You don’t understand how real the expression “Greek Time” is until you are actually in Greece. We arrived in Santorini from London and immediately got stuck in the Passport Control line. There was only one man for our whole plane and he arrived at his position late. About 45 minutes later, another man showed up, speeding the process up quite considerably. This was something we were to experience throughout our entire time in Greece. Many things did not run on time, things were chaotic and disorganized and most people seemed indifferent to how things could be done more efficiently. For all that, Greece was beautiful and relaxing. We had arrived at the perfect time to experience the beauty and peace of Greece. Being the shoulder season, there were few tourists around cluttering up the sights and streets of Greece.
Greece has got something like 1,400 islands. There is so much of Greece you can’t know even if you’re Greek. It’s sprinkled out all around the edge of the Aegean, all over the place. It’s already a secret place wherever you go, even if it’s somewhere huge like Athens or Corinth. The place enchanted me.Joanna Lumley
I had been apprehensive of Greece before our arrival. I know that Greece is renowned for its beauty. However, in my previous experience with Greece, on a cruise stop, I had found Greece to be incredibly ugly and dirty. It didn’t help that Greece was in the middle of a garbage strike back then. However, I wanted to come with an open mind and was looking forward to exploring Santorini especially after seeing all the gorgeous photos of whitewashed houses and blue domed churches.
We had splurged for a room right on the caldera of the island. Santorini is built around the edge of an – for now – extinct volcano. We had hoped to get a place right in the center of everything with the beautiful views of the village we had seen online. Having picked us up from the airport, our driver led us to a little reception room of our hotel where we had a very pleasant greeting from the staff. I was a little worried at this point because I wasn’t seeing anything of the view yet. However, we were quickly led to our spacious room and our view! It was amazing! We had a little deck overlooking the caldera yet slightly away from the busier areas of the town, which was perfect for us. It even had a little pool. The problem was that it was actually quite chilly with the wind gusting around the edge of the caldera. The children tried to take a swim but they only lasted for about 10 mins as the water was so frigid. We also had to wear our hoodies to sit on the deck. We had to remember that it was still technically Spring even though the sun was shining brightly in the sky.
The views of the caldera certainly made up for it. From our room we could see the whole town stretched out in front of us, just like a postcard. In the evening, the lights would come on and the town would sparkle with the lights emanating from all the buildings. Throughout our stay, we would take little walks through the main paths and twisty, narrow side paths that wander and twist between all the buildings. It was easy to imagine villagers from centuries past using the same paths. What was interesting to learn though is that most of the buildings on the caldera are actually hotels now. There are very few personal residences all having been bought to be converted into hotels, which in some ways is unfortunate.
Hiking Our Way to Oia
As we were only going to be on Santorini for a short time, we wanted to try and see as much of the island as we could. One of the best ways to do this was walk to Oia, an easy three hour walk across the island. It was a perfect day to do it, with a nice refreshing breeze and a cloudless sky to keep us warm. Along the way, we walked through little villages and tiny churches tended by little old ladies in black. The trail was fairly reasonable in most spots and wasn’t too difficult for the kids though the last 45 minutes was a bit of a slog for the kids. We finally reached our destination and had a lovely stroll through the pretty town. Oia is actually quite a bit trendier and more expensive than the main town of Thira. Too expensive for us to stay there but lots of fun to wander through. We visited the one Venetian fortress still standing on the island which had beautiful views of the windmills in the middle of town. The way back to our hotel was much easier as we decided to take the bus back!
Unfortunately, we could only afford to stay on Santorini for two days. We had enjoyed our time there but it was time to head towards our next Greek island; Paros!
This was to be our first interaction with the Greek ferry system and it’s well worth a brief mention here. Greek time was also at play here. After taking our taxi to the dockyard and getting our tickets, we had a little wait before the ferry arrived. Looking around, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of organization. There was nothing around indicating where to get on the boat or even where the boat was going to dock. The ferry eventually showed up about an hour late. We were directed to go outside but there was still no system. We just stood around waiting for the boat to dock and unload. Once the last car had disembarked, it was suddenly a free for all to get on the boat with people and cars moving onto the boat at the same time. We got on the boat, piled our luggage on the luggage racks and headed to the seating area. From there it was a fairly normal journey. Getting off the boat in Paros, it was once again a free for all as both passengers and vehicles all got off at the same time; passengers walking across the dock as the vehicles were driving past. There were no separate exit routes for passengers and cars. Once you were off the ferry itself, you were left to your own devices. An incredible and a definite contrast to how things are done in North America, it was like the Greeks had decided that a ferry carrying people and vehicles to the different parts of Greece would be a great idea but there was no actual need to organize anything. It would sort itself out on the dock. And if someone got driven over by a car, knocked into the water or simply left behind, well, – insert gallic shrug – it just wasn’t meant to be. Little did we know that this was the least chaotic ferry journey we were going to take on this trip!
We arrived in Paros at our new home for the next week and were immediately struck by one thing. It was very quiet. As we wondered the little alleys through the old town, there were very few tourists and few crowds. It was very peaceful and relaxing. We would do school in the morning, then head out in the afternoon to stroll the empty lanes, sit in our favorite little cafe and eat baklava. The downside to all this peace was nothing was open. With so few tourists there, all the attractions opened and closed with irregularity or didn’t open at all. Our one fieldtrip to a nearby island, Antiparos, to visit the caves turned into a wander through the town only as the bus to the caves didn’t run until later in the month despite the promises of our guide book.
For the most part, we just hung around Paros. One day we took the bus up to Naoussa to wander the pretty town harbour there. There was also a little old winery there that we visited. It was a little intimidating being in a winery that had been making wine since 1910 but we battled through it to sample some delicious wines. We also headed to the Archeological Museum. As you can imagine, going to a museum in Greece, you are going to see some pretty old things. Even this tiny little museum had objects from the beginnings of Greek civilization. One of the most important churches in Greece was also in Paros. Churches in Greece are a wonder. You step inside and you are transported to another time. The thick incense, the dark brooding light bouncing off ancient relics and golden icons staring at you make you feel like you have stepped through a time machine. Greece had these types of churches scattered all through the islands. You would be wandering down an alley, and there, through a tiny little door, would be a miniscule little church the size of your living room all decked out in the requisite icons and incense pots. Paros was a very pleasant place to relax and enjoy the Greek lifestyle. The week flew by and we were soon packing up once again for our final stop in Greece.
A for Athens
It didn’t take us long to get to the ferry for our trip to Athens. The ferry was just down the street and we got there early knowing that perhaps it may be a little chaotic. We were wrong, it was even more chaotic. We were the last stop on the ferry’s route to Athens and we joined what seemed like 70% of Paros in clambering aboard the ferry in one large group. Again, no lines, no organization and no designated lanes for people and vehicles. We were herded aboard. As all the designated luggage racks were already full, we were instructed to throw our luggage onto an already massive pile of luggage built up from previous stops. I just stood there wondering how on earth anyone was going to be able to retrieve their luggage when we got to Athens. Maybe they had a system….
We discovered the other problem when we had finished foisting our luggage on top of the ever growing stack. As we moved towards the stairs, I looked back in despair at other pieces of luggage being piled on top of ours, our luggage disappearing into the quicksand of suitcases. Heading into the passenger area, we found ourselves stepping over people sitting on the floors of the hallways. Apparently, economy on these ferries means that you don’t get a seat at all. You have to pay extra to get a seat. Which left us tiredly wandering around the ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to sit. We ended up having to sit outside in the smoking area for the four hour trip. It actually wouldn’t have been too bad if it hadn’t been so windy with drops of rain hitting. Thankfully, the wind and rain disappeared as we got closer to Athens. However, I was not looking forward to our arrival in Athens.
Hitting Athens, my premonitions turned out to be very true. Along with every single person on the ship, we moved like one large blob into the vehicle parking area to try and find our bags. Deanne and the kids awaited by the gangway while I braved the crowds. Not sure as to whether I would ever see them again, I plunged into the depths of people and swam my way to where I thought I had left our bags. Thankfully, I found them without too much problem. Getting to them was a whole other issue. I could see the bags. Now I had to not only navigate around the parked cars but also get through the crowds of people either trying to do the same thing I was or, having retrieved their bags, push themselves back to the gangway. It was the most incredibly chaotic scene. Once the gangway was down, the cars started trying to leave. However, they couldn’t go anywhere without mowing down the people trying to get their bags. Once I got to the gangway with our bags, we still had to watch out for cars driving through the throngs of pedestrians trying to get to the streets lining the ferry terminal.
Once we made it to our apartment, we were able to once again breathe and relax. Deanne had found us an amazing apartment right near the Acropolis. Our first stop was to a rooftop restaurant I had found through Instagram. Named A for Athens, it had a wonderful view of the Acropolis and the old part of Athens (I know. Everything is old in Athens. But this was the part of Athens that was older than the more modern part of the city). We had a wonderful little snack of french toast rolls and various other nibblies while we looked at the spectacular view in front of us. We only had a short time in Athens so it was nice to relax and breathe a little before rushing around the city trying to get in all the sights. Before heading home, we walked over to the main government buildings in the hope that we might be able to see the changing of the guard. Luckily, we were just in time! However, the changing of the guard is not the best part! The best part is seeing the magnificent uniforms these gentlemen wear. From the knee length skirts to the pom-poms on the shoes, I don’t think I have ever seen a more turned-out guard. The changing of the guard is a lot of fun to watch as well, with the guards marching slowly to their stations with legs high. It was an interesting time to be there as there seemed to be some celebration going on. There were lots of people there all dressed in their finest regional folk costumes. The square was a riot of colours.
The Acropolis Museum
Early the next morning, we headed out to the Acropolis Museum made up of many of the statues and other building remains that had been found around the Acropolis. This museum could easily have been extremely boring for the kids. Thankfully, they had some kids packs that had them searching the museum for various statues of Athena. Through the Athena hunt, the kids learned that Athena was the Goddess responsible for Athens -hence the name – and that she had won Athens in a contest with Poseidon. The contest was to come up with the best gift to give the town of Athens. Poseidon offered a well of salt water, while Athena offered the first olive tree. Obviously a more practical gift, Athena won the contest and control of the town. We had fun learning more about the statues and stone carving through the kids packs.
After wandering the old city streets for awhile, we headed up to the Acropolis. While the old city streets were nice, we found that they were more often than not, filled with the same souvenir shops you find anywhere else. What I don’t understand is, when all the shops sell the same items, how do any of the shops actually manage to stay open?
The Acropolis was the raison de etre of our stay in Athens, and I was excited to visit this site after so many years of seeing it in pictures. After a leisurely stroll up the side of the cliff, we found a beautiful observation area where you could see the whole city. This was even before we got to the Acropolis. We managed to tear our eyes away and continue our climb finally reaching the top. There was so much to see at the top. Besides the Parthenon, there was also the Theatre of Dionysus which was spectacular. The theatre was off the side of the cliff with it’s own views of the city. It would have been hard acting with those views behind you! The Parthenon itself was breathtaking, rising off the top of the cliff, man’s history enshrined in the gleaming white marble.
We spent a lovely hour climbing over the marble and admiring the ruins and the history. The kids were initially excited but the pile of stones and columns only held their interest for so long, so sadly, we headed back down into the city after one last look.
Strolling back to our hotel, we thought about all the things we had seen in Greece. We had experienced the stunning beauty of the Greek Islands, faced the chaos of the Greek ferry system and lived, and connected with a rich history that still affects us today. I am glad we came to Greece. With my previous experience of Greece coming in the midst of a garbage strike seen from inside a packed tour bus, I am thankful to have seen a much softer, richer side to Greece.