2019 is the year of the Monette family vacations and, starting Friday afternoon, our big summer trip promised to be an adventure. After some train delays, switches, and near misses, I met up with my family at Frankfurt Airport for our 6:00 pm take off, headed for Athens, Greece. After a 2 and a half hour flight down south, we unloaded in Athens, found our driver, and made a beeline for our hotel by Piraeus Port. We checked into our two rooms and I did all I could to be asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow to get ready for our 5:00 am wake up call the next day.
After our first early start, we had 6:50 ferry ride from Athens down to Naxos, the largest of the islands in the Cyclades. We were promised luscious fields and ancient stone structures and only had a 4-hour ferry ride to wait. We were aboard the Golden Star Super Express and, much to our chagrin, we couldn’t go up top to get a better look at the views so we settled for watching the waves from the inside. Instead, we settled for doing some work (me), taking naps (my siblings), and reading up on our first location.
After a few hiccups trying to find our host by the busy port and get into our Airbnb, we were checked into the 3-bedroom (well if you count the kitchen as a bedroom) apartment. We dropped our luggage, swapped into our island clothes and were soon on our way to explore. But of course, the first thing to do was eat. We walked the waterfront until we find Popi’s Grill – a little shop that promised fresh fish and local dishes as well as some pasta for good measure.
Starting with a Greek salad and some fried Greek cheese (think: Greek cheese curds), we moved onto the main course of fish, calamari, spaghetti, and some fried small fishes for me. My family wasn’t a big fan of the fried sardines that still had faces but the skinny cat that found her way to our table seemed to love them. My dad tried and failed to hide the fact that he kept feeding the hungry kitty and, at the end of the meal, the owner of the restaurant made sure to toss her a handful of my leftover small fish. We watched her snack on those while we enjoyed our complimentary lemon and honey yogurt dessert.
After that, we started our quick exploration. We headed straight for the Portara, the doorway to a giant, unfinished temple to Apollo from 500 B.C. The rest of the temple had been taken apart to be used in other buildings in the area but the marble doorway was so heavy that it wasn’t destroyed with the rest of the building and it still stands, an eerie doorway to nowhere right by the entrance to the harbor.
After walking around there a bit and doing a quick tour through the streets of Naxos, we stopped back at the AirBnB for a quick rest to recover from jet lag. After 20 minutes for some shuteye, we headed in the opposite direction, going to St. George Beach for a quick dip in the Aegean. The weather was already starting to cool but we went in anyway and enjoyed the refreshing swim. Then, after stopping for a few questionable drinks (we were doing our best to try the Greek liquors but I can’t say they were our favorites) we got ready for dinner.
As my mom sat below some drip drying octopi, we had some more fish, octopus, and some Greek wine. We had opted to sit ‘outside’ which in this case meant just outside the windscreen. So, as our hair whipped in the wind we tried to enjoy our meal, which again ended with a complimentary yogurt dessert. Then, it was time for a last quick walk before bed.
Our next day, scheduled to be a full day exploring Mykonos, did not go as planned. It started out alright – we woke up at 7:30 had some cereal and coffee. I was the only one brave enough to sit on the little balcony, everyone else opted to sit in the kitchen/Matt’s bedroom to avoid the wind whipping through the buildings. We headed down to the port and got in line to board the Andros Jet to Mykonos. We got in line with our fellow travelers and boarded what looked like a large catamaran. We took our seats for the 40-minute ferry ride and eavesdropped on the group in front of us.
“I hope I never see another Greek ferry ticket in my life,” one woman moaned, which my brother thought was pretty funny. A few minutes later, we were off into the choppy ocean. The boat rocked side-to-side and Matt and I thought it might be nice to head up top to get some fresh air. No dice, however. The workers scowled at us and said “In this weather? Of course not!” We shrugged and returned to our seats, not sure what was out of the ordinary, and then the ride really began.
As the boat swayed and leaned, the crewed first announced that we were going to use an alternate route and go slower to help with the discomfort of the passengers. We figured that meant 1 hour to Mykonos instead of 40 minutes and all sat back to close our eyes. The fun wasn’t over yet, however. After one little girl tried to run away from her soon-to-be-sick brother, the crew announced that we were required to stay in our seats and passed out some seasick bags, which I promise you, started to get heavy use. After one particularly nasty wave smashed every plate on the boat, a chorus of regurgitated breakfasts became the common background noise.
I’ll spare you the gory details about the next 2 hours but suffice it to say, our vessel was not deemed wave-worthy that day and, instead of getting to our intended Mykonos, we were dropped off in Paros. The little island called an overflow from Mykonos, is usually about 30 minutes away from Naxos. It that took us 2 hours to get there that day. We filed down the steps with the rest of the passengers, wondering what to see and do on the unexpected stop. The waves churned as we tried to disembark and the boat revved its engine just to keep from smashing into the dock. A strong jet came shooting across our gangway directly after I walked down and a worker grabbed my mother to pull her back from the water while I was hurried down to the pavement without the rest of my family, who were stuck onboard. I stood on land beside six-and eight-year sisters both screaming “Daddy!” and “is he going to die?” while the boat, which had almost smashed into the port, did a wide loop and tried to position itself for the rest of the passengers to disembark. 10 minutes later, the rest of my family ran down towards land, only slightly laughing at the hellish experience.
We went to the ferry office to buy some new return tickets since our Mykonos to Naxos tickets were no good and then tried to get out of the wind. I am sad to say, we did not all escape unscathed. While my sister and brother wandered the streets to escape the wind, I laid on a bridge to try to calm my churning stomach. The rest of the day, I can relate to you secondhand since I spent the next 8 hours lying on a windy beached or abandoned benches, trying to keep down a piece of bread.
My family spent the day wandering the winding streets, looking at whitewashed buildings with bright bougainvillea bushes draped across crooked roadways. There was shopping and snacking and a little more time spent on the beach where we could see our dinky little Andros jet bobbing in the water while it waited out the wind. (Pro tip: take the big ferries, even if they are slower. The tiny ones may be fast but you can feel every wave! While the Andros Jet was anchored in the bay waiting out the waves, I watched not less than 30 larger ferries make the trip just fine.) After some drinks to prepare for the ride home, we boarded the giant, 8-story Blue Star Patmos ferry at 11:00 pm and made it home without further incident.
Our time in the islands was done after that. We reboarded the Blue Star Patmos a few hours later and had a much less eventful 4-hour ride back to Pireas port. From there, we fought the taxi line to get a ride to the bus station, where we met up with Ryan and boarded a 2-hour bus to Napflio, in the Peloponnese. There, we picked up our rental car and took the quick 15-minute drive over to home, an Airbnb in Tolo. It was with much relief that we checked in there, ready to drop our bags after a long travel day.
We were met by our host, Biggi, a vivacious woman who showed us around the Airbnb quickly and enthusiastically. She gave us a recommendation for her favorite restaurant and then waved goodbye, promising to check in with us after her day off the next day. We happily relaxed in the air conditioning before taking her recommendation to go to Chez Gilles, run by a French chef who had been in Tolo for 20 years. Our meal consisted of some nice French/Italian food and 8 kids running rampant through the open air restaurant. I nibbled on some pasta, others had seafood risotto or spaghetti and we shared some garlic bread before making our way home early for some much-needed shut-eye.
A quick word here about the state of Greece – it was not what any of us expected. From the food to the landscape to the people and the infrastructure, we were constantly surprised. In the little resort town of Tolo, our home was situated 2 blocks from the beach, behind not one but two empty and graffitied buildings. Sprawling around the grounds of our hotel were stray cats and dogs roamed the streets. The next few days, spent driving through the countryside, we saw countless abandoned buildings, some looking new and some nearly crumbling. We had a few interactions that rubbed us the wrong way but for the most part, every person we met – from the shopkeeper who gave me a postcard for free because I didn’t have small change to the cashier who dumped some medicine out of her own purse into a little bag when she heard we were feeling unwell – there was surprising hospitality and friendliness in a land that, at times, seemed incompatible with our idea of the EU.
Our next day, we really got to see the full spectrum of Greece. We started with a bit of a tour of the extent of the Greek financial crisis. Ryan bravely got behind the wheel of our stick shift rental van and, after a difficult start with a blind corner up a steep hill, we were off on our way to Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics. This was a three-hour drive and gave us a great chance to see the countryside as well as to familiarize ourselves with the Greek alphabet on all the street signs. The landscape was dotted with olive and orange groves, growing on the sides of hills and mountains. It was green with red soil as far as the eye could see, striking against the bright blue of the Aegean Sea. We wound our way through little towns, growing more disheveled the further we got from the coast. After the long, hot car trip, we happily removed ourselves from the cramped car outside the ancient site and, after being invited in by the owner, we headed to Pheidas, a little family-run restaurant that had been open a year and three days when we visited.
My stomach still hadn’t quite recovered and it seems that his wife’s homemade lemon hummus was just the ticket to help me recover. I tucked into that and the rest of the table nibbled away at some massive gyro pitas. I barely made a dent in mine but got to enjoy some of the roasted goodness before we all headed for the highlight of the day – the site of the original Olympics. The sun was baking hot that day so we started with a quick trip through the museum of Olympic history to familiarize ourselves with the history and meaning of the games as well as to cool down. We learned about the cult of Zeus and Hercules. We learned about a peace agreement that was honored every 4 years for a millennium in order for Greek athletes to travel to Olympia for the games and we read about the sports the athletes took part in. After reading and cooling off, we headed down to the archeological site.
It’s hard to describe the site since it really is just a bunch of rocks. But there, 3,000 years ago, the best of the Greek athletes trained for races and boxing matches. We walked among the toppled columns of a massive gymnasium where Socrates orated. We saw the Temple of Hera, site of the lighting of the Olympic flame which once burned eternally here (until the Romans ended the Olympic Games in the 2nd century A.D.). We saw the Temple of Zeus which was home to the now-destroyed Zeus statue that was once a wonder of the ancient world. We ran (some of us faster than others) down the track that the ancient races were held on. Standing in the place of so much history was really hard to comprehend but awe-inspiring.
The heat was starting to get to Megan so she sat in the shade while Matt, Ryan, and I ran through the museum of the artifacts. There we saw the molds for the statue of Zeus and the various statues that had been recovered and resurrected from the ancient site. By the time we returned, Megan was gone and we discovered later, suffering from heat stroke. Greece claimed its second Monette victim as we battled the heat (and a malfunctioning window) for the three-hour ride back to Tolo. While Megan and I enjoyed a night in the air-conditioned Airbnb, the rest of the family went for a panoramic dinner at Maria’s, a cute restaurant with an amazing view over the bay. There we all ended the night together, cheering on the USA against England in the World Cup.
The next morning we had a much slower morning. After a leisurely breakfast of cereal, eggs, fruit, coffee, and yogurt, we piled back into the car, took an even worse uphill/blind corner exit from Tolo, and headed to Napflio 15 minutes away. There, we met up with Agitha (spelled: Αγάθη in Greek) for a three-hour private winery tour. We started by climbing into two cars and took a quick drive to Koroniortis Winery in Argos, a neighboring town. We met the owner Kyriakos Koroniotis, a silver-haired Greek that welcomed us directly into his modern winery. We started with a walk outside, first looking at his olive trees and then going to see where the grapes grow. We learned about the regulations in the EU for growing new grapes and some of the struggles of growing in Greece. We saw his beehives, left from the 95 that his own father used to own, and got to ask questions to our hearts’ content.
After standing out in the sun, we walked back to the winery to go through the creation process. A chemical engineer by trade, his winery was taken up by a lab, full of pH testing equipment and vials and dials I didn’t understand. After showing us some of his gadgets and explaining his background, he showed us the large vats and machines he used to process all of his 50,000 bottles. We took a quick trip down to his cellar to talk about the casks and how long he ages each of his wines, before moving on to the tasting.
Here, he really shined. After serving some homemade meatballs, cheese, slices of bread, and tomatoes, he started to uncork the wine, starting with a clean tasting white. He explained the grape, the aging, how to smell, how to look at the color and the legs of the wine and finally, how to taste. He told us about the Greek grapes he used, the competitions he had entered, and what he loved about each wine. It was like watching a man brag about his children, so much did he love his grapes. After the first white we had a much crisper second wine which originated on the windswept slopes of Santorini. Then, a rosé, which he said he made because the ladies liked it. And finally, a deep Nemean red wine to top it all off.
Our host was ready to get us going so, after petting the 4 newborn puppies on the porch, we got back in the car and headed to Napflio again to see a new wine bar. The walls were lined with the best of Greece, including the bottles from Koroniotis, and we sampled three more (a white, a rosé and a red) before thanking our host for the day and heading out to look for some food and coffee. The heat of the day was beginning to build so, after a quick lunch of stuffed vine leaves, bread, and coffee, we headed back Tolo to spend the night on the beach and by the pool.
The night ended in one of the best ways possible – with a dinner directly on the sand. It was a smaller restaurant that had been passed down from father to son and seemed to be struggling a bit. We chatted with the owner as he tried to keep the stray dogs away from the table (we didn’t help by feeding them) and it was a reminder of how difficult businesses like that could be when everything relied on the tourists.
After dinner, we did a quick stroll through town and did some shopping. One of our only unpleasant experiences was when my brother asked if there was a deal for buying two shirts instead of one. The man he had asked pulled the shirt from his hand and we were all removed from the store with the use of an intimidating walking stick and some scoffing. All’s well that ends well though and Matt was able to get a shirt he liked a few doors down and we have a story to remember the little downtown Tolo by.
After that, it was time for bed and getting ready for our second long day of touring old things, this time with a little less driving. We headed first to Mycenae, an ancient hilltop archaeological site that was home to a few thousand ancient Greeks. The settlement, complete with the graves of Homer’s heroes and a famous lion gate, was the seat of power in the Mediterranean for Agamemnon and his kinfolk from 1600 to 1100 BC. We walked the ruins of the old palace and looked out across the plain to the Aegean in the distance before loading up the car to head a little further north, this time to Ancient Corinth. One of the newer of the ancient ruins we saw, ancient Corinth (think: the people receiving the letters in the biblical First and Second Corinthians) had some well-preserved temples as well as the foundations of a commercial center and baths. We shared the site with a few busloads of tourists and, once we had a chance to see as much as we wanted, we were back on the road again.
This time, we headed across the peninsula to Epidaurus. Home to one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the world, Epidaurus was famous in the ancient world as the healing center of the Greek world. Here, pilgrims would come to be healed and alternative entertained by the 55-level theater with near-perfect acoustics. A few of us ran to the top and my mom spoke from the center circle, which we heard like a loud whisper from the top row. After the theater, there was another museum and some more ruins but we were beginning to drag a bit on the 102-degree day. We decided to cut our day short and head back to Tolo to lay on the beach and float in the perfectly clear water.
We had a quick lunch, my parents popping down to cool off in the water in between ordering and the food coming, before finding some chairs, ordering lemonade, and settling in for a few hours. As it was our last night in the small town, we had dinner at the beautiful Maria’s again and watched the sun go down over the water and little island before strolling the streets and calling it a night.
The next morning started early again (a theme on our trips, it seems), saying goodbye to our Airbnb and heading to Napflio. We did a quick tour of Palmidi Fortress, stationed over the city before buying some bus tickets for that afternoon, returning the rental car, and doing some window shopping throughout the quaint streets in what some call the most beautiful city in Greece. We ended up with some souvenirs before lunch and then climbed on board the (thankfully) air-conditioned bus for the 2-hour ride to Athens. We crossed Corinth Canal (not much to see) and then we were in the city, on the metro, and in our home in Athens by 4:30 p.m.
We were all starting to slow down and the heat was starting to get to us at the tail end of the trip. We took it slow that evening, some going to the grocery store for some water and snacks while others napped. We tried to find some cute quite buildings in Anafiotiki but decided to call it and went to the Plaka neighborhood for some dinner before taking a moonlit walk home, past the Olympic Stadium. We spent some hours playing cards before heading to sleep before our last full day.
Saturday we started around 7:00 am to avoid the heat again. We got up, ate, and made a beeline for the Acropolis, seated high on a hill over the city. We took a stroll through the city’s park and made it to the ticket line by about 9:15. Unfortunately, the electricity in the ticket offices was down, which meant we waited in the sweltering line for about 40 minutes before we could start the steep walk up to the piece de resistance – the Parthenon.
Once you reach the summit of the hill, there is really no describing the mass and scale of the iconic buildings. We were a little disappointed to realize that it has been rebuilt, rather than standing atop the city in all its glory for thousands of years. Even so, the Parthenon, the Temple to Athena, and the commanding view of the sprawling metropolis below kept us engaged for an hour before we started the walk down the south slope.
After the Acropolis, we headed to the Ancient Agora to see the original area of commerce for the Athenians. We saw the best-preserved temple in Europe and strolled around it before going for lunch. We stopped in the shadow of the Acropolis for a lunch of gyros and other snacks, as well as lots of water. Then we started the slow walk home, through the Plaka, doing some shopping. We got back to the Airbnb around 4:00 and played some cards before the third one of us fell. Dad spent the rest of the evening in the Airbnb while we finished touring the city with a view of the changing of the guard and a final gyro at a street-side shop.
As much as we love to see each other, I think it was with much relief for all of us that we started our journeys home. Mom, Dad, and Megan headed out at 5:00 AM to catch their 8:00 AM flight back to Minneapolis. Matt came with us a few hours later to start his long haul back to Austin and Ryan and I lucked out with a quick skip over to Frankfurt and the long drive home.
The trip was eventful, to say the least. As always, the highlight was the moments in between, joking and laughing with my family. It was the card games and moments of panic trying to get a stick shift up van up a sketchy hill in Greece. It was one-liners and even being a bit miserable together. This was the last great European adventure with my whole family, at least while we are living in Germany, and the time spent laughing at the idiosyncrasies of travel (you can’t flush your toilet paper in Greece?!) will definitely stay with us long after our tans have faded.