Monday, November 20, 2006

A Return to Greece - Island-Hopping Style

Standing by the letterbox on the Island of Mykonos, my hand hesitated to release the stack of postcards written by my children to their friends back in the States. While innocently written, the one from my nine-year-old son cited activities from our two-week family vacation in Greece that could be misconstrued. Namely, the day at the beach when he counted eighteen topless women sunning themselves in close proximity to us. I was just a tad worried what that friend’s parents would think of us. Telling myself that at least the postcard didn’t feature full-color photos of the written topic, I sighed and sent the messages on their way.

Yes, our time in Greece was an education on many levels, captured in postcards from our three boys to family and friends, in daily journal entries, and during dinner conversations that lasted through the nightly two-hour parade of tantalizing fare. There was the day we pondered the ancient Greek society that built the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This was at the archaeological ruins inEphesus, present-day Turkey. There were our interactions with modern-day Greek culture, legendary for its hospitality as well as its general and often comical disregard for authority and order. On another day we walked with a Greek Orthodox priest retracing the footsteps of St. Paul through the tranquil pine-scented grounds of a mountaintop monastery. Later the same afternoon, my husband and I lounged on a hot, luminous beach while our boys learned to snorkel in the cool turquoise waters.

We also happily relearned the time-honored tradition of young and old alike who sought an escape from the stifling summer heat of the Mediterranean region: the afternoon nap. And like the children we saw emerging refreshed and ready to play in the streets as the sun dipped into the sea each evening, we set out for our evening activities and a meal that usually didn’t get underway until 9:00 p.m.

To enjoy all these experiences that were uniquely a part of Greece, we had to let go of notional ideas about things such as age, image, beauty, and time. We learned to go with the flow, both figuratively and literally. This was especially true when it came time to depart the island of Samos in the eastern Aegean Sea. We’d flown in from Athens for the first six nights of our vacation, but departed using the ferries as our means of transportation to subsequent island destinations. We felt airplane travel around Greece was too impersonal, too convoluted, and too expensive. So for about the same price as one airline ticket from Samos, back to Athens, and then out to one of the popular tourist islands in the central Cycladic Island chain, all five of us experienced classic island-hopping travel from Samos to Mykonos. Travel time was about six-and-a-half hours.

Ferry travel wasn’t without its own set of drawbacks, however, with limited snack bar food being the major one for me. I had to depend on gluten free food brought from home, along with items purchased at local grocery and health food stores. Custard-like yogurt, gluten free bread, and fruit packed easily for breakfast; while a pack of tuna, gluten free crackers, and more fruit was lunch. The rest of the family munched on pastries and sandwiches bought both dockside and on board. With calm cruising waters, we passed the time reading and dozing in our comfy first class airliner-type seats.

Unfortunately, the waters didn’t remain calm the entire trip, tossing us about with increasing intensity the closer we drew to the Cycladic Islands. “Highly unusual winds” said the hotel clerk as we checked in at the Hotel Korali & Kohili. Perched a 20-minute walk above the picturesque main town of narrow alleyways and white-washed cube-style homes, the hotel afforded us a clear view of the churning wind-whipped sea. Our intended 24-hour stay on Mykonos seemed to be in jeopardy.

Described in Lonely Planet’s Greece travel book as charming and glamorous, but with an “oiled-up lounger-lifestyle and relentless party atmosphere” Mykonos didn’t appeal to me the way it had when I visited 20 years ago. We ended up there this time because it was the only way to get from Samos to Santorini, our desired destination, where we were meeting Greek-American relatives from New York. Still, Mykonos is a must-see destination for many travelers to Greece. We made the most of our stay by lazing about the hotel pool. At night, we strolled into town to look for dinner, passing by the island’s landmark but forlorn windmill towers once used to grind grains.

Merging with the cruise ship crowds that continually wandered the congested paths of souvenir shops and cafes, we stumbled across one of the island’s more illustrious residents, George. Standing about four-foot tall, he was often found hanging out with local fishermen by the wharf, padding his way into neighborhood restaurants, and patiently posing for the whirlwind of paparazzi-tourists that followed his every move. George is a pelican. The human residents of Mykonos, however, kept their private lives more closely guarded. The only clues of life inside their much photographed homes were the snatches of hushed conversations and the tinkling of dishes that drifted through curtained windows at night.

We found dinner at Antonini’s, near the waterfront. Choosing from a selection of standard Greek fare, my husband and I made of meal of just appetizers that included tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt dip), xoriatiki (Greek salad), Myconian cheese (according to my father-in-law, a cheese so sharp it cuts your tongue), yigandes (giant beans cooked with onions and tomatoes), and batzaria (cold beet salad).

The next morning the wind blew even stronger and our doubts about departing Mykonos were confirmed. All ferries had been cancelled. What did we do? First, we enjoyed the leisurely breakfast buffet. Similar to the spread we had on Samos, I was able to select plain yogurt with a topping of honey, canned fruit, and hard-boiled eggs. Paying close attention to the layout and presentation of the food, noticing the placement of breads and cereals, and looking for the likelihood of cross-contamination, whenever possible I chose foods such as jams and honey in self-contained packages. I found this of utmost importance when dining with Europeans. While surely an overgeneralization, many simply did not approach the buffet line in the orderly fashion to which I was accustomed. Instead, they darted in and out of line at will without so much as an “excuse me.” Some fellow Americans called it rude. I just didn’t want any bread crumbs in my yogurt.

The windy weather also made the Mykonos beaches too rough to enjoy and caused the daily boat excursions to the neighboring archaeological island of Delos to be called off. So after spending the remainder of the morning changing travel arrangements, we played at the pool again and went shopping. With observations of my own about the skimpy attire at Greece’s pools and beaches, I was feeling way overdressed in the skirted tankini-style swimsuit I’d bought in the States. It was time for a bikini. A modest one.

The new itinerary taking us from Mykonos to Santorini had us changing boats on the island of Naxos, with just enough time in between for lunch. We chose a place run by a wily old restaurateur named Yianni, who offered us free Naxian wine to go with the house specialty of calamari. Fresh from the sea, his relatives still drying on the restaurant signpost beneath the hot noonday sun, my calamari was grilled rather than flour-dipped and deep-fried. Yianni made sure I doused it with freshly squeezed lemon juice before digging in, and an old man looking on smiled at me with amusement in his eyes.

The sleek high-speed ferry that had whisked us from Mykonos to Naxos had done so in 45-minutes of air conditioned comfort and style. The 2 ½ hour journey in economy-priced open-air seats on the slowly lumbering giant from Naxos to Santorini left us feeling like those drying squid back at Yianni’s place. But the first glimpse of Santorini’s sea-filled caldera and cliff-top towns eased the pressure of the heat. Shaped by a history of violent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, Santorini is considered by many as the most beautiful of all the Greek islands.

Having lost a day to the weather, we cut back on activities, skipping the excavation site at Akrotiri, where a Minoan civilization had been buried in 1650 BC volcanic eruptions. Instead, we hopped a local bus from our hotel, riding through practically every village on the map on the way to the main town of Thira. Filled with Japanese tourists alongside devout Greek Orthodox women who crossed themselves at every church we passed, it was truly a lesson in going with the flow. No one looked askance when the driver stopped to gas up the bus, or got miffed when he paused to chat with friends along the roadside. Most telling was the detour past his house to pick up a meal from a waiting wife and son. He had to eat, didn’t he? That inexpensive bus ride was just as much fun as the island’s most famous means of transportation – a donkey ride up the 500-plus cliff-hugging steps from the port to Thira.

The rest of the time we spent with family – chatting by the pool, walking along the volcanic black sand beaches, and sitting around tables full of food. Initially pitying me because of my inability to eat some foods due to celiac disease, these relatives became increasingly amazed by all the food I could eat (I’m talking variety, not quantity!). Then, as we packed our bags in preparation for the final ferry trip back to Athens on the mainland, I realized that it wasn’t the food, or even the sights, that were my family’s highlights of Samos, Mykonos, or Santorini. Instead, it was the time spent romping around with cousins, sharing a special family bond, oblivious to all those topless women. (June/July 2006)

Story Continued: A Return to Greece - Athens

2 comments:

  1. Did you eat at any restaurants in Santorini? If so, which ones? I am going there for my honeymoon soon and could use recommendations. I always bring enough food for my whole trip, but it's always nice to eat a hot meal, or at least a salad I can be sure is not contaminated,
    Many thanks,

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    1. Kerry - Congratulations! Greece is a romantic place for a honeymoon! I am hoping to travel back there again this year myself!

      In Santorini we stayed at the Santo MiraMare Resort (www.santomiramare.com) on the black sand beach of Perivolos, which is on the southeast part of the island. I ate at the hotel's breakfast buffet each morning, and had dinner there one night, and then walked down the beach to another restaurant another night.

      I don't have specific restaurant names for you. However, know that Greek cooking is often very simple with regard to the number of ingredients in the dishes. Prior to your trip become familiar with some of the common dishes.

      Most restaurants will offer hot and cold appetizers, salads, casseroles, oven-baked dishes, and grilled meats and seafood. One of my favorite appetizers is Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip) that I eat with my own gluten free crackers, or ask for sliced veggies on the side to dip. A traditional Greek Salad (Xoriatiki/Village Salad)is often enough for lunch. Other appetizers that are generally GF are cold beet salad, cooked greens, giant beans (sometimes the tomato sauce is thickened with flour so be sure to ask), and plates of various cheeses. I suggest caution when eating French Fries, a popular side dish in Greece. While many restaurants have dedicated fryers, most used a frozen product that I could not determine to be safe. So ask about the fryer and if the potatoes are fresh cut. Another favorite appetizer, Saganaki (fried cheese), is sometimes prepared with a dusting of flour. After an explanation of my inability to eat it as such, I received a few offers of a pan prepared especially for me.

      Traditional casserole dishes such as Pastichio (baked macaroni), Moussaka (made with a flour thickened cream sauce) Keftedes (meatballs made with bread crumbs), and Yiouvetsi (meat and noodles) are all off-limits. Instead, try oven-baked dishes such as Gemistes (stuffed peppers and tomatoes), Arni Psito (roast lamb), Kotopoulo Psito (baked chicken), and Patatestou Fourno (oven-browned potatoes). Stefatho (stewed beef) is also an option, as are grilled lamb chops, Souvlakia (shish-kebab), and grilled fish and grilled calamari (but not fried).

      As most Greeks in the service industry speak fluent English, you should not have many problems conveying your needs.

      Also, look for a Bio store, which would have organic and speciality health food items. This could be your best bet for buying GF items in Greece. I found such stores in Athens and on the island of Samos, but I don't remember one on Santorini.

      I'd love to have you check back in after your trip to post about any places you find.

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