Our Greek holiday in amazing Athens and spectacular Santorini
When discussing where to travel, Greece was a bucket list country for both of us, so we agreed to make getting there a priority. We flew Aegean Airlines to Athens, which we highly recommend as it was on time and had friendly and impeccably dressed staff who served us delicious aeroplane food despite our economy seats. This was in contrast to our departing flight on Volotea which you can read about in my review on Tripadvisor.
We sipped coffee with our Airbnb host in central Athens while gazing at his direct balcony view of the ancient Acropolis perched on a hill towering over an ugly modern office building below. Our host recounted his past in an economic profession before the financial collapse almost bankrupted the country. Now he generates his income from Airbnb and spends three months every summer on a Greek island fishing, a lifestyle he said he much prefers.
In the evening we walked the short distance to the tourist area below the Acropolis for what was probably the best dinner we ate on our entire trip. A perfect wine, food and flavour combination with outstanding service. at God's Restaurant.
The next morning we woke up early to visit the Acropolis site before departing Athens on a 4pm ferry bound for Santorini. The Acropolis is difficult to describe unless you have been there. Its presence is very imposing as it sits high on a mountain top above the city, observing its inhabitants as they go about their daily lives. The extensive damage to the buildings is evident as men throughout the centuries staged battles there and tried to intentionally destroy and loot this ancient structure. Despite this you can still imagine the giant gold statute of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon or the crowds who lined the tiered seats in the Theatre of Dionysus. Richard is impressed that early Greek architects managed to hold the buildings together using metal brackets, while many restoration attempts within the last century failed to preserve it using so called "superior" modern technology.
Santorini was formed in 1620 BC when a huge volcanic explosion created a caldera (the same thing as Lake Taupo in NZ) surrounded by several islands. Legend speculates that prior to the eruption it may have been the location of the fabled Atlantis civilisation, and ruins exist on the island to attest to this. Today the island is mostly famous for its stunning sunsets and blue domed white churches.
Originally we booked another boat company to transport us from Athens through the Greek islands to Santorini, however, about two months before they cancelled the sailing and instructed us to use a competitor (which seems slightly strange business practice). We found an alternative boat, and Richard expected the trip, stopping briefly at half a dozen Greek islands, to be a highlight of our time in Europe. Unfortunately the ferry ride didn't include the spectacular deck side views that he envisioned. The boat layout resembled an aeroplane, and we were positioned in worse seats possible in the middle of three aisles. Also most people with window seats choose to keep the curtains closed throughout the voyage. At that point I started reading company the reviews and struggled to find any positive comments. Luckily as passengers departed for their respective islands we managed to grab some window seats to watch the ocean before darkness. We arrived in Santorini around 10pm and headed up dark winding hillside roads from the port to our hotel with a taxi driver intent on speeding.
Later the following morning we strolled 20 minutes into Fira (the largest town on the island), and after a cheap and tasty lunch at Lucky's Souvlakis decided to try a unique foot bath, where we placed our feet in a tank full of live hungry fish who proceeded to exfoliate our skin. After being eaten alive by fish we needed ice cream and retail therapy, followed by dinner at a cliff top restaurant and our first Santorini sunset.
We investigated the many boat tour options available on the island from cheap group twilight cruises to extravagant boat hire with a crew costing thousands, and due to budgetary constraints opted for a 40 Euro day excursion. A tour bus picked us up from stop near our hotel and drove to the Athinios port to begin our journey on a traditional Greek boat. We set sail for the volcanic island of Nea Kameni and the volcano responsible for so much destruction centuries ago. A guide informed us its still active but since the last minor eruption was in 1950 we figured we were probably safe as we hiked the ascending path to the crater for some amazing views.
Back on the boat we cruised to another island Palea Kamen, where Richie got the chance to dive off the boat into nearby hot springs while those of us less brave passengers remained on the boat.
We disembarked at the next island Thirassia for lunch at one of several beachside restaurants located at the bottom of a steep rock face. Our last stop Oia required a walk up a very hilly path along a cliff to reach the main town. Perhaps because I am lazy and failed to consider the animal welfare issues until later, I decided to ride a donkey. This experience was not the leisurely stroll I hoped for, and I was completely terrified as my donkey galloped uncomfortably close to the sheer drop below.
Once my heart stopped racing, we wandered the town and found a bar selling over-priced cocktails overlooking the caldera to participate in Oia's most famous activity, sunset gazing.
As darkness fell we struggled to find our bus among the dozens of identical passenger vehicles in the carpark meeting point. Fortunately Richie's hair is like a beacon and we soon encountered several other people from our tour group.
The following day we rented a car which gave Richie his first experience of driving on the "wrong side" of the road. As another hurdle, nearly all European cars are also manual, but he got the idea after some practice runs down the island's mostly traffic free roads and my constant instructions to keep right. A car allowed us the freedom to stop at beaches not accessible by public transport at our own pace, and we took the opportunity to swim at several beaches before dinner by the seaside in Perissa.
We spent our last day visiting spots we had yet to explore including searching for the Anastasi Church which is an iconic blue domed building appearing in many promotional pictures for the island. In the 15 minutes we spent there we managed to witness a professional photographer taking pictures of an American girl who had paid for a photo shoot and catch a glimpse of a bride and groom.
After dropping our rental car off it became obvious that Santorini's tiny international airport resembles some domestic airports in New Zealand, and was clearly not designed for the two million tourist it caters for each year. Check-in lines stretched outside and we crammed into an almost standing room only waiting area to queue for our boarding gate.
During five days in Greece we realized that people speaking abruptly and constantly speeding on the roads as if impatient, while assuring you that everything is not a problem is just part of the culture, and that the laid-back Mediterranean attitude, temperate autumn climate and spectacular scenery and food were even impressive than we expected.