Santorini

It almost seems unnecessary to write about Santorini, as most people just want to look at this Greek island. However, what I found most interesting about the second stop on our Greece & Turkey vacation is its geological history. In fact, Santorini’s beauty felt somewhat underwhelming to me, which I blame on two things: 1) I’ve been spoiled by having grown up in Hawaii and already being accustomed to seeing breathtaking sunsets surrounded by deep blue ocean every day; and 2) I made the mistake of visiting Positano on the Amalfi Coast first, which I think is much more charming than Santorini.

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Reminds me of Waikiki!

Regardless, even the Hawaiian in me could appreciate Santorini’s fascinating geological setting and connection to the legend of Atlantis. The island of Santorini, located in the southern Aegean Sea, is essentially all that remains after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. The devastating “Minoan eruption” occurred roughly 3,600 years ago at the height of Minoan civilization. Parts of the ring-shaped island disappeared as the caldera collapsed and water rushed in. An oval lagoon is now surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, which gives Santorini its iconic shape. There’s evidence that Atlantis, the prosperous land that mysteriously disappeared into the sea, can be traced to Santorini. Many believe that the “Atlantis” referenced in Plato’s story about an advanced civilization that became sinful and had to be punished by the gods, alludes to the eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Santorini. The island in Plato’s story is circular with concentric structures, just like Santorini was before the eruption. We do not know what happened to the Minoans, as no human remains have been found since; it’s possible that a series of earthquakes had warned the residents to evacuate the island before the eruption. This legend is precisely why Anthony was so excited to visit.

To reach Santorini, Anthony and I caught the only Blue Star ferry of the day from Athens. The ride is eight hours long, but it’s a comfortable ride if you book Business Class seats and claim a table up front with a view. (Though, honestly, the view coming into Santorini also can’t compare to the view coming into Positano.)

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Best seat on the ferry

When we arrived at the port, everything became chaotic. Every passenger had rushed from their seats and crammed near the exit, while dozens of drivers on land eagerly waited to pick them up. I was relieved that I had booked a driver through our hotel so we could walk past the taxis, buses, and disoriented passengers who hadn’t prepared. Our driver expertly told us to meet him a few shops away from the mess, and we found him easily, waiting for us at a coffee shop and holding a sign with our hotel’s name on it.

The drive from the port in Fira to our hotel on the edge of Oia (pronounced EE-uh) took about half an hour. It was a scenic drive that hugged the sides of cliffs, and was the first — but definitely not the last — time Santorini reminded us of Hawaii. Although Santorini is an island, water is scarce. It has no rivers, and rain is rare for half the year, so plants depend on the early morning fog for dew. Most of the buildings in Santorini are whitewashed, low-lying cubical stone structures.

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Our hotel was located in Oia, the most picturesque town in Santorini, lying on the northwestern part of the island. Oia was built on a steep slope of the caldera, and narrow cobblestone paths lead to the homes and restaurants built into niches carved into the slope. Staying in Oia is quite expensive so I was grateful to find Strogili Traditional Houses, an affordable hotel that offers a caldera view and cave rooms.

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View from our hotel
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Our breakfast every morning

One of my favorite places in Oia was Atlantis Books, a quirky little bookshop that was opened in 2004 after two college students from England vacationed in Santorini and noticed there was no bookshop. After graduating, they gathered some friends and saved enough money to open up Atlantis Books. Anthony and I loved it so much that we visited it twice during our short time in Santorini and purchased a couple of Greek books.

Before sunset, herds of tourists, including those from Fira, flock over to various viewpoints in Oia and camp out for hours, waiting for the highly anticipated sunset. Oia is famous for its sunsets, as its cliffs facing west offer unobstructed views of the sun setting on the sea. In case you’re also from Hawaii, the sunset looks exactly the same, so you may not be as impressed as someone from, say, a landlocked city. However, what is different is the reflection of the sunset on the whitewashed homes of the cliffs. Face the opposite direction of everyone else for views worth traveling to Santorini for.

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A highlight of our trip was the hike from Oia to Fira. It takes roughly three hours along a pedestrian path, up and down mountainous peaks with scenic views of the caldera and hotels below (unless you miss a turn and end up walking alongside speeding cars on the dangerous cliffside road for about 20 minutes, like we did). We walked through two other towns and ate some fantastic souvlaki on our way.

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“Stretching” before the hike
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One of the views during our hike
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Obligatory souvlaki pita

I was not a huge fan of Fira. It was swarming with tour groups and cruise ship passengers, and most of the charm we had found in Oia was nowhere to be found in Fira. The best things to do there are purchasing souvenirs, watching the cable cars carry passengers from the cliff down to the port, and dining at a restaurant with a view.

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You know you’re close to Fira because cruise ships are waiting offshore
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Entrance to Fira

If anything, Fira made me appreciate Oia a little more. Once we returned to our side of the island, I read my book of Greek poetry on the rooftop of some castle ruins, stopped comparing everything to Positano, and finally started enjoying Santorini.

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Lots of adorable churches in Santorini
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What kind of person am I for not thinking this is absolutely stunning?!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Stay in Oia. Fira is not as pretty and reeks of tour groups. All the photos you’ve seen online of Santorini were taken from Oia. Besides, Fira is easy enough to reach by foot, bus, or cab.
  2. Look up what time the sun is supposed to set, as it changes throughout the year. If you want a good view, you’re going to have to claim a spot early.
  3. If you have a choice, visit Positano instead of Santorini. Santorini has become overwhelmingly crowded in recent years. I’m envious of those who visited Santorini a decade ago, before it became a popular place for films and photo shoots. We didn’t even visit during tourist season in the summer; I can’t imagine how awful it must be from June to August!
  4. Do the hike between Fira and Oia, and take a bus or cab back. It’s a really lovely journey, and, honestly, there’s not much else to do on the island. Along the way, you’ll be able to peek into some obscenely fancy hotels. Just try not to miss the pedestrian path or you’ll end up walking by the road.
  5. The best things we ate: souvlaki (skewered meat) or gyro (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), red onions, and fries wrapped in pita; paprika-covered peanuts; and a dinner at Floga. Floga has a private fisherman who catches the restaurant’s fish of the day, and I’m still thinking about the salad I had there, which consisted of arugula, lettuce, sesame-covered cheese, sun-dried cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, cashews, and balsamic vinegar. You can tell Floga has a sense of humor because Anthony’s lamb dish came with a little satchet of olive oil that you’re supposed to cut open and pour over the meal, while our digestif was served with dry ice, reminiscent of Santorini’s volcanic background. Because of Santorini’s unique ecology and climate, the island has exceptionally good cherry tomatoes that are the tastiest and sweetest you’ll ever have. Santorini is also known for fava, white eggplants, capers, and white wine.
  6. Have your hotel book a driver to pick you up when you arrive. It’s much less stressful and saves a lot of time.
  7. Make sure your hotel has a view of the caldera — otherwise, what’s the point? Our hotel had a gorgeous view of the caldera, but if I ever come back to Santorini, I’d try to find a hotel closer to the main part of Oia so we also have a view of the cliffs, since staring at just water doesn’t really impress me. Also, make sure your hotel has cave rooms. The coolest thing about Santorini is its volcanic history, so staying in a cave room is a unique and pertinent experience. Anthony’s a huge Star Wars nerd, so he especially loved that our room felt like the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine.

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Athens

I enjoyed Athens much more than I thought I would. My husband is the history buff, so I figured Athens would be his city, while the photogenic island of Santorini would be mine. Little did I know that I’d fall in love with the first stop on our Greece and Turkey vacation just as much as Anthony did.

There were four highlights that made the city so enchanting: our Airbnb, a six-hour walking tour, an intimate dinner with a Greek family, and lunch at one of the best restaurants of my life.

Our Airbnb was located in Psyrri, a gritty but gentrified neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants and nightlife (basically Athens’ version of Manhattan’s Lower East Side). Our apartment spanned the entire top floor of the building and had a large balcony that offered an unobstructed view of the Acropolis. It was so heavenly to fall asleep and wake up to the Parthenon every day. In many ways, Athens felt like a mini Rome, with its significant contributions to Western culture, stunning ruins scattered throughout town, and dilapidated buildings covered in artistic graffiti — except for one major difference: you can see the Acropolis from almost anywhere in Athens (whereas in Rome, you have to be right by the actual site to see it). There’s something incredibly romantic about that.

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View of the Acropolis from our balcony
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Our Airbnb host is an architect and designed our gorgeous apartment

Anthony booked us a six-hour walking tour with Athens Walking Tours. On our first morning, we met our wonderfully nerdy tour guide named Aristotle (yes, seriously!) at Syntagma station, a metro station that contains some historic ruins discovered while the city was building the station. Aristotle was fantastic, which is no surprise since becoming a tour guide is quite competitive in Athens — you need a degree in history, archaeology, or philosophy, and apparently need to be able to walk for six hours straight. We walked over to the Royal Palace, which is the location of both the House of Parliament and the hourly changing of the guards, who are Greece’s most dedicated soldiers and wear funny shoes that weigh six pounds each. After passing through the relaxing National Gardens, we made our way to the Temple of Zeus, a colossal temple dedicated to the ruler of Olympian gods. It’s a beautiful temple, but since Athens is the city of Athena, Zeus’ temple was built at ground level while Athena’s glorious temple is up high on the Acropolis. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Temple of Zeus was quarried for its marble to supply projects elsewhere in the city. Only sixteen of the original 104 marble Corinthian columns remain today, but it’s still quite a sight.

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The royal guards and their funny shoes
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The Temple of Zeus
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Aristotle, our tour guide

After the Temple of Zeus, we hiked up to the Acropolis, which means “highest point of the city” and is easily the most iconic site in Athens. This flat, rocky outcrop is where you can find the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The view gets better as you climb higher and higher, past the Theater of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and up the marble steps to the very top. Apparently a contest between Poseidon and Athena determined whom the city should be named after; if Poseidon had won, Athens would most likely have been called Poseidonia instead.

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View from the Acropolis

My favorite structure on the Acropolis is Erechtheion, famous for its porch consisting of six draped maidens (caryatids) as supporting columns. The caryatids are not just beautiful but functional; each maiden has a bulky braid and thick neck to give enough support to hold up the ceiling. During the Byzantine period, the building was transformed into a church; under Frankish rule it became a palace; and under the Ottoman empire it became the residence of a Turkish commander’s harem. This recycling of buildings is a testament to Erechtheion’s magnificence — I’m sure if it were less impressive, other empires would have either left it abandoned or destroyed it completely.

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In the 19th century, a Scottish diplomat named Lord Elgin stole portions of the Acropolis (including one of the caryatids) to decorate his Scottish mansion. These marble artifacts were later sold to the British Museum, where they remain to this day. The other caryatids were moved to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Hopefully some day, the UK finally will return the last caryatid to its rightful city. #bringbackourmarbles!

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This segmented column with a metal rod in the middle proves how advanced the ancient Greeks were. They already knew how to earthquake-proof their temples!

Last but not least is the Parthenon, the structure I’m most familiar with thanks to studying art history. This is the single most important symbol of Greek cultural heritage. The impeccable detail paid to the architecture of the Parthenon demonstrates how much the Athenians valued Athena. The temple is objectively pleasing to the eye due to the Greeks’ impressive understanding of perspective. While the temple looks like a perfect rectangle, there are actually no straight lines. The columns lean slightly inward to give the illusion of straight lines, while the four corner columns are wider since being on a corner and set against the blue sky make them appear thinner and farther apart than other columns. The Greeks take perfectionism to a whole new level. The Parthenon was eventually turned into a mosque in the early 1460s after the Ottoman conquest, and then in 1687 the Venetians caused an explosion that severely damaged it. In the 1800s, Lord Elgin (him again!) stole some of the surviving sculptures and later sold them to the British Museum.

What surprised me most on our tour was that all of these classical buildings used to be brightly painted. It’s almost comical that our image of Greek buildings are understated marble ruins, yet the Greeks covered that beautiful marble with vibrant colors.

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Can you imagine this in vibrant colors?

A tour of the Acropolis is not complete without visiting the new Acropolis Museum, one of the most incredible museums I’ve ever visited. It was built to house artifacts found on the Acropolis and sits on top of ruins that are still being excavated. You can even watch the excavation happening if you peer down through the glass floor inside the museum! The building’s beautiful design evokes the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greek architecture. Throughout the museum, you can see the actual Acropolis outside, and the top floor of the museum is modeled after the Acropolis, giving visitors a rare opportunity to experience the temple’s perfect proportions. The British Museum has absolutely no excuse for not returning the Acropolis artifacts to Greece now, as the museum’s sole intention was to provide a worthy place for them.

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Entrance to the Acropolis Museum
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inside the Acropolis Museum

Every time we travel, I try to organize either a cooking class or a meal with a local family, as food is the best way to experience and share cultures. Alternative Athens scheduled a meal for us at a couple’s home in the suburbs of Athens, just a 15-minute subway ride from our apartment. Lena and Kristos were a sweet couple who work in the travel industry and excitedly asked to see photos of our Hawaiian wedding. Dinner started off with red wine from the Peloponnese, and moved onto a feta salad (I had multiple servings of this!), fried potatoes, bruschetta, roasted lamb, and a tomato and feta meze. For dessert, we had an incredible rice pudding for which I asked Lena for her recipe, and some shots of homemade limoncello. The best part, as always, was our discussion, which ranged from the pros and cons of democracy (how mind-boggling to have this discussion in the birthplace of democracy!), the refugee crisis, soccer and the Olympics, and, of course, Donald Trump. Apparently some of their other guests had voted for Trump, which got Anthony and me thinking… The Americans who travel to places like Morocco are not necessarily the same as the Americans who travel to Greece. In fact, Greece — “the birthplace of Western civilization” — might unintentionally attract those who glamorize the past and fear anything that seems to threaten Western values. Lena and Kristos were very relieved when they found out we had not voted for the misogynistic orange idiot who is a disgrace to democracy.

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Dinner with our Athenian hosts

One of the best meals of my life was our lunch at Mani Mani, a cozy restaurant with just eight tables, located in a former apartment near the Acropolis Museum. Mani Mani is named after the Mani peninsula, a mountainous region in the center of the Peloponnese. Service was intimate, and the food is making my stomach grumble as I write this. The chef takes traditional Greek ingredients and flavors and makes them new again, in a creative way that somehow doesn’t try too hard. The menu offers half-sized portions of most dishes, so we justified sharing five: Filo parcel with manouri, pastrami, almonds, red peppers, goat cheese, and tomato sauce; white taramosalata (cod fish egg purée with olive oil); hilopotes (pasta with chicken, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, and basil); grilled veal meatballs with smoked eggplant and spicy yogurt cream; and a thyme honey cream and walnuts. I would fly back to Athens just to eat here again, and this restaurant is the reason why I now want to go to the remote Mani peninsula. Everyone, please come to this restaurant so it survives!

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Filo parcel at Mani Mani

I was sad to leave on our last day in Athens, so it’s fortunate that I had two other destinations to look forward to. Athens is a romantic city steeped in so much history, yet is pulsating with art, food, and passion. It’s a shame that the country is still dealing with financial hardships, but — you know what? This is a place worth saving. I’ll be back someday, Athens. Yassou, Santorini!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. To travel to any of the Greek islands, you’ll most likely fly into Athens and take a ferry from Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe. We took Blue Star Ferries from Piraeus to Santorini. Before our trip, I purchased two Business Class tickets online and picked them up right before we boarded the ferry at Piraeus. Business Class gives you more space and better views than the cheaper tickets. Board the ferry early to claim the best tables (facing forward and up front) in the Business Class lounge. We tried the chicken burgers at the cafe onboard, which were surprisingly good, but you should bring snacks in case the line is too long when you get hungry. The entire journey from Piraeus to Santorini is eight hours, which includes stops on two other islands. There’s a faster way to get there, but if you’re prone to seasickness like Anthony, you should take Blue Star Ferries.
  2. For one of the best views of Athens, hike up Areopagus (Mars Hill), right next to the Acropolis. It is believed that Ares (the Greek god of war) was tried here for killing Poseidon’s son, who allegedly raped Ares’ daughter. Ares was tried by a jury of Athenians, marking the first occurrence of a trial by jury. Make sure to wear sneakers or hiking boots, as the hill is made of marble and is very slippery.
  3. The metro is easy to ride. Just purchase a one-way ticket at the vending machines. Not all machines take paper money, so it’s safer to have coins. Validate your ticket before you go downstairs to the platform, and make sure you’re going the right direction by looking at the metro line map. While the outside of the trains are often covered with graffiti, the insides are clean and efficient.
  4. We loved Athens Walking Tours! Athens has an overwhelming amount of history, so going with an organized, entertaining guide makes it more manageable. Wear your walking shoes!
  5. In case you’re wondering, Greek coffee is the same as Turkish coffee. “We just renamed it since we don’t like the Turks,” explained our Athenian hosts. In fact, a lot of Greek things were actually influenced by the Turks and just bitterly renamed. (Blame the Greco-Turkish War.) If history doesn’t fascinate you now, it will after going to Athens.
  6. Book a meal with local hosts through Alternative Athens. The company is very organized and paired us with a lovely couple.
  7. The best things I ate in Athens: salad (Those of you who know me know that I hate salads, so the fact that I had multiple servings of salads all over Greece should really impress you), Greek yogurt (thicker and tastier than other yogurts), honey, and feta (so different from the dry feta you find in the U.S.!).
  8. Don’t visit Athens in the summer. I’ve heard so many horror stories of disgustingly hot and crowded Athenian summers. Spring was the perfect time to come, as tourist season hasn’t yet started, and the weather is perfect for walking tours.
  9. New Yorkers, tell people you’re from New York and they will excitedly ask you about Astoria. I’m still not sure why every Greek person we met knows about the Greek neighborhood in Queens.
  10. We stayed in Psyrri, which I think is the best neighborhood to stay in Athens. It was walkable distance to everything, and we only caught the train twice — once to the suburbs and once to Pireaus. Psyrri isn’t obnoxiously touristy like Plaka, and it has lots of great restaurants and street art. Plus, it has a fantastic view of the Acropolis. (If you’d like to know specifically which Airbnb we stayed in, feel free to message me!)
  11. If you have enough time, the National Archaeological Musuem is worth the trek. It’s located in the infamous neighborhood of Exarchia, perhaps most known for anarchists and police brutality. As with all stereotypes, Exarchia is so much more than that, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to walk through it. Sure, there are a lot more police on street corners, but this is real Athens. Not every Athenian can afford to live in trendy Psyrri or cliché Monastiraki. You’re not a true globetrotter unless you get out of the “safe” areas in your guide books. Not to mention, the museum has some cool artifacts.
  12. If there’s any word you should learn for a trip to Greece, it’s “Eυχαριστώ” (pronounced ef-kar-i-STO) for “thank you”. Anytime we said Eυχαριστώ to our waiters, they were absolutely touched and enthusiastically responded, “Παρακαλώ” for “you’re welcome.”
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We love you, Greece!

 

Manila

Manila was my least favorite part of our honeymoon, but instead of lambasting its horrendous traffic, stifling pollution, and blatant class stratification, I’ll focus on the positive aspects and hope that you do a better job than I did when planning a trip to this metropolis.

Manila is the capital of the Philippines and is situated on the eastern shore of Manila Bay. It is the most densely populated city in the world, and is one of sixteen cities that make up the region of Metro Manila. In 1571, Mexican conquistadors founded present-day Manila. The city thus became the center of Spanish trade in Asia, earning its nickname “Pearl of the Orient”. The city underwent Chinese revolts, pirate attacks, earthquakes, numerous invasion attempts, and British occupation. Most of Manila was flattened by aerial bombardment by the U.S. Air Force near the end of World War II, so very little remains of Manila’s prewar and colonial architecture, which is a shame.

For anyone interested in Filipino history, a visit to Intramuros is a must. Intramuros, or “within the walls,” is the oldest district in Manila and was walled to defend the city from foreign invasion. It is the only district of Manila where you can find old Spanish-era influences. A museum dedicated to national hero Jose Rizal is located in Intramuros, as the site is where he was actually detained during his final days. The museum showcases artifacts that prove how extraordinary Rizal was — he was a political leader, an author, an artist, a poet, and more.

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The Japanese would imprison Filipinos in these dungeons, which would then flood with water from Manila Bay
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Fortunately, some prisoners escaped by swimming away under the cover of those floating plants
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Statue of Rizal in his final holding cell on the day of his execution
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You can follow Rizal’s last footsteps to his execution

Manila is extremely humid, especially in the summer, so we constantly took refuge in underground walkways, shopping malls, and museums. My favorite museum is the Ayala Museum, which is located in the district of Makati. The six-story museum houses contemporary art and archaeological exhibits, but the best part is the diorama exhibit, which narrates Philippine history through 60 beautifully handcrafted dioramas. We borrowed a pair of headphones and took a fascinating audio tour of the museum. This was easily my favorite few hours in Manila.

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These audio guides were worth every peso!
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Lapu Lapu resists the Spanish in the 16th century
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Revolutionary leader Bonifacio encourages Filipinos to tear up the papers that identified them as servants to the Spanish crown
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Rizal’s execution

It always saddens me when American tourists who visit the Philippines bypass places like Manila and Quezon City and go straight to Palawan and Boracay, reducing an entire country to snorkeling and postcard-perfect beaches. It’s similar to those who travel to Thailand just for Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands. I don’t blame them, as my preferred regions of the Philippines are also less built-up and quite touristy (e.g., Banaue and Davao). However, Manila is an interesting city that I hope will eventually gain the respect it deserves.

That’s it for the Philippines. Anyong haseyo, Seoul!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Avoid driving (and being driven) at all costs. You haven’t seen traffic until you’ve seen Manila traffic. Stay at a hotel within walking distance to most of your sites.
  2. If you have time, take a day-trip to Tagaytay, just south of Manila. Per recommendation, my grandparents’ driver took us on a detour on our way to Manila so we could view Lake Taal from the city of Tagaytay. Lake Taal is a freshwater lake that fills a massive volcanic caldera formed after a series of eruptions. The lake was once part of the South China Sea, but the eruptions filled in the entrance, isolating it from the ocean. One very lucky Starbucks in Tagaytay just so happens to offer one of the best views of Lake Taal, so we ordered an ensamada and ube cheesecake and took in the scenery.
  3. Travel with my parents. Back in 2011, they took me to Manila and we had a perfectly good time. We went to Intramuros, the Ayala Museum, and even the same shopping malls, so I’ll have to figure out what they did differently to make the experience so much more pleasant.
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View of Lake Taal from a Starbucks in Tagaytay