We got to our hotel in Athens on Wednesday evening just as the sun was going down.
The first thing you notice about the city is how nice the people are. After a couple days in Madrid, we were resigned to the “Europeans are rude to American tourists” problem. Athens turned that notion on its head. People were kind, caring and helpful. Dare I call their friendliness “Midwestern”?
The second thing you notice about Athens is the grime. The place could use a little TLC. It’s easy to understand how a city could come to be this way — the government’s broke and there’s large-scale protests going on at city hall. But you just get the feeling that the center of the city near the Acropolis, just blocks from a major international tourist destination, hadn’t seen a street sweeper or cleaning crew in a decade. Hard to imagine.
With only 24 hours in town, of course we had to trek up the Acropolis. It’s like a big state park. Pay 12 bucks and stroll around until you get tired. It’s quite the hike up the hill, and the views of the surrounding valley are almost as good as seeing the Parthenon itself.
The Parthenon is thousands of years old, and they’re doing an impressive restoration of many of the columns, which keeps parts of the building shrouded in scaffolding. As the pillars chip away, workers are creating small marble inserts that fill the cracks exactly. Would make for a fascinating episode of one of those “how they do it” TV shows.
It’s hard to believe just how much Athens sprawls out in every direction.
And there are tons of motorcycles in Athens. Just don’t open your car door too quick.
After Athens, we flew to Santorini, the true destination of our vacation. (Our trip planning began with a look at the white buildings perched on steep cliffs. “Let’s go there.”)
Santorini’s a tiny little island — about five miles tall by a couple wide — which is the remnant of a massive volcano that has twice (as recently as the 1950s) completely destroyed all of the civilized parts of the island. Before we left for Europe, concerned relatives mentioned the danger of going to Athens, where anarchy and tear gas would surely pose problems. I think we faced significantly more danger on Santorini. More on that in a minute.
You land on a runway that seems like it’s half as long as the island, then take a taxi through tiny towns at breakneck speed until you’re at the top of the hill. And then you walk around for 30 minutes trying to figure out which steps + door + narrow path combination leads to your hotel, getting more and more crabby, tired and frustrated until you see this:
April was a good and bad time to visit Santorini. Good because it’s too early for most other tourists, so the place is silent. Nobody around except the woman at the front desk and the guy who got a workout bringing food and poppy-seed margaritas to our room. But it’s not quite hot enough during the day to swim.
That worked out just fine, though. Having a couple days to do nothing but sit around and read magazines was pretty glorious, minus the sunburn. And with giant metropolis explorations on either end of the vacation, the small-town feel of Santorini was a welcome respite from the noise.
Once the New Yorkers were all read and the sudokus were all finished, we actually left the resort. Locals say it’s a short walk down the hill from our hotel to the town of Fira.
About halfway down, we decided that the “short walk” was really a ploy to keep the local car rental businesses prosperous. All of the Smart cars were gone, so we found a place that rented four-wheelers. 24 hours for 10 bucks. No helmets required. Just get on and go. Previous experience? A form of identification? Psssh. Who needs ’em? (Remember, the Greeks are super friendly.)
It was a fabulous, if dangerous, way to explore the island, which was just small enough that we could ride from one end to another on a couple gallons of gas.
On the northern tip of the island was Oia, with an upscale shopping area and lots of little restaurants with outdoor seating to watch the famous sunset. It was a couple miles from our resort on winding roads high above the water below. Beautiful.
The trip back from Oia was either “soooo fun” or treacherous, depending on which of us you ask.
Imagine those winding roads, high above the water below. IN THE DARK. WITH NO HELMETS. And, since this is a regular road, like with real cars and trucks, our little 100cc engine couldn’t quite muster enough power to lead the way home. Remember that scene from “Dumb and Dumber” where they’re riding the scooter in the mountains with a long line of cars behind since no one can pass? Yep, that was us.
The next day we made a stop at a little seaside town known for its black-sand beach. All of the locals were just arriving for the summer, so the town was filled with the sound of saws and drills as everyone fixed up their patios and awnings.
After we returned the four-wheeler (and climbed back up the hill to the hotel), we made the short, steep walk/climb to the top of Skaros, the site of an ancient castle that fell into the ocean during an earthquake. Scared of heights? Stay far away from Skaros.
With that, we’re almost two-thirds of the way through the trip. Next top: Paris.