Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our Honeymoon! Part 6: Athens and Delphi

Oh, Athens. After the loveliness of Santorini, arriving in Athens was slightly jarring. The capital of Greece and the 4th most populous city in the European Union, Athens was packed with people and had a gritty feel to its modern urban landscape. As we walked past rows of shops with boarded up windows, it was also impossible not to notice the effects of Greece's economic crisis.

After making it to the Marriott (thank you Chuck!) and grabbing some drinks and snacks (thank you again Chuck! ;-) we explored the hotel's rooftop pool and bar with lovely views of the Acropolis and spent a lazy evening in our hotel room taking naps and watching movies. Not exactly the most glamorous of days, but we were exhausted!

The next day, we woke up early, grabbed a yummy breakfast, and headed over to the Acropolis. Visiting the Acropolis was everything you dream it will be and more. The site is huge, much bigger than either of us anticipated. It took many, many hours of walking around before we had even seen most - but not all - of it. There is really too much history on the Acropolis to even begin to give a brief synopsis of the site, so suffice it to say that the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike, with its caryatids, were my favorite sights. In general though, it is literally breathtaking to stand on such ancient and significant ground, to touch the birthplace of democracy and the cradle of Western civilization.

After touring the ancient agora, we grabbed a delicious lunch and bought some cherries and a coconut stick from some street vendors for dessert. We walked back over to the street our hotel was on to find a rental car for the next day (more on this later), and then hopped on a train (Athen's metro was AMAZING) over to the National Archaeology Museum, only to find that it was closed. Such a bummer! Defeated, we headed back to the Acropolis and grabbed some Nescafe frappes before deciding to check out the new Acropolis Museum. In the end, we were so glad we did! The Acropolis Museum has an amazing collection of artifacts found during excavations on the Acropolis, and we learned so much more about the history of the area and the sites we had seen that morning. The museum itself is also beautifully done. The entire space is gorgeous! During construction, they unearthed some Roman houses and parts of the ancient city, and they actually built the museum on top of the site. The floor is glass, so as you view the main exhibit, you can also look down and see the site.

We stayed at the Acropolis Museum until is closed, and then walked over to the plaka neighborhood so we could find a spot for dinner. After exploring a bit and reviewing our options, we settled on a fantastic little place. They didn't seem to have any menus in English and we kept asking our waiter for one, who seemed confused and kept abandoning us. We were so annoyed we almost left, but then the owner came by with a huge platter full of different plates. He explained that the restaurant had a kind of fixed menu, and that we could pick 5 different plates to go with some bread, a bottle of wine, and dessert. It was a great deal, and we picked out our plates with the help of some Germans who were sitting next to us. Dinner was absolutely delicious, and we left happy and full.

The next day, we woke up early, grabbed breakfast, and went to the lobby to meet the rental car guy. We were both a little apprehensive about renting a car, and I spent an inordinate amount of time making sure he had noted every little scratch on the car before we set off for Delphi. Driving in Athens is not for the faint of heart, and I used up the international data roaming (thank you Momma!) to help us navigate through the busy, winding streets. Brett was a total champion and kept us from crashing into the local Athenians, who seemed to think that things like traffic lanes and lights were, at best, a suggestion. Once we got outside of Athens, driving was much easier, and we were pleasantly surprised at how well-marked the roads were. We had heard of people who got lost on the way to Delphi, but with our trusty map in hand the trip was easy (of course, it helped that Brett can read Greek).

The 3-hour drive to Delphi was lovely. It was fun to see the mainland outside of Athens, and once we got up in the mountains the scenery was truly stunning. We wound our way up and up, until it felt more like we were in the Swiss alps than in Greece. After passing through an adorable little ski town, we arrived in Delphi and happily got out of the car to stretch our legs and breath in the fresh mountain air.

People say that, of all the ancient sites, Delphi has the most spectacular sense of place. It couldn't be more true. Standing on the side of the mountain, looking out into the spectacularly blue Bay of Corinth, you can easily see why the ancient Greeks thought Delphi was the center of the world and particularly holy. Delphi is perhaps best known for being the site of the most important oracle in classical Greece. The oracle was dedicated to Apollo and prophesied from within the Temple of Apollo. She was always an older woman, and sat on a tripod chair over an opening in the earth. She would go into a violent trance, probably the result of a gas emitted through the opening in the temple floor, and her "ravings" would be then be translated by the priests. The oracle at Delphi was consulted on all important matters, everything from policies to wars to personal matters. It is said that Alexander the Great dragged the oracle out of the temple by her hair when he didn't receive the prophesy that he had hoped for. I found the entire site fascinating, and spent much of the time preoccupied thinking about these women who simultaneously had so much power and were, at the same time, almost voiceless. After exploring the site for several hours, Brett and I walked over to the town of Delphi to grab lunch, and we enjoyed our last Greek salad peering off the side of the mountain down into the Bay of Corinth.

After we left Delphi, we drove even further into nowhere to see the Monastery of St. Luke. The monastery, which was built in the 10th century, is one of the most important sites of middle Byzantine art and architecture. Besides the monks and priests, the place was virtually empty and we enjoyed walking through the peaceful monastery, looking at the gorgeous frescoes and architecture. The monastery also had spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and before we left we sat overlooking the valley and reminiscing about our trip.

After leaving St. Luke's we drove back to Athens, dropped off the rental car, and had dinner at the hotel before packing up our stuff to head back home. We were so sad to be leaving, but we were also so grateful that we had had such a wonderful honeymoon. It was truly the trip of a lifetime!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Our Honeymoon! Part 5: Santorini

We left Crete on a stormy, windy day. Our ferry was almost canceled due to the high seas and winds, but eventually we set sail across the Mediterranean. After telling Brett that I never got sea sick, I felt queasy the entire time! You couldn't go outside at all because it was a high-speed ferry, we were packed in with a huge group of Russian-speaking tourists, there was no air conditioning, the ferry kept rocking back and forth, and they played a very strange video about the sinking of Santorini the entire time. We arrived in Santorini an hour late due to the weather and so the port made us go around in circles for another hour while another ship unloaded its passengers. Needless to say, I was very glad once we stepped foot on land! 

The island of Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion - one of the largest in history. The eruption, which occurred sometime around 1600 BC, caused the center of the volcano to sink (the volcano had ejected so much magma that it was no longer able to support the volcanic rocks and thus collapsed). What is left is the outer ring of the volcano, its sheer cliff faces exposing layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash. It is on these cliffs that many of the island's towns have been built, and the result is just as spectacular as any postcard might lead you to believe. In the center of the caldera, which has been filled with gorgeous blue ocean since shortly after the super eruption, is a tiny island. This is actually the volcano, which has been slowly building itself up over the centuries. It has a foreboding presence, for it will erupt again one day. 

Our ferry docked at the base of Santorini's magnificent cliffs, and we took a taxi up a harrowing switchback road (I held my breath the entire time) and across the island to Perissa, where we were staying. Given the island's reputation as a glamorous tourist destination, I was surprised by how rural much of the island was. It was mostly vineyards and farmland, and many houses had ducks, goats, or donkeys in their backyards. Perissa itself had a fun, sleepy little beach town vibe, much different than that of Fira or Oia, and was the perfect base for exploring the island. We stayed at the adorable Hotel Zorzis,which we very, very highly recommend! The little hotel was lovely, the garden was gorgeous, the owners were incredibly nice, the mountain views were spectacular, and it was the cleanest place I've ever stayed. It was without a doubt our favorite hotel from the trip! They even had a local bottle of Santorini wine and fresh flowers waiting for us on our bed. :-) 

Welcome present from the hotel!
The hotel was so cute!
Gorgeous mountain views from the pool
Travel Magazine said the hotel was good for "confetti-sprinkled newlyweds." We couldn't agree more!
After checking in to our room, we put on our bathing suits and walked over to the beach. The beach is lined with tavernas, and we stopped in one for lunch (gyros - yum!). Then we grabbed some sun loungers, ordered drinks, and stretched out to read, enjoy the sun, and take in the views of the pretty black sand beach. The waves were unusually high thanks to the storm that had delayed our arrival, so unfortunately, we didn't get to go for a swim. But we enjoyed our beach day just the same! 

 For dinner, we hopped on a local bus (Santorini has an amazing public bus system!) and headed over to dinner at Santo Winery. The winery had been highly recommended by Spiros, the owner of the Hotel Zorzis, and seemed to have a cult-like following among locals. It is known for having lovely views of the caldera, but by the time we got there, the entire island was shrouded in fog, clouds, and an amazingly strong wind. Occasionally, you could just barely make out the glow of the sun through the clouds as they spilled over the rim of the caldera. It looked like something out of a movie about the apocalypse. Alas, the world didn't end, Santorini didn't sink (again!), and we enjoyed our wine tasting. We each got six glasses of local Santorini wines, a plate of local cheeses, and some crackers with a tomato dipping sauce. Santorini's wines are unique because the island's soil is composed of volcanic ash, and the vines have to be kept unstaked and low to the ground to protect them from the island's high winds. After the Crusades, the wines were widely exported by the Republic of Venice and became quite popular throughout Italy. Later, the Russian Orthodox Church would adopt them as their official Eucharistic wine. The island is especially known for their Vinsanto wine, which is made from a local type of grape that is harvested late in the season and then dried in the sun. We really enjoyed the Vinsanto and the white wines, although neither of us cared very much for the red ones. Overall, however, the winery was definitely worth the trip! 

We loved Santorini's wines!
Eerie view of the sun through the clouds
Cloudy view of the caldera from the winery

The next day, we hopped on another public bus and rode over to Fira, the capital of the island. Fira is lovely and postcard perfect, with its narrow streets, steep stairs, and buildings that tumble down the cliffs. The entire town seems to be made of white houses and buildings, and everywhere you turn there is another fantastic view of the island and caldera. We had some Nescafe frappes at a lovely little cafe and enjoyed the breathtaking views. It was a great little spot to people watch as well. Since no cars or buses are able to fit through the tiny streets, people would often walk by dragging enormous suitcases over the cobblestones as they searched the maze of cliff-side dwellings for their hotel. One of my favorite parts of Fira was the doors to restaurants, cafes, and hotels. These lined the streets just like any other little town, but when you opened them, you would find yourself standing on a little edge over the caldera, with a steep staircase hugging the cliffs to the right or left. They were so unique! I never tired of opening them and asking Brett to snap another picture. :-) 

View of the caldera from Fira
We LOVE Santorini!
Santorini-style entry ways

After exploring Fira, we got on another public bus and drove across the island to Oia, which sits on the northernmost point of the island. Oia used to be the home of wealthy ship captains, but today it is an exceedingly beautiful little town full of stunning architecture and breathtaking views. During the day, Oia was much less busy than Fira, and we enjoyed having the narrow streets to ourselves. When we arrived in Oia, we set out to find Ammoudi Bay, a place where my friend K had recommended we go for lunch. I thought Brett might kill me when a store owner told us "to go past the castle and down 300 steps!" We walked to the northernmost edge of the island, and then began our trek down the cliff via the old stairs. When we got to the base, we found ourselves in a little bay filled with fishing boats and lined with a couple of tavernas. We ate at Katina's, with the orange chairs, just feet from the water. The Greek salad was absolutely delicious and, coupled with the view, easily makes that afternoon one of my favorites. After lunch, we both rode donkeys back up the 300 stairs to Oia. Our donkeys were surprisingly fast, and every time mine got too close to the edge and I looked down into the caldera I prayed that mine wasn't suicidal. After lunch, we made reservations for dinner, and then enjoyed a leisurely afternoon walking around the town, frequently stopping for drinks and Nescafe frappes. As it neared sunset, hordes of people crowded the northernmost edge of town and the castle to get a peek of the famous event. We were glad we had made dinner reservations at Castro, which is supposed to have one of the best sunset views on the island. It did not disappoint! The restaurant even provided us with a type of "sunset security." If people stood anywhere between the restaurant and the view of the sunset, they would promptly shoo them away. We ordered wine and mezes and watched the sun dip below the sea. It was truly an unforgettable evening! 

Lunch in Ammoudi Bay!
Ammoudi Bay

Church bells in Oia


An old windmill in Oia

Hello, Handsome!

Can you believe those stairs?!
Gorgeous sunset!
View from our table
All the people behind us watching the sunset

The next day, we woke up early to visit Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed by the super eruption and buried in volcanic ash (a la Pompeii). Many scholars think that Akrotiri, and the disaster that befell it, are the inspiration behind Plato's story of Atlantis. The site is still undergoing excavation, but what has been excavated is remarkably well-preserved. Interestingly, no gold objects or uninterred human skeletal remains have been found at the site, indicating that an orderly evacuation was performed before the eruption. You might remember that Knossos, on Crete, was a major Minoan settlement, and it was fascinating to compare the structures and artifacts. 


Ancient coffee table

After Akrotiri, we walked over to the Red Beach, stopping to say hi to some goats and pick up some street food along the way. The Red Beach is only accessible via a short hike, which was an exciting adventure and provided some amazing views of the red cliffs and blue waters. Once we got there, we laid our towels out in the shade of the cliffs and ate our lunch before Brett went in for a swim (and I gave myself an impromptu type pedicure with some pumice I found). While the beach was unique and certainly beautiful, we didn't find the experience relaxing  - especially with little pebbles from the cliffs falling around us the entire time! We headed back to Perissa, and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beach there before grabbing dinner at one of the tavernas. 

Goat friend (don't tell Lala)
The famous Red Beach

We were both sad that it was our last night in Santorini and that we were already leaving for Athens - the last stop on our honeymoon!