Greece and Italy
My flight arrived in Athens late on a Friday night. I took a car straight to the New Hotel and went to bed. The next day we set out to explore the city, walking over to the National Archaeological Museum, which boasts one of the most impressive collections of artifacts in the world. Among the many highlights is the Artemision Bronze, a statue of either Zeus or Poseidon that was fished out of the Mediterranean after a shipwreck.
After the museum we stopped by the charming beer bar Barley Cargo to sample a couple of local brews. We continued strolling around the city, visiting the Hellenic Parliament and some of the city’s old Christian churches. Then we had a tasty dinner at Okio and grabbed some fantastic after-dinner cocktails at Baba au Rum.
The next day we focused on ancient Greek ruins. We started at the Acropolis, Athens’ most famous site and a center of Western civilization since at least the fifth century BCE. The ruins of several structures remain on the hilltop site, which also offers incredible views of the city and surrounding countryside. The Parthenon, a massive temple to Athena, is probably the most well-known structure at the Acropolis. Unfortunatley, it has suffered centuries of abuse, including pillaging, earthquakes, acid rain, and a massive explosion when an Ottoman military commander used it to store gunpowder. The Erechtheion is a smaller, but better-preserved, ruin.
On our way down from the Acropolis, we stopped by a few of the other ruins on the site, including the Theatre of Dionysus. We stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants along Makrigianni Street. Then we visited the new Acropolis Museum, which houses numerous impressive artifacts from the Acropolis’s history and offers outstanding views of the ruins (though the museum was built in a so-far-unsuccessful attempt to bait the British into returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece).
Continuing our tour of the city’s ancient ruins, we walked through Hadrian’s Gate (erected by the Roman emperor to separate the old city of Athens from the new city he planned to build) and visited the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Not much remains of the once-massive temple, but the few remaining columns give an idea of how enormous it must once have been.
We toured Hadrian’s Library, the Roman Forum, and the ancient agora (a sprawling site boasting numerous ruins, including the temple to Hephaestus, one of the world’s best-preserved ancient Greek ruins). We walked through town to a delicious dinner at Merceri, catching a beautiful sunset on the way, and a gorgeous moonrise over the Acropolis on the return trip.
In the morning, we boarded a ferry for a two-hour ride to the island of Hydra. Hydra is unique because it doesn’t allow private motor vehicles—all local transportation is by foot, donkey, or boat. It’s an idyllic isle with beautiful beaches. We grabbed lunch and poked around the island’s main town. Then we hiked about two miles to Vlychos Plakes Beach, a rocky shore with great swimming. Then we had a fantastic dinner at Téchnē Restaurant as we watched the sun set over the Mediterranean.
The next day we took a water taxi to Bisti Beach on the southwestern tip of the island. A beautiful sandy beach, Bisti was a great palce to spend the day. We relaxed in the shade, swam, read, and took a short walk to one of the nearby tiny whitewashed churches. In the early evening we took the boat back to Hydra town for happy hour, dinner, and another beautiful sunset.
We spent our last morning in Hydra exploring the roads above the town, which wind around to several churches and beautiful views of the island. Then we walked out to Paralia Vlichos, another of the island’s beaches, for our last dip in Hydra’s beautiful waters. We returned to town and took the ferry back to Athens, where we rode the subway to the airport and spent the night at an airport hotel.
Early in the morning we boarded a rickety prop plane for the short flight to Naxos, the largest of Greek’s Cyclades islands. After checking into our hotel (the charming Iria Beach Art Hotel), we rode the bus into Naxos town, a large clump of whitewashed buildings that climb a central hill. We explored the city’s numerous artisan shops and grabbed some delicious cocktails and snacks at Honey & Cinnamon Cocktail Bar. Then we walked out to the Temple of Apollo. All that remains is the rectangular doorframe, but we were lucky enough to catch a spectacular sunset behind the ruin.
In the morning we set out to explore Naxos. We visited the Temple of Dionysus, then drove south to Plaka Beach, a beautiful sandy strip along the island’s west coast. Then we continued on to Alyko Beach, another sandy beach with great swimming. But Alyko’s most unusual attraction is an unfinished resort hotel that’s become a sort of public art installation covered with murals and paintings. Returning to our hotel, we relaxed on the beach for a bit, then drove into the hills for a great dinner at Taverna Axiotissa.
Our last full day on Naxos was spent in the island’s interior. We toured the Temple of Demeter and the hill town of Filoti. Then we hiked Mount Zas, at 3,290 feet the highest point in the Cyclades islands. Along the way we stopped by the cave in which Zeus was born (the mountain’s namesake). The weather was gorgeous when we set out, and we were excited for the peak’s incredible views. Unfortunately an oppressive fog moved in as we climbed. By the time we reached the summit, we could barely see beyond the mountain’s edge.
Descending to our car, we drove to Chalkio, another hill town, and visited the Church of Saint George Diasoritis, which dates to the 11th century. A rough drive—we learned the hard way that Google Maps doesn’t distinguish between paved roads and unmaintained trails on many of the Greek isles—took us to Saint Anna Winery, where we had a fantastic tour and wine tasting.
The next morning marked our final hours on Naxos. We enjoyed the beach by our hotel for the last time, then took the bus into town and boarded a ferry. Our crossing took about four hours over rough seas, but we finally reached the island of Folegandros in the early evening.
Folegandros is tiny, with a single paved road that stretches from one end of the island to the other. We checked into our hotel, the lovely Lemon Tree Houses, then drove into town. Folegandros’s main town has a lot to offer, with lots of great restaurants and bars and a suprisingly active nightlife. We had a glass of wine at a charming taverna and then hiked up to the Church of Panagia, which overlooks the town, to watch the most incredible sunset of the entire trip. Returning to town, we had an excellent dinner at 1790 Wine Cave, then retired to our hotel.
In the morning we set out for Paralia Livadaki, a beautiful sandy beach at the base of a steep cliff. We spent much of the morning (and some of the afternoon) relaxing on the beach, swimming in the ocean, and walking to a nearby lighthouse. Then we hiked back up to our hotel, stopped for snacks at the wonderful Chrisospilia cafe, and drove to Paralia Agkali, another pretty beach. Unfortunately the wind picked up, blowing sand everywhere and building a choppy surf, so we didn’t spend much time there.
In the early evening, we returned to Agkali and boarded a small boat that took us around a point to Papalagi, a seafood restaurant perched on a cliff above the water. We had a tasty meal, after which the restaurant’s DJ booth was commandeered by a group of drunk French tourists who forced the rest of the diners to join them in a dance party that lasted well past the point at which the staff wanted to close the restaurant. Before bed we stopped for a nightcap at a bar in town.
The next day we hiked to Katergo Beach, another of Folegandros’s gorgeous beaches. Again, we spent most of the morning enjoying the sand and ocean. In the afternoon we explored Folegandros town and enjoyed some cocktails at one of its many bars. Returning to our hotel, we sampled the local cuisine at Sinadisi. The restaurant specializes in matsata, a traditional doughy pasta typically served with meat and red sauce. It was fun to try but far from our favorite meal.
Bidding farewell to Folegandros in the morning, we took the ferry to Santorini. The stark contrast was immediately obvious; whereas Folegandros is uncrowded and charming, Santorini swarms with tourists. We checked into our hotel in the town of Fira. Then we embarked on the 6-mile (about 10km) hike to Oia, where we sat down for a magnificent dinner and wine tasting at Oia Vineyart.
Santorini’s famous sunset isn’t visible from the restaurant, so I ducked out try to see it. Oia’s tiny, winding streets were packed with tourists, and it was almost impossible to make progress. All of the popular spots to watch the sunset were so crowded that I couldn’t get a view. I finally found a parking lot from which I could see the horizon. But a low bank of clouds had moved in, and so the sunset wasn’t that pretty.
The next day we drove to Akrotiri, the site of a prehistoric town that was both destroyed and preserved by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century BCE. The sprawling city is truly impressive. We stopped by the traditional city of Megalochori, then drove and hiked to ancient Thera, the site of an ancient city perched on a hill high above the island. In the evening we boarded a sailboat for a sunset dinner cruise around the island.
We rose early the next day and drove to Oia for sunrise. The town was much less crowded than it was at sunset, and we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the town and island.
From Oia we drove to the airport and flew (via Athens) to Corfu. This was our big splurge for the vacation: we stayed at the incredible Domes Miramare Corfu. We spent the evening enjoying the hotel’s gorgeous beach.
The next day was most of the same. We lounged on the beach and enjoyed the hotel grounds. In the afternoon we drove to Corfu town and joined a walking tour. We also visited the Old Fortress and the Asian Art Museum, a surprisingly robust collection of artifacts from across the continent. On the drive back to the hotel, we stopped for dinner at the excellent Klimataria restaurant in the town of Benitses.
In the morning we ventured out to explore the island. Our first stop was the Monastery of Paleokastritsa, an historic monastery perched on a bluff above the ocean. Then we drove on to Angelokastro, a Byzantine-era fortress at the top of a dramatic hill that offers amazing views of the surrounding ocean, including a cove with unreal blue waters and dotted with small white sailboats.
Returning to the car, we pushed on to D’Amour Beach at the northern end of Corfu. It’s a beautiful spot, with small sandy beaches and dramatic sandstone cliffs. Unfortunately, it’s also insanely crowded. We enjoyed the spot for a while and took a nice swim before pushing on to Cape Drastis.
At the far northwestern tip of the island, Cape Drastis is a string of cliffs that stretches out into the sea. A trail winds down to the ocean, occasionally offering excellent views of the sea below. Once you reach the water, it’s an almost disappointingly small cove. It’s a nice place to take a dip, but the view isn’t great, and the main attraction is the commercial water taxi that offers tours of the surrounding area.
We hiked back to our car and drove a short ways down the coast to 7th Heaven, a restaurant and bar on a bluff above the ocean with good food, tasty drinks, and an incredible view.
The next morning we relaxed on the beach before driving to the airpot for a flight to Rome via Athens. Unfortunately our flight out of Corfu was delayed, causing us to miss our connection. We spent most of the afternoon and evening in the Athens airport, waiting for the next flight to Rome. We finally arrived in Rome at about 10pm.
Early the next morning we walked over the Vatican. We joined a tour through The Roman Guy, which took us through the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.
From there, we drove into the center of Rome and walked to the Trevi Fountain. We walked by the Parthenon to the Forum, where we explored several of the newly-renovated sites. Then we proceeded to the Colosseum.
We grabbed a couple beers at Open Baldin. Then we went back to the hotel for a quick break before walking over to Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina for an outstanding pasta dinner. On the walk home, we stopped by Gelateria La Romana for some excellent gelato.
In the morning we visited the Capitoline Museums, which house an enormous collection of archaeological artifacts and art. The museum was originally established from a collection donated by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. Then we boarded a train to Milan.
When we reached Milan, bad weather threatened. We walked to the city’s remarkable cathedral (the third largest in Christendom). The interior is remarkable, and we also walked the roofs. Then we had an excellent dinner at San Mauri before returning to our hotel in the rain.
The next day we took a walking tour of Milan, visitng the Galleria, medieval market, and Sforzesco Castle. We finished our tour at the Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Last Supper Museum. The remarkable painting has painstakingly restored after centuries of abuse, but viewing it is still an arresting experience.
In the afternoon we drove north to Lake Como. We checked into the Hotel Olivedo, then set out to explore the surroudning area. We visited the Church of St. John the Baptist (dating to the 11th century), as well as the beautiful Villa Monastero.
The next day, we boarded a ferry from Varenna to Bellagio. We took a quick walk around Bellagio before continuing on to Lenno. We walked to Villa del Balbianello, which is supposed to be one of the most impressive villas on the lake. We couldn’t see the inside (tours were sold out), but we walked the grounds before taking the ferry back to Tremezzo. There we toured Villa Carlotta (another of the remarkable Como villas), its beautiful grounds and impressive interior.
After lunch in Tremezzo, we returned to Varenna. We hiked to Castello di Vezio, a 12th-century castle overlooking the town with breathtaking views of the lake. We took the ferry back to Bellagio for a delicious dinner at Ristorante Alle Darsene di Loppia.
The next morning, Lauren and I walked the Wayfarer’s Path from Bellano back to Varenna. It’s an ancient trail of cobblestone roads and mule paths along the lake’s eastern shore. The path winds among beautiful forests and offers amazing views of the lake. The day was a little wet and a little gloomy, but it was a gorgeous walk nonetheless.
On the drive out of town, we stopped by the Orrido di Bellano, a plunging ravine filled with a gushing river. A series of boardwalks above the ravine offers lets visitors peek down into the canyon. Lauren dropped me off at the airport. From there I flew to London, where I spent my last night in Europe before returning home.