. Drivers with a death wish, graffiti scarring every building, and young Athenians demonstrating against their government every night, Athens was not the welcome we expected. However, once we moved past the outward characterless suburbs and into the ancient town center, capped by the famous Acropolis, we were quickly drawn back to the times of Paul preaching to the masses on Mars hill, or Socrates instructing his followers to "know thyself."
The old downtown neighborhood of Athens, know as the Plaka, sits at the foot of the Acropolis and is the core of Athens. Primarily pedestrian streets are lined with shops, ancient ruins, tavernas, and of course the Agora. The best kept secret, however, is the little neighborhood within the Plaka, at the very foot of the Acropolis, known as Anafiotika. Stepping into this place is as if you stepped into another world. The noise of the city vanishes as you stroll among whitewashed houses, and a piece of Greek island within the city. This was our favorite part of the big city, which is probably due to the fact that it was the one place that didn’t feel like the city at all…
While the Acropolis and Parthenon were spectacular, we found the rest of the city dirty and uncomfortable. It was as if its resident’s didn’t care for it. In fact, they didn’t, as during our stay there were riots in Syntagma square, and overall unrest and displeasure expressed towards the government due to the state’s large amount of debt and its impact on all public services. Still, even without this unwelcome excitement, we would have struggled all the same to find more enjoyable and entertaining things to do in the big city. The best decision we made with our extra day was to actually leave the city and take a short ferry ride to the island of Hydra.
A short boat ride from Athens, Hydra is your classic Greek isle. Free of cars, donkeys are the main vehicles here. Getting lost in the back streets, only to come out by the crystal blue sea, is intoxicating. For even more seclusion, a 20-minute walk to the west of Hydra Town along a coastal trail leads to the small town of Kaminia where we enjoyed a light seafood lunch, Leah with her coffee, and Andrew with some ouzo. Most of the tourists getting off of the ferry stay near the water in the bigger Hydra Town, but we found the short walk to Kaminia to be a wonderful respite from the crowds. The fact that this serene place exists such a short journey from Athens only increased our excitement for what we would find once we journeyed further into the Aegean.
Our trip through the Greek islands is one that we would do much differently if we had the opportunity to do it again. We opted to take a cruise from Athens out to the main tourist islands. Our itinerary called for stopping at Mykonos, then to Kusadasi, Turkey to visit the ruins of Ephesus, back to the Greek island of Patmos to see the Monastery of St. John, Rhodes, Crete, and finally ending at Santorini where we could disembark to spend our remaining days. We are certainly thankful that we were able to see a few different islands and some of their unique sites, however the fact that a cruise, by definition, meant that we were constantly surrounded by crowds of tourists was not to our liking. The cruise afforded us the ability to scope out some islands and pick places we’d like to return, but if you can learn one thing from us, it’s that you should pick one or two islands and spend all of your time there.
Mykonos is a beautiful island not far from Athens, primarily known for its nightlife, especially on the west coast of Mykonos town in an area known as Little Venice. The island is popular, to say the least, as you can tell from the image above. We elected to retreat back to the old port of Mykonos City for a more relaxing time, and a beach-side table shared with some new friends, to watch the sunset. Afterwards, we took an evening stroll down the islands tiny lanes, popping into local and luxurious shops along the way. We found Mykonos to be beautiful, but of all the islands, if we were able to choose (and we were!), it was too touristed for our liking.
After a wonderful sunset beach-side dinner on Mykonos, we slept soundly while our boat was at sea and awoke docked in a new country: Turkey. The port town of Kusadasi is everything you might imagine it to be. Vendors are hawking rugs and colorful spices, restaurants are laying out linens in preparation for the evening harborside meal, and tour operators are ushering their followers from one form of transport to the next. We fell into the latter group, as we would hop on a bus to Mt. Koressos where, in a small valley, a chapel sits on the site of a house where it is believed Mary, the mother of Jesus, spent her last days.
As the story goes, a nun in Germany had a series of visions about the final days of Jesus’ life as well as those of his mother Mary’s. The visions were transcribed, which later led a series of people to a hillside outside of Ephesus where they found the foundations of a house. It is thought that Mary, after accompanying St. John to Ephesus, lived out the rest of her days here. The site has now been made into a chapel, and designated a pilgrimage site for Catholics.
Back on the bus, we would drive to the other side of the mountain to find the ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world: the city Ephesus. One of the most magnificent excavations in the world, our tour was capped by the sight of the Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre, the largest in antiquity with over 24,000 seats where Paul preached to the Ephesians as spoken of in the Book of Acts. Impressive was the word that didn’t leave our minds the entire time. We didn’t expect a side-trip to Turkey to hold such a surprise, but we are so glad we included this in our itinerary.
Patmos, dominated by the main town of Skala, is a gem in the Aegean Sea. For those that know, Patmos holds more than a few quiet spots where you can get away from the crowds and enjoy your own Greek isle experience. Additionally, there are a few small, nearly uninhabited islands just offshore that are well worth a visit if you truly want to get away from it all, as they are typically empty even during high tourist season.
At the top of the island is the village of Chora, where the Monastery of St. John stands within the walls of a strong fortification. Just down the hill, beneath the Monastery of the Apocalypse, is the Grotto of the Apocalypse where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. With a view like this, we wouldn’t mind spending our last days here too.
Rhodes & Crete
When people think of Rhodes, images of a large, medieval fortified city, with the Palace of the Grand Master, guarded by the Knights of St. John quickly spring to mind. Those thoughts would be correct, however there is another side to Rhodes, the island, one of more natural beauty and mythology. Hints of it are seen in the harbor. A doe and buck deer mark the entrance today, but it is rumored that the Ancient Colossus of Rhodes once stood here. Stepping away from the old town, you begin to discover more of the islands secrets...
Lindos, on the eastern part of the island, was a dramatic surprise. Its Acropolis springs out of the sea and protects two crystal clear bays with pristine beaches. One, St. Paul's Bay, is said to be where the apostle cast off during his voyage to Ephesus. It is a miracle he left, because we were so tempted to stay. This is one place where we wished for more time. Sipping iced freddoccinos as we walked along the quiet streets, peaking around corners at the majestic blue bays, we were tempted to simply hide away and never leave.
The next morning, we awoke on our cruise at yet another port: Crete. This is one of the largest islands in the Aegean, and is dominated by agriculture. Luckily, we were greeted on the island with a breakfast of cheese and spinach pies accompanied by some tea and "fire" water. This was followed by some dancing, during which Leah made some new Greek friends. Must have been the fire water...
Crete is another place where we longed for more time to explore. Because the island is so large, there are secluded beaches and rustic tavernas that still haven’t been exploited by tourism. Plus, the palace of Knossos, an amazingly restored Bronze Age site, is just begging to be explored.
Approaching by boat from the sea, it is difficult to believe such a place exists. Whitewashed houses hanging from the cliffs of the caldera, with the blue domes of the churches shining brightly...we may never come home. This is why we travel. To experience people and places that take our breath away. Gazing upon Santorini we were struck by its beauty, in awe of the forces that carved this island, and left to wonder at the effort needed to place each stone on the side of a volcanic crater.
We opted to stay outside of the famous town of Oia, in a villa in the small town of Imerovigli with a view of the entire caldera and the glimmering town of Oia in the distance. One of our favorite activities during the heat of the day was to simply lounge by our pool, sipping our drinks, and soaking up this world-class view. Oia was still a short and easy bus ride away, but we could easily escape the noise and congestion of the crowds by retreating to our little slice of paradise. Every evening, as the heat of the sun began to fade, we would make our way into Oia to wander through it’s white-washed facades, marvel at the brilliant blue church domes, and enjoy some of the best sunsets in the world. The Greek islands are meant to be soaked up slowly, like the warmth of the winter sun through your window. Santorini’s beauty is its own secret ingredient for a little added sweetness.
On the backside of the caldera, which falls much more gently down to the sea, we found a few unexpected delights. The first was a trip to Sigalas Vineyards for some wine tasting. We didn’t plan to taste wine in Greece, as France, Italy, and Germany are much more widely acclaimed for their grapes, but were pleasantly surprised by Sigalas. The dry, volcanic soil makes life difficult for the grapes, resulting in a dense, sweet taste unique to this part of the world. Our verdict was easy: we needed to make room in our luggage to take some home!
Deciding we wanted a little excursion away from town, we took the bus to Perissa, a black sand beach near the ruins of ancient Thira, on the backside of the caldera. We had never seen black sand before, but our excitement quickly faded when we realized how uncomfortably hot it was. Under normal conditions we would have enjoyed a relaxing afternoon sunbathing by the water, but here, under the intense midday sun, we decided instead to retreat back to our pool, and some cold drinks.
Our last meal in Greece is one that we will never forget. We walked the steep steps down to the crater at the far end of Oia, all the way to the water, to a small bay named Amoudi. The bay only supports a few fishermen and the restaurants they deliver to, making for an intimate dining experience. With tables so close to the water you must be careful not to drink too much wine or you might join the fishes! Here you'll find only the freshest seafood, and a sunset view to die for. The special that day was a squid stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and spices. Upon being presented with the entire squid, something we've never had to deal with back home, we had to ask our good-humored waiter how to eat it. He replied, "You take your knife and your fork and you eat it!" Nostimo! And as the sun sank into the waters of the Aegean, it was a perfect way to end our time in Greece.