Can you believe that even after we had to quarantine for three weeks after returning from Japan in March 2020, I still didn’t really comprehend how serious covid would turn out to be? I just thought woohoo, another three weeks off!! I didn’t realise that the whole world would come to a grinding halt. Or that so much would change. Did you? When it became crystal clear that it might be a while before things would get back to normal (a very long time, in fact), I was surprisingly stoic about what that meant for my travel plans. I usually have at least a couple of holidays in the planning pipeline, which is how I keep sane – I always have something to look forward to. For instance, my sisters and I had planned a big fat Greek family reunion for June 2020. We planned to visit relatives that we hadn’t seen for years (and which my youngest sister Pieta has never met, except as a toddler). It was to be an opportunity to grieve our Mum’s death with our aunt and other extended family, and to scatter her ashes into the sea. And it was an excuse for my sisters and I to holiday together in Europe, which is something we’ve never done before.
Guess how that went. Yep, cancelled. We were, of course, all very upset about it but obviously we were let off lightly in the greater scheme of things. My heart breaks to think of everyone who has missed their loved ones’ funerals, or had to cancel wedding plans or missed the birth of their own children. People have really suffered. We’re lucky. We just rescheduled. For later this year. Tentatively. Coz that’s what you’ve gotta do these days, am I right? You simply cannot make firm plans for anything anymore. But at least we’re back to being able to make plans now, even tentative ones. In April of 2020 when there appeared to be no end in sight to the grounding of international flights I was faced with an interminably empty travel calendar spreading out before me, with no end in sight. No plans to travel. Everything cancelled. Stuck, in Dubai. I mean you all know that I’m not in Dubai because I like being there. I’m there because I like travelling. Since our first holiday to Turkey in May 2009, David and I have never spent more than four straight months in Dubai (hey, don’t hate me coz you ain’t me). So would it shock you to learn that I actually handled the mental abyss of no travel prospects surprisingly well. It’s not as if I had a choice. It’s not as if ranting and raving and crying and losing my mind would change anything. I was bravely chilled out and quietly zen in the face of my own personal worst case scenario.
Six months after covid made its global debut, in a wonderful twist, the universe suddenly rewarded me by offering up the generous hospitality of my grandmotherland. You see, Greece is almost solely dependent on tourist dollars for its survival. Six months of global lockdowns caused a lot of economic grief for Greece. So it made sense that they were one of the first destinations to reopen their borders to tourists in August of 2020. As soon as Emirates started flying to Greece again, David and I jumped on a plane and embarked on a pandemic pilgrimage to the country of my ancestry. I was so happy to be travelling again but I did feel super guilty about being able to travel while my sisters were trapped in an endless lockdown loop back in Melbourne. And I felt guilty because I was specifically going to Greece without them, when we had all planned on going together. And then I also felt guilty because I wasn’t going to visit my relatives in Korinthos, choosing instead to go to Santorini. What I’m saying is that there was some guilt. But guilt is a wasted emotion, so I explained the situation to my rellies and made sure that my sisters were cool with it, and off we went.
The flight out of Dubai was virtually empty, and the attendants were all decked out in PPE gear that made them look like they were serving food at a diner in Chernobyl. Being on an aeroplane again after so long felt a little weird, but it felt so right at the same time. I was so happy. We flew straight into Santorini, picked up a car rental at the airport and drove to the tiny town of Finikia. Two tanned and muscle-bound young men met us in the carpark and, quite impressively, hoisted our extremely heavy suitcases onto their shoulders, briskly marching us through a whitewashed labyrinth of twisting, cobbled paths until we eventually reached our beautiful villa, home for the next ten days. Moments later, Marilena, the eccentric manager of the hotel group exploded on the scene in wafting chiffon, jangling bracelets and squeals of “Dahhhling”. She was a little bit crazy, very extra and an absolute delight. The location of Finikia was perfect for us because the madness of Oia, where all the action takes place, was a very calm 20 minute walk away. We could walk to town whenever we felt like it, but our villa was in a super quiet and very secluded part of the island.
Santorini has always been on my list of places to visit because all my Greek aunts and uncles and cousins have, at one point or another, swooned over what a beautiful island it is, insisting that I must see it with my own eyes. However it was never super high on that list because of the famous summer tourist swell. For instance, in 2019 Santorini’s population of 10,000 grew to over three million people. Eww, gross. David and I saw the pandemic as an opportunity to visit a gorgeous Greek island when most other travellers were still stuck at home baking bread and learning how to use Zoom. And it was perfect!
Despite the island being relatively quiet due to covid, Oia still got extremely crowded, particularly in the evenings when shoulder-to-shoulder crowds would throng the streets trying to secure the best vantage point for the extraordinary sunset display over the caldera. Sadly, we were often the only ones wearing masks, and to be honest, the cavalier attitude of the other tourists towards the pandemic made us feel quite uncomfortable being amongst the crowds so we didn’t spend a lot of time in Oia. Finikia had a much more relaxed vibe and we enjoyed many dinners at the local taverna Santorini Mou, which translates as My Santorini. The homemade food was delicious and the hospitality warm and welcoming. It was frequented by many tourists, but unlike some restaurants in Oia the quality and authenticity of the food didn’t feel dumbed down for international tastes. One of the highlights of the restaurant was the live music they played every night, accompanied occasionally by some dancing. It was such a treat to listen to the music of my childhood, and the entire family running the taverna were super sweet to us when they found out that I was Greek-Australian. The singer would often sing out my name in the middle of a song, winking at me with a smile, which was a little embarrassing but also really lovely. Every time we ate there they would greet us by name, as if we were old friends. It was hospitality like this that made me fall in love with Santorini.
When Marilena checked us into our villa on the first day, she went through all the different experiences and packages on offer to us as guests of the hotel. We decided to do two of them. A sunset luxury catamaran cruise and an island winery tour. The catamaran tour was awesome. We were greeted at the port at around 3.30pm and escorted onto our vessel with only three other couples, which was great because some of the other cruises departing that day were really overcrowded. The crew were super friendly and very keen to make the trip as fun as possible for us, handing out snacks and glasses of champagne straight out of the port. We sailed around for a while, checking out parts of the island that are only accessible by boat, and we also stopped at a few different spots so that we could swim, snorkel and explore. It was a lot of fun and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Santorini.
The winery tour was also really fun. A lady picked us up near our villa and drove us around to three different wineries where we did tours of the vineyards and saw how the wine was bottled. It was fascinating. Greek wine has always had a really bad rap thanks to retsina, the resinated white or rosé wine that has been made in Greece for at least 2000 years. It’s an acquired taste, to say the least. In contrast, wine from Santorini is actually world class. The rocky, bone-dry volcanic soil of the island is uniquely conducive to producing incredibly structured, mineral forward wines, and in particular whites. When you think about how hot (scorching) and how windy (gale force) Santorini gets it’s not surprising to learn that in order to produce fruit that can be made into wine, the vines must be trained into characteristic kouloura shapes, like wreaths laid out on the ground. This offers them some protection from the elements and produces marvelous varietals such as our absolute favourite Assyrtiko. If you ever have the chance to try an Assyrtiko, I would definitely go for it, and please let me know what you think. I was blown away that Greece, the place where wine is sold by the kilo at tavernas, could produce such superlative wine.
Another wine that is a specialty of the island is the Protected Designation of Origin dessert wine called Vinsanto, and oh my god it’s so good. It’s produced by taking overripe white grapes (at least 51% Assyrtiko) and laying them out in the hot sun to dry for about a week. Absolutely no sugar at all is added during the maturation process resulting in a naturally sweet wine bursting with the flavour of raisins, figs, honey, coffee and nuts. The wine is matured in oak barrels producing a delectable drop which I just couldn’t get enough of. Of the three wineries we visited, Argyros was our favourite, and in addition to all their wonderful wines, they also sold a block of chocolate filled with a ridiculously delicious, oozing Vinsanto centre. To die for. We ate WAY too many of these but I have zero regrets and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Argyros also produced our favourite Assyrtiko and we bought several bottles from them during the winery tour. In fact, we liked it so much that we went back to the winery two more times on our own to restock.
We certainly drank a lot of great wine on Santorini, and we also ate a lot of good food. My favourite thing about Greek food is its simplicity. I used to be a really big fan of fancy food. Smears, spherification, Michelin stars. Blah, blah, blah. In the end, the theatre of the food becomes more important than the taste of it. Which is how the fancy food movement lost me. Over the years I have gravitated back towards the basic and unfussy food of my childhood. The food my parents fed me. The meals that I grew up with. Simple, tasty, honest food. And so, some of my favourite meals on the island were the ones that we put together ourselves at our villa. Yes, we had a kitchen, but we didn’t do a lot of cooking. When you’re hungry, there’s not a lot that can beat a simple table of local cheese, olives meats, tomatoes, feta, homemade tzatziki (David makes a mean version), bread and olive oil. Accompanied, of course, by a locally made bottle of white wine or dry rosé. A perfect meal. And so, we ate a lot at home, chilling out by the pool or whiling away the afternoon, reading under the sunshade.
It was on one of those afternoons that I got severely sunburnt. I honestly can’t remember how it happened, but I do remember we had eaten a lovely lunch, similar to that pictured above. I do know that a bottle of wine had definitely been consumed, maybe even two. After lunch we’d retired up to the pool area to swim and have a bit of a lie down. I must have fallen asleep in the sun because when I woke up I was burned on the entire upper half of my body (front and back, somehow). I woke up feeling a little sore, but it was only the next day that the extent of the damage became clear. I was in excruciating pain for the next ten days. I don’t want to say that it completely fucked up our holiday, but it’s certainly not much fun being in so much pain that showering or changing clothes or even sleeping is difficult.
We lay low for a day or two after the sunburn because I literally couldn’t do anything without it hurting like a motherfucker. I’m pretty sure I cried. But a couple of days later, we decided to walk to Oia to experience the famous sunset and have a nice seafood dinner by the water. Ouch! Walking into the sun for 20 minutes, even with a hat covering my face and a shawl over my shoulders was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had on vacation. Every step felt like I was being splattered with burning lava. Waaaaaaaaaaa!!!!! But, we made it and we took some beautiful photos of the caldera and the town, stopping off for a glass of wine at Fino Wine Bar to refresh ourselves after the hot walk. After our quick wine break, we decided to keep walking to the restaurant rather than stop and take more photos of the sunset because it felt like 100,000 people had suddenly all turned up at the same time and we just wanted to get away from them. So we took the rocky road made of about 300 steep stone steps down the side of the cliff face to Ammoudi Fish Tavern at the bottom. The taverna is accessible only by those rocky steps, or by boat. It was a little touristic, which is to be expected, but we had some nice food in a gorgeous setting before making the (way more difficult) trek back up the steps.
One of the most delicious meals we had on the island was another simple, traditional Greek dish of souvlaki. There are loads of souvlaki joints on the island, but the one with the best reviews, the one that everyone raved about was Pitogyros. So we went along one evening after a day of pretty hard drinking to see what all the fuss was about. After all, everyone knows that souvlaki is one of the best foods to eat when you’re off your face. Apparently many other people were also off their faces because when we arrived there was a long line of people in front of us. I really don’t mind waiting when the reward is a taste of something amazing, and we were not disappointed. Our pork souvlakia came out absolutely perfect, accompanied by salad and chips (which I tried not to eat, but failed miserably). We washed it all down with half a kilo of very delicious white wine.
There were a few more places we ate and drank but because of all the eating and drinking I don’t remember the details. Here are a couple more pics from our pandemic tour of Santorini.