Tuesday, May 29, 2012


What is it about islands?

British writer, Lawrence Durrell, used the term “islomania” in his memoir, Reflections on a Marine Venus, about the time he spent on Rhodes after World War II. He wrote of an obsession with islands, an inexplicable enthusiasm for these chunks of land detached from the rest of the world. As far back as Plato’s story of Atlantis, written 2,500 years ago, the allure of islands has endured as a human passion and captor of our imagination. I once knew a man, a fellow travel literature book club member, with a manic attraction to islands, which led him to limit his travel to only these, both large and small, whenever he needed to get away. Durrell was also a confirmed islomane and at every opportunity fled to one of the many island paradises in the Mediterranean. The fantasy of the island as tranquil retreat for harried, frantic souls has long been around and it may be that the idea is as appealing as the reality. Yet there’s no denying that the stirrings of a deep physical response emerge as the shadow in the sea off the bow first comes into view, particularly in the half-light of dawn. What is at first indistinct soon clarifies into the detailed silhouette of a place filled with possibility, a source of fascination, inspiration and delight. There’s something about islands that taps into a fundamental desire for tranquility, for space and for solitude in a world where such are often rare commodities.

Must our idyllic, month-long retreat to the Greek isles really come to an end? Kos is the final island we visited independently (our upcoming cruise includes brief stops at Ithaca and Corfu) and we had a hard time accepting that we would soon have to leave. The most famous native son of Kos is Hippocrates, father of Western medicine and born on the island in 460 BC in the age of Pericles. Until we’d eaten during our month in Rome at a restaurant which shared the first modern doctor’s name and whose owners were from Kos, we’d never before heard of this particular Greek isle. The guidebooks describe it as a lovely place with a lively harbor and so we decided to give it a try. We booked a dirt-cheap hotel about a mile from town ($31 a night for a clean room with Internet, a basic breakfast and a pool) that was overrun by raucous, inebriated, young Australians (and they say Americans are noisy). We at long last met one US compatriot at the budget hotel: a college student from Kansas studying at a program in Athens who’d come to the island on her way to Patmos to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse in which St. John is said to have received revelations from God.

Kos was quite an international place, save, once again, the almost complete absence of Americans. There were scores of British, Scandinavians and Australians vacationing in the casual, beachy neighborhood in which we found ourselves with wall-to-wall seaside tavernas, bars and purveyors of every type of colorful beach gear imaginable. We saw the most beautiful rose displays in gardens that lined our daily walks into town – big, brilliant blooms in red, yellow, peach and pink on healthy, well-manicured bushes and strong, rambling vines. The harbor was indeed spirited, just as the travel guides had described, with ferries, luxury cruisers and fishing, excursion and pleasure boats coming and going alongside the massive fortress of the Knights of St. John. At the head of the harbor is the Tree of Hippocrates, a sprawling plane, reported to be the oldest in Europe (while the current tree is only about 500 years old, it is said to have sprung from the original which stood in the same spot on the square) and under which the master taught his students about modern medicine. Well-used bike lanes lined the harbor and ran all along miles of waterside. We had to carefully watch our way as we crossed back and forth and felt a bit like we were back in Amsterdam as we dodged the two-wheeled traffic.

While quite mountainous, Kos is significantly more verdant and less rocky than all the other islands we visited. We’d planned to rent a Vespa to make the circuit and explore its hidden coves and beaches but we soon discovered that when it came to motor vehicle regulations, not all islands are created equal. Smiling, gregarious Angelos was all set to hand us the keys to a shiny motorbike until we told him we didn’t have an international driving permit. We’d rented ATVs and cars on other islands with Joe’s Maryland license vouching for his driving ability but the insurance companies and police force of Kos demanded more. I’m not sure which I was more disappointed about: that my romantic vision of cruising around the island, my arms wrapped securely around Joe’s waist, would not become a reality or that we were unable to give Angelos our business. We ended up talking with him for a half hour about the failing Greek economy and the country’s complicated politics. And while our attempt to see the island in-depth was foiled by mundane indemnification details, we left Kos once again reassured that the fact that the Greek word xenos can mean both foreigner and guest is not a coincidence. Both are regarded in the same manner and are given warm, collegial welcomes; to be a foreigner in Greece is to be treated as a friend with all the respect of an honored guest.

We enjoyed the Dodecanese and met so many more people we can add to our list of kind-hearted Greeks (we’ll always have a soft spot for the Cyclades, however, perhaps because they were our first). Retracing your footsteps to places whose magic you so clearly recall can often disappoint – they’ve changed or you’ve changed or you so sadly discover that their particular allure was evanescent. The delight you first felt was fleeting – it belonged to a moment in time, locked away, safe in your memory. Not so with the Greek Isles. For us, their charm, their beauty and the unique romance they impart have endured. They were there then and they are still there now.

Am I an islomane? Without question, when it comes to the islands of Greece.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

We Can See Turkey From our Backyard

We landed in the Dodecanese, very different islands in look and feel from the whitewashed Cyclades we’d left behind. Our first stop was Rhodes, the fourth largest Greek island and a stone’s throw from the western coast of Turkey. There’s a palpable awareness and very real angst among Greeks that its long-established bitter adversary is just across the water. We could see the mountains of Turkey in the not far distance – effectively in our back yard – and there was a very visible military presence with armed guards keeping watch across the sea.

When we arrived in Rhodes Town, we innocently asked our taxi driver, “Which island is that across the way?”

“That’s no island,” he replied, “that’s Turkey. Do you like this place?”

“Should we?” Joe wisely retorted.

It’s not a prudent idea to show interest in “that place” across the way or even mention the possibility of a visit there when in Greece. We kept our plans for heading to Turkey in a few short weeks to ourselves.

The temperatures have gotten progressively higher as we’ve island-hopped our way south. It was in the mid 60s on Mykonos, in the low 70s on Naxos and Santorini and by the time we arrived on Rhodes, the midday temperatures had climbed to the upper 70s. The dismal gray skies and biting winds of Berlin and Amsterdam just a month before were distant memories. After several weeks in the bright Greek sun, our hair has bleached lighter than when we arrived and we’ve turned as brown as betel nuts, as Joe likes to say. The red-toned tan of my Mexican ancestors has come to the fore and even Joe, whose Irish skin is usually not fond of the sun, has gone bronze.

As happens when things heat up, people shed their clothing. And while underdressed, overexposed tourists can sometimes make for appealing people-watching, at other times, it’s an unwelcome interruption of the local color. Very rarely on our journey through Europe have we seen seriously overweight people, but we quickly learned once we arrived on Rhodes that the US does not have a monopoly on obesity. I don’t mean to be unkind but there were an incredible number of Central European and Russian visitors off mammoth cruise ships anchored in the harbor, just past where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, in very little clothing, exposing way too much skin. I hadn’t seen such scantily clad corpulence since our last visit to Disneyworld. While Americans have rightly earned the reputation for carrying extra pounds, I believe our fellow citizens have met their match. Joe and I looked like absolute waifs by comparison. Everywhere we wandered through the winding streets of the town’s walled medieval city, sun-crisped tourists, their lily-white skin singed with bright pink burns that were painful to even look at, passed us by. We were the only fully clothed couple in a sea of half-dressed tourists with significant avoirdupois and all of them with too much exposed. The men were missing their shirts, their bellies hanging over and hiding their belts and the women in halter tops sported rolls of midriff and maximum cleavage.

While Rhodes has a rich history and some amazing sights, observing the hordes of international tourists was an ongoing distraction and over and over again there were similar refrains:
·      the grossly overweight couple in their 60s with matching bright plastic clogs (whoever introduced Crocs to Russia must have made a killing);
·      the leathery, tanned 50-something French woman in a bright bikini, flaunting her flat, brown stomach, white teeth and nails painted orange by the excursion boats;
·      the thickset Polish couple in identical plaid shirts and completely mismatched print shorts and sensible black leather sandals;
·      the beefy Russian woman in a too-short skirt, embroidered peasant blouse and hiking sandals with a tattoo of a five-inch hamster on her substantial calf (or perhaps it was a guinea pig given the five inches);
·      the scores of burly, bloated tourists glistening like seals under layers of oil on the brightly colored, padded lounge chairs on the pebbly beaches. 

We ran into not a single American on Rhodes; I’m sure they were there but we never saw them. Restaurateurs and retailers told us that we were two of the few Americans they’d encountered this year. In fact, Nikos, the young man from whom we rented a car on Rhodes, shared that we were the first “people from America” to whom he’d ever rented a vehicle.

While we were well aware that Greece is not a flat country, we learned that it is actually one of the most mountainous in Europe. It may not have the highest peaks, but by some estimates, mountains cover 80% of the landscape, including most of the islands. Our rental car took us away from the cruise ship crowds, into the cooler mountains and up and down the rugged, rocky terrain of Rhodes. We visited the island’s three ancient hilltop acropolises: one above Rhodes Town, one looking over the province of Kameiros and the final and most famous of all, Lindos. All were atop dramatic high points (akron meaning edge and polis meaning city in Greek, hence the term acropolis) and each of the ruins was fascinating. But those at Lindos were the most dramatic -- a natural citadel perched 370 feet directly above the sea on a promontory of solid rock. The acropolis and its Temple of Athena watched over the narrow streets of the picturesque 13th century medieval village below. From the heights were spectacular views over the surrounding harbors and coastline including tiny St. Paul’s Bay with its clear blue waters, where the apostle temporarily cast anchor on his voyage to Ephesus in Turkey. First built by the Greeks and further fortified by the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, Lindos prospered under the Knights of St. John who, when banished from the Holy Land, came to Rhodes. Their efforts were so important not only to the growth of Lindos, but to the history and development of the island’s main town as well. The architecture of Lindos was a visually pleasing mix of whitewashed and golden stone and not since the Dordogne had I taken so many pictures of delightful, interesting doorways.

Between acropolis visits, we stopped for lunch in the village of Emponas, in the heart of Rhodes’ wine-country hills, for its specialty, barbecued lamb, at a small taverna. We were served Greek salads, grilled eggplant and the town’s signature dish by the matron of the house who reminded us on each of her frequent visits to our table to check on us that we were in a family-run restaurant and that everything was homemade. It did indeed taste homemade, was all delicious and made for a perfect setting in the shade of a grape arbor.   

Back in Rhodes Town, we made time to visit the archeological museum. Even Joe, not generally a fan of such displays, was won over by the ancient treasures housed in the arched medieval building, formerly the Hospital of the Knights of St. John. The intricate mosaic floors, black- and red-figure pottery and graceful statues from Classical, Hellenistic and Roman times were stunning, as was the rose and oleander-filled garden that graced the museum’s courtyard.

We’d been told that the tiny island of Symi, just over an hour from Rhodes, was a beautiful place, so we boarded a boat for a one-day outing. The small gem of an island was completely different from its neighbor – quite Italian in feel, actually -- with its orderly, neoclassical homes in pastel melon colors of pink, peach, yellow and green filing up the hills. We walked all along the colorful harbor and around the headland to a small beach and then had lunch back alongside the fishing boat quay. Symi’s specialty is tiny little shrimp flash-fried, skin and all, and then popped in your mouth, minus the tail. The sweet little bites are much like soft-shell crabs, their outer layers adding just a bit of crunch to the sweet morsels. They were exquisite, just like little Symi.

Rhodes was a fascinating stop brimming over with history both inside and out of its walled city. Next up is an even closer encounter with Turkey as we head northwest to Kos.

Pictures of our adventureshttp://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Daily Detail Hiatus

We’re fiercely independent travelers and have controlled every single step of our trip since we began eight months ago. What we’ve done, where we’ve been, how we’ve gotten there, when we eat and where – every single decision has been ours. Like all things in this world, however, with freedom comes responsibility and so our independent decisions are linked inescapably to all the necessary research and arrangement-making that goes along with such a journey. As a result, we’re a little fatiguĆ© from the incessant daily decisions and so we’ve decided that for the temporary time of a week and a half, we’re going to give ourselves a rest and hand over the reins to others.

It’s true as they say, that genuine spontaneity while traveling is only possible when you never have to go home. And while our time is not endless and the end of our year is just starting to come into view, we’ve had plenty of time to play with our itinerary, change course now and then and take serendipitous detours. We're now on Rhodes, will soon take the ferry to the island of Kos and after a visit of a few days, we’ll board the overnight ferry to Piraeus (leaving at the civilized hour of 8:40 PM) where we’ll board the Aegean Odyssey for a 10-day cruise.

The genesis of the decision to set sail was simple. After leaving the Greek isles, we’d hoped to make our way around the Peloponnese Peninsula and up the eastern coast of the Adriatic, reported to be one of the most beautiful in the world. But despite hours of scouring guides, poring over Internet sites and dissecting travel blogs, we came down to two starkly contrasting options: negotiate the logistical nightmare of a complicated train, bus and car combo (we found not a single ferry that services that part of the world) or simply hop aboard a cruise ship. We stumbled upon the small, 350-passenger ship run by Voyages to Antiquity in our investigations and it was love at first sight. The itinerary included all the places we wanted to see and more (Nafplio, Mycenae, Monemvasia and Olympia on the Peloponnese, the islands of Ithaca and Corfu off the western coast of Greece, a stop in Albania and several along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast and then on up to Venice). The many excursions to the various ancient sights with expert guides were included as well as on board professors who give lectures on the relevant history, art and architecture. Once we were quoted a discounted last minute fare on the cheapest available cabin (Joe looked at the deck plan and determined that it would be a “quiet” space right next to where they drop the anchors), we committed. We’ll likely be among the youngest on the ship, based on all we’ve read, but perhaps that will be nice for a change since we’ve so often found ourselves the senior pair among a sea of youthful backpackers. It’s not like we’re looking for beach blanket bingo, gambling and discos in which to dance the nights away. It’ll be a relaxing ship run by a British company so they’ll serve afternoon tea and with all the crawling around ancient ruins we’ll be doing during the day, we’ll likely be among the first to bed in the evening. We’re just looking forward to taking a temporary break from sweating the details and are ready to relinquish control. For now.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Delayed Departure

Fortune (and an incredible eleventh-hour Internet deal of 99 euros, including breakfast) dropped us at the door of the Relais et Chateaux property, the Zannos Melathron Hotel. It’s the type of place that responded with a wink when we asked when breakfast was served, “We start at 8am and serve until the last guest has eaten.”

As so often happens when Greek island hopping, the ferry we’d hoped would take us to Rhodes, our next stop, wasn’t scheduled to leave when we’d planned to depart. Lengthening our stay on Santorini was in no way a hardship, so we adjusted our plans to catch the next ship to Rhodes and made arrangements to stay two nights at Zannos Melathron. From the moment of our unique arrival at the base of the pedestrian-only hilltop village of Pyrgos until we reluctantly left 48 short hours later, we were treated like VIPs. We were met by bellman, Misha, with his trusty assistant Irina the donkey who carried our luggage and led our way up the whitewashed hill. The hotel manager, Alexander, greeted us in the courtyard with warmth and enthusiasm and passed along his intimate understanding of the property’s interesting family history as he gave us a tour, which made our stay even more meaningful. A wealthy merchant had built the home for his daughter as a wedding gift and soon thereafter, erected another house for himself just below the main building’s terrace. MaĆ®tre d’, George, presented us with flutes of bubbling champagne as we settled in. Our suite (we were upgraded!) included a lovely mix of traditional stone surroundings and antique furnishings combined with plenty of modern conveniences. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of time-honored Greek recipes prepared with a modern flair while watching yet another Santorini sunset from new heights and a fresh angle. George was extremely knowledgeable about the food and its preparation as well as the wines of the island and answered all our culinary questions. We so appreciated his thorough, gentle manner as he helped educate us about all things Greek. The thick creamy Greek yogurt with swirls of honey and slices of fresh fruit we enjoyed the following morning was the perfect pre-hike healthy breakfast. Whenever we found ourselves unwinding in any of the hotel’s public areas, the staff always made sure we had glasses of ice-cold water in front of us, so very important on the dry, sunny island. And when we let them know we would be leaving on a late-night ferry, Alexander refused to let us check out at the normal hour of noon. While we were out and about for the day, he had our luggage moved to a smaller room that was then available for us that evening to freshen up and shower if we liked. It was above and beyond the call of hotel hospitality.

I could go on about charming Pyrgos, the beautiful views from the hotel’s many terraces and the cool tranquility of the stone-walled accommodations, but what made Zannos Melathron an extra special oasis was the sincere kindheartedness and warmth of its staff. We are steadfast fans of the Relais et Chateaux properties and have stayed at dozens over the years. They all specialize in warm welcomes but the hotel we found on Santorini established a new level for friendliness and service. We will never forget how relaxed and comfortable they made us feel.

Over the past eight months of traveling, there have been places we visited out of curiosity, because of their station in history or because we simply wanted to experience them and see their signature sights. In many cases, one visit will be enough and plans to return will likely never materialize. It’s not necessarily that we didn’t like them, but now that we’ve been there, we’re not inclined to return: Morocco, Vienna and Prague are three that come to mind. But there are other locales we’d visited previously and decided on an encore just because we’d enjoyed being there. Santorini definitely falls into the latter category and now that we’ve experienced a stay at Zannos Melathron, our affinity for the island has grown even stronger.

The Greek kindness and hospitality we’ve experienced have been without equal. The people we’ve met have been passionate yet gentle, optimistic in the face of extreme difficulty and helpful in every way. We can count on two fingers the individuals who were not up to par with their fellow Greeks and these folks were hardly rude – just a bit bored, perhaps. Without fail, at the end of every meal, we’ve been given a little something extra: a shot of ouzo, a coffee liqueur shooter topped with whipped cream, a dish of pudding or a honey-drenched sweet. At one little taverna on Naxos, we were even presented with a second, brimming, frosty carafe of white wine – on the house!

But the ultimate act of customer service came after we left Zannos Melathron to face the reality of a 1:30 AM ferry to Rhodes – the only one that makes the trip from Santorini. I’ve never been able to discipline myself to function well without adequate rest and I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of staying up well past midnight to catch a ship. If I hadn’t known that a berth was awaiting us on board, I never would have made it. The island’s main commercial port is quite remote -- several miles from Fira, at the end of a treacherous, winding road that makes its way down a barren, rocky cliff to the edge of a small bay. We decided to head to the port by about 8:30 PM to make ourselves comfortable with plenty of time for a leisurely dinner at a harbor taverna, to sip some wine and by the time the ship arrived, be ready to pass out for the overnight journey. Our taxi dropped us off, however, to quite a cruel surprise. Not a single taverna had its lights on. Little did we know, since our late ferry would be the next to arrive or depart, all commercial ventures were closed and wouldn’t open again until 11 PM. Hanging out for hours at a dark, deserted port with empty bellies was not a part of our plan. But then we met Tonis.

A friendly, industrious young man in his twenties with a smiling, open face, he immediately saw our predicament – how forlorn we must have looked standing with our bags in the shadows. He and several friends were sitting in the dark having dinner in front of one of the tavernas, but he jumped up quickly, came over, greeted us and asked if he could help. We explained our situation and he told us, “no problem, I will open my restaurant for you.” We’ve been told endless times in Greece, “relax, it’s no problem,” and it never has been. Tonis turned on the lights, got us situated at a large table in the corner where we could spread out with our computers and books and made us feel at home. He brought us complimentary sausages, olives and peanuts, and then served us the Greek salads, tomato croquettes and fava bean puree we’d ordered. He periodically left his friends to check on us, bring us a fresh carafe of wine and just chat. Hours later, by the time the port started to show some signs of life with taxis, busses and scooters delivering passengers in anticipation of the ferry’s arrival, we knew Tonis’s life story. He was adopted by his mother who was unable to have children and has a sister who lives in Italy; we met his half-brother with whom he works, were told that his father died and his stepfather, the taverna’s owner, is a task-master; he has a girlfriend in Bulgaria and visits her a couple times a year; he wants to open his own restaurant one day and is saving money to do so. As we got ready to pack up our things to line up in the vaulted ceilinged terminal hut, Tonis delivered a final gift – generous shots of both “very strong” Bulgarian scotch he’d brought back from his last visit with his sweetheart and ouzo. How do you refuse such heartfelt generosity? We shared hugs all around and based on how sad we looked, you would think we were saying farewell to a loved one. But say goodbye we did to our new friend and evening host with a reinforced conviction that the Greek people are the most magnanimous in the world. 

Our ride to Rhodes finally arrived, almost a half hour late, and by that time I could barely see straight from fatigue and of course, the liberal libations Tonis had poured. While we anxiously watched the Blue Star 2 ferry back up to the concrete quay, visions of our comfy bunks dancing in our foggy heads, a young man with a melodic voice started singing a traditional Greek song in the echoing waiting room chamber. It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning, we were dog-tired and were being serenaded as we headed up the ship’s steel ramp. We loved our first three weeks in Greece and were looking forward to the additional two ahead of us. If there were to be further delayed departures, no problem.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sunset Capital of the World

The island of ancient Thira, or Santorini (Latin for Saint Irene) as it’s now known, has to be the most romantic island in the world.

What remains of a dark, uneven, volcanic caldera encircles a deep central cobalt blue lagoon and dark chunks of what was the original island, in the center of which is the still smoldering volcano, mark the arc of the circumference. Fira, Santorini’s main whitewashed town, spills dramatically down the sheer west-facing cliffs, as if the gods had poured it over the precipice and it dripped all the way down to the sea. Donkeys ploddingly shuttle tourists from cruise ships anchored offshore up and down the zigzagged trail to town alongside a chair lift, which makes the same trip in a fraction of the time. On the eastern side of the volcanic rim, the island slopes down, steeply at first and then gently, until it becomes a fertile, seaside plain dotted with farms and vineyards that ends in a black pebbly beach. This southernmost jewel of the Cyclades is a breathtaking, otherworldly vision in the Aegean and the approach to the island by ferry is priceless.

On two past trips, we’d stayed in rented rooms on the cliff, once when backpacking on our own and once with the kids, but this time we opted for a simple, white and blue budget hotel with a pristine, sparkling pool area on the other side of the rim. Ever-so-kind and helpful 20-something Katarina, who made our stay most enjoyable, efficiently manages the family-owned property with aplomb. We had a vertical couple block trek up to the caldera each evening past hoteliers still in the process of getting ready for the high season, filling pools, varnishing furniture and trimming dried palm fronds. Anyone who has visited the island acknowledges that it is the sunset capital of the world since there are few twilight skies anywhere like Santorini’s. The spectacular descent of the sun into the sea is theater not to be missed. While Mykonos and Naxos, just miles away, are under the very same sun in the very same sky, their end of the day canvas didn’t come close to the fiery show that takes place every evening on Santorini. We had cocktails and dinner looking over the caldera on most of our nights, just an amazingly dreamy location to spend the final hours of the day. On one of our night’s out, a handsome, tanned, flirty waiter spoke to me, as he did all the other female diners, his hand on my shoulder and a twinkle in his eye. I told Joe he reminded me of one of my favorite actors in his prime and my clever dining companion promptly dubbed him Richard Gyros (pronounced Gere-os). We were surrounded by couples taking in the romance of the evening and despite having 30-plus years of marriage under our belts, felt right at home with the honeymooners.

Oia, a quieter, gentler version of Fira, sits atop the volcanic rim on the northern tip of Santorini. Its colors are a bit less dramatic than those of its larger neighbor; many of the bright royal blue accents and trim of Fira are replaced by light blues and grays in Oia. We did the scenic seven-mile hike from one town to the other along the caldera rim trail up and down the slippery red, black and gray volcanic scree beds in fierce sun. Despite ample application of sunscreen, we still felt like we were frying and finally having lunch in the breezy shade of an Oian taverna overlooking the lagoon felt like heaven. A couple days later, we did the challenging hike from the hill town of Pyrgos straight up 1,860 feet to the Profitis Ilias Monastery on the highest point on the island, through broad swaths of bright red poppies, white daisies and dazzling carpets of spring wildflowers thriving in the rugged terrain. After being rewarded with panoramic views of the entire island, we negotiated the rocky switchbacked trail down the other side of the mountain, first to the ruins of Ancient Thira halfway down and then all the way down to the black sand of Perissa Beach. Once again, a late lunch in the shade of a taverna, this time beachside, was a welcome respite. Santorini is home to one of the world’s most famous archeological digs, ancient Akrotiri, which unearthed a Minoan town buried by the volcanic eruption in 1500 BC. Closed for many years after the dig’s cover collapsed in 2005, Akrotiri had just recently reopened under a new, reinforced protective roof so we were lucky to see what some have called the “Minoan Pompeii,” with simply amazing evidence of this civilization’s daily life a full 3,500 years ago.

I’m going to turn into a Greek salad if I’m not careful. I find it difficult to resist the perfect mix of deep red, juicy tomatoes, crisp, white cucumbers, shaved red onions and plump, vinegary capers topped by a generous slab of soft feta cheese. My daily diet has included at least one of these healthy concoctions a day since we arrived in Greece and on some days, I actually have two: one as my lunch and another with dinner. I’ve eaten so many over the past few weeks but I don’t believe I’ll ever tire of the fresh ingredients moistened by just a splash of olive oil and vinegar. We’ve enjoyed so much good food in Greece and while we continue to order our old favorites regularly  -- saganaki (pan-seared cheese), moussaka (Greek lasagna made with eggplant), tzatsiki (garlicky yogurt with grated cucumber and herbs), dolmades (grape vine leaves stuffed with moist rice) and spanakopita (spinach pie) -- we’ve branched out a bit and tried stifado (rich, tomatoey stew with beef and pearl onions), grilled squid, fried bacalao (salt cod) and Santorinian specialties, fava bean spread and cherry tomato croquettes. It’s easy to patronize local, family run restaurants on the Greek isles since most eating establishments are exactly that and more often than not, if you peek in the kitchen, you’ll find the Yia Yia (grandmother) matriarch all dressed in black, stirring the pot.

Santorini is not a large island – just 12 miles from end to end, but we became frequent users of the bus system to get to its far-flung corners. Fira’s central bus station is always a beehive of activity, but add several dozen 15-year olds heading home after school and a bunch of sun-crazed tourists hell-bent on getting to Akrotiri ASAP to the mix and you end up with cacophonous chaos. It was comical to watch yet despite the melee, we managed to negotiate our way onto the bus we needed. On several of our trips we had the same driver: a chain-smoking 40-year old curmudgeon who ignored the no smoking sign posted overhead. Maybe he figured that since he had his very own window beside him, opened to the max so that all his smoke was drawn outside, his cigarettes didn’t count. He pontificated nonstop to the elderly ticket taker sitting in the jump seat next to him and it sounded like he was complaining, but he was likely just discussing politics and the day’s events. Once on the road, the ticket fellow headed to the back of the bus to collect a ticket or sell a fare to all passengers and each time a new rider boarded, the driver grumbled, “pay later, pay later,” meaning, “don’t bother me, I’m just the driver.” He was clearly a sociable guy since he stopped the bus for a minute or two to chat with (complain to?) the driver of every bus we passed coming in the opposite direction along the narrow, winding roads. Traveling can often mean long periods of patient waiting and we spent lots of time awaiting busses on Santorini because there is no apparent coordination among routes. It’s a classic spoke system with all vehicles starting and ending at the central station and more than once we arrived on one bus only to see the taillights of the connecting bus we’d been hoping to catch to the other side of the island disappear around the corner.

What was a rind of a moon when we arrived on Mykonos had waxed into a brilliant orb on Santorini. We thought this gift of nature was simply the result of looking at the sky in the Greek Isles, but later heard that we’d benefited from a bigger, brighter “supermoon,” the result of its closest encounter with Earth in many years. Being on this magical island is always an experience to cherish, but add blinding sunshine, an extraordinary full moon, my devoted husband and Richard Gyros to the unrivaled sunsets and it’s a recipe for perfection.  

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com