A country so steeped in mythology, Greece intoxicates you with its beauty and makes you dream of a trip back.
Sailing on a Greek ferry puts you in a time warp and it is almost like rediscovering yourself and one is happy because Greece means equal doses of history and hedonism.
We marvel at the dazzling clarity of the light on the waters, the pervading sense of spirit — and then sit down to take it all in, while we get chatting with an American archaeologist who fills us in on many fascinating tales about Athena, daughter of the gods who drank hemlock with Socrates and Sigmund Freud who gained an unexpected insight into the relationship with his father when he climbed the Acropolis and then onto Maria Callas, the opera singer and her relationship with the Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.
Steeped in mythology
Reeling from thousands of years of Greek mythology mingled with the rocking motion of strong Aegean waves, we look forward to the first sight of land as our ferry draws closer to the volcanic island of Santorini. From a distance, there doesn't seem to be anything special about the island, but as the ferry moves in we figure out its unique shape and instant appeal. Santorini! Oh my god! Santorini! I'll never forget our first glimpse! Pure white villas, bright pink bougainvillea, turquoise blue domed churches and the sparkling blue of the sea is a picture that I am sure none of us will forget!
Santorini is most awesome, her volcanic cliffs are coloured with multiple hues, her towering cliffs topped with whitewashed houses and churches almost seem to resemble snow capped mountains. We scramble out of the ferry eager to get onto land. We're given maps with our hotel marked clearly on it, and an advised to-do-see list. Sandra our guide in Santorini is also generous with tips as we walk, pointing out good local places to eat, arty places, old ruins and shopping hot spots. She refuses to carry a flag or anything that identifies her as a tour guide and can easily pass for a college student. There's usually an ‘official' designated spot for watching the best views and a cup of coffee midway to perk us up. We pick up some Santorini wine and pistachio to take home from the local market near our hotel, which is precariously perched on the edge of a cliff and buffeted with strong winds occasionally.
The girls rush to ‘book' their places in the sun on the highly polished teak sailboat. We are on a Caldera boat tour to walk on Greece's last active volcano that occasionally lets off steam, even today. Apart from the lone ‘ticket collector' at the ‘entrance' there is no one else, no locals except us with our guide and a couple of racks with pamphlets standing forlornly in the middle of nowhere.
We climb very rough terrain, an uneven dark grey winding path where the eruptions last took place in 1956, the year which some of us were born. The dirt track we are walking on is pretty tough but the thrill of being on an active volcano keeps us going, many of us aim to reach the main crater right at the top. We meet a few volcano enthusiasts who encourage us “Not too much further and you'll be there” they tell us! Sandra tells us that the entire centre of the circular island sank into the sea during a huge eruption some 4000 years ago. Tidal waves caused by the volcano's eruption is supposed to have virtually wiped out the advanced Minoan civilization of Crete and the impact of the explosion is said to have shook up all of Greece. Breathless with exhaustion and sheer excitement we reach the moonscape like volcano top, littered with dark volcanic rock of various sizes and shapes. I guess these were hurled and strewn around during the last eruption.
Plato's lost continent of Atlantis is thought to have been inspired by the eruption of this most ancient Greek volcano. Looking around we take in the spectacular views of the mainland, crescent shaped Santorini with its cobbled villages and artistic architecture. We skid and slide on the downhill trek back to the jetty and even slip a few times before we are back on board and it's a quick trip to the hot sulphur springs before we return to the main land. The famous Oia sunset, considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world, fetches hordes of tourists, waiting for the moment when the sun slips down on the calm sea of the Caldera. A narrow, winding cobbled footpath leads us towards the view of the sea we had come to find. Then managing to get a table with a spectacular view, we feast on a gorgeous fig, parmesan and rocket leaf salad, fresh seafood pasta and drink lots of red wine as the sun slips below a blue horizon. We hear some nice soft music and a young Greek couple in love make an appearance for a few minutes. Iconic and charming, such is the magic of Santorini.
Odysseus spent many years sailing the Aegean, but with the wind in our sails, a day later, we do the Santorini to Mykonos stretch in two hours! Obsessed with the sea, our dreams on the deck connect to a uniquely personal Ithaca, for we experience journeys differently according to our individuality.
Approaching the island from the sea, we are awed by the large windmills on the shoreline. They seem like huge white birds sprawled across the blue horizon. Ah! Mykonos! Bathed in brilliant sunshine, it is the stuff romances are made of, literally, to-die-for enchantment! Mykonos is the same fairy tale island where SRK woos Rani Mukherjee in “Chalte Chalte”! In love with Mykonos and Santorini, we want to shuttle for ever between the two beautiful isles on the sun-dappled Aegean Sea! Unique Cycladic architecture set around a picturesque fishing-village bay constitutes Mykonos, named after Apollo's grandson Mykons. Whitewashed cube-like buildings fit closely together to form a dizzy maze of narrow alley ways and streets. Earthy colours of hills surround the town's white centre blended with snatches of an azure blue sky and beyond the sparkling blue seas. From one end of town to the other we wind our way through colourful streets that are overflowing with colourful local goods from the area. We also discover that it is fairly easy to get lost!
We set out to search for Petros the Pelican, a waterfront celebrity! Found after a storm some fifty odd years ago the pelican gave up migrating to become a Mykonos resident, but Petros eventually died. Mourned by the locals as well as the tourists, a replacement was found which carries on through generations of mascot pelicans. We find him in one of the cafes moving around the tables, hoping to get a bite or two! Next day the sea is rough and we taste the salt of the waters on our faces, on our brief journey to Delos, one of Greece's most famous archaeological sites, where the entire island has been declared a national museum. Along with a detailed map, we feel like discoverers rather than tourists, as we start our walk round this barren, parched sliver of unoccupied land some eight km in size. Throughout the Greek era, it was revered as a major religious centre and was the destination for countless pilgrims from all corners of the world. All that remains of its past glory is a vast jumble of silent ruins. In ancient times it was forbidden to give birth or die on Delos. Even today, no one can stay overnight on this island that is a World Heritage site, the highlights of which include a third-century B.C. theatre and a seventh-century B.C. Terrace of the Lions. We admire the sprawling ruins of an ancient 11th-century Byzantine church and walk around a bit before we discover the House of Dionysus named after the mosaic that depicts Dionysus, the God of Wine, riding on a panther. We stop to visit what were once the three temples dedicated to Apollo, the Agora or marketplaces, elegant houses, pedestrian pathways, shops, and warehouses and the iconic lion statues. We hear that the original lions have been kept inside the museum at Delos and make our way to have a look at them. There are huge stretches of the island we have not been able to explore, perhaps layers upon layers of Delos's past beckoning to us. Now we head for Piraeus, watching Mykonos disappear on the horizon as we sail towards Athens and the end of our Greek sojourn.
The wind picks up to help our ship show off its sailing abilities. Remembering Greece tugs at the heart. Be it the White Dreams of Mykenos or the staggering Caldera vista which makes you believe that somewhere under the depths of the sea is Atlantis or the surrealistic grandeur of the Parthenon, the country's physical beauty haunts one so much that you dream of a time when you can return.
While in Athens…
You land up in Athens, the capital with its array of historical sights and the perfect base for connections to other parts of Greece. Towering above it and visible from almost any angle is the Acropolis with the impressive arthenon. Athens is the capital city of Greece and in many ways the birthplace of Classical Greece, and therefore of Western civilization. The sprawling city is bounded on three sides by Mt Ymettos, Mt Parnitha and Mt Pendeli; whilst inside Athens are twelve hills, the Acropolis and Lykavittos being the most prominent. These hills offer amazing views down to the Saronic Gulf, Athens' boundary with the Aegean Sea on its southern side. The magnificent Acropolis, crowned by the iconic Parthenon temple, rises above the city, watching the sprawling sophisticated metropolis that Athens is. About ten thousand tourists climb up daily. The Unification of Archaeological Sites walkway is something that one should check out. About 2.5 miles long, it connects the city's most important historical sites and is lined with chapels, neo-Classical homes and cafes. Also drop by at the New Acropolis Museum. Plan to stay in Plaka, which means ancient stone slab and is Athens' oldest and most picturesque neighbourhood and an intrinsic part of all itineraries. Though Plaka is a labyrinth with its maze of narrow streets and alley ways, it is easy to orientate yourselves: uphill is the Acropolis and downhill are bustling Syntagma and Monastiraki, overflowing with students, tourists, locals and Athen's noisy traffic. You could pick up some olives, olive oil, Greek honey, ouzo and Greek artefacts to take home and do not forget to check out the Greek baklava, curds with honey and gyros, the typical Greek ‘hamburger'.
Sumitra Senapaty is the Founder of Women On Wanderlust