Souvlaki and the Acropolis

Trip Start Jan 01, 2012
Trip End Aug 15, 2014

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hello Again,

 A bucket list. Everybody seems to have that magic list of things to do before its too late. My list seems to grow with every book that I read, movie I see and person that I meet. I have kind of had to break my list down my continent and slowly but surely I am doing my best to conquer it. My latest adventure has seen me crossing Greece off of my list.

As I write this I am sailing onboard the Blue Star Naxos, a giant ferry carrying me from Santorini back to Athens before I board that 'lovely' BA plane back to reality in two days time. I guess I am getting a bit ahead of myself and so I sahll regress back to the start of this trip. Do you remember my 'lovely' tour guide from Italy? Well courtesy of her antics I got a 30 percent discount off a Greek Island hopping tour. I have to admit that a group tour was not my first choice for Greece but given the high cost of travelling independantly I couldn't justify the cost difference. I also had a two night voucher for the Grande Bretagne hotel in Athens, so I thought I would combine the two. 

It will be no suprise  to know that I was stopped by customs at Heathrow by a big burly female security guard with a moustach who felt the need to feel me up and then proceed to undo my hair bobby pin by bobby pin. It is the second time in a year that my hair has been deemed a security alert. I seem to attract trouble at airports. Is it my Swiss passport, New Zealand Accent, British Driving License or mispronounced surname? Maybe its a combination of all of them. 

After navigating the Greek metro system, which I have to admit  was far cleaner, more spacious and most important of all air conditioned in comparison to the London  equivalent I arrived at my first hotel in Athens. I had missed my groups welcome meeting so instead dined at the hotels restaurant on the rooftop. The hotel may have been in the wrong part of town but the views it had of the Acropolis were stunning. I had my first taste of Greek cuisine and as I sat there eating with such an amazing backdrop I felt like all was right in the world

The next day I met tour group and we began with a walking tour of Athens. Our guide Themes aka Themey, a small Greek man, shared tales of the vities rich history with us. By now I have done a few tours and excusions and I have to say that I have never had a guide so passionate and well versed in history, culture and cuisine. He told us stories of Greek Gods and as he did so he brought the characters to life and gave us a glimpse into ancient Greece. We made our way through the old town, the Plaka district, around the Acropolis and through the new town. For a city I had been given so many bad reviews of I was pleasantly suprised. I got lost in leather sandal heaven as shop after shops of leather goods paved the straight. Lucky for my bank balance Greek women have small feet and so sadly they dont cater for giant hoofs like mine. 

That afternoon a small group of us took a bus out to Cape Sounion. We stopped for a buffet meal along the way at a small family run restaurant on the coast. As for the rule about not swimming ona  full stomach we took a blond eye and spent a few leisurely hours at the beach soaking up the sun. I had almost forgotten what sun felt like and having left behind 10 degree weather in London the 30 degree weather in Greece felt like heaven on my pasty skin. The cape itself was beautiful and I was suprised when I found myself an inch away from standing on a turtle that appeared out of no where and seemed very out of place given that we were on a cliffs edge. That night we headed for a group meal at a typical touristy restaurant compelte with with tradtional dancing and costumes, and music played on a buzuki. It may have been cheesy and the food only average but there is just something special about being at a Greek restaurant in Greece with the Acropolis in the background and music in the air thats could I not have enjoyed it? 

Day three saw a ridiculously early start as we took a ferry to Mykonos. I won't bore you with the details of the ferry ride but the arrival into Mykonos was everything and more than I hoped it would be. Whitewashed square buildings with blue shutters and paved streets with painted white lines. It was picture perfect and looked like every movie and postcard I had ever seen of the Greek Islands. Our hotel was a beach front property. The beach itself complete with with small bars and thatched umbrellas was amazing. The fact each umbrella came with its own buzzer for cocktails only made it that much better. As I sat with my strawberry daquiri in hand (later followed by some midori concoction), kindle in the other and my sunnies on all I could think about was how fortunate I was to be able to experience it. Hell, it sure beat being at work. 

Mykonos town was so idyllic and cute and despite the hundreds of photos I took not a single one of them does justice to the quaintness of the main town, with its small shps, friendly locals and blue and white paint jobs. 

The next day we took a ferry out to the island of Delos. A sacred island in Greek history with of the most preserved ruins in the country. I was thankful for the guide as had I gone on my own, the island would have just seemed like a pile of crumbling rocks but with the guides narrative those crumbling rocks transformed into a village with shops, houses, temples, a theatre and the famous Terrace of the Lions. I spent that afternoon getting list in the back streets of Mykonos. Like Venice getting lost was inevitable and added to the charm of the town. I brought a beautiful hand painted wallet and had fun bartering with the shopkeeper. What wasnt so fun was desperatley huntingfor a bathroom in a hurry when the change in diet finally caught up with me. 

From Mykonos we sailed to Paros, another island with the same charm of Mykonos but with a much more lived in feel. Unlike Mykonos where the locals only stay for the summer season, Paros is inhabited year round. We stayed at a beautiful but basic hotel sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. We had a morning orientation tour where we visted Panagia Ekatontapiliani-the church of a hundred doors, the picturesque village of Lefkes before heading to Naoussa for ou tasting. Whilst most people hated the ouzo I was right in my element enjoying my drink of choice. Ah how I love Aniseed....Raki in Turkey, Arak in Jordan, Pastis in France, Sambucca in Italy and now Ouzo in Greece.

It poured down with rain that afternoon and as the heavens opened I hid in a small cafe feasting on local dumplings smothered in chocolate. We had a Greek barbeque for tea. It was a meat eaters heaven...not quite so much for the two vegetarians on tour. Next up came a day on Naxos, another inhabited island but quitewith the same charm as the prvious two islands we had visited. Although raining again, time passed quickly at a small bar with EUR4.00 cocktails on offer.

From Naxos we sailed to Santorini. Thank goodness for the sudden change in the weather or else I might have cried. Fortunately instead of rain we were greetedby blue sky and sun. Arriving into Santorini was like arriving at paradise, each country  each city I go to seems to top the last but Santorini takes the cake. I have never been to a place so beautiful in all my life and every movie I have ever seen of the place as beautiful and inspirational as they have been does not do justice to the real thing, Blue domed churches, whitewashed buildings and wrought iron outdoor furniture dotted the cliffs. 

We drove to the small village of Oia to watch the world famous sunset which was every bit as spectacular as I had been lead to believe. Despite being off season there were still hundreds gathered at the Ventian Castle on the towns tip to watch the sunset, As the sun dipped behind the horizon the crowd burst into applause and then within what seemed to be minutes vanished. It seemed such a shame they left so quickly as the village itself had so much to offer and they also missed out on an amazing full moon. 

For dinner we went to a small local taverna owned by the Simos family. I had a specialty of the island which was tomato balls for starters followed by wine soaked chicken. I am not one to try new things with food unless abroad where sampling the local cuisine is as much about experiencing the culture as seeing the sights but this trip has taught me that Ive been missing out on some amazing experiences. I thought the food in Italy and Germany was to die for but Greece puts up a damn good fight and the food is out of this world. I still haven't changed my mind about Tomato or Feta cheese so that's ruled out Green salads but my tastebuds have definately been treated on this trip. 

Day two in Santorini saw us on a private boat sailing to the islands caldera, It was a beautiful old ship that I can only describe as looking like a pirate ship. We anchored and after a half hour trek to the volcanic crater we were rewarded with some amazing viewsof the island. From there we sailed to a cove where we swam to an area of sulphuric mud where we beathed in the stinky green mud that supposed to be good for the skin. I was so proud that I was able to swim/doggy paddle the 150m each way. To any normal person this is northing but to me it was a real achievement given my fear of deep water and inability to swim properly.

 A consequence of the mudbath is that we all stunk like sulphur for the next two days but as I sat on that pirate ship having our picnic lunch and sipping on box wine as we sailed to shore I really didnt care. Our options back up the hill  from the port to the village where we stayed were 586 steps or a donkey ride. I opted for the donkey and enjoyed the ride but the small of the sulfur combined with the smell of the donkey and the donkey pee I managed to get on my leg meant I was not smelling like roses by the end of it. Nevermind...there were 29 other people smelling just as ripe as I was. 

I spent the afternoon wandering through the shops chatting with all the shopkeepers. The Greeks are such friendly people and unlike the Morroccans, or Turks or Egyptians who wll say anything to get you into their shops the Greeks are just content to be practising their English. I loved seeing he older men sitting at cafes playing chess and backgammon. Their sunkissed wrinkles told stories of a life well lived. They seemed so content and I couldn't help but admire their easy relaxed way of life. Island time exists in Greece too and it seems the locals have priorities right with friends and family being valued over things. 

I spent my last night in Santorini at a bar. What was supposed to only be one drink turned into six but it was nice to be able to let my hair down for a change and let go. My roomate and I by some miracle giggled our way the 20 minute walk back to our hotel. This morning whilst she nursed a hangover I fortunately nursed nothing but fond memories from the night before. 

And so that brings me back to the present on my ferry back to Athens. We are in port at Naxos and I can see that a fire has erupted on the island and the night sky is alight with flames.  I feel so sad to be leaving paradise behind but thankful all the same that I got to experience it when so few others get to. I would go back to Santorini in a heartbeat and maybe one day I can come back and share it with someone special. They say it is one of the most magnificent places on earth and I completely agree. Tomorrow I have two days in Athens to look forward to which I will be sure to update you on. 

Me again...after goodbyes from the tour I spent the morning roaming around the Plaka District, for a market lover like me it was heaven. I felt like it was broken into distinct categories, antiques, leather, alternative, jewellery and souvenirs. I had a ball just roaming for hours. The alternative section felt like a mini Camden and as well as looking through the shops I enjoyed people watching just as much. I began my hunt for my Greek souvenir and shunning the usual tourist tack I narrowed it down to either a backgammon board burned with a picture of the local area or some traditional shadow puppets....the hunt was on. 

That afternoon I made it up the Acropolis and to the Parthenon. It felt very surreal to be there and the views were stunning. I had no idea Athens was so big and from the top of the hill it felt like the city just carried on forever. I was brought back to reality when a German tourist took a head first slip down a rocky slope. Greece is full of marble, back home marble is expensive but here it can be found everywhere in abundance-wood is the novelty. Marble is slippery especially in a pair of jandals that are on their last legs. The amount of times I have slipped since being here is so ridiculous that I couldnt even begin to give you a number so I felt so sorry when I saw this woman crack her head. With tentative steps I carefully made my way back to my beautiful five star hotel where I soaked in my giant marble bathtub for the rest of the evening. Just so you know im that uncoordinated that I even managed to slip in the marble of my bathroom... 

The next day I continued my mission for my souvenir. I was hunting through some shadow puppets when two little Greek girls came up to me and started happily shouting 'karagiozis'-the name of the main puppet and tugging on their mums sleeve. It cemented it for me that they were a part of Greek culture and so the backgammon board lost out to the puppets.  In the shop I made the poor owner hunt through every puppet as I was determined I wanted original hand made puppets and not the cheap tourist knock offs. If something is given to you in Greece it's rude to refuse and so I suddenly found myself in the middle of a puppet shop having lunch with a non English speaking Greek Grandpa and his grandaughter.  The homemade Spinach and Onion pie was delicious. I have to admit I was a bit alarmed when he pulled out homebrewed wine in a plastic Coke bottle from behind a shelf but like the pie it was delicious too. I happily left the shop with puppets in one hand and a doggy bag in the other with another peice of pie and my own bottle of homebrew to take with.  

I like the Greek way of doing things, theres never a hurry or need to rush and there is always time to have a glass of something to drink with family or friends old and new. Only in greece would I find myself sitting down to wine and lunch in a puppet shop with somebodies grandpa.... I spent my last afternoon poolside soaking up the sun whilst enjoying the rest of my homebrew. I couldnt think of a more perfect way to end my holiday. 

I am so thankful to have experienced the magic of this country first hand. I had been given so many bad reviews of Greece and in particular of Athens that I was concerned I had too much time here. What this trip has taught me is that everybody's journey is different and while this may not be some peoples cup of tea I feel like I struck gold the minute I arrived. My only wish is that I could share the history, the culture and the people with you all, I hope that maybe in some small way this post goes a little way towards doing this. 

And so here's to you Greece, Yasou! 
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