Amazing Greece: The islands provide a spectacular setting for a getaway

Santorini, Greece — The volcanic island of Santorini, rising dramatically out of the cobalt blue Aegean, is a geologic upheaval of inestimable beauty.

An eruption around 1450 B.C. submerged much of Santorini’s core and left a sea-filled caldera with sheer cliffs reaching 1,000 feet. The cataclysm buried an advanced Minoan village near the island’s southern tip, at Akrotiri, and produced a tidal wave that may have wiped out Minoan cities on Crete. Some scholars have theorized that this misty and mysterious island was Plato’s lost Atlantis.

Today, the crescent-shaped island some Greeks call by its eighth-century B.C. Dorian name of Thira, “The Wild Island,” and that 13th-century Venetians named to honor the island’s patron saint, Santa Irene, is known the world over for its spectacular setting — even if it attracts an increasing glut of tourists and cruise ships in summer.

We enjoyed three days on Santorini in May, in the desirable shoulder season when crowds thin and hotel rates plunge. The three-week sojourn began and ended in Athens and included visits to the islands of Crete, Mykonos, Delos, Syros and Hydra.

In the archipelago known as the Cyclades, barrel-roofed cave houses and buildings painted blue and white and less often ocher commingled with blue-domed churches on Santorini’s crater edge. Narrow, winding pathways connected tightly grouped, whitewashed villages. The maze was designed to befuddle pirates, and had the same effect on 21st-century tourists.

The artists’ community of Ia, badly damaged in a 1956 earthquake, was a convenient base on Santorini. Villas and apartments for rent on Ia’s main clifftop road offered private balconies and unobstructed, jaw-dropping views of the caldera, some rooms for as little as $55 a night. Fortunately, Ia was a distant seven miles from the teeming island capital of Fira, where most cruise ships docked. Ia also boasted the island’s finest sunset views, from the Lontza Castle ruins.

Bus service connected Ia to Fira and Akrotiri, buried under volcanic ash and first excavated in 1967 by Spyridon Marinatos, who lost his life during excavation. Two famous frescoes recovered from Akrotiri were displayed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens: “The Young Fisherman” and “The Young Boxers.”

IMG_0101East of Akrotiri stood the mountaintop ruins of the Dorian city of ancient Thira, a commanding presence on the Mesa Vouno peninsula between the black-sand beaches of Kamari and Perissa. More for novelty than relaxation, hire a donkey for the ascent to Thira. The site was less popular than Akrotiri and, consequently, bus service to it was more infrequent and unreliable.

Greece is one of Europe’s most attractive destinations for several reasons: inexpensive, clean hotels, a varied landscape, ancient sites, beautiful beaches and a favorable exchange rate. Three years ago, on our first trip to Greece, the dollar bought 270 drachmas; this time, 370.

Greek cuisine enticed. At the Restaurant Neptune on Ia’s main road, a typical meal included choriatiki salata (village salad), keftedes (meat patties flavored with herbs, coriander and cumin), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and the decadent, sweet giaourti kai meli (yogurt and honey). Ouzo, retsina, or a red from Ia’s Sigalas Winery complemented the meal. Santorini’s volcanic soil accounted for the island’s impeccable wines and juicy, sweet tomatoes.

Crete

Before visiting Santorini, we took a 40-minute flight from Athens to Crete on a Macedonian airliner. The one-way fare was only $72 and spared the less appealing alternatives: a 10- to 12-hour ferry or a 6-hour hydrofoil ride.

We chose Chania, in northwest Crete, for a three-day visit because it had a scenic Venetian harbor and was near the Samaria Gorge, at 11 mlles the longest ravine in Europe.

From Hotel Palazzo’s balcony along Odos Theotokopoulou in Chania, we heard Byzantine-influenced rembetika flow from a nearby taverna and compete with Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Outside a cafe, gray-haired men hunched over a table played backgammon and flicked worry beads, called komboloi. A sirocco wind whipped in from Africa and warmed the Cretan air. And in the distance, a landscape unlike that in the usually barren, rocky Cyclades: Snow-capped, vast mountain ranges, green forests, flora carpeting the countryside, lemon trees perfuming the air.

A wander through Chania’s old Turkish and Venetian neighborhoods was especially gratifying. Along the harbor was the Mosque of the Janissaries, built in 1645 after the Turkish capture of Chania and the oldest building on the island. At a favorite restaurant in Chania, The Well of the Turk, a few of the ubiquitous cats of Greece brushed up against seated customers’ legs, and young boys dribbled soccer balls only a few feet from diners.

Segments of the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek” were shot near Chania. Waiters fishing for customers around Chania’s horseshoe harbor made the unfounded claim to passers-by that their restaurant served the movie’s star, Anthony Quinn.

Leaving Chania, our tour bus labored through the mountains (no guardrails) to the Samaria Gorge. The highlight during the hike down the rocky gorge (the path dropped 3,280 feet in the first mile) came at the imposing Iron Gates, where the ravine’s sides soared hundreds of feet and narrowed to within nine feet. The gorge ended at the village of Agia Roumeli’s black-pebble beach on the Libyan Sea.

We bussed to Crete’s capital, Iraklion, and its two principal sites: the Palace of Knossos, a Minoan complex that thrived from 1600 B.C. to 1400 B.C. before the Mycenaeans seized power; and the Iraklion Archaeological Museum. Of interest to the literary-minded, the grave of Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis (“Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”) could be viewed atop the Martinegro Bastion.

Mykonos and Delos

Mykonos, often cited for its unrestrained night life, delivered much more than its reputation as only a heavily commercial, expensive getaway for jet-setters.

Mykonos Town’s bustling harbor, possibly the most beautiful in the Cyclades, contained a handsome group of multicolored sailboats. Also near the harbor was the much-photographed, white-cubed Paraportiani Church, built on four levels. Several thatch-roofed windmills overlooked the town.

Mykonos was only six miles from Delos, a sacred island that in mythology was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. A quick, affordable boat from Mykonos deposited travelers on Delos (closed on Monday).

Go early in the day to escape the intense, midday sun on the rocky, unshaded island and bring lunch, for there were no restaurants on the uninhabited island, only an overpriced museum snackshop.

On Delos were dazzling mosaics, the Sanctuary of Dionysus, House of Cleopatra, House of the Masks, House of the Dolphins and the Terrace of the Lions (only five of the original nine lions remained, lined up in the island museum).

Hike up Mount Kynthos for a panoramic view of the island.

Syros

Syros, the administrative capital of the Cyclades, was Greece’s leading port in the 19th century and still shined with vestiges of wealth from that era.

IMG_0102Ermoupolis, Syros’ hora (or capital), was named for Hermes, god of commerce, and was the largest city in the Cyclades with 15,000 residents. Above the harbor rose the twin hills of Ano Syros (Catholic) and Vrondado (Orthodox).

Hotel Omiros (Homer), a 150-year-old former mansion at the foot of Ano Syros, provided sterling accommodations. The neoclassical jewel boasted a skylit, spiral staircase, high-ceilinged rooms, marble floors, modern and spotless bathrooms, and balconies with harbor views for only $43 a night.

In Ermoupolis, Bouzouki-infused rembetika music flourished until recent decades. High atop the hundreds of steps that led to Ano Syros, outside a restaurant, stood a monument to famed Bouzouki musician Markos Vamvakaris.

Syros’ beaches were first-rate. Grammata to the north was tricky to reach, so nearby strands Galissas and Delfini presented better options. A direct bus route connected Ermoupolis to Galissas. Clothing-optional Delfini, on the other hand, was reached by bus to Kini Beach. Then we walked 30 minutes along a rocky, steep hillside. We scaled a barbed-wire fence (Caveat: “Clothing optional” does not apply to crawling over barbed wire).

Hydra

In the Saronic Gulf Island group just off the Peloponnese, Hydra (EE-dra) glimmered as one of the most striking Greek islands, its harbor ringed with stone mansions built by 19th-century maritime leaders.

Tranquility was a reward for visiting Hydra, far from the deafening motorbikes of Athens. No motorized vehicles were allowed on the island, and Hydra retained its 1820 appearance because a government edict protected it as a national treasure.

Unfortunately, we could not reach Hydra from the Cycladic islands; we first had to return to Athens’ dingy port of Piraeus and board a ferry or hydrofoil there.

Our Sunday morning hike up the steep hillside to a monastery revealed a stunning view of Hydra Town, as a sea of terra-cotta tile rooftops contrasted with the turquoise Saronic Gulf. Whitewashed mansions spilled down the town’s bowl-shaped hills.

The following morning in Hydra, during our final sunrise in the islands, a chorus of sounds summed up traditional Greece: donkeys pounded cobblestone pathways, roosters crowed in the hills, church bells resonated. I turned my ear to the still air, breathed softly and heard what nearly was lost in this melange of charming disorder: In the cathedral below, the monotone solemnity of a lone chanter.

(Published in the Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 3, 2000)

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