At this very moment I am home on ‘Spring Break’. This year, due to what is going on in the world, our April holiday got moved up and in the following weeks we will be working from home. During times like this I find myself really feeling the strain that comes with living abroad. I’ve lived here nearly a decade, and while Istanbul is truly my ‘home’, of course I have moments where I really feeeeel the distance between family and friends back ‘home’ in the states. I’m thinking of everyone and hoping all stay safe, healthy, and we all get through these upcoming weeks. I also can’t help but think back to last year’s Spring Break. I’ve been thinking back to where I was, who I was with, and just how insanely fortunate I was to have had those moments. Last Spring Break, my mother and brother met me in Greece for a week of sun, amazing food, and an epic adventure on the island of Santorini.
This entry is a sort of ‘tribute’ to them as I’m missing them a lot this week and using this writing space as a way to stay connected together.
More than a year ago, I began trying to talk my mom into another ‘mother-daughter trip’. I wanted her to come to Istanbul and check out the Aegean Coast with me. We had done Paris the year before and it was the most PERFECT week (Paris posts:https://girlmeetsturkey.blog/2019/05/31/paris-in-the-springtime-part-1/ https://girlmeetsturkey.blog/2020/01/18/paris-part-ii-the-village-of-montmartre/). My dad isn’t really a big traveler (although we are slowly changing that!) and he was happy to let my mom have time with me. However, plane tickets were proving tricky and every time I hit ‘search’ for ‘America to Istanbul’ I instead found much better price deals for Athens.
Of course, as soon as word was out that Mom and I were kicking around the idea of Greece, my little brother wanted to come. I mean… not fair to leave him out. He had been to visit me in Istanbul before and during his visit we had taken a weekend trip to Athens together, which he loved. Suddenly ‘mother-daughter-Istanbul’ turned into ‘mother-and kids-Greek Islands’. What’s not to love about that turn of events?
My idea was to spend most of our time in Athens. However, on our family group chat (technology is amazing right?) I got a text: “You know, we’ve been talking and if we are gonna come all that way, we really want to see Santorini.” My first reaction was one of panic. I had read several articles about how Santorini was ‘not worth’ the trip. People said it was overpriced, it catered solely to tourists, and it was so crowded you couldn’t walk through the streets. I gave it a second, then thought ‘It’s only for a couple days, and this trip is their trip too’. So I relented and subsequently ate my words.
It was by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life (and I’ve been fortunate to have seen many places)…truly magical. Santorini is EXACTLY like you see on postcards…only ten times better. It’s also completely real and authentic. Yes, there were tourists. But there were also locals taking slow morning walks and calling out to greet each other in that friendly sort of way- where you know these people have lived here for years.
We all flew into Athens and met up there, having several days to see the city and go to the Acropolis together. Athens is like a second home to me as I’ve been going there every Christmas for the past 5 years. I have my favorite places to eat and am friendly with many of the Plaka shop owners (read here for two past posts about Athens: https://girlmeetsturkey.blog/2017/01/15/kala-christougenna-happy-holidays-from-athens/ https://girlmeetsturkey.blog/2019/02/16/kala-christougenna-and-welcome-to-2019/).
It was amazing to be able to share this experience with Mom and B, especially since B and I had been to Athens together before and people recognized him and remembered him as well. It was beyond special to be able to share this part of my life with my mom and be able to do some of my favorite things that I’ve had the privilege of doing for the past few years all together.
After three days wandering the Plaka streets, we flew to Santorini…and how I wish I could be there at this moment right now…under different circumstances of course.
We made the decision to sleep on the island in a traditional cave house in Oia (pronounced Ee-ya). That was the BEST decision we could have made. That house…I can’t even begin to describe how perfect. It was our favorite part of the trip. Each day we woke up to the quiet of the island. In the early mornings, Oia was totally silent, as if we were the only ones there. Tourists from the cruise ships wouldn’t come until around noon and then would head back to their boats around 6:00 pm, with us seeming ‘alone’ yet again.
Getting There: We chose to fly to the island; however, what we hadn’t read about in all our research was that the winds are notoriously bad during Spring months. It was a short flight (about 40 minutes or less) and all was fine until we went to land… or didn’t land. What I mean to say is that we felt the wheels go down…and then we felt the plane pull back up and saw the island below us growing smaller and smaller as we flew away from Santorini. The pilot then calmly announced that because of the wind we hadn’t been able to land and we would have to ‘try again’. Great. Lucky us that we were in the exit row and had sworn to help in the event of an emergency. Thankfully we landed successfully on our second attempt not needing an emergency water landing. We soon found out we had been the one and only flight to have flown in the past two days. Normally I wouldn’t say I’m particularly lucky, but on this trip we realized something was smiling down on us.
The House: We booked a traditional cave house (Nicoletta Houses…cannot say enough GOOD things about them) in Oia, the famed far side of the island that has THE VIEW everyone wants to capture. As I wrote above, this house was EVERYTHING. To be honest, I think if we had stayed anywhere else, we might NOT have fallen as much in love with Santorini as we did. But this house…I mean, even as I write this I just feel my heart catching in my chest… it was perfect. A dream come true. The view from the house felt like we had been plopped right down into a movie set…and we got to wake up to that! In fact, on our second day in, we woke up super early and watched the sunrise, covering ourselves in blankets and drinking coffee, taking it all in.
Our days proceeded to be spent like this: We would wake up, have breakfast on the balcony watching the view, explore during the day, then come back to the house and make an aperitivo plate (cheese, meat, bread, olives, and wine…of course) and watch the sunset. Then we would go for dinner, come back, and watch the stars. Our entire trip revolved around that house and that view. It was incredible. We also had many ‘photo sessions’ with the view behind us… because we just couldn’t get enough of it and we couldn’t really believe that it was real. But it was!
The Food: Our favorite restaurant was the very one that we tried on our first night there, Roka Restaurant. It’s in an old historic house and uses locally sourced ingredients. Santorini has a very unique climate different to other Greek Cycladic Islands, making for unique culinary tastes. This is because the soil is different in Santorini. It’s volcanic soil with high acidity. Santorini actually used to be a huge volcano. When the volcano erupted, the crater fell in on itself (the Greeks call this the ‘caldera’), and so the actual island that you are standing on is what’s left over from the crater.
The food on our first night at Roka was a culinary experience all on its own. We ordered fava with grilled squid and capers, fried calamari, and a ‘Roka’ salad (served with manouri cheese, figs, caramelized onions, and candied walnuts). For our main courses we shared the ‘buffalo soutzoukakia’ and the lamb shank.
Wine is also special in Santorini as this is where the ‘Assyrtiko’ grape is mostly cultivated. I LOVE Assyrtiko wine…and have become obsessed with it over the years. I’ve been drinking it for a while, having first been introduced to it at my favorite wine bar in Athens, Cinque Wine Bar. The Assyrtiko grape is tart, some might say even bitter, as the volcanic soil makes it very acidic. It’s almost like you took white wine and added lemon/citrus juice to it; it leaves your mouth with a bit of a pucker after you drink it. Some people really have an aversion to it, but I find it refreshing and not overly sweet. There are several vineyards and wineries that you can visit near Oia, so naturally, we needed to check this out. We chose to go to the Domaine Sigalas Winery because it’s as it’s only a 20 minute walk from Oia. It was one of the highlights of our trip. A sommelier spent the hour with us explaining everything and telling us all about the soil and the grapes, how to swirl the glass to smell the grape, and explaining the subtle differences among regional Assyrtiko wines. Each part of the island produces a different version of the grape depending on the acidity level of the soil. The Domaine Sigalas winery was a really fun way to spend the day together. It wasn’t pretentious and was very easy to hang out and drink and chat.
Aside from wineries, Santorini is also known for breweries. Both the Crazy Donkey Beer and Volkan Beer breweries are located on the island. I had never tried the Volkan Beer before as it’s hard to find even in Athens so I was particularly interested in it. Volkan Beer is made with ‘lava rock filtered mineral water’ and natural ingredients only from the island of Santorini. I mean, I typically prefer wine over beer, but I was really into this ‘volcano rock filtered beer’. I found myself really drawn to the ‘Grey Volkan’ which is made with Santorini honey and bergamot. It’s light, herbal, tangy, and very drinkable. The ‘Grey’ is I think the most aromatic of the three beers (Blonde, Black, Grey) although my brother preferred the ‘Blonde’ which is made with Santorini honey and ‘citrus medica’ (supposedly the oldest form of citron produced in Babylon and brought to Greece by Alexander the Great).
Underneath Oia, at the foot of a winding cobblestone path lies Ammoudi Bay. It’s a popular place for tourist and fishing boats to dock and is home to several seafood restaurants. On our second night in Oia we headed for dinner at Ammoudi Fish Tavern. Right away, our eyes were drawn to the sign of the restaurant which was strung with octopuses (octopi ?) drying out in the sun. Ammoudi Fish Tavern is not just an old fish tavern, but quite an upscale fine dining restaurant offering meze and fish and ouzo (oooh so similar to my Turkish ‘raki balik meyhanes’ I love so much…link here for prior post https://girlmeetsturkey.blog/2020/02/23/one-of-my-favorites-eleos-meyhane/).
We decided to do the whole ritual of cold meze, then hot meze, then fish…of course with ouzo. We started off with a traditional Greek salad heaped with tomatoes, onions, and a block of feta cheese, splattered in local olive oil and lemon juice. We also ordered tzatziki, fried zucchini chips, and fried calamari. However the STAR of the meal was the sun dried octopus. Yup. That octopus that had been gracing the restaurant sign wasn’t just for decoration, they were literally sun drying it for a meal. This is apparently an old tradition that Islanders used to do back when there were no refrigerators. The octopus is dried in the sun for at least a day to get all the excess moisture out of it, then when someone orders it, it’s taken down and grilled. It was served sliced thinly and sprinkled with salt and served with lemon wedges. It was one of the bests thing I’ve ever eaten. It wasn’t rubbery at all. Chewy and crispy on the outside….fresh…tasting of the sea but also rich and buttery. AMAZING. We also ordered mussels saganaki because I’m obsessed with mussels + garlic + tomatoes. All of this was followed by the grand finale of a giant grilled sea bass. It had also been caught fresh that evening and cooked right away, tasting of saltwater, not ‘fishy’ at all.
During our days there we also took the bus over to Thira (pronounced Fira). We liked the maze-like streets of Thira, but were definitely spoiled by our cave house in Oia. We spent many afternoons with wine and cheese plates looking out at the view. It was the best way to spend our time there, also because it was too cold for us to swim. Santorini is world renowned for their different sand beaches, but April is still too cold to go swimming. At first we were bummed out by this, but honestly, it was for the best. We wouldn’t have had enough time at the house hanging out and relaxing, feeling like a local if we had been rushing off to the beach every day.
Before flying back to Athens, our last meal was lunch at Roka again. We really fell in love with the calamari and salad from there and found ourselves actually craving it throughout our other days.
We took last minute photos on the cliff overlooking the caldera and said ‘bye’ to the beautiful island. Santorini really exceeded my expectations and assigned itself a special spot in my heart. I also think we were exceptionally lucky with just the timing of everything. The weather was perfect, the crowds were small, and we were able to really soak in the charm of the island and get to know it. It was even more special being able to be there all together. Now, looking back on that trip, had I known what this year’s Spring Break would become, I would have held onto those moments even longer, squishing the memories into my brain even harder. I am forever grateful for the ‘mother and kids- Greek Islands’ vacation.