Island-hopping across the Cyclades in Greece could easily be a dream. Follow our ideal itinerary to go on secret bike rides, down some great local wine, marvel at picture-perfect sunsets and so much more
WORDS: AMANDA CANNING
PHOTOGRAPHS: ADRIENNE PITTS
Get your sea legs ready for an island-hopping trip, starting with the ancient and the modern side-by-side in the Greek capital, Athens, before flitting about on ferries to discover hidden coves, experience traditional rural life and fill up on local food, and finally kicking back to watch world-famous sunsets.
Start your journey in the cradle of Western civilisation, getting to grips with both ancient history and startling innovations in the restaurant and bar scene
DAYS INTO YOUR TRIP: 1-3
WITH THE GRACE AND poise of a ballet dancer, one clogged foot is raised steadily into the air. The leg to which the foot is attached extends with equal measure until it is entirely straight. There it hovers, dead still, until the limb is brought down with sudden force, the stamp of foot on pavement like the shot from a pistol.
It is one small part of a ceremony that takes place every hour outside Athens’ parliament building: the changing of the guard. The soldiers, in beige kilts, red berets and pom-pommed clogs, remain resolutely focussed, even as sweat rolls down their faces and spectators dive in for photos.
The city seems made for drama. In the alleyways of nearby Plaka, waiters invite diners into their restaurants with promises of plate-smashing, while men noisily slap down backgammon counters in smoky bars. Down streets paved with marble and shaded by orange trees, crumbling columns and arches rear up like ancient ghosts. They are but a warm-up act to the main stealer of limelight in the city, though: the 2,500-year-old Acropolis that presides over Athens from a hill right at its heart. Built as home of the gods, with a temple devoted to Athena at its core, the survival of the complex is due in part to its ability to change purpose over the millennia, from temple to mosque, church to harem. Now, it serves both as a Greek history lesson brought to life, with archaeologists and tourists alike gathering to wonder at the ingenuity of its makers, and a romantic backdrop for the couples who gather to watch the sunset from the olive groves of nearby Filopappou Hill.
There are different gods to worship these days. At Brettos, Villy Saraidari, resplendent as Athena in an electric blue dress, pours clear liquid from an oak barrel and places the glass on the counter. A photo of Mr Brettos, who founded the ouzo distillery in 1909, hangs in the room that has changed little since. Villy fell in love with the place as a customer, and now indulges her passion from behind the bar. “We have people come in who are 70 years old and they start crying. They remember being here as kids,” she says. “It still has the same spirit, the same history.”
In Gazarte, home to the old city gasworks and a rapidly changing nightlife, bartenders are somewhat less respectful of tradition. “People said when we started that this was a terrible idea, that the Greeks only like what they already know,” says owner Thodoris Koutsovoulos, sitting under a fig tree in the backyard of MoMix, an operation that is part theatre, part laboratory, part bar. Cocktails are presented in solid, wobbly bubbles that explode in the mouth, in chewy, deceptively alcoholic lozenges, or in glasses that swirl with dry ice. The place is full every night.
Round the corner from MoMix, there is no grand announcement for Funky Gourmet: just a nondescript door and a doorbell. Head chef Georgianna Hiliadaki, her blonde hair in wild curls, makes sure all the drama comes out of the kitchen. Placing a lamb’s tongue in a gold-painted sheep’s skull, part of a dish called Silence of the Lamb on the flamboyant tasting menu, she says, “Diners come because they want an experience. It’s not just going out for dinner, it is like going to the opera.” The approach has earned Funky Gourmet two Michelin stars, and endless bookings of its nine tables. Here, it seems, the Athenian love of performance has reached its zenith.
There’s more to the island than its party-happy capital – saddle up for a secret bike ride
Days into your trip: 4-6
Catch a taxi to Piraeus port for the three-hour fast ferry to Mykonos
There’s a deceptive calm to Hora town at midday. A few people drift between the boutiques, staring at Gucci watches or Chanel sunglasses through the windows, or loll on restaurant terraces, iced coffees and plates of steamed mussels on order. The twisting flagstone alleys that tumble down to the seafront, built to block the wind or to baffle the pirates who swept through the Cyclades hundreds of years ago, are largely quiet. Above town, the seven windmills that feature on so many of the island’s postcards lie dormant. There is little hint of the role they played in creating vast wealth for their owners: the grain they milled was once so valuable, it was known as ‘white gold’.
Come late afternoon, all changes. Troops of people emerge from b&bs housed in the tightly packed white buildings of Hora, the blue of their painted shutters matched only in intensity by the sky above. They squeeze down streets now merry with the sound of chatter and music, heading to the harbour for cocktails and the catch of the day. Little Venice, a wall of merchant’s houses hanging over the sea, is the sunset location of choice; a forest of selfie sticks is hoisted endlessly in front of it as day edges into night.
From among the tourist hubbub, local culture peeks out. Candles are still lit in the town’s many churches each morning. Men still gather at the shore with a fishing rod each evening. Nikoleta the weaver, dressed all in black, stills earns her living at an ancient loom in her seafront workshop. “Of the next generation, only my daughter knows how to use this old thing,” she says, a cheerful smile on her lined face. “She wants to keep the tradition going. But I say, you cannot eat tradition!”
Dimitra Asimomyti might well disagree. An islander by birth, she left to make a new life, returning to her parents’ vineyard when the recession hit. “A friend tried to persuade me to take over my father’s business, but I was never interested,” she says, pulling on a bike helmet. “The wine is not my passion, it is his. And then I thought of my idea. I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night.” Her idea was to marry her love of cycling with her desire to show people a part of Mykonos far from the circus of Hora. She leads tours from the family farm, Vioma, taking guests down quiet country lanes banked by stone walls, behind which fig trees grow and goats bleat. With the light turning gold, cyclists are rewarded with a picnic of home-made buns and cups of wine on a remote beach. Sharing the sunset here is but a group of three horse-riders from a neighbouring farm.
“I am not a monuments expert,” says Dimitra, back at Vioma, serving a feast of cured ham, tomatoes piled high on rusks, just-made cheese and honey fresh from the beehive. “It is local life I love to share.” Dad Nikos and mum Helena potter about the terrace, pouring more wine and loading plates with small almond and lemon cakes. Panagia Tourliani, the monastery that owns the land here, is just visible, perched high on a hill. Standing guard, too, and forming a chain to the sea, are the crumbling watch-towers that once protected the fields and farmhouses from raiders. “I like to go to Hora now and then,” says Dimitra, as a light breeze ripples down the valley. “But here, it’s a completely different side to the island. Here, you see our heritage is very dear to us.”
Take yourself on a Perfect Trip through Greece, discovering hidden coves, rural life and traditional foods with LPMI’s February 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter