From its Aegean Coast and famed Greek isles, to Sparta, Athens and the ruins at Mycenae, Greece is stunning for laidback lifestyle, and its sun, sand and history.
Story and Photos by Dario De Santis
I stare at the silhouette of the city that the sunset makes pop on the fire-red sky. Some clouds come between me and the rays, refracting them in many golden beams that illuminate the buildings in ethereal light. The white stones of the old city become flushed with gold and shine on the walls of the Swabian Castle, the austere Basilica of St. Nicholas, and the tall belfry of San Sabino’s Cathedral, which seen from here, looks like the minaret of a mosque. With its maze of interwoven winding alleys, Barivecchia, Italy, could easily be mistaken for the medina of an Arabic city.
While the sun remains relentless in its descent, I follow the profile of the city moving away, until it merges with the horizon and becomes a distant shadow. Silently I say my umpteenth goodbye to my hometown on the southeastern coast of Italy, to my family and my friends, with the mind lost in the places and moments of my childhood. After all, I am an emigrant, albeit an atypical one, since I am not leaving because of poverty or promises of a better life; instead am driven by an uncurbed thirst for experience and adventure.
Now we are in open sea, and the journey has just started: it will take at least 16 hours for the ferry from Bari to reach Patra, Greece. It is early August, and I’m going there to meet Angeliki, my girlfriend, and spend the holidays with her family, before getting back to Istanbul, the city where we live.
I enter the ferry’s air-seat lounge and place my baggage in the compartment. Just like an emigrant of the old days, in my two heavy suitcases I carry a load of Italian delicacies, impossible to find in Greece and Turkey, unless you pay a fortune for them. I settle in the armchair and take out a book which will keep me company during the long journey, The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. Night has fallen, and from the porthole my gaze tries in vain to penetrate the darkness. Recollections from my classical studies surface from the caves of the mind: “While sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech.”
I am not sure what colour Homer was thinking of when he wrote this in The Odyssey, but do believe he was describing the sea at night—a dark, indistinct body able to swallow boats, goods, sailors and thoughts. I close Miller’s book and go to sleep with this picture stamped on my brain: seen from a distant harbour, this ship is nothing but candlelight swaying in the sidereal space.
I awake in broad daylight as the ferry navigates over placid blue-cobalt waters, in a narrow inlet delimited on both sides by the green coasts of the Greek Ionian islands. Now we are sailing alongside the mythical island of Ithaca. How can I not identify with, if only for a moment, Ulysses, the legendary hero who after conquering Troy tried to return to his native Ithaca and ran into all those incredible adventures? Unlike Ulysses, I left my homeland of Italy for my adopted city, Istanbul. Where is my own home? I ask myself, but cannot answer.
We have just entered the Gulf of Patra; to the right is the Peloponnese, to the left mainland Greece. I can discern the harbour of Patra, our destination. As the ship moves forward slowly, I’m slightly anxious about our arrival, but Kavafis’s poem Ithaca heartens me:
“Do not hurry the voyage at all. It is better to let it last for many years, and to anchor at the island when you are old, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.”
As the ferry docks, all the passengers have swarmed to the deck to admire the spectacular Rio Antirio bridge. At 2,883 metres, it’s the longest multi-span cable-stayed bridge in the world—and because of this engineering masterpiece, opened in 2004 for the Athens’s Olympics, it’s possible to cross the Gulf of Corinth in just five minutes, compared to the 45 minutes the ferry takes.
Eventually, the hatch of our ferry opens and I see Angeliki waiting for me. We run into each other’s arms and embrace in a long kiss. Although it’s not been that long since last we met, we are both touched. I’ve lost count of all the times we have departed and met up again. If you add up all the goodbyes we’ve said in train and bus stations, harbours and airports, in dozens of cities and nations, a director could shoot one very romantic film. But maybe I’m biased.
The Patra–Corinth highway that Angeliki and I are driving along has spectacular scenery. The road runs 50 metres above the sea, flanking the mountains that from here stretch inland up to 2,000 metres. Both shores of the Gulf of Corinth dazzle the senses, and little towns, little harbours, green capes and beaches dot the landscape. Over the blue-turquoise background of the sea, from its 164 metres of height, stands the bridge, like a glorious and sinuous white harp made by giants.
A few kilometres from the bridge, on the opposite side of the gulf, I catch a glimpse of Nafpaktos, better known as Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, these waters saw one of the most famed naval battles of all time, in which the Holy League, a coalition of southern European Catholic states (mostly Mediterranean), annihilated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. Today, Nafpaktos is a town with a little castle and a pretty harbour and some monuments that commemorate the event, among them a statue of Miguel Cervantes, the great Spanish writer who fought in the battle. It’s hard to believe that this gulf was the scene of such a bloody conflict, and hides in its depths thousands of ghosts and hundreds of relics and who knows how many treasures.
After 30 minutes of driving, at Diakofto, a road sign indicates the way to the Odontotos, a railway built between 1889 and 1896. Due to its small gauge (at 0.75 metres, the narrowest in the world), the train is able to clamber 22 kilometres up and over the narrow gorge of the Vouraikos River to the town of Kalavrita, at 750 metres above sea level. The journey is enchanting: it runs over steep slopes on the edge of ravines, passing by tunnels, bridges, villages and forests.
Kalavrita is a pretty mountain village at the foot of Mount Helmos (a popular ski resort), and is famous for two events. In 1821, in the nearby Agia Lavra monastery, the Greek flag was raised, which signalled the start of its War of Independence against the Ottomans. And on December 13, 1943, German troops executed most of the village’s male population, killing 696 people. Only 13 survived. A memorial not far from the village commemorates the tragedy.
We arrive in Derveni, a coastal village of about 1,500 people, where Angeliki grew up. Her parents live six months here and six months on the island of Santorini. Every time we come here, I tease Angeliki about the size of the village: “It’s impossible to get lost here,” I tell her.
She doesn’t take offence because she knows I love this place. The village spreads out along a long central road that runs parallel to the sea and which is lined with two-story buildings. Derveni’s beauty lies in its combination of sea and mountain—its name derives from the Ottoman word derven, which means narrow passage, referring to its location between the Gulf of Corinth and the mountain relief Mavro Oros, at 1,757 metres. Incredibly, tourism is only slightly developed in the region.
I am given a warm reception from Angeliki’s family, who welcomes me with hugs and kisses and exclamations of “kalos irthes,” which means welcome.
Her mother has prepared a fantastic banquet: dolmades (rolls of vine leaves stuffed with meat), moschari kokkinisto (veal cooked in tomato sauce), gemista (baked vegetables stuffed with rice), keftedes (grilled meatballs), and Greek salad with feta.
More relatives join us and the atmosphere is convivial—in part due to the local Nemea red wine we indulge in! After uncountable toasts with the cheer Geia Mas! (“to our health”), I get a bit merry but drop off for a well deserved doze.
After our nap, we go to Bolero, a café where young people gather. Seated at tables on a balcony overlooking the sea, we chat with friends and drink frappe, a cold shaken coffee that along with ouzo can be considered a national drink of Greece. The blue expanse of the sea is surrounded on two sides by hills and mountains, among them the mythical Mount Parnassus, creating the illusion the sea is a lake. I can’t resist the temptation to swim, so I finish my coffee and dive into the crystal water, then end up lying on a bed of grey pebbles as we watch a postcard sunset. The sky becomes tinged with a thousand hits of red and pink, while the lights of the villages glow like fireflies on a large lake.
The following morning we say goodbye to Angeliki’s parents, who we’ll meet again in Santorini. We leave for Sparta, where we’re going to visit our dear friends Nikos and Charitini. Angeliki is the godmother of their son. After driving 50 kilometres, before entering the city of Corinth, we leave the coast behind and move inland. We pass through the region of Nemea, well known for its wineries, and afterwards turn in the direction of Mycenae, about 90 kilometres from Athens—I had insisted on seeing the famed archeological site of which I had studied so much of in school.
The Mycenaean civilization flourished between 1600 BC and 1200 BC, when it disappeared for reasons that scholars are still debating. To give you an idea of the influence the Mycenaeans have had on the history of humanity, suffice it to say they were the Achaeans, the (Greek) protagonists of the Homeric poems. I have shivers realizing I am in the homeland of the heroes of Troy: Achilles, Ulysses, Agamemnon, Ajax.
The first monument we visit is the grand tholos tomb, located a few metres off the road. The tomb is awe-inspiring, especially if you think that Agamemnon, the legendary king of the Achaeans, could well be buried there. A long hallway lined with massive stones leads to the imposing entrance, which we stare at for awhile. The architecture gives the impression that the hillside is about to suck us into the depths of the earth.
We proceed slowly, touching the rocks on the side lightly. Once we’ve passed the threshold, the blinding light of the exterior decreases into semi-darkness. The air smells stale. This wide empty space, with it 13-metre-high vault coated with huge stones, makes us feel puny and insignificant. This place looks like the tomb of a giant. In my mind I picture a gigantic Agamemnon, wearing gigantic armour. We leave the tomb and the light suddenly blinds us—I feel like we’ve just spent five minutes in Hades.
A short slope leads to the citadel which dominates the Mycenaean ruins at the top of the hill. The citadel is bounded all around by the famed cyclopean walls, so called because they’re made of massive limestone boulders weighing several tons each, which only a Cyclops could lift. Although it seems incredible, this vast fortified city, spread over a whole hill, had been hidden for centuries, until discovered by archaeologists Kyriakos Pittakis and Heinrich Schliemann—the latter the man who famously set out to prove that places described in The Iliad were actually based on fact.
The entrance to the citadel is demarcated by the massive Lion Gate, a 20-ton architrave supporting a huge triangular stone on which are two lions that protect the city and symbolize power.
How many times I have seen this picture in my school books—I can’t describe the emotion at seeing it with my own eyes. Inside the acropolis several more royal tombs are found, as well as the ruins of other buildings and the royal palace, of which little is left. Everything in Mycenae is mastodontic, and one would think this place was inhabited not by men like us, but by a race of supermen, like the heroes who conquered Troy. But we stand in front of disproportionate dimensions, menacing and dim. Again, I can’t but agree with Henry Miller: “Mycenae, after one turns the last bend, suddenly folds up into a menacing crouch, grim, defiant, impenetrable. Mycenae is closed in, huddled up, writhing with muscular contortions like a wrestler. Even the light, which falls on it with merciless clarity, gets sucked in, shunted off, grayed, beribboned.”
Before leaving the ruins we visit the museum where the artifacts from the excavations are exhibited. Here there are inestimable treasures. In particular, I long to see the mask of Agamemnon, the funeral mask crafted in gold that Schliemann claimed belonged to the Achaean king. The fact that it’s a copy of the original displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens doesn’t abate my excitement: portraying a flattened, oblong face, I am captivated by the intensity of his facial features: the wide forehead, long nose, thin lips and especially tightly closed eyes. Scientific dating has shown that the mask cannot be Agamemnon’s as it’s dated prior to the mythical War of Troy.
At any rate, I’m aware that I’m looking at the severed face of a great king. Some question the authenticity of the artifact, theorizing that it’s a fake commissioned by Schliemann himself. I refrain from considering this; happy like a child who has just been to the circus, I get back into the car to resume our trip.
As we proceed southbound, the landscape becomes wilder and more rugged. The vegetation comes in patches of shrubs and dark green woods that dot a boundless land. There’s no human presence around us except on the broad road we drive, which like a big snake weasels its way into remote valleys.
Surprised by the desolation I ask Angeliki, “Are we going to the end of the world?” To which she replies, “I told you it was far.”
When we’re nearly there, the hills have assumed the shape of massive mountain ranges stretching out toward the cloudy sky. It’s evident we are in Laconia, the land of the Spartans, a hostile and inaccessible region. Sparta rises on the bank of the river Eurotas, over a plain that constitutes a formidable natural fortress: it’s bounded to the north by highlands, to the east by Mount Parnon, and to the west by Mount Taygetus—also known as Pentadaktilon, meaning “with five fingers,” as five foothills branch off it.
If it’s true that geography largely contributed to Sparta never being conquered, to never having to build city walls, it’s also true that it constrained Spartans to isolation, which partly explains why they drifted away from other Greek city-states.
Surviving in such a hostile land must have required strength and discipline, hence the oligarchic political system and martial lifestyle that distinguished Spartans from the democracy and refined culture of the Athenians.
We meet Nikos and Charitini with little Vassilis in the main square of the town, dominated by the neoclassical city hall. The modern city of Sparta was founded in 1834 by decree of the King of Greece, Otto. The urban plan of the new city was designed by German architects, which is why Sparta features long, broad avenues lined with trees, large squares and parks that make it an absolutely liveable place. One can hardly believe that this peaceful town of 35,000 was once one of the most powerful Greek poleis or city-states, able to rival and defeat Athens.
My friend Nikos is from Naxos, a Cycladic Greek island, but he lived most of his life in Athens. A few years ago, he and his family moved to Sparta, where he works as a teacher. He tells me they decided to move here to allow their son to grow up in a hearty place.
As we walk and talk, with Nikos telling me all about life in Sparta, he shows me the few notable sights of the city: the ruins of the theatre would be quite disappointing, if it wasn’t for the dramatic view of Mount Taygetus in the background; next to the stadium is a big statue of Leonidas, the great Spartan king who bravely fought the Persians and died at the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), along with many of his warriors. Sure enough, I have to take a picture in a warlike pose alongside one of my childhood heroes.
A few kilometres from Sparta is Mystras, a splendid and ancient Byzantine fortified town designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989. Resting on the cliffs of Mount Taygetus, in the 14th and 15th centuries Mystras was the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire, the first being Constantinople. In the dark ages, the lands of Greece had become a battlefield disputed by crusaders, Venetians, Byzantines and Ottomans. At Mystras, arts and culture flourished again under Byzantine rule, predating and anticipating what eventually was the Italian Renaissance.
Angeliki and I explore the abandoned city, mounting its three levels from the foot of the hill to the top. The climb is not easy, and it’s good we’re wearing hiking shoes. We slog the hillside, walking through wild flowers, bushes and moss-grown stones; like equilibrists, we walk over the city walls, enter the ruins of churches and palaces, climb towers, and take photos of each other on the edge of ravines.
With effort we get to the summit, where stands the castle of Wilhelm II of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaia, who built this fortress in the 13th century. We have a frugal lunch under a tree, and while eating enjoy the commanding view over all of the plain. Through the centuries vegetation has gradually taken possession of the place, and now the ancient works of mankind blend harmoniously in the natural landscape. In this moment we feel like the characters of one of those Romanticist paintings, depicting scenes of rural life amid decaying ancient ruins overtaken by nature.
The heart of Mystras was in the Middle City, where the imposing Palace of the Despots is located. A multitude of buildings, churches and monasteries are scattered around, some of which are very well preserved. We admire the beautiful temples close up, rich in their refined architectural elements: arches, balconies, arcades, cloisters and windows. On the interior, the churches reveal splendid works of arts that dazzle the senses: sculptures, mosaics, frescoes.
Time has run out and we have to leave “the wonder of Morea”—the medieval name for the Peloponnese peninsula. Anyway, for today, our eyes are sated of wonders! The next morning we awake early. Today we are going to Nafplio, where we will meet up with three friends and proceed to Athens. In a square near a port in the town, we meet Georgia, Letta and Elli. The girls haven’t seen each other in a long time and hug warmly.
Our tour starts with the Palamidi Fortress, built by the Venetians during their second rule over the city, between 1711 and 1714. By car we reach the entrance of the citadel, which is nestled on a rock outcrop on the top of the hill. The view from the 216-metre summit is breathtaking: the Argolic Gulf appears as an immense blue board cut in the middle by a long promontory, trimmed with green, over which the old city spreads; at the tip of the promontory, we can see the older fortress of Akronafplia.
We wander around the walls and the bastions of the fortress, savouring the superb panorama from all perspectives. In the central bastion there’s a small chapel named after St. Andrew—in 1822, on November 30th (the Feast of St. Andrew’s), the Greeks captured the fortress from the Ottoman Turks after a long siege. The conquest of this strategic stronghold represented a decisive step in the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. In 1829, Nafplio was proclaimed the capital of the newly born Greek state.
Two years later, the country’s first head of state, Ioannis Kapodistrias, was murdered on the stairs of St. Spyridon in Nafplio. A plaque on the church’s facade recalls the event—embedded in a wall, protected by glass, one can still see a bullet fired by the murderers. Palamidi Fortress was also the place where Theodoros Kolokotroni—who led the Greeks against the Turks and was a hero in the War of Independence—was imprisoned. For all these reasons, as well as for its indubitable beauty, Nafplio holds a special place in the hearts of Greek people.
I decide to descend the 857 steps from the fortress to the city centre—the girls decide to take the car! Once rejoined we embark on a small boat and set sail to Bourtzi, a fortified islet that looks over the entrance to the harbour. It too, has what I describe as a pretty little castle that was built by the Venetians in 1473, after which it fell into Turkish hands, before being taken by the Greeks in 1822. The castle offers a beautiful view of the city from the sea.
We get back on dry land just in time to watch another amazing sunset in one of the trendy cafes on the waterfront. We have an hour to stroll around Nafplio’s old city and shop. The streets are very tidy and full of small souvenir shops, boutiques, handicraft workshops and restaurants—we’re sorry we can’t spend the evening here, but need to get to Athens soon. We say goodbye to the girls and to Nafplio, such a lovely place.
Just 30 kilometres from Nafplio is Epidavros, which has one of the most well-preserved ancient theatres in the world. There’s no time to go there, but I make Angeliki promise that next summer we’re coming back here just to watch a Greek tragedy.
After an hour of driving we have to cross the Corinth Canal, separating the Peloponnesian peninsula from the Greek mainland. This narrow and sharp cut in the isthmus was completed in 1893 to allow ships to pass from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf, saving hours of navigation. It’s late when we arrive at Angeliki’s apartment in Pagkrati, a neighbourhood in the centre of Athens. The next morning, we have an early departure from the port of Piraeus to go to Santorini—but now we’re exhausted and fall asleep instantly on the bed.
The ferry is packed with tourists of all nationalities. For the next 10 hours we sail the Aegean Sea, passing by the islands of Paros, Naxos and Syros, until reaching Santorini, the southernmost of Greece’s Cyclades Islands. Farther south is 150 kilometres of open sea, right up to the island of Crete. Approaching it from the sea, Santorini looks like a massive mountain of soil covered by a thin blanket of snow.
Our ferry finally docks in Athinios, the main harbour of the island. Kyrios Nikos, Angeliki’s father, has come to meet us with a car. Kamari, the town where Angeliki’s mother is from, is on the east coast, the opposite side of the island. That’s our destination, and to get there we have to climb the steep road that leads to the port and drive a winding road. The house is a pretty white building next to the beach—as we arrive, the welcoming committee (as usual) is waiting for us.
Evangelia, Angeliki’s mother, has prepared a feast fit for a king: domatokeftedes (tomato fritters), rizi mavro me soupia (rice with squid ink), puree of Santorini’s fava, and a delicious choriatiki salata (village salad) with cherry tomatoes, kapari (a vegetable similar to a pea), katsouni (a kind of cucumber), and chloro tiri (sheep cheese), all products unique to Santorini. In just one meal, I have tasted almost all the specialties of the island.
After lunch, we just need to walk down a flight of stairs to enter Jimmy’s, a restaurant managed by Dimitris, Angeliki’s brother. The restaurant faces Kamari’s promenade, which is lined with bars, shops and cafes. We sit outside at tables with coffee, then move to the deckchairs of a shop on the beach. While Dimitris tells us about his business, I enjoy the feel of the sun on my face as we sit on what’s known as the black beach of Kamari, the longest and possibly most popular on the island. The beach’s black sand is a result of volcanic ash in the soil.
Directly behind Kamari are the highest mountains of Santorini: Profitis Elias and Mesa Vouno. On the summit of the former, at 556 metres, lies a stunning monastery and a military base; on the latter, at 369 metres, is the archaeological site of the ancient city of Thera.
The city was founded in the ninth century BCE by the Spartan king Theras, and is actually the official name of the island, Thera. Before then the island was known as Kalliste, meaning “the most beautiful,” while the more colloquial Santorini was bestowed by the Venetians in the 13th century in reference to the Cathedral of Saint Irene in the nearby village of Perissa. The ruins of ancient Thera are not particularly impressive, but visiting them in this spectacular location, from where you get a magnificent view of the island, is definitely worthwhile.
Despite having been to Santorini many times, I have never been to its most important archaeological site: Akrotiri, on the southwest corner of the island. The site reopened in 2012 after years of renovation, and I think it’s high time we go! Marianna, Angeliki’s cousin, is coming with us.
Driving through the dry, earthy countryside, which in the summer feels barren, we come across a road sign to Emporio. I remember that I went there with Dimitris last Easter for the traditional feast of the bells: on Good Friday, during the day, the men of the village walk around the streets and make a racket by hitting any kind of metal tool. The noise is meant to call the villagers to church to celebrate the Greek Orthodox celebration of epitaphios.
The procession continues to the historical centre of town, rising around a fortified settlement built in the Middle Ages by the Venetians to protect the population from pirates’ raids. Finally, and most interestingly, the women welcome the procession at the entrance of their homes with offerings of sweets and tsikoudia, a very strong liqueur.
On a terrace near the fortified settlement is the small church of Palia Panagia, one of Santorini’s oldest. And from the terrace itself one can see the medieval tower of Goula. In these narrow alleyways, time has stopped and you feel like you are transported to an ancient age—the whole area is in a state of neglect, yet the passage of time has increased its charm.
Akrotiri is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, and possibly Europe—a Greek Pompeii, I would say. Around 1600 BC, a violent volcanic eruption occurred here in the Aegean Sea, which moulded the splendid archipelago we see today. Yet before the eruption there was only one big island, on which was thriving the Minoan civilization that originated from Crete. The natural disaster likely caused the end of this civilization, though ironically the volcanic ash that rained down buried and subsequently preserved the city.
Some theories relate this history of Santorini to the mythical lost city of Atlantis, which Plato described as an incredibly advanced civilization that sank into the sea. The excavations at the site, undertaken since 1967, unearthed the vast settlement that clearly once existed. Here one can stroll around a 3,000-year-old city—something you can do in very few other places in the world—that had streets, squares, multi-storey houses, shops and an elaborate urban drainage system.
Seeing the furniture and earthenware inside the buildings we realize that the life these people lived must have not been too different from our own grandparents’. As we walk around we speculate on the various function of this and that building, the content of that amphora; inevitably, I end up philosophizing about the transience of mankind and all his doings.
Along the road you take to get to and from Akrotiri is a stunning red beach—in my opinion, Santorini’s most spectacular beach. It’s a narrow strip of sand leaning against a high rocky ridge that slopes down toward the beach enclosing it. The bright red colour creates a beautiful contrast with the blue of the sea, while the immaculate white of a nearby church seems defined by the red of the rocks. A few hundred metres away is a white beach and a lovely little stream accessible only by boat or footpath. It’s really incredible how Mother Nature stroked the coast of Santorini with so many hues and nuances.
Before returning to Kamari, Marianna suggests we stop for an aperitif at Santo Wines. Sitting on their lovely terrace, we treat ourselves to a sampling of delicious local vintages, among which is Angeliki’s favourite: the Vinsanto, a naturally sweet wine made from dried grapes. While sipping one glass after another, we enjoy the priceless view of the sunset over the caldera, before leaving the winery with our senses singing from both its beauty and the alcohol.
On the way back we pass Pyrgos, a sweet authentic village rising on the slopes of a hill that is off the beaten tourist track. It has one of the five Venetian castles of Santorini, and though it has less than 800 inhabitants today, it was the administrative centre of the island in the 19th century. The castle still overlooks the hill and its surroundings; inside as well as out we can admire splendid Byzantine churches and aristocratic mansions.
Not to be missed here is the celebration of Good Friday, which I was lucky enough to attend last Easter. At dusk, thousands of tapers are lit throughout the village, creating the illusion that the whole hill is on fire. In this evocative and spiritual atmosphere, the faithful go to church.
Only one last day in Santorini is left, so we wake early the next morning to make the most of it. Angeliki and I are excited at the idea of the sailing tour that awaits us. To get to Oia, on the northwestern tip of the island, where we’ll launch from, we have to cross almost all of Santorini, something we can actually do in 30 minutes. We arrive at the harbour of Ammoudi that is bound by high sheer cliffs. Here we board a stunning wooden ship and start the cruise of our dreams.
The first stop is the island of Nea Kameni (New Burnt), a volcano. We moor and walk up the slope to get to the crater. The steam coming from the soil testifies that all volcanic activity has not ceased—not a reassuring thought. Now we are exactly in the middle of the caldera, at the exact place where thousands of years ago the energy that created this incredible landscape was unchained.
After a swim in the sulphuric waters of the hot springs, we’re back in full sail toward Thirasia, the other inhabited island of the archipelago. Here we visit Manolas, a village of multicoloured houses, where life proceeds slowly. We have a delicious lunch of fish in a small restaurant with a great view, before heading back to the boat for our return to Santorini.
I enjoy the return trip immensely, breathing in deeply the air from the sea, letting the wind ruffle my hair. When we dock in Ammoudi, we reluctantly leave the boat.
We spend the afternoon in Oia, an idyllic village suspended between sea, earth and sky. If paradise exists, surely it looks like Oia. Hundreds of whitewashed houses of subtle pastels sprout like wildflowers from the hillside, gently sloping into the sea. Staring at it, I ask myself, how did the villagers manage to create such a harmonious and lovable ensemble of shapes and colours?
We wander around alleyways, stopping at boutiques, art galleries, handicraft shops and the characteristic, enchanting terraces of the Cycladic houses. The long-awaited sunset that attracts tourists from all over the world has finally arrived, and Angeliki and I watch a heart-stopping show: an ethereal light suffuses the white walls of the houses, the steeples and blue domes of the churches, the vanes of the windmills, and almost everything else. The sky reddens, and everything seems to shine with a divine, unworldly light. It’s as if I am seeing God paint right before my eyes. While the sun sinks into the sea, I feel the strings of my soul vibrating, and wrap my arms around Angeliki tightly.
Once dusk has fallen we drive to Fira, the most populated city and provincial capital of the island, to spend the evening there. We drive by the villages of Imerovigli and Firostefani that compete with Oia for having the most romantic sunsets of Santorini. Imerovigli was for centuries the capital of the island, and the biggest of the island’s five Venetian castles once rose here. Several earthquakes destroyed it and the thriving Catholic settlement rising around it. Today, all that’s left is a stark, stately spur of rock.
In Fira, the atmosphere is livelier than in the other villages, though it feels less genuine. This is the most popular destination for tourists, mainly because cruise ships stop here. Fira features high-end fashion boutiques, jeweller’s shops, up-market restaurants and trendy bars where one can party all night long.
Yet all that doesn’t detract from the beauty of the city: a maze of winding alleys that run along the hillside and are lined with traditional whitewashed houses embellished with antique street doors, vases and decorations. And the city offers travellers many attractions: museums, beautiful churches and the old harbour—reachable by descending a never-ending staircase on foot, or by cable car, or in the most enjoyable and folkloristic way, on the back of a donkey.
The luxury hotels of Santorini are also found in Fira. One of them is owned by Angeliki’s aunt, whom we decide to take a chance on visiting. Aunt Mariana shows us around her dreamlike boutique hotel. Every suite has its own private balcony with Jacuzzi so one can enjoy the view over the caldera while having a hydromassage. Our evening ends with a bang, drinking a cocktail on the terrace of the hotel. From here, we watch the thousand colourful lights of Fira blinking in the night.
To my great displeasure, we have to say goodbye to Angeliki’s family and to Santorini. It’s back to Athens for our next and final stop! Seen from the sky, Santorini shines like a marvellous pearl in the sea. I must admit it: I prefer the Greek islands to the capital.
Nonetheless, Athens is an extraordinary and lively city, the ideal destination for those who love history, culture, music and food. From our apartment in the Pagkrati neighbourhood, we walk toward the city centre. In only 15 minutes we are in front of the beautiful Kallimarmaro stadium, so called because its stands are made up entirely of white marble. Also called the Panathenaic Stadium, it was where, in antiquity, games were held to honour the Goddess Athena. In the 19th century the ruins of the old stadium were restored to host the first modern Olympic Games (in 1896). In addition, Kallimarmaro was the stage of the last section of the marathon at the Athens’s Olympics in 2004. Well, we are really in the presence of a temple of sports!
The wide avenue we walk down divides two vast green areas. On the right are the National Gardens of Athens, inside which the Zappeion Megaro is found—a majestic neoclassical building that, like the Kallimarmaro, was built by the philanthropist Evangelos Zappas to host the revival of the Olympic Games. The park on our left hosts the stately ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of the grandest temples of antiquity. Quite interestingly, construction was started in 520 BC under the tyrants of Athens, Hippias and Hipparchos, but was only completed in 132 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
Strolling around Athens is almost surreal: we encounter ancient masterpieces everywhere. What baffles me is the casualness with which the Greeks and the Athenians in particular walk by these ruins. They are so used to the presence of these treasures that they don’t seem to notice them. Adjoining the National Gardens is Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), the core of Athens. Facing the vast square is a great neoclassical building, the Greek Parliament. The plaza in front is a gathering place for locals and tourists who come to attend the changing of the guard that is conducted every hour in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The new Museum of the Acropolis was opened in 2009—the extraordinary archaeological finds of the Acropolis are worthy of a modern home. I’m visiting it for the first time, and am instantly impressed by the modernity and linearity of the building, inspired by the mathematical and conceptual clarity of classical Greek architecture. The glass pavement allows visitors to see and walk over the excavations of the ancient city beneath, and the effect is fantastic. Athenians love to tell foreigners that wherever you dig in their city, you will find relics.
Our visit to the museum is pleasant. The sun entering the windows creates the illusion of being outside. We zigzag among splendid rows of statues, which sometimes seem to look at you and come to life. The highlight is the glass-walled hall designed to exhibit the famed friezes of the Parthenon, most of which, to Greece’s great regret, are still retained by the British Museum in London. In the centre of the hall is a life-size model of the Parthenon, of the same size and oriented in the same direction as the original. It’s spectacular, the way you can look at both the model and the original on the top of the hill.
The Parthenon is more than one of the most famous and greatest buildings ever built; it is the very symbol of the Western World whose cradle was undoubtedly Ancient Greece. It was constructed in the fifth century BC, at the acme of Athens, then the most important city on the planet. Under the reign of Pericles, Athens lived a golden age during which arts and culture flourished as never before.
The architects Kallikrates and Iktinos designed the temple using the most advanced technologies and knowledge of the time. Inside the Parthenon is enshrined a colossal statue of Athena the Virgin, 12 metres high and entirely coated with bronze, silver, ivory and more than a ton of gold (about 1,100 kilograms). The statue was the masterwork of Phidias, the greatest of all sculptors of Classical Greece, who also supervised the erection of the temple.
In its thousands-of-years-old story, the Parthenon has served as a church, a mosque and incredibly, by the Ottomans, as a place to store gunpowder. In 1686, during the Venetian siege of the city, a cannon ball broke the ceiling and ignited the gunpowder. The explosion partly destroyed the temple. Despite the offenses of time and men, it still stands tall after almost 2,500 years, an incomparable embodiment of grandness and elegance that defines and dominates Athens.
A short distance from the museum, at the foot of the Acropolis’ rock, is the remarkable neighbourhood of Anafiotika, a corner of the Cyclades in the heart of Athens. Both Angeliki and I have heard of it but have never been before, and so are keen to see it. The narrow alleyways, flowering terraces, wooden coloured doors and whitewashed houses perfectly recreate the atmosphere of the Greek islands. This odd neighbourhood is rooted in the 19th century, when immigrants from Anafi and other Cycladic islands moved to Athens. Being bricklayers and builders and not having a house, they built new homes in an area of Athens that had not yet been developed. Walking in Anafiotika, I realize how much I miss Santorini.
In recent years, the districts of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio, near the Acropolis, have been closed to traffic, so one can walk for kilometres among ancient relics, admiring the Parthenon and all the monuments on the sacred hill. The pedestrian streets of these districts are the liveliest of the city. Here, there are countless restaurants, ouzeries, shops of all kinds and even open-air cinemas, where one can watch a movie against the backdrop of the Parthenon.
Monastiraki is the most popular shopping district of Athens, at least for bargain shopping. Clothing boutiques and hundreds of stands line the streets. Street artists and musicians complete the scene. Generally, I come here to buy souvenirs for friends and relatives but almost always end up buying odds and ends: Byzantine coins, beer coasters, weird hats, rusty pins.
In the vicinity of Monastiraki, the Ancient Agora and Athens Central Market are found. They are not far from each other, so in just a few minutes one can move from the ruins of a sixth-century BC shopping area (the agora) to buy fruit and vegetables at a modern-day market.
About 40 minutes north of the Acropolis is the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, one of the richest and most prestigious in the world. But it’s closed and we’ve missed it, and I swear to myself that next time I’m in Athens I’ll go there first thing.
The visit to the museum has vanished from our plan, so we talk about how to spend our last evening before we have to return home. We are of two minds: go to one of the many ouzeries in the off-beat, gritty neighbourhood of Psiri, where they’ll play rembetiko; or go to a trendy bar at Gazi, the emerging district in Athens’s nightlife scene.
Eventually we discard both these options and decide to go to Mount Lycabbetus, where Angeliki has promised to take me for a long time. This is the right time! A cable car from the up-market district of Kolonaki takes you right to the top of the hill. But since we are young and have time, we decide to climb the long, steep forested slope. On the way up we come to understand why this place is called the path of the wolves—in Pericles’s time, wolves wandered freely in these forests. “Good thing there are none anymore,” Angeliki says, in a sort of hollow reassurance.
When we reach the summit, at St. George’s Church, our legs can barely hold us. But a quick glance at the panorama and we forget all that effort. The view is breathtaking, one that you carry with you for a lifetime. From here we get a bird’s-eye view over the immense expanse of Athens, over the Attic plain, over the Aegean Sea, and as far away as the Peloponnese. While Angeliki holds my hand, I push my sight beyond the horizon: first to the West toward Bari, Italy, where my journey began, then to the East toward Istanbul, where my journey will continue.
Dario De Santis writes regularly for Outpost magazine (where this story first appeared), and for Outpost online as a columnist. Since this story first appeared he moved back to his native Italy from Istanbul but still travels when time and money allow. *
- Dario De Santis, who studied classical history at university, moved back to his native Italy after years of being based in Istanbul. This feature first appeared in Outpost magazine and has been adapted.