From the moment we arrived in Athens to the night we left Mykonos, Greece has been a whirlwind of adventure. Another early morning flight saw us arrive in Athens to stifling heat and bright sun, with brown landscape greeting us as the bus headed into the city. By the time we were checked into our hotel (a treat, as we had some loyalty points to use) we were already hot, sticky and dusty – a theme which would continue for the next few days!
After cooling off in the pool, we met our friends Carme and John who had just arrived from New Zealand, to enjoy a traditional Greek meal underneath the Acropolis. The next day we took a walking tour of the main historical highlights in Athens. Ever since my first classics class at age 16 I have been dreaming of seeing these monuments and sights, and to see the towering columns of marble and detailed inscriptions on walls which I had only seen in pictures, was magical.
Firstly we visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, to watch the changing of the Guards. We had a refresher on the founding history of Athens, including the battle of marathon and its occupation by various empires (Persian, Ottoman etc). The Temple of Zeus, although in ruins and with only a few columns left is still a majestic site. It’s base, standing in the centre of what used to be a sanctuary, once held 104 columns of marble which supported the colossal temple.
Checking out the Parthenon
As we began our way up the winding road on the Acropolis, we came across an Ascelope sanctuary. Ascelope was once a medicine man, struck down by Zeus for his power to bring people back to life. His legacy lived on however in these sanctuaries, where people came to stay overnight. They would dream of Ascelope’s snake and their dream determined the treatment they would be prescribed.
Further along the path was the theatre of Dionysus – with its marble seats, statues of characters and masks and well designed stage it was easy to imagine the ancient greeks enjoying plays here. Although perhaps not in the August heat! The nearby Odeion; the music hall, still hosts concerts year round, as its amphitheater design provides such good accoustics.
Nearly at the top, we saw the temple of Nike – the little godesses of victory. Finally we rounded the corner to enter the Parthenon via the road so many ancient greek travellers, visitors, priests and towns people had entered before us. The Parthenon, although smaller than the Temple of Zeus, is in better condition and was remarkably well maintained until the 17th century when it was bombed by the Venetians. Here we noticed the friezes along the tops of the columns, depicting stories of battles and various important myths. One of these was the birth of Athena – when Zeus learned of a prediction that his mistress was going to give birth to a son who would defeat him, he swallowed the mistress. Nine months later he had a pounding headache, and Hermes split his skull with an axe…. out jumped a fully formed Athena, who had been banging on the inside of his head ready to be “born”!
The Parthenon has a subtle feature which makes it all the more pleasing to the eye. It has no straight lines. The columns are all built on a slight angle, so that if they reached for 2 km they would meet, and the floor itself has a curvature. This is all purely for aesthetic reasons, and it works! Around the corner from the Parthenon is a smaller temple, where we saw the gifts of Poseidon and Athena to the people of Athens. These two initially fought over the right to rule Athens, and Poseidon struck his staff into the ground to create a spring of water for the people. The god of the sea’s gift was not well received however, since the water was salty. Athena then planted a seed and an olive tree grew – a much better gift, therefore she won the city of Athens.
We were fortunate enough to be staying nearby the Panathenaic stadium – the home of the modern olympics in 1896. Standing on the podium here was pretty cool!
Our journey in Greece continued from Athens via ferry. We embarked from the port of Piraeus at 7:30am, and 7.5 hours later berthed at Thira, Santorini. Although we could have taken a local bus, after the early morning, long ride and with the heat and our packs we decided we would take a taxi to our accommodation. We were staying in the quiet village of Imerovigli – a few km away from the main town of Thira.We were ushered into a shared van, paid 20 euro up front and were driven into Thira. Where we were dumped! I checked the name of the hotel and the address with the driver, but he assured us it was “just up the road”. Once we started walking up the congested pedestrian road it was clear we weren’t in the right place. We stopped to ask at a bar, which turned out to be run by a British man. Rolling his eyes when he heard about our driver, he said “welcome to Greece!” after which he gave us a seat, water, charged my phone, connected us to the wifi and rung our hotel for us. They wouldn’t come to collect us, so we had to keep going ourselves. We piled onto a bus which was so full with people we couldn’t move, and sat sweating and trying to breathe as it drove up the hill towards Imerovigli.
Here we got out, and asked at a car rental shop where our hotel was. They hadn’t heard of it they said…. we kept walking, but after seeing no sign of it, finding no street signs and having no cellphone reception, we stopped into a restaurant to ask. Yes, this lady had heard of it… but it was too far away to walk. We could take a taxi or a bus? At this point, hot, tired, flustered and despairing I explained that we had already tried both those options, as well as walking and asking people but we just could not get to this hotel. The kindness of strangers was well and truly in force that day – as she summonsed one of her employees to put our bags in the car and drive us there herself. Once we arrived, the manager was nowhere to be found…. she turned up 5 minutes later, after having driven to Imerovigli to find us since the car rental shop had rung her, telling her to come collect her guests!
Luckily the serene view over the caldera (crater of the volcano) made it all worthwhile. Our studio was exquisite, and away from the bustle of the town we felt completely at peace as we watched the sun set over a glass of wine.
The next day we met up with Carme and John again – who had just got engaged! This happy news set the mood for the day, and we set off upon the dirt cliff top trail which connects all the villages. We couldn’t walk fast in the heat, but enjoyed the views and plenty of breaks, before arriving in Oia two hours later. From this cute little village with its boutique shops, we headed down about 250 steps, sidestepping donkeys along the way! Just around the corner was Amoudi Bay – a spectacular swimming spot where we sunbathed, lunched, swam and jumped from the cliff into the clear ocean. We thought the water in France was clear! The Aegean is another step above.
After climbing back up the stairs and catching the bus back to our accommodation, we enjoyed dinner together in Thira, where we were able to check out a few of the shops as well. A lazy last morning was followed by an excursion to Red Beach – created by a landslide and surrounded by red rock, this small beach is novel but not as pristine as Amoudi Bay. That night there was a fireworks display over the volcano, and we had been invited by our new British friend to reserve a table at his cocktail bar. After a delicious meal in Imerovigli, we tried to catch the bus to Thira for the 9pm start. The time ticked by and no bus arrived, so we started to flag down cars…. a couple did stop, but they weren’t going in our direction. Many probably weren’t keen to take on 4 disheveled looking kiwis! Luckily a bus finally arrived, and we made it to the bar just on time. People were lining the streets for a view, so we felt privileged to have our front row table, where we enjoyed fabulous cocktails (John and James enjoyed their shared melon ball complete with sparkler, fruit kebabs and pink straws the most!) and watched the half hour display depicting the eruption of Santorini. Because the fireworks were being let off on the volcano a few km away from where we were, the sound took a long time to catch up with the light, so often the fireworks were finished by the time the booming reached our ears!
Santorini was a lovely island, more dusty and desert like than I had imagined, but with alot to offer.
The next day we caught our ferry to Mykonos, an island of which we had no expectations due to its reputation as a party spot, but we are so glad we made it there. Unlike Santorini, the island is surrounded by proper sand beaches, where people hire loungers and while away the afternoons with drinks in hand. Spoilt for choice, we were able to find a beach which had a good balance of young people, music and a bar, but was not the raving party of the famous Paradise Beach. In the town itself, I was surprised to find that the houses have a completely different look to those on Santorini – although still white and made of stone, instead of the curved dome roofs, these were all square with flat roofs.
We very appropriately got lost wandering through the tiny streets of Mykonos town – which was designed as a maze in order to confuse and slow down pirates trying to pillage the town.
Just when we thought everything was beginning to go smoothly again, we checked into the airport at Mykonos for our 10:30pm flight only to find it had been delayed by over an hour. By this time we were no longer surprised!