From ancient ruins and culture, to pristine beaches, farm fresh food and locally produced wine, Greece has it all. Which is why after the many months of being grounded, my forever boyfriend of 22 years, Jim Miller, and I rebooked our postponed 2020 travel plan and headed to the land of the gods and goddesses. What unfolded during nearly two glorious weeks of roaming a country that at times felt more Mediterranean than European was nothing short of spectacular. Yes, there were a few meh moments—sorry, Delphi—but our recent adventure to the land of magical ruins, deep blue seas and whitewashed cliff dwellings was everything we hoped it would be.
With so many mystical sites and enticing island locales, deciding where to go and what to see was not easy. We chose to spend four days in Athens, and four days each on Crete and Santorini. This gave us a true taste of Greek life and hospitality.
COVID protocols were an added dimension but worth the extra stress of testing and constant mask-wearing to fly from Oklahoma City to Athens. Three flights, one airport change and 20 hours after leaving home, we land in Athens on a Monday, mid-morning. Our room in the bustling area of central Athens called Plaka was not ready. We leave our bags with the concierge and head out to get lunch. The main goal is to stay awake as long as possible to reset internal clocks and avoid jet lag.
An important aspect of any trip is advance planning. Without it, you end up aimlessly wandering around and feeling indecisive, particularly when it comes to meals. Fortunately, my travel partner does extensive research and we are on the hunt for an authentic, hole-in-the-wall lunch spot that earned high marks in multiple food reviews.
It’s extremely hot as we weave through crowded streets lined with tourist shops and Byzantine architecture. When we found Kostas in Plakla/Syntagma, we were happy to see locals lining up to order delicious varieties of souvlaki inside the tiny, no-frills, walk-up establishment. The menu is in Greek so we ordered by pointing directly at the items grilling right behind the counter. Simple, fresh and delicious.
As we head back to our hotel to swim and not fall asleep, we pass the ruins of the Roman Agora (marketplace) a few blocks from our hotel. One hard and fast rule is to stay in the center of whatever city we are visiting. This way you avoid spending time getting to the sites you want to see.
To orient ourselves, the next day we take a guided bike tour and zig-zag across the pedestrian street that circles the city center, Dionysiou Agrepagitou, and visit the traditional Olympic Stadium, national gardens, Temple Olympian Zeus and the choregraphed changing of the guard ceremony at the Greek presidential mansion. Dinner at Café Avissinia under the illuminated Acropolis is a great ending to a fun day.
Many day trips to historic sites outside of Athens are available and we chose an excursion to Delphi, located on the southwestern slope of Mount Parnassus. Ancient Greeks considered this now-world heritage site the center of the world. The ruins date from 4th century BC and are best known for its oracle who spoke from the Temple of Apollo. Mythic Greek stories abound from this region, including Oedipus Rex, which our guide shared with us on the ride out, and back. We would recommend other excursions rather than this one. The ruins are pretty underwhelming.
The Acropolis, the citadel high above Athens, is visible from nearly every vantage point and on our third day climbed the steep hill up for a guided tour. The complex is massive and simply magnificent. Parthenon has been under renovation for years and is covered in scaffolding, which does nothing to diminish its size and power. It is an impressive place and one that no doubt intimidated all who approached. Our visit is quick as the site is shutting down for the afternoon due to heat.
A new Acropolis museum nearby features an impressive, modern interpretation of the exterior of the Parthenon and thousands of artifacts recovered from the site. An added feature is a glass floor that allows you to see the ruins of an ancient city discovered and excavated during the museum’s construction.
An early morning flight the next day takes us to the spectacular island of Crete, where we rent a tiny Fiat to zip between cities, over mountains and out to beaches. At just 160 miles long and 37 miles wide, Crete feels like its own country and is easy to maneuver if you have a car. Our hotel—a 600-year-old monastery—is in Rethymnon, which is a halfway point between the two main cities of Heraklion and Chania. Drivers on Crete are aggressive and I quickly learned to stay on the shoulder so the steady stream of cars behind me can easily pass.
We took a hair-raising, hourlong drive filled with hairpin, U and blind curves to the spectacular Elafonissi Beach. Although white knuckle tense, the drive to us through dozens of small Greek villages, by roadside olive oil stands and a few herds of Cretan goats. A sunset dinner on the water in Chania later that day was perfection. Reservations at waterside restaurants are a must.
The Heraklion Archeological Museum is filled with 7,000-year-old artifacts from the ancient Minoan culture, uncovered in the excavation of the Palace of Knossos. The largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, Knossos has been referred to as Europe’s oldest city. Located a few minutes from the city center, the complex was eventually destroyed by fire and has been partially reconstructed.
The main attraction on Crete was a hike through Samaria Gorge, the longest in Europe. At 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, it is a steep, rocky descent through forests, streams and empty river beds, a little different from the photos of wide, curated trails we had envisioned. After seven hours of nearly steady but careful walking, we end at the beach in the village of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. Accessible only by boat, it requires a one-hour ferry ride and two-hour bus trip to get back to our hotel. Although we are in good shape, this hike is not easy, nor leisurely. The most common observation is that you are so busy picking your steps, it’s hard to look up and enjoy the scene
A high-speed boat takes us from Crete to Santorini. Words cannot describe the wonderous beauty of this half-moon shaped strip of land in the Aegean Sea. Born in 1600 BC from one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever recorded, the island surrounds the caldera and is built into the cliffs. Steps and a cable car are the only way up or down.
There is a 10-kilometer (six-mile) hike from our hotel in Fira to the tip of the northern horn of the island and Oia, where we have sunset dinner reservations. It is hot with no shade but we set out to walk on wobbly legs from the day after our gorge experience. The trail traverses the top of the ridge between the cities and we stop often for water breaks.
Oia is a bit glitzy and we are pretty dirty and disheveled from our hike so we stop at a café to cool off. A delightful part of Greek culture is the hours-long lingering over a single coffee or drink, and we take full advantage before finding the restaurant. Hundreds of steps take us down water side to the Sunset in Ammoudi Restaurant, where we enjoy a meal inches from the aqua blue water with spectacular sunset views.
The second day we take a guided tour around the island in a mini bus and enjoy a wine tasting at Argyros Vineyard. With no fresh water supply, vintners resort to ingenious ways to grow and harvest their grapes. A six-hour catamaran trip around the caldera with stops for swimming and snorkeling is the perfect way to cap off our Greek adventure.
“There is a reason the gods called Greece home” is a long-ago tourism campaign that kept running through my head during our visit. Such an arid, vivid, incredible country! If mythology and antiquity are your thing, you cannot go wrong with making the long trip to this land of great food, incredible sites and warm hospitality.