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Euphoria of the month Greece

For the love of blue, sun and wind  - The sky and the ocean are an almost artificial blue, dazzling white houses and chapels are often painted in the same blue and overflowing with bougainvillea flowers:  a picture-perfect image of Greece that most of us dream about. 

This is not just a cliché!  It is a reality that is so present in the Greek islands that you cannot resist capturing such photos of an almost surreal purity, as if refusing to believe your own eyes and requiring proof.

Three islands at a glance 

Here is a quick look at three very different islands: Mykonos in the northern Cyclades, Paros in the central Cyclades and Santorin in the southern Cyclades. To complete the trip is a stop in Athens and one day somewhere else on the mainland, in Peloponnese. 

Paros: the green island

We leave Piree Harbor in Athens in late afternoon, after having chosen the quickest of boats, shuttles and ferries, all sailing to the islands. There is a large selection to choose from, allowing you to reach different islands at different speeds.

Berthed in Le Piree, the white motor yacht Milos offers intimate luxury mini cruises. The 56 fly bridge cruiser, owned by the Canadian Costas Spiliadis, also owner of the Milos restaurants in Montréal, New York, Las Vegas and Athens, offers luxury gateways in the Agean and Mediterranean Seas.  Naturally, the offer is coupled with fine cuisine that would not belie the up-market reputation of his establishments. 

We reach Parikia, Paros Harbor at night.  Even at the very late hour boats are berthing in great numbers in a scene of incredible chaos.  Restaurants and bars all around contribute to the noisy ambiance, prompting us to quickly leave, making a mental note to come back at a better time. 

A taxi takes us 25 km to the other side of the island to Chryssi Akti, to our apartment, the Tzane Apartment Complex. Don’t be put off by the word “complex”. In fact, the Tzane is far from the image that we generally associate with a “complex”.  It offers 9 nice apartments all equipped with a kitchenette. The Tzane is not located on the sea, however one of the nicest beaches on the island, Golden Beach, is nestled 300 meters away.  The hotel has a lovely pool in back where it feels good to enjoy an aperitif or breakfast on its shady terrace that offers a view of the surrounding olive grove. 

Paros is a fertile island that smells of thyme.  Its landscapes are diverse: dry in the north and fertile as you go south, where you will find orchards, olive tree plantations and fields of wheat.  A delicious white wine is also produced on its hillsides.

The island is also known for its luminous and transparent white marble (Marathi), used to carve many masterpieces such as Napoleon’s tomb and the Aphrodite of Milos. 

Picturesque fishing harbors are transformed into resorts such as Noaussa in the North and Aliki in the South… beaches and remote creeks are scattered along the road circling the island, which is relatively easy to explore in a taxi or in one the busses linking its three principal points of interests, Parikia, Naoussa, and Lefkes. This is Paros.

Parikia  – Back to Parikia for a stroll along the narrow streets of the city. At the end of a square, close to the harbor, stands the Panagia Ekatontapyliani, one of the oldest Christian churches in Greece.  Also known as the Church of 100 Doors, it is a Byzantine sanctuary dating back to the 10th Century, with galleries reserved for women.  A cloister surrounds it and its baptismal fonts date back to the 6th Century and are actually small immersion pools in the shape of a Greek cross. Two magnificent human scale icons covered with chiseled silver can also be admired. 

Naoussa – Built 10 km from Parikia, Naoussa is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages of the Cyclades.  An entirely white fishermen village with its small cubic houses massed around the church, it has narrow winding streets filled with bougainvilleas and jasmine, squares where stone benches invite conversation, chapels at each street corner and terraces where you are offered a freshly caught fish with ouzo. 

Food is served in its many shaded terraces covered with octopus drying in the sun, close to the water with vividly colored fishing boats, or in one of its restaurants at the central square surrounded by boutiques where you can find clothing, handicrafts and luxury goods.  Everything to attract the jet set! 

In front of Naoussa is the Bay of Kolymbithres, with its extravagant rock formation polished by the wind.  The beach is rather small, however very enjoyable in its almost surreal décor! Nearby the trendy Monastiri beach welcomes nautical sports fans.

Lefkes – A mountain road takes us to Lefkes, the only village built on a mountain slope on the island and to Mount Agios Pantes, which reaches 700 meters. 

You have to climb to the top of the village, where a few cafes keep watch at the peak, to really appreciate the panorama with its backdrop of Aegean blue. You’ll have to walk the streets and lanes, which are true labyrinths, built between pines, cypress, palm trees, benches and open wells carved in the local white marble. You also have to take the time to appreciate the Agia Triada Church, with its two bell towers and its throne and rostrum, also cut into the translucent local marble. 

Quarries can be visited, although they are no longer active.  Visits are therefore considered to be free visits and you have to take every precaution and bring a flashlight to explore the caves. 

A few handicraft boutiques offer interesting weavings and lovely ceramics.

Also worth seeing – Petaloudes, not far from Parikia, where thousands of butterflies converge from May to August. 

The Christou tou Dassous monastery, built close to a pass, which offers an unobstructed view. Gentlemen should be aware that only women are allowed into the monastery!           

On the other hand, men will be allowed to visit the Longovarda Monastery, built in the northern part of Paros, between Parikia and Naoussa, with its library rich with thousands of books. This time, ladies are denied access and have to wait outside. We saw smiles on some men’s faces at this.

Antiparos 

From Parikia, a small boat takes us to Antiparos, half a mile away. Life on that inlet is concentrated around the harbor and the main street of its Kastro district, a lovely example of a fortified city with courtyards and lanes. 

The main point of interest in Antiparos is its cave with a stairway cut in the stone that descends 200 meters across stalactites and stalagmites. It’s vertigo-inducing yet spectacular! It takes a half hour to walk there from the harbor, but it’s worth the effort!

Mykonos: island of the winds 

After the fertile and green Paros, the arid Mykonos will come as a real contrast. It has a reputation for beaches, nightlife and is a paradise for gays and nudists.  We could call it a meeting place for all those who love the sun, the night, feasts and the winds! 

Once again narrow, winding alleys border blindingly white houses with courtyards, everything to discourage the wind and pirates as well, or so they say! 

There are a few museums – popular art, archeology, marine – and for those who are looking for a touch of contemporary art, the municipal art gallery showcases artwork from residents of the Small Venice (Alefkandra) district, which is distinct for its houses with painted balconies overlooking the sea. 

With its reputation as an island of the winds, we expected to find more windmills than chapels on Mykonos. We were very wrong!  The island has an abundance of chapels built by the hundreds by sailors – often pirates – who vowed to build one if they survived a storm.  As a result, there are many chapels, monasteries and interesting churches to visit. It is also said that that there are as many chapels as there are ancient houses... 

The most beautiful beaches on Mykonos are in the south.  Our destination: Platys Gialos, a quiet family beach.  Many interesting hotels and restaurants are built along its coast. Nonetheless, this tip of the island is relatively quiet. Shops and nightlife are in Mykonos (Hora), where a regular and very efficient bus service can take you. 

Our hotel, the Acrogiali, was well located near the sea. As a matter of fact, we almost had our feet in the water. It offers a lovely beach with beach chairs, a calm setting, cheerful and efficient personnel, excellent food, comfortable rooms with a small terrace and chairs overlooking the garden at the back, all at very competitive rates considering the quality and the beauty of the place.  We would certainly go back and recommend it!   

Santorini : the volcanic island

This magnificent island is the result of an extraordinary natural phenomenon. A strong eruption destroyed the center of the island, which then collapsed, creating a huge volcanic crater. This “Caldeira” or resulting hole, one of the largest in the world (11 km by 23), was invaded by water and is now surrounded by massive sea cliffs revealing all colors of volcanic rock: white, pale and violet gray, red, rust… those cliffs are studded with villages, all stunningly beautiful, built around the crescent. 

Reaching the small harbor of Skala Firon, located in the centre of the crescent island, we immediately climb to Fira at the top of the sea cliff where a striking vision awaits us!  Photographed over and over, we can’t seem to get enough of the jaw-dropping landscapes. They are perfect images and will be our first ecstasies before we visit Oia! 

Fira has an uptown, a relatively modern area with its village square,Theotokopoulou, around which souvenir shops, taverns, bars and restaurants compete to attract attention.  All bus lines linking the villages on the island converge at the nearby bus station. The downtown consists of a cascade of houses with terraces attached to the cliffs and a few churches and museums that are worth visiting. 

From Fira, we head for Akrotiri, an archeological site in the south west of Santorini. Built 3,500 years ago, this city was buried by a widespread eruption in the middle of the second millennium BC. Often called “The Prehistoric Pompeii”, buried under ashes and miraculously preserved, it was uncovered in 1967. 

Unfortunately, most of the site has been closed since 2005, when a roof structure, meant to protect the site, collapsed.  We can still see part of it, a few streets, and houses and well-preserved squares.  To see more of what was excavated, you will have to visit a museum in Fira where artifacts are kept (furniture, artwork and pottery including large pithoi, or vases, in which food was stored). 

Beaches of all colors – In Santorini, we can lay on surprisingly black sand beaches with transparent water. Perissa is, in our opinion, one of the nicest black beaches with its 7 km of volcanic sand surrounded by cliffs and greenery. 

The “Red Beach” a 10-minute walk from Akrotiri, is one of the preferred rendezvous of photographers… for good reason.  Remarkable, this rusty sand beach is bordered by lava cliffs and gradually declines to form a true wall that surrounds the small bay with calm waters.  Unique indeed! 

Yes, there is also a “white” sand beach… it’s 14 km from Fira. What can we say about that beach without using the same superlatives again?  Actually, the beach doesn’t take its name from its sand, but from the white stones that cover it and from the giant white rock formations that border it and rise from the sea.  Only accessible by boat from Akrotiri, it is a unique black and white picture of Greece.

Unforgettable sunsets – Oia, at the northern tip of the island, seems so quiet when we reach it in late morning that it doesn’t seem to live up to its reputation as the most popular site in Santorini. 

Its beauty, however, is very real.  Its blue-domed churches, its streets and alleys - mostly pedestrian -  scattered with dozens of staircases, plants and flower pots of all colors, its white and pastel colored houses attached to sea cliffs, all offer breathtaking views on the sea, the harbor and the volcanic islets. 

However, people come to Oia for its sunsets.  You have to see the crowd converging to this tiny city at the end of the afternoon and pressing up against the cliff for the free show! 

One has to plan early and plan on having an aperitif in order to find a well-situated terrace to enjoy the phenomena from, and to join in with the applause when the sea swallows the sun.

A paradise for wineries  – Our sunset aperitif was also the occasion when we discovered a very pleasant white wine, which we brought back along with our photos as souvenirs of that exceptional time! 

The lava-filled soil does not allow for agriculture as varied as on other Greek islands. But this volcanic land is paradise for wineries and Santorini, where the vine stocks grow in spirals on the ground to resist the strong winds, produces a white wine with a unique bouquet. 

The winery of Sigalas, in Oia, farms 19 hectares of vineyards in this unique location. Their wine has been given many awards and must be tasted at the winery. 

In the hearth of the Caldeira – From the harbor of Skala Firon, you can take a boat tour for a few hours or for a whole day to the string of dried lava islets in the heart of the Caldeira. The closest, Nea Kameni, is still an active volcano. Swimming in its hot springs in the middle of fumaroles blowing up gas bubbles brings about stunning sensations with the Agean Sea all around.

Where to sleep – Santorini is the most expensive Greek island.  It is advisable to avoid accommodations in Fira or Oia.  The surrounding villages offer many pleasant small hotels and accommodations with local families and vacancy signs even in high season.  Interesting B&Bs can also be found close to the resorts and Akrotiri.

A few souvenirs – At Fira, on main street, close to the Maritime Museum, we discovered a traditional weaving workshop managed by women: Paradosiako Iphantyrio. Dozens of jewelers and silversmiths have boutiques in the neighborhood and offer unique pieces. One should know that the stones they use are not local, most come from Central Europe. 

On the main street of Oia, the painter Dimitris Kolioussis whose work is recognized worldwide, opens his studio to the public. We can observe him restoring old icons or creating new ones; he will be glad to sell them to you. 

Athens 

It would be unthinkable to travel to Greece without spending time in Athens. 

From the Piree, where our boat berthed late at night, a quick taxi ride took us to our hotel, the Electra Hotel, in the heart of Plaka, a charming pedestrian district built at the foot of the Acropolis.  

A lovely surprise awaited us the next morning after a generous breakfast: the famous Hadrian’s door was just across the street!  A little further down, we could see the 15 columns of the Olympieion or Temple of Olympian Zeus.  Those colossal monuments climb over 100 meters high and they are the only remains of 104 built on the site in the 2nd century AD under the reign of Emperor Hadrian. 

The hotel was very well located, close to museums – modern and traditional art, Jewish, Benaki and Frissiras – and was only a few minutes away from the Acropolis and the famous Syntagma Square facing Parliament where so many rallies and historic demonstrations have taken place. 

What could be said about the Acropolis with the Parthenon, the Dionysus theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus?  Again, photos cannot do justice to this site and translate the grandeur and history that it was testament to.   

Finally, we have to remember that Athens is not an old city otherwise we might be disappointed!  It is a relatively modern city where one out of ten Greeks live. It’s a concrete megalopolis living in the shade of the Acropolis and history. 

Elsewhere on the continent 

We wanted to end our trip the same way we started it, with water and wind all around us. A one-day excursion to Nafplio, a lovely city that can be reached by bus from Athens, seemed just perfect! 

Nafplio is built at the foot of a sea cliff crowned by a gigantic Italian fortress, the Palamede. It’s certainly Italian: the lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice sculpted at the entrance of the fortress is proof of that. 

The old city, perfect for wandering, captivates with its houses packed closed one to another, its narrow streets and squares that have an Italian atmosphere where you just have to let yourself be seduced by “la dolce vita.” 

Nafplio is an ideal central point for visiting the wine region of Nemea, the historic vestiges of Peloponnese: Tyrinthe, Argos, Corinth and Mistra, and also Mycenae and Epidaurus.  

Should you be tempted to stay for a few days, Klymeni Traditional Homes is an intriguing choice of accommodation that was highly recommended to us.   

Already at the end! 

This was the end of a journey from which we brought back sun and visions of white, blue, red and black that we will cherish for a while and will want to renew very soon!

 

Christiane Théberge

 

Piree Harbor


Monastrii Beach, Paros

Church of 100 doors, Parikia


A terrace in Paros

A view from Lefkes


 Antiparos' cave

The Acrogiali, Mykonos


Platys Gialis beach, Mykosos

A courtyard, Mykonos

Santorini

Staircases in Fira


Akritori

Perissa black beach in Santorin


The Red Beach


The White Beach

A view from Oia

Nea Kameni from Oia


Sunset in Oia


Vine stocks growing in spirals

Olympieion, Athens

The Palamede, Nafplio

One last wink!

  

 

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