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After just a bit over 2 weeks of visiting many of the wondrous sights of ancient and modern Greece, Donna and I have reluctantly returned to the good ol' US of A. I had been to Greece before, on Mediterranean cruises during my time in the Navy. Stops had included Piraeus, Athens, and the islands of Crete and Rhodes. Donna had never been, so it was all new to her. We spent time in Athens on the Greek mainland, as well as on the islands of Hydra ("ee-dra"), Naxos, Mykonos, and Santorini.
This is a big world-class city of between 5 and 6 million, the high points of which are the Acropolis - where ancient Greeks worshipped the various gods, and the adjoining Agora, which was kind of a combination of mercantile and civic center for the original city.
The Acropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Right up next to these 2 areas are the Plaka and Monastiriki neighborhoods, both of which are kind of a maze of narrow, twisting streets and alleyways just chock full of shops, bars, restaurants, and of course, people from all over the world. Beyond these areas, Athens seemed somewhat gritty and rather lacking in charm - a combination of buildings from many time periods, many of which were in less then good shape. Graffiti was everywhere, kind of like New York in the 70s and 80s. I'm sure there were some fine neighborhoods hidden away in and just beyond the city, but we didn't have time to go seeking them out.
Hydra is an island of the Saronic group. It is small, totally lacking in motor vehicles, and super-charming in the port area. Everyone walks everywhere. We saw a few kids on bikes, but from what we read, even bicycles are not allowed. Everything is moved by donkeys. While sitting in a cafe by the port, we watched a commercial vessel sail in, and sections for a new house - roof trusses, window frames, doors, etc. - were unloaded and strapped to the backs of donkeys and moved off in that manner to a building site somewhere.
Mykonos is the jumpin' "hot spot" of the Greek islands, for people who like to rise in mid-afternoon, have breakfast while others are having a late lunch or early evening meal, then get ready to party well into the wee hours. In keeping with these hours, the museums on Mykonos open in the late afternoon, then close around 9 or 10 PM. The maze of narrow, twisting streets of Mykonos goes on extensively, but doesn't really get going with crowds of people until late afternoon/early evening. Mykonos is famous for its numerous old windmills, some of which have been converted to small homes or hotel rooms. From Mykonos, we took a boat to the nearby island of Delos. Delos is uninhabited, but is a vast archaelogical site, with work ongoing. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo was born on Delos, and there are the ruins of many shrines and other buildings dedicated to Apollo there. Like the Acropolis, the island of Delos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Naxos is something of a transportation hub for the Cyclades islands. Every manner of sailing vessel seems to stop there: big conventional passenger ferries; the catamaran-type of ferries; the smaller hydrofoils; and all kinds of small water taxis. Naxos is more family-oriented than Mykonos, but still has a bustling and congested port commercial area like the other islands. We rented a tiny Chevy model that I've never seen in the US, and drove all over this very mountanous and incredibly scenic island.
Santorini used to be called by a Greek name - Thera.
But since the Venetians controlled a lot of the Greek islands in the 18th century, they changed the islands names, and the name Santorini has stuck. Santorini is basically one large volcano. The volcano has erupted many times in history, most recently in the early 1700s. Each time the volcano goes off, part of the island disappears, and new parts emerge from the lava flow. Santorini is now kind of crescent-shaped, around a bay known as the Caldera (for cauldron). The top of the volcano is a lava island in the middle of the Caldera, and people flock to the views of the Caldera in the evening to watch the incredible sunsets which take place there. The cafes and restaurants (known as tavernas) with the best sunset views tend to be very pricey. The main villages on Santorini - Oia ("ee-a") and Fira sit high on the very top areas of the island, several hundred feet up in the air, with vertical cliffs of hardened lava below them down to sea level. Like all of the islands we visited, this one is incredibly scenic, with ocean and harbor views, and tightly packed-in, small whitewashed houses all jumbled right on top of each other. One house's roof may be another house's outdoor deck or patio. On Santorini, we rented a Smart-Car. A Smart is a tiny 8.5' long 2-seater made by Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, the Swiss watch maker.
(www.smartusa.com). I'm not sure how extensively they are being marketed here in the US, but the Boston-area dealership is about a mile from our house, on US Route 1 in Lynnfield MA
Dollar vs. the euro
Greece is part of the European union, and therefore the euro is the currency there. For US travellers, this is bad news. The dollar has lost a lot of ground recently vs. the euro, and it now costs about $1.60 USD to buy a euro. This means everything in EU countries costs a lot more than one would like to pay.
Looking at the dinner menu in one of the better restaurants can cause a bad case od sticker shock. Nonetheless, we are glad we went. The Greek islands are one of those "once in lifetime" kinds of places, and I doubt that on our deathbeds we will regret having made the decision to make the trip. If you are somebody who likes to get out there and see other parts of the world, then both Athens and the Greek islands should definitely be on your "short list".
Great, informative post Mark. Brings back some of my best memories as my wife to be (at the time) and I enjoyed 2 weeks in Santorini, as well as time on Mykonos et cetera and in Athens. I have to make it to Crete and Rhodes!
I've been fortunate to travel all over Europe on several occasions and even lived and "worked" a year in Bordeaux, France. You can't beat the kind of education you get from seeing other parts of the world. It's been too long since my wife and I went overseas - you've inspired me to start planning a trip now!
I did a bike trip in the Loire valley region of south-central France several years ago. It was in October, and the colors of the fruit (mainly grapes) and vegetables due to be harvested was just wonderful, as were the magnificent chateaux along the river. Many of these, such as Chambord and Chenanceau, are world-famous for the cognacs made there. So put this area on your short list as well.
Good one Mark. France is where I'm planning on heading first.