ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
We were actually awake from the moment this day started. Since our flight out of Santorini departed at 12:30am, we spent the proceeding couple hours sleeping on the floor of the airport. We boarded our plane with a screaming toddler and obvious first time parents who hadn't figured out that the savings that come with an inconvenient flight do not outweigh the stress of an exhaustion-induced tantrum that come with a sleep-deprived kid.
When we arrived at the Athens airport about an hour later, we immediately raced to the bank of seats not separated by arm rests. Hirsh had researched this in advance, of course, and we found a nice couple of rows were we could sleep. Quite a few other people had the same idea, and those rows were hot properties!
Hirsh set the alarm for 7:30am so he could get up and explore the Parthenon. He walked for miles and miles in the heat and took plenty of pictures for both of us, so Sarah felt like she was there.
Hirsh returned to the airport just in time for us to catch our next connection, this time to Rome. The first order of business was finding food, and Rome's Fiumicino Airport has a gourmet dining option, the Antonello Colonna Open Bistro. We enjoyed our last taste of Italian lasagna and risotto and a mini bottle of wine, and knew we'd chosen the right place when we saw plenty of flight attendants eating there, too.
And there was one last stop for gelato...
Then we found our favorite ad ever because it features this guy. This guy. Is he the epitome of Italian swagger, or what?
For our third and final flight of the day we boarded a plane to London. We arrived at Gatwick airport at 11:30pm and experienced slight panic when Hirsh's passport didn't want to scan. After all our travels, the place we least expected to have problems was the motherland. We really didn't want to experience the fate of some of other unlucky travelers who were corralled into a pen in the middle of the large customs area while customs agents made "further inquiry." We've never seen anything quite like this public shaming. The computer recognized his passport at the last minute and we made it through!
We hurried to the car rental area to pick up our last rental car of the trip, and we made it with ten minutes to spare. When we entered the office, the two workers were actually playing rock-paper-scissors to see who would have to help us just before their shift ended. This offended us a little bit, but they were in a good mood and we were able to negotiate an upgrade to a Mercedes-Benz, which we then proceeded to drive to an Ibis economy hotel, as is our way.
After four nights in Santorini, it was time to check out of our hotel. On this final morning, we once again got sucked into an episode of Road to Avonlea and tried to convince the hotel manager to let us check out an hour late. No luck, unfortunately, so we packed up our stuff and headed to town. Our flight was not until 12:30am the next morning, so we had all day to wander around the town of Oia. Since the town is not that big, we walked very leisurely and enjoyed poking in and out of cafes, art galleries, and tourist shops.
We visited a wonderful classic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which reminded us of the legendary Shakespeare and Company in Paris. It's cozy and cavernous and a true book lover's dream.
There's even a rooftop reading terrace with a really distracting view!
We had delicious pre-sunset drinks and appetizers at Pelekanos, then they promptly kicked us out at 6:00 to make space for the people with sunset reservations. It seems the entire island's economy and culture are shaped around the nightly sunset!
Then we raced to our sunset view perch from last night and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.
We spent most of this day by the pool. Well, we started out by sleeping in far too late and scanning the television for any English program we could find. We couldn't find BBC World News, but we did discover a program called Road to Avonlea, a delightful and wholesome Canadian television series which is an offshoot of Anne Of Green Gables. This series apparently aired in the US in the 1990's, but back then most American teens were too wrapped up in Dawson's Creek and other such nonsense to recognize true quality. Anyhow, I digress...
The majority of the day was spent by the pool. Not nearly as luxurious as our pool in Paros, and unfortunately facing the less scenic side of the island (hotels with pools on the Caldera side of the island cost a small fortune), the water was sufficiently wet and we had a nice time.
Having learned from our mistake the first night in Santorini, we got an early start to town for the nightly push-and-shove to secure a prime sunset view. If this is shoulder season, we shudder to think what the crowds look like during the height of the summer. We walked all the way through town to the end of the road and started to descend the hill when we found the perfect spot! We had to help each other over a not low wall and sit precariously on a small ledge on the roof of another building, but it was absolutely perfect. No one could sit in front of us to obstruct our view, and no one could sit directly behind us. Thank goodness for the relaxed rules in Europe, because it was the opposite of safe.
We finally spotted Santorini's famous donkeys!
And we enjoyed watching the boats race toward the horizon, just as we had done two nights before...
...then they all raced back to the harbor. That sky though!
We descended the loooong staircase from the top of the hill down to the harbor for dinner at a highly recommended seafood restaurant, Katina. We had a great table right at the edge of the water, and Hirsh had to go inside to select which particular fish they would cook up for us. We chose bream, which we weren't familiar with but it was the least expensive of a pricey lot and freshly caught. It was pretty good!
After a long relaxing day on the water yesterday, we did the opposite today - an exhausting day exploring the island on foot. Since we'd already seen Oia, we focused on the neighboring town of Fira. A 20 minute ride on the local bus dropped us in the heart of Fira and just a few steps from one of the most memorable feeding spots of our entire trip, Lucky's Souvlakis. The gyros here are just perfect: authentic, simple, cheap, and delicious! They're so good, we ended up eating here three times in four days, and we would've done so even more often if we didn't have to get there by bus.
Uncomfortably full, we started the long and scenic trek through town and along the coast. It was a really, really hot day and we didn't get very far before we had to stop for gelato.
And then we suffered one of the great tragedies of our trip when one member of our team expired. It may not be apparent to everyone reading our blog, but there are three parties along for this journey: Hirsh, Sarah, and our selfie stick. Yes, it's true that not very long ago we, too, made fun of selfie sticks and the people who used them. We bought one (well, two, so we could have a backup) for this trip and now we are true believers. We will never travel without one again. Anyhow, not only did the selfie stick die, but it suffered the fate Sarah dreads most - decapitation.
Once we resigned ourselves to the reality that there was no way to repair it, we tied the head to the body with its cord (you know, so they wouldn't be separated) and settled on a final resting place of a trash can with a view of the sea. Over the course of almost three months, we had developed an unhealthy emotional attachment to this stick and truly had a hard time just leaving it in a trash can. It had been everywhere with us: Norway, Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Morocco, Croatia, and now Greece. It was one very well-traveled selfie stick. It was like our "Wilson" from the movie Cast Away. So we had a little memorial service and said a few nice words, then we left the stick propped up out of the trash can so it could enjoy the beautiful view.
We had to move on, and we had no shame turning back a few times to look at our beloved stick as we walked away, but at least we had these gorgeous views to distract us...
We walked and walked for about four hours. If you look at the picture below, we started at the edge of town waaaay over to the right. It helps that there's lots to look at along the way, but it was still a long walk and Hirsh did the majority of the work. When we found ourselves faced with a very steep hill or a long stretch of stairs, Sarah would just hop on Hirsh's back and off we went. Passersby love to offer unsolicited comments and we've heard everything from, "There's a real man," to, "He's a keeper," to, "That's cheating."
Our goal was to make it to a little chapel at the edge of town with the best panoramic views. We were almost there when we came upon a beautiful Greek wedding in progress at the Church of Anastasi! We waited patiently outside the church gate for the bride and groom to make their appearance. Notice, also, the Chinese couple having their engagement photo session on the terrace above. Santorini is a very popular destination for engagement photos and we saw so many couples doing just that while we were there.
We finally made it to a small church in the village of Imerovigli, at the edge of Fira, where we secured a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
We hurried back to town to make our 8:00 dinner reservation and took a few more snaps along the way.
Dinner was at a wonderful restaurant in Fira called Salt & Pepper. Owned and operated solely by a husband and wife team, where he does all the cooking and she handles reservations and serving. There was no sous chef, no hostess, no cleaning person. It's just the two of them and they do an outstanding job. We found the restaurant on TripAdvisor, of course, and were very glad we made a reservation in advance. At least ten groups of people wandered by looking for a table while we were there and they were all turned away. We didn't have a chance to chat with the husband, but the wife is a real trip. She's a no-nonsense kind of lady who's seen and heard everything and she definitely gives it to you straight. She didn't hesitate to tell us what we would and wouldn't like and even how much wine she thought we could handle. We surprised her.
Yesterday when we checked into our hotel, Maria's Place, the proprietor immediately gave us a rundown of what to see and do in Santorini. She mentioned the popular Greek Isle day cruises and presented us with a number of brochures from various companies. As luck would have it, today (Saturday) was going to be the annual Ifestia Festival - a celebration of the still active volcano's eruption 3,600 years ago. We knew about the volcano but had no idea about the annual festival, so we really just lucked out with our timing. We weren't planning on taking one of these cruises, but when she mentioned that the festival culminates with an over-the-top fireworks display (best seen from the water, of course), it took us about two minutes to decide to secure our reservation. This was the single most expensive thing we did on this trip, and maybe the single fastest decision we made, but it was worth every. single. penny. The company picked us up at 1PM from our hotel, drove us to the port, and we spent a gorgeous day on a beautiful catamaran with a relatively cozy group of only 16 other tourists and three crew members.
The cruise route took us first to the warm springs on the edge of the volcanic island, where we both jumped in for a swim. We then stopped at the Red Beach and the White Beach (both named for the color of their sand), where Hirsh jumped in for a little snorkeling fun. Sarah was busy enjoying the unlimited beer and wine and snacks on board and chatting up the other tourists. We met two friendly Australian couples and an adorable honeymooning Iraqi-Canadian couple. Included in the price of the cruise, along with the ever important booze, was a delicious barbecue of chicken skewers, shrimp, stuffed grape leaves, and other Greek specialties.
The fireworks show was one of the most impressive we've ever seen, and watching it from a boat with the beautiful Greek islands surrounding us was pure magic. It really felt like a dream, and we didn't want to wake up. We were on that boat from 1:30-9:30pm, and loved every minute of it.
We were bummed to leave Akrotiri Hotel this morning. It's been such a wonderful place to relax and recharge, we really wish we'd booked four nights instead of three. Oh well, next time. After yet another delicious breakfast, we took one last nostalgic photo of the gorgeous view and then the hotel's shuttle driver whisked us away to the port.
We had about 20 minutes to hang around the port before boarding the ship, so we stocked up on some last-minute souvenirs and Hirsh made a mad dash to the Panagia Ekatontapiliani ("Church of 100 Doors"). You know he can't miss an opportunity to see a sight and maybe learn something. We've been a bit spoiled though, because after all the beautiful cathedrals we'd seen in Italy, he said this one was OK.
Our first view of Oia, Santorini from the boat!
...and Fira, Santorini
Immediately after arriving at our hotel, we checked out TripAdvisor and reserved at table for later in the evening at the top-rated Floga restaurant. We thought we'd treat ourselves to a lovely meal at a restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Caldera. Well, the food and service were incredible (we both developed a crush on our impossibly adorable waiter), but we didn't luck out with a great view this time. It's OK though, because we knew we were lucky to get a table at all on such short notice. Some of our fellow diners ordered meals that were served on dramatic beds of steaming dry ice or literally on fire as they were brought to the tables. Each time this happened, everyone stopped to watch and we were all highly entertained and impressed, if not also a bit jealous. Hirsh had lamb shank and Sarah had salmon, both artfully presented. A feast for the eyes and the stomach!
Oia's beautiful hillside lit up at night. The camera phone doesn't begin to capture it.
Pool day! This hotel's pool is so beautiful, we decided to hang out here all day. The staff was just as warm and lovely today as they were when we first arrived. Even the sandwiches were perfect. We really can't say enough good things about this hotel. Thanks, Jeff!
We spent the entire day circumnavigating the island of Paros with our four-wheeler, eventually settling down for a few hours at the local favorite, Golden Beach.
This was our last morning in Mykonos, and what did Hirsh want to do more than anything? The same thing he resisted so strongly yesterday was the same thing he wanted to enjoy one last time before our 24-hour rental expired. We rode that 4-wheeler all over creation and checked a few more beaches off the list. Since most people in Mykonos seem to sleep in after a late night/early morning of partying, we had the first couple beaches - and seemingly much of the island - mostly to ourselves and it was so blissfully peaceful.
Since we'd become so well acquainted with Super Paradise Beach, we thought we'd check out regular Paradise Beach this morning. These two beaches are widely considered the top two beaches on the island, and we can see why. The strands are wide and long and beautiful, the water is gorgeous, and there's plenty to do and plenty to see. This is the first time we saw full nudity on a Greek beach, and of course we didn't come equipped with our beach gear or enough time to partake. Darn! Mykonos, we will be back!
We raced back to our guesthouse to check out and said goodbye to our home for the last four nights.
We caught a very sexy catamaran ferry for the hour and a half ride over to the island of Paros, a destination highly recommended by Sarah's brother, Jeff.
We even stayed in the hotel he recommended, Akrotiri Hotel. This hotel is located in the neighborhood of Parikia and is a quick 5 minute drive from the main town and ferry port. A staff member from the hotel was waiting at the port to pick us up, and we were given the warmest welcome when we arrived at the hotel. The people here are genuinely lovely and go above and beyond to make your stay exceptional. Even the resident border collie greeted us with a big smile! The staff immediately served us homemade lemonade on the beautiful terrace and explained in great detail all the things to do on the island. After a string of somewhat unfavorable rooms in our previous accommodations, we lucked out with the best room in the entire hotel: 2-room family suite on the top floor with the best view of the ocean AND the beautiful pool!
We hurried to change into our bathing suits and hit the pool right away.
The hotel even arranged for a 4-wheeler rental company to drop a vehicle at the hotel for us and they would pick it up after we checked out. This time we specifically requested a bigger, more powerful vehicle (our Mykonos 4-wheeler couldn't make it up really steep hills with both of us on it, oops). The rental company obliged and brought us a beast, and the looks of pity we had grown accustomed to in Mykonos were replaced with looks of envy. Winning! We drove to town to watch the sunset and had dinner at a wonderful seafood restaurant recommended by our hotel hosts, where they serve gigantic portions of fresh seafood at unbelievably reasonable prices.
Check out the nighttime view from our balcony!
After two straight days at Super Paradise, we were ready to explore more of Mykonos island. We could either continue to take buses or rent a car, moped, or 4-wheeler. We "compromised" between the safe car and the crazy moped by agreeing on a 4-wheeler. Unfortunately, between the time we reached this compromise and the time to actually rent the vehicle, Hirsh had freaked himself out by reading all kinds of horror stories online about the dangers of driving a 4-wheeler around a place like Mykonos. He was strongly opposed to the idea, but Sarah likes to live on the edge and take her chances. So we rented a 4-wheeler.
We ended up having a great time exploring different beaches and feeling the wind in our hair. Many of these smaller beaches are pretty isolated and can't be reached by bus, so the 4-wheeler was a good call. This stunner of a beach was our favorite...
There was Starbucks, of course!
And then we drove up to a ridge with a spectacular view we had found earlier in the day to watch the beautiful sunset.
As we walked around town looking for dinner, we decided to hop off the beaten path and wind through the quiet residential streets downtown. Hirsh happened upon a very special find on someone's clothesline- the same exact sheets he had as a little boy in Chicago!