Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
~ Ray Bradbury
Greece and the Greek Isles
Greece, with a bit of Turkey
This was a real bucket list trip. The history of Greece and the ancients and the ruins that remain holding secrets of the past, the beauty of the land, and the rich culture have all called to me since I was little. I suspect it was a history class in elementary school where we learned about the Greek Gods and the myths associated with them that initially stirred my imagination. And then later in life there was the 1989 British film, Shirley Valentine, that brought Greece to life in a different way, a real way, a romantic way. In between those times, I was introduced to Greek food at Greek Town in Chicago. There was music, Ouzo ... and then there was, well, some Greek dancing. But that part of the story, much like parts of Greek history, has been sworn forever to secrecy!
Where did we go?
I traveled with a few women friends to explore ancient and modern Greece. Two days upfront were spent exploring the Acropolis and other ancient sites in Athens, tasting the cuisine, listening to the music, and wandering through the neighborhoods. Then off we went to catch a small cruise ship for 7 days of exploration of the Greek Isles.
Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece and, historically, the powerful empire and heart of Ancient Greece. The Acropolis and Parthenon temple from the 5th century are prominent landmarks in the city.
The Acropolis or 'Upper City' is worth the hike up hill to see the Parthenon and other buildings built in fifth century and to get a panoramic view of Athens in all directions. On a clear day, in the distance, you can see ships in the Port of Piraeus and other islands.
The small temple in the photo above is Athena of Victory that was dismantled in 1686 AD by the Turks and rebuilt in 1836 and again in 1936.
Because we arrived early morning, right when the site opened, we had some to time experience the spectacular ancient buildings and splendid views before the tour buses and hordes of tourists arrived. Get there early to really enjoy this site of one of the world's most advanced ancient civilizations.
Among some of the incredible structures you will see are the Pinacotheca through which you enter the site, the Parthenon, probably the most recognizable structure in the world, and the Erecthion, the most sacred site on the Acropolis.
The Acropolis Museum sits not far from the Acropolis itself and the view through the wall of windows on the 3rd floor provides a stunning view of the Acropolis. Watching the sunset cast it's hue on the 'Upper City' was a sight to behold.
The archeological museum houses artifacts found on the Acropolis and surrounding areas from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece. Nearly 4000 objects are on display.
The museum is built over an archeological excavation site which can be seen below through glass floors inside the museum and from a viewing platform at the entrance to the museum.
Vendors on the pedestrian walkway below the Acropolis offering roasted corn and bags of nuts, including pistachios.
The gastronomy of Greece is known for being both healthy and delicious and I must admit it did not disappoint. Everything was freshly made, olive oils, fresh veggies, crisp breads made that day, olives dripping in oil and it seemed most everything was sprinkled with dried oregano. Meals were meant to be shared and no one was rushed from a table. Stay as long as you like and enjoy!
Greece is known for healthy foods. In my mind I was sure that all the desserts in the wonderful little bakeries throughout the city were also healthy. There were yogurt parfaits as well as dense, moist cakes of all kinds and lots of sweet treats made with filo dough, honey and pistachios, and of course the traditional baklava rich with nuts and dripping in honey lining the shelves and tempting our resolve. It was impossible to select just one delight to try!
We found a wonderful, little café on the backstreets of Athens, at the base of the Acropolis. What a delightful surprise.
Coffee is part of life in Greece, very much entrenched in their culture and is considered to be something to be lingered over, sometimes for hours. There are hot coffees made in a traditional Greek manner and served in a little copper vessel called a briki.
My favorite coffee as a break from the heat of the afternoon was a cold coffee drink called a Greek Frappe. Now coffee aficionados, don't freak out when you read this, but it is made with ... wait ... Nescafe instant coffee. Yup, you read that right. This is not just any Nescafe, but a special version made just for Greek Frappes. Honestly, it is the smoothest coffee I have ever tasted. No acidity and no bitterness. Add a scoop of ice cream to your frappe and you will believe you have arrived to heaven.
By the way, don't ask for sugar to be brought to the table to sweeten your coffee. In Greece, you will instead be asked how much sugar you want in your coffee. Sketos means no sugar. One sugar is metros, two is glycos and if you want it very sweet then say variglykos, which would be more that two sugars and they will put it in for you while preparing it.
The Botanical Gardens adjacent to the Presidential Palace and Stytagma Square is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, as well a shaded relief from the heat and the sun. Be prepared to get lost wandering the gardens as the pathways twist and turn. But it is well worth visiting.
The gardens are varied and beautiful. There is a turtle pond that is popular with adults and children alike where the turtles are struggling to get to the top of the pile to sleep in the sun or sliding off the pile into the water for a bit of cooling down.
At the end of wandering through the gardens, we found a little café tucked in amongst the trees where we enjoyed a cool refreshing drink. It was a lovely break in day from visiting ruins and churches.
This is one of the charming pedestrian streets a bit farther back in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens that offered a bit of respite from the crowds.
Back in the center of Plaka open air restaurants and cafes galore are filled with tourists from opening until late into the evening, and pedestrian walkways are lined with shops filled with souvenirs of all levels of quality. If you want the evil eye, this is place to find it on everything from a keychain to clothing to linens.
One of the grandest Greek Orthodox churches in Athens is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. Construction began in 1842 and boasts an opulent interior. The walls were constructed with marble from 72 demolished churches. Following an earthquake in 1999 the church is now used only for weddings, funerals and important ceremonies for important political figures, but you can enter the front of the church to view the interior.
Sitting adjacent to the 'Metropolitan', as it is called, is little, stone church dating back to the 12th century.
Photo courtesy of Diane Christiansen
One cannot visit Athens without seeing the ceremonial changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Greek Parliament Building on Styntagma Square. We arrived early to get a good spot before the crowds arrived, but being on the short side, people shuffled their way to the front and I was hard pressed to get a good view of the ceremony, although I thoroughly enjoy what I did see.
The Evones, who are an elite and highly trained special force and Presidential Guards, have the honor of guarding the tomb located in front of the Parliament building. You will also see guard stations all around the perimeter of the grounds.
The guards are dressed in full uniform, donning a white kilt (with 400 pleats), red cap with a long black tassel, white wool tights, and red clogs with pompons on top and metal studs on the sole to provide dramatic clicking. Standing in the heat of the day, I was hard pressed to comprehend how the guards were able to stand motionless for a hour at a time in a woolen uniform without passing out. They go through extensive training to prepare for this honored post.
If in Athens on a Sunday, head on over to Syntagma Square to watch the ceremonial changing of the guards at 11 a.m. If you can't be there at that time, then find a guard booth around the perimeter and there you can watch the ceremony on a small scale as one guard ceremoniously changes their post with another. I personally preferred being out of the crowd and just watching the pomp and circumstance displayed when the individual guards were changed. It felt very up close and personal.
Mykonos is Greece's most popular, cosmopolitan island known for vibrant nightlife. The island, and principal town, was named after Mykons, the son of the god Apollo and is said to the be the location of the battle between Zeus and the Titans, and also where Hercules killed the giants. I loved wandering through the winding walkways between whitewashed buildings and colorfully painted stair railings, window frames and shutters.
When someone mentions Santorini it usually congers up thoughts of white washed buildings and blue domes on a rugged landscape, with a backdrop of blue sky and turquoise waters. Beautiful beaches, ancient cities and spectacular scenery, including an active volcano, make this one of the most popular islands in Greece.
Cafes and restaurants run the entire length of the upper ridge of the caldera at Fira on the island of Santorini, a great place relax with a glass of wine, a frappe or enjoy a meal and enjoy the beauty of Greece.
The village of Oia on the northwestern tip of the island of Santorini is most known for the white churches with blue domes and whitewashed houses carved into the cliffs and is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places on the island. The view of nearby islands dotting the Aegean Sea and the town draped, as a sheet of white on the edge of the cliff, was breathtaking. There were fewer blue domes than I had hoped, but really how many churches does a small village need?
The crowds on the main narrow pedestrian walkway with shops and galleries, in parts, made it difficult to pass, but once I made it through the crowds and arrived at the overlook it was well worth the effort as the view of the town and surrounding islands was stunning.
I went a bit off the beaten path and away from the throngs of tourists to see some windmills high atop the hill and experience the quiet and charming town that exists away from the visiting crowds below.
Besides the panoramic views and stunning architecture, Oia also has many shops, eateries, galleries, a maritime museum. There are also 300 steps that take you down the calderon to a dock below where you can catch a boat to the nearby island of Thirassia. This would be a wonderful place to enjoy the sunset.
In Fira, a walk up some steps is well worth the effort to see St. John Catholic Cathedral. The ornate clock tower can be see throughout the city. Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist this cathedral was damaged in a 1956 earthquake and renovated in 1976. The interior is ornately beautiful with an interior blue lilac dome.
Right next to the cathedral complex you will find the wonderful little Magaro Gyzi Museum tucked away. It is really worth the few euros entry fee to go in and look around this 17th century mansion and five permanent exhibitions. There is everything from authentic maps and engravings dating back to the 15th century, old paintings of Santorini, and manuscripts dating back to the 6th century.
Up the stairs in the rear of the museum you find small loft with a display of old paintings.
This incredible structure is the Archeological Museum in Fira. It houses sculptures, ceramics, statues and vessels from the ancient cemetery in Thera. It was closed on the day we were there so I can't speak to the exhibits. I did read that although it is a worthwhile museum to visit, it was on the small side, and the Prehistoric Museum is more impressive. What I can attest to is the architectural design is quite stunning in all white with outstretched arms of arches.
After descending 600 steps of the Donkey Stairs from Fira on Santorini I arrived at day's end just in time for this gorgeous sunset.
The Donkey steps got their name because donkeys work carrying tourists up and down from the town of Fira at the top of the calderon to the boat dock below and back again.
I really had mixed feelings about the donkeys climbing these steps in the heat of day with the sun bearing down and was concerned for their welfare. There were other options than riding the donkeys for getting up and down the calderon.
There was the option of riding a tram that would swiftly and safely take you to the top or you could walk the steps yourself if you felt strong and adventurous.
I must admit that I was somewhat tempted by the experience and to be able to say I road a donkey up the stairs to Fira, but I overcame that and ultimately took the tram up and worked off a few calories from that mid-afternoon frappe by walking down the 600 steps.
Crete is the birthplace of Zeus, according to Greek mythology. The terrain is varied from sandy beaches to mountain and the well known Ideon Cave. This is Greece's largest and most populated island filled with beautiful beaches and ancient treasures. See the video of Knossos Palace below.
Visiting the Knossos Palace and Archaeological Site on the island of Crete provided a glimpse into life back in 2000 BCE. The Knossos Palace has a history of multiple catastrophic events over 700 years and the ultimate destruction in 1350 BCE.
This video walks you through the Minoan Palace site with narration about the palace design, and excavation and resulting problems.
Cats were everywhere in Greece from the city streets to ancient archeological sites. This guy was the resident feline at the Knossos Palace. Read more about The Cats of Greece in my Reel Wanderer blog post.
Only a few blocks walk from the port, the Archaeological Museum was a place to stop after the heat of the day at the Knossos Palace archeological site.
It was refreshingly cool inside, a nice relief, and completed the palace experience by filling in all the pieces through frescoes, pottery, weapons, burial urns and more, offering a look into the life of the people at that time.
Strong winds and rough sea redirected our cruise destination from Milos and we awoke to find that the ship was being pushed into port by a couple of tugs who were fighting the winds. It took some time for the ship to be docked before we were allowed to disembark to the island of Syros. Being the only ship in port we didn't overwhelm the city with tourists and it allowed us to get a feel of what everyday life might be like on the island.
A beautiful city, there is a wonderful waterfront with cafes, a walk along the waterfront where ships and boats are docked in the harbor. Syros has more of a year round population than other islands like Mykonos and Santorini.
In the port city and capital of the Cyclades, Hermoupolis, the main plaza, Platia Maoulis, is considered to the most beautiful plaza on the islands. There stands the enormous Town Hall that was built in 1876 that contains offices, courts, a café and a gallery. On the square you will see the statue of Adreas Vokas, a politician and admiral who commanded naval forces in the early 1800s.
Following a wonderful, typical Greek meal at a little outdoor café hidden on a back alley of the city, we were offered loukoumia, a sweet gooey dessert treat covered in powdered sugar.
Loukoumia is the primary export of Syros. We tried several flavors which were hard to recognize, but we told one was flavored with rose water and another with pistachio.
Homes hugged the shoreline touching the azure water of the Aegean Sea. There is a great viewpoint just up past the Greek Orthodox St. Nicolas Church with two bell towers located about a three minute walk from the main square. The church took about 30 years to build.
Turkey - Ephesus Ruins and Turkish Carpets
We had the option of a stopover at Samos or Kusadasi, Turkey with an excursion to Ephesus and a stop at a Turkish carpet factory store. I chose the later and was not disappointed. Our tour guide walked us through the heat of the day on the streets of Effesus, past storefront, churches, public latrines and bath house, the great library and amphitheater. The heat was almost unbearable as the unrelenting sun beat down on us. The guide mentioned Jesus walked on the very street we walked upon, Mary's house was nearby, and that Cleopatra visited Ephesus during her time. In my imagination I saw Cleopatra being carried on a platform through the city as chariots raced down the street. I must say those visuals brought the whole experience together for me. This was truly the highlight of the trip.