Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini
Trip Start May 21, 2009
1Trip End Jan 29, 2010
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Where I stayed
Mykonian Ambassador Hotel
Aressana Hotel (Santorini)
After a long flight to Philadelphia, and then a longer flight to Athens, sitting separately on crowded US Airways planes, Sharrone and I arrived 9am local time in Athens on Friday, May 22, 2009.
We had planned to take the metro to downtown, but at the ticket counter discovered that the line by the airport was closed due to construction of new stations. The ticket agent convinced us to take the suburban rail line and transfer to the metro. She wrote down the name of the station we needed to transfer from phonetically in English.
However, we missed the station by one stop from looking for a stop starting with an "A," when the station was spelled with an “O.” Everything is spelled with the Greek Cyrillic alphabet, and in smaller font below a phonetic version in English
After finding our way on foot to the hotel (thanks to more helpful passersby), we checked in to the Central Hotel on Apollonus. The small, modern hotel was on an alley-sized winding road in the Plaka neighborhood, which is full of cafes, shops, street markets, and an old cathedral.
Athens presented itself as a labyrinthine collection of small alleys passing as streets and small streets passing as boulevards. Marble shows up casually and unexpectantly on curbs and sidewalks. Crumbly buildings from antiquity stand next to refurbished and new ones with iron balconies and window sills with geraniums.
Our first impression of Athenians was that they are friendly, eager to help with directions and travel tips, and that they enjoy the art of conversation. That first day we had lunch “al fresco” in the Plaka at one of the numerous sidewalk tavernas with pigeons at our feet. We then walked through the Monastiraki flea market and shops
Our first impression of Greek and the Cyrillic alphabet is how confusing they are to speakers of English and users of the Roman alphabet. For instance, the Cyrillic “P” sounds like the Roman “R;” the Cyrillic “Y” sounds like the Roman “U.” Of course, the Cyrillic alphabet predates the Roman (as it is the first true alphabet). Until the Middle Ages, Greek was the language of the Western world, but now is pretty much spoken only by Greeks. It has an interesting cadence and sounds unlike any language I’ve heard, and every word seems multisyllabic—even the word for “help,” which for safety’s sake, I think should be monosyllabic!
We took a nap from 4-8pm, then headed to the Psirri neighborhood on foot. We stopped for some yummy gelato to eat as we walked in the warm sun. When we arrived in the Psirri area, we sat for some pastry and coffee at a sidewalk café. Two male patrons played guitar and bazouki, singing traditional Greek songs for our free entertainment. A stray dog visited our table after I’d finished eating, but I gave him some water in a clean ashtray. Homeless dogs are ubiquitous here. Most of them seem well-fed, but (oddly) seem to wander around solo (instead of in little pairs or packs) and rather sad
After, we felt up for a more lively scene, and on the advice of two women passing by, headed for the Gazi area. We found it teeming with people hanging around, eating, drinking, dancing, and conversing inside and outside numerous clubs, bars, tavernas, and restaurants. We ended up meeting three guys who invited us to sit and drink with them. Two were brothers who spoke English: Paris and Argos (an engineer and an architect), and their younger friend Vasili who spoke no English. After a few rounds, Vasili left and we followed the other two to a club for some dancing. At around 4am, the area was still hopping, but we bid our farewells to the brotherly duo.
Outside, we soon met two other guys: one was half British/half Greek who had completed his Masters degree in the UK and then one year of mandatory military service in the Greek army. His Greek friend spoke no English, but kept conveying his immediate love for Sharrone. They drove us back to our hotel and then came up to the rooftop bar to continue our conversation. Somehow we managed to squeeze the four of us into the tiny hotel elevator, but wondered whether the desk clerk had a fatherly concern for us, or had an extra hotel charge on his mind as he worried aloud whether we were taking them to our room. We paired off on the otherwise empty rooftop bar and talked until the sun rose over the Acropolis.
Sharrone and I slept until 10am (about three whole hours) before rising for breakfast in the mezzanine dining room
On our walk back to the hotel we shopped and window-shopped. I bought a nice royal blue sundress that wouldn’t take up too much room in the suitcase and I figured would go so well with the azure Greek sea and sky. Back at the hotel, I showered, and then we slept—for a late siesta—from about 7-11pm (more or less).
After rousing ourselves, deciding to enjoy some nightlife again, dressing, and getting ready, we thought we’d take the metro to save our feet from pavement-pounding (and save time), but one section was closed from construction and we backtracked and wandered trying to get back to the previous night’s nightlife area. We had forgotten the name of the station and the neighborhood: Sharrone guessed the neighborhood as Giza, I remembered the station as multisyllabic, starting with a “K.” Not much help unless we wanted to see some pyramids in Egypt, or head for Kolonaki station when we should have headed to the [closed but correct] Keramikos station
Most places had stopped serving real food, but we got sandwiches at one outdoor café, then wandered around. The neighborhood was still crowded but winding down. At another spot, we had a beer and cocktail, then left when they started closing up at 5am. As we walked out, we were thronged by some guys speaking French to us. Sam was delighted when I could converse en Francaise, as he could not speak English. One of his friends could speak Greek but like Sam was not Greek. Another friend told Sharrone in French that she reminded him of his ex-wife (not deceased wife as she thought he said). I don’t think he realized what a poor pick-up line that remark was anyway.
Sam was young, Arab-French, and probably from some poor suburban ghetto on the outskirts of Paris. He said he worked for a crematorium and not surprisingly hated his job. Sam thought I was in my mid-twenties; apparently since everyone starts chain smoking at 15 in Greece, it is easier to look younger as a lifelong non-smoker
We slept from 6am to 2pm. We got up, and headed to the Acropolis. The booklet from the hotel said it closed at 3pm, the desk clerk said it closed at 5pm. We bought a day pass at the metro and took it to the Acropolis station. Since Sharrone had been to the Acropolis on her last visit and her ankle was still sore, she decided to wait by the station near shopping and dining establishments while I made the hike up to the top. It was about 4pm when we arrived and I thought I had an hour before they closed it up. I hurried uphill, berating myself for forgetting both my hat and water bottle in the hotel room. When I reached the top, I discovered that they were closing at 8pm! I had hurried unnecessarily and Sharrone would end up wondering why I wouldn’t return til way after the expected closing time.
I looked around and took photos of the Dionysos Theatre, the Odeum of Herodes, the Parthenon, Acropolis, and panoramic views of Athens
I walked back on the northwest side past the ancient Agora, Stoa of Attalus, and Thesseia. I bought a bottle of water from some local entrepreneurs. Then I walked along Adrianou street, filled with sidewalk cafes, outdoor eateries, street vendors, and numerous pedestrians and diners. Rather than climbing back over or around Mount Lycabettos, I caught the subway at the Monastiraki station to Stygmata, then changed trains back to the Acropolis station where I met back up with Sharrone at 5:45pm: starving, sweaty, and thirsty. Sharrone had already eaten but agreed to head back to Adrianou by subway where we stopped at a nice outdoor café with a misting fan. I had a large Greek salad and a spiral spinach pie. The waiter brought complimentary bread with tapenade and a bowl of cherries at the end of the meal. I bagged some of the food and got a bottle of water to give to some stray dogs we’d inevitably encounter later.
African street vendors set up impromptu stalls nearby
Sharrone got some baklava and iced tea. We sat and ate for a couple hours then walked up to Gazi for people watching and iced coffee. We headed back at 10:30 to enjoy the rooftop Jacuzzi at our hotel. That plan lost its appeal when we discovered the Jacuzzi had lukewarm, seemingly unchlorinated water with weak jets. So we showered and packed up to catch our flight to Mykonos Monday at noon.
The flight to Mykonos on Aegean took just a half hour. We stayed at the Mykonian Ambassador hotel, which sent a shuttle to pick us up. It, like most buildings there, was in the Cycladic architectural style: white stuccoed stone buildings, blocky and terraced into the hills with brightly painted balconies and trim (mostly blue, but also grey, turquoise, deep red, or yellow). Bouganivilla, oleander, and geraniums add splashes of color.
We checked in to a fairly large room with a sea view balcony and a modern bathroom. Below was a nice swimming pool and a palapa filled beach. The Aegean is deep blue and clear. Streets here are narrow, winding, and mostly unmarked, designed centuries ago to confuse pirates. People rent scooters and ATVs to get around. Although only 5-6000 residents call the island home, as many or more tourists alight between April and September (mostly German, but some French, Italian, British, and Americans).
Based on the website we thought our hotel would be in the main town but we were actually about two miles away on hilly terrain
We ate in the “Little Venice” area where we had pasta at a waterside taverna, watching the sun set as water lapped ashore below. Then we strolled along the narrow stone paved alleys filled with tourist shops and tourists. Clubs and bars had dj’s spinning loud techno and American pop music for gyrating college kids. Sharrone began feeling worse, so we looked for a pharmacy, but they were out of antibiotics and the only other one was closed. So we headed back to the hotel so she could pop some Aleve and go to sleep, while I finished Corelli’s Mandolin-the perfect book to take to Greece, as it was set there and delved into its history. The book was well-written but its conclusion was unsatisfactory!
I slept from 1:30-9:30. Sharrone had been up earlier but then gone back to bed, so I had breakfast in the hotel restaurant overlooking the sea and then checked some emails on the lobby computer.
Later Sharrone and I took the bus back to Hora (the main town)
At the port I befriended a little cat who looked like my tortoiseshell Gingersnap (except this one looked to be a nursing mama). She belonged more or less to a lady who worked the fee toilets nearby. A couple of handsome wiry sailors lingered about, trying to engage us but realized we weren't speaking Greek. One asked me (presumably) in Greek if I had a light for his cigarette, then gave up and wandered off.
We bought our Blue Star ferry tickets to Santorini, but found that the direct route was sold out, so we had to take the slower route via Paros for 35 euro. The ferry ticket agent told me that my name in Greek means “destiny.”
Later we befriended the famous white pelican Petros (or actually, his symbolic descendent) and had crepes at a sidewalk café at St. Aghia Annda Beach. The animated waiter spoke fluent tourist: he could, in five languages, say “how are you,” “where are you from,” and “how would you like your coffee?”
Items sold in every souvenir shop in Greece: worry beads; evil eye amulets, glass jewelry, and key rings; Minerva’s owls; dolphin figurines; Greek coins; reproductions of phallic-themed ancient art; olive oil soaps; machine-embroidered reproductions of traditional needlework; and of course, scenic or “clever” t-shirts, totebags, and baseball caps
The locals have a term for the young native Greek men who live for the late spring and summer influx of foreign girls open to an anonymous holiday fling. They call these young men “kamakia,” which literally translates to “harpoons.”
No harpoons for us, we cabbed back to our hotel at Platis Gialos Beach to watch some silly local television shows. Sharrone fell asleep early, so I enjoyed some wine and added to my travel journal from the balcony. A rooster crowed in the distance…actually an enjoyable pastoral sound we hear at all hours here.
In the morning we enjoyed a last breakfast at the wonderful hotel restaurant, packed up, and checked out. The hotel shuttle first dropped a couple off at the airport, then took us to the port. The ferry from Mykonos to Paros and then Naxos was small, but then we changed to a huge ferry to Santorini. At our first stop, in Paros, we had an hour to grab some snacks and stroll around. Lots of backpackers were on that island. We watched an old man make a produce delivery to a grocery store with his donkey. We then sat at the port among all the outdoor seating for the cafes and tavernas. Sharrone thought she bought a sweet pastry but bit into a hot dog hidden inside. So we fed it to a hungry beggar cat.
The ferry cruises past numerous small Cycladian islands: Naxos is the largest in the chain and looked the most mountainous
We caught a cab up the cliff to the hotel, the Aressana, which faced the Atlantis (another hotel we’d considered). Ours had modern décor in mostly black and white. After dropping off our things, we walked around Thira, the town. Cruise shippers invade the town by day and come up the steep cliffs via cable sky buckets or on the backs of donkeys. They flood the tourist shops for quick souvenirs and the restaurants for quick lunches, then head back before dark.
We strolled the winding, steep, cobble stoned alleys and looked at all the restaurants, hotels, and homes perched and terraced precariously on the cliff of the caldera. We chose one restaurant hanging off a cliff. After we ate, the waiter brought us complimentary glasses of raki, which tasted like rubbing alcohol. We wondered how many people toppled off the cliffs of Santorini after drinking too much: it is hard enough to stay perched sober!
After we attempted some nightlife first at a jazz bar, then a pub. At the pub, Manchester vs Barcelona captivated soccer fans. The last stop was a club packed with more college kids getting their grooves on.
The next day was our only full day on Santorini, as we’d spent most of the first on the slow ferry trip
I had another lunch of spinach pie from a stand. This area was not quite as lively as it seemingly would be in a few weeks. The town was filled with palapa-lined hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs waiting for the summer crowds. From Kamari we took the bus to Akritini, the red beach, which was circled by huge red cliffs and boulders. As we walked uphill toward the beach, we chatted up a piratey looking guy selling jewelry, then looked around and took photos.
In the afternoon, we took the bus back to Thira, showered, changed, and discussed a plan to see Oia by sunset, world-famous for its beauty. Before we left, we unsuccessfully tried printing our boarding passes out, dawdled, and missed the sunset. We took the bus to Oia nonetheless, strolled around, window shopped, and had dinner. Though a family friend highly recommended a local restaurant, it was off the beaten path and we worried we’d be stuck out there afterward with no way back to the hotel. So we cabbed back at about 11pm, packed up, rose at 5am, and by 6am headed to the airport for our flight back to Athens and then Los Angeles.
I would love to return to Greece someday, and would go back to Athens for sure. It would be nice to see Delphi and points north. However, I would probably head to different islands: Crete, and perhaps Cephalonia (the setting of Corelli’s Mandolin). Also, although this trip was enjoyable, we would have benefited from having more time (but that often seems the case, doesn’t it?).