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May 14, 2019, Greece

The great Greek escape

Jonathan Tan heads to Greece for a week of history, culture and some of the best seaside views in the world

Jonathan Tan

A Greek-island holiday has always been high on our list of travel “must-dos” — visions of deep blue seas and whitewashed, bougainvillea-covered houses featured regularly in our daydreams.

When the chance came up for a weeklong getaway, my wife and I zeroed in on the famed islands of Santorini and Mykonos, throwing in a bit of sightseeing in Athens, our first stop.

We flew into the Greek capital, where we spent two days exploring its iconic attractions. The largest city in Greece, and one of Europe’s oldest, Athens is widely regarded as the cradle of Western civilisation and the birthplace of democracy.

Its rich culture and ancient history were palpable wherever we went.

Strolling through the narrow, cobbled streets of the Plaka, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, often felt like a trip back in time as we went past traditional houses and family-run tavernas. It has several interesting museums and many sidewalk cafes, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and get tantalising glimpses of the famous Parthenon temple on the Acropolis.

Of course, we were not content with mere glimpses of the Acropolis — we had to go there. Built on a rocky outcrop above Athens, it is home to several ancient buildings that date back to the 5th century BC, of which the Parthenon is the most famous.

Dedicated to the goddess Athena, the Temple of Athena Nike — with its graceful columns and pediments decorated with sculpted figures — is an enduring symbol of ancient Greece and one of the world’s most culturally important buildings.

We also visited the remains of the Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis. The first theatre ever built, it is regarded as the birthplace of Greek tragedy. We felt awestruck, wandering around the ruins once dedicated to gods and goddesses, and built by Athen’s rich and powerful.

Our long walk through the Plaka and up the Acropolis worked up an appetite and we were keen to try the local fare back in the Plaka. We were spoilt for choice with numerous cafes and tavernas offering delicious souvlaki (grilled meats on skewers) and shots of ouzo (anise-flavoured, unsweetened Greek liqueur).

We ended off our whirlwind tour of Athens with a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. As we explored the spectators’ stands and even walked on the track, we felt an overwhelming sense of awe as we imagined the electric atmosphere of the crowds at past Olympic Games and the pride of competing on such a stage.

Picture-perfect Santorini
Leaving the city behind, we were full of anticipation as we caught a flight to the southern island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea.

We were not disappointed. Our villa in the coastal town of Oia, on the north-western tip of the island, offered views of a dazzling, deep blue sea rimmed by a crescent of bruised cliffs.

We were actually looking into Santorini’s underwater caldera: the rugged island is what remains of a massive volcano that blew itself apart more than 3,000 years ago.

The place seems serene now. Oia is beautiful, painted mostly in a stunningly simple palette of white and blue. Its whitewashed houses, buildings and iconic blue-domed churches (right) cling to the rugged cliffs and are adorned with doors, gates, shutters and domes a shade of blue that recalls the Aegean. Patches of brightly coloured flowers add to the visual feast.

Our hotel accommodations for this leg of the trip was in a type of house known as yposkafa or cave house, meaning it was carved from the very rock of the cliffside.

Described as a cave villa, our seafront suite had a cavernous interior with a high ceiling. For us, it felt like our own little cosy burrow with a mesmerising sea view as complement. Little wonder that Santorini is one of the most romantic places in the world.

In between lounging by the pool and catching breathtaking sunsets (below left), we spent most of our carefree days leisurely exploring the maze-like streets of Oia and the main town of Fira. It was easy to get around by public bus, and we were able to maximise our time at many bars and cafes, sipping cocktails, enjoying coffee, and taking OOTD (Outfit Of The Day) photos against the pastel-hued doors of charming yposkafa homes.

We could not get enough of the picturesque views. So in a bid to take in more wonderful sights during our short three-day stay, we went hiking, tackling many steep and narrow paths leading from the towns into quiet bays and islets.

Along the way, we looked out for donkeys, traditionally used for carrying goods and people up the narrow, steep streets and paths.

The local food is great too. While Santorini is home to many first-class restaurants serving fine Greek cuisine, there are also small, quaint restaurants that offer hearty, homestyle dishes that we found deliciously satisfying. At Ammoudi Bay, we enjoyed a seafood dinner of grilled fish, octopus and Greek salad by the water’s edge before leaving for Mykonos the next day.

Beach bliss in Mykonos
Our five-hour ferry ride on the Aegean Sea was a wonderful opportunity for us to admire the beauty of several Greek islands we passed along the way.

When we arrived in Mykonos, we quickly discovered why it was nicknamed “The Island of the Winds”: we had to battle strong gusts as we made our way to our hotel. As if to drive home the point, we were greeted by the sight of a row of windmills just outside the main village of Chora.

It was on this last leg of our trip that we decided to be more adventurous and “beach-hop” around the island in an AllTerrain Vehicle (ATV). Given the rugged terrain, it proved to be a better option than renting a car, as it was much more suited to negotiating our way up and down the hilly roads between the beaches.

Mykonos may have a reputation for its beach parties, but during our trip in mid-October, the white sandy beaches and clear blue waters were all ours to enjoy. Many hotels here close for the winter during this time.

We stayed in Plati Gialos, where we could easily go on day trips to visit the ruins on the nearby island of Delos.

When we were not basking in the sun or frolicking in the sea at Psarou and Paradise Beach, we explored the alleys of Chora and savoured more delicious Greek fare along Little Venice. While there are not any canals in Chora, this photogenic section of Chora’s waterfront had been dubbed Little Venice because of the its resemblance to the waterways in Venice, Italy.

There were plenty of boutiques along Matogianni Street, but we did more phototaking than shopping. At every turn, we could not resist taking Instagram-worthy shots of quaint and cosy whitewashed homes with doors in bright hues.

A week in Greece passed in a flash, but it was enough to make us want to go back. We know we have barely scratched the surface of this beautiful country.

GETTING THERE
• We flew from Singapore to Athens on Qatar Airways, with a brief stopover in Doha. We flew on Air Volotea from Athens to Santorini, and from Mykonos back to Athens. We travelled from Santorini to Mykonos on Blue Star Ferries.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS
• Head out early to enjoy panoramic views of Athens and avoid crowds that throng the Acropolis. The amazing sights are worth getting up early for.

• Check your bookings prior to travelling as hotels and flights may be abruptly cancelled in Greece during the off-peak season. Mid-October is when many hotels in Mykonos close for the winter.

• We booked a hotel transfer on Welcomepickups.com to get us from the airport to our hotel in Athens. At €40 (S$61), it was only a little more expensive than a regular taxi, but it offered a direct pick-up from the arrival hall. Our friendly driver even offered recommendations on some of the must-see places and tips on how to get around easily on foot.

 

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