Ios (Sept. 18-20)

The main beach in Ios

The main beach in Ios

My hostel Francesco’s sent a van for me and a few other young travelers coming in on two ferries getting in at the same time, allowing me to make friends in the hostel instantly. We put away our things and promptly headed for the beach, where we would spend hours sunbathing and swimming in the refreshing, high-visibility water. The group was made up of a number of Australians, two Germans and two Americans. A few of the group went to play volleyball, but I was too lethargic to do much more than splash around in the water or soak up the rays.

We left the beach to grab large glasses of sweet sangria at a cool bar called Harmony next to the water, where we were joined by some young vacationers from France, French Algeria, Belgium and Italy. We all wanted to experience Ios’s famed nightlife, so we left for our hostels and planned to meet in the main area of town at 11:30. The majority of our group took a long hike up to our hostel, drinking beer on the way. The sky here has excellent visibility, and the stars literally lit our way.

The view from our hostel

The view from our hostel

After some pre-drinking at the hostel, we met up with our new friends and headed for a self-created pub-crawl on the island’s only going out street. There were definitely people at the bars, but you could tell it was only a fraction of what you would see during the peak season. I enjoyed being there in the off-season, where you weren’t packed in everywhere and things are way cheaper. I think most of the bars were closing for the winter after the weekend.

Renting a van for the day turned into quite the adventure!

Renting a van for the day turned into quite the adventure!

We all slept in a bit that morning and set off for the beach around 3 pm after a short afternoon at the pool. The group had shrunk to eight – two duos from Australia, a couple from Germany and myself and another solo traveler from England. Two girls from Australia stopped to check out the prices to rent ATVs, learning that their licenses wouldn’t work for the island. On a whim, we decided to check out the price to rent a van that would fit our group, and at €50 between eight of us, we decided it was worth renting. The eight of us crammed in (technically there was only room for seven, but there was a gap between the two seats in the back) and set out for a trip around the hills of the island.

Exploring the island

Exploring the island

Although the main town of Ios is quite residential and touristy, the rest of the island is totally empty and desolate. The other-worldly landscape is covered with tall hills and small shrubbery that doesn’t need much water to survive, every once in a while dotted with abandoned white churches, alien in their shape and isolation. We drove to Homer’s grave (yes – that Homer), which was not really anything special, and turned down a dirt road that we thought led to one of the island’s nicer, more private beaches.

Group album cover

Group album cover

It’s a good time to note that the old, tan Fiat van struggled up every incline on the main paved roads of the island, pulled down with the weight of eight people. The manual acceleration often struggled to set, the car made clicking noises when it accelerated and the breaks always felt a little precarious. We had to lean forward in our seats whenever we wanted to go up to help place some weight closer to the front-powered wheels. You may correctly imagine that turning down the dirt road would turn into a terrifying, exciting, Disney-World-esque ride that did not end in a nice beach but instead ended in turning around at a fork with two equally-impossible inclines for the car. We struggled up every hill, the wheels spinning out on the dirt and gravel, but we made it out in one piece. We were mostly silent, but we were all having fun regardless.

Sunset from the Paleokastro

Sunset from the Paleokastro

After making it back up the paved hill (which was also difficult), we headed for one of the island’s beaches for a little bit. We were the only ones there. It wasn’t as nice as the more frequently visited beach we had visited the day before, and the wind started to blow sharp sand into our face, so we headed out for the Paleokastro, Byzantine-era castle ruins sitting up on a hill overlooking the Eastern coast of the island. We spent maybe an hour there watching the sunset, though it was scarily windy, and taking some group pictures, hoping that the cameras on self-timer wouldn’t blow off their posts and off down the steep, rocky hill. As it was getting dark, we headed back to the main town to get gas and park the car.

Crazy wind on top of Ios's hills

Crazy wind on top of Ios’s hills

After parking, we headed to dinner at a recommended restaurant called The Nest after changing clothes at the hostel, cramming family style into a smaller table so we could be closer to each other and spending a very European three hours talking about everything from our travels to our home cultures to the availability of air conditioning in our countries.

We all woke up early on what would be most of our last day in Ios. We decided to try our luck at getting a tour of one of the two local goat cheese factories, driving back up the hills and past a bunch of bell-toting goats walking in a line down the road. We were turned away from the first factory – the factory was small and couldn’t let us in for hygienic reasons. We struggled to communicate with a Greek-speaking man at the second factory, just around the corner from the first, and all he could say was come back tomorrow. We thought that we conveyed that we wouldn’t be on the island the next day, at which point he pointed to my watch and said, “one o’clock.” We figured that meant come back at 1, so we went and chilled out for nearly two hours on another beach, mostly alone. When we drove back to the factory, the gate was closed. We tried yelling for someone to no avail and ended up stopping at a grocery store to buy some local cheese, bread and olives presumably from the mainland.

Saying goodbye to the van that almost killed us

Saying goodbye to the van that almost killed us

We had a nice sit down lunch of the snacks from the store, €1.70 each, and the cheese and olives were fresh and extremely tasty. I took a shower outside in my swim trunks, my second outdoor shower of the weekend, as the showers in the bathroom were pretty dire. Can’t complain though – showering in the warm sun is pretty wonderful. Four of us headed to the port shortly after, myself and the German couple headed for Crete and our two Australian friends headed for Santorini.

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Solo Dates in Santorini (Sept. 17-18)

Picturesque is an understatement.

Picturesque is an understatement.

After some intense napping and “Mad Men” watching, I stepped off my seven-hour ferry into Santorini at 3:30 pm, getting lost and sweaty carrying my bags before arriving at my hostel an hour later. I had limited time on the island, leaving for Ios the next day at 1:30, so I rushed out of my hostel and straight to the black sand beach in the area of the island called Perissa. I spent two luxurious hours on the pebbly black sand with a piña colada in one hand and music playing through my headphones. I think I needed the solo time and even managed to get in a little obnoxious Facetime with the wifi from a nearby bar – I won’t say I didn’t pose with my drink and sunglasses with the tide strategically in the background awaiting connection.

Black sand beach in Perissa

Black sand beach in Perissa

I had to wait an hour for the bus back to Fira, the part of the island where I was staying, and ended up sharing a taxi-van (I actually think it was just some local dude trying to get some money) with three girls from London and a newlywed American couple on their honeymoon (so cute). I got back to my hostel and grabbed a €2 souvlaki, which would become a pattern in my time in Greece considering their high fullness-to-cheapness ratio, before exploring Fira. There were some nice views and very touristy shops, which makes sense because the islands are basically designed for tourists, which there were maybe a billion of. There were a few cruises parked around, and not to sound judgmental (but it’s going to), the kind of Americans who do all-inclusive packages and resorts and other easy-for-American trips are more likely (but not all are like this of course) to be the annoying ones.

Watching the sunrise in Oia

Watching the sunrise in Oia

I met some people in the hostel that night who would be traveling with me to Ios the next day, but I had to go up early (6 am) so I could go to the most picturesque part of the island, Oia, the next morning. Not sleeping much has been a major pattern in my trip, especially lately. I asked the guy working at the hostel about getting there early, and he kept saying I needed to go at 1 in the afternoon when “everyone goes there.” I told him I was leaving at 1 and he just kept saying that it was better to go in the afternoon and that it would be empty at that time in the morning, which ended up being the worst advice ever (that I didn’t take, obviously).

The view from breakfast

The view from breakfast

I got up at 6 and caught the 6:50 bus to Oia, which was totally empty aside from some wedding photoshoots going on. It was incredibly peaceful and quiet, and the views on the cliffs were stunning. The architecture on the islands is almost alien – white and blue and symmetrical and very geometric – but sitting on the cliffs against the coast and the rising sun makes them glisten in a way that makes any amateur photo look like a postcard. After exploring for a bit, I sat down at a restaurant called Floga (highly recommended for breakfast) with a view for breakfast and a latte, much of the time spent as the restaurant’s only patron. My Greek omelet (feta and tomatoes) was perfect, and I skipped the early bus just so I could sit and look at everything for a little longer. The solo time was again well-deserved and needed. Finally I made it onto the bus as about a dozen tour busses pulled up carrying more elderly American couples than you could find anywhere. Later, a girl would show me photos of Oia at sunset filled like a football game with people, and this is the off-season. I’ll take a peaceful morning sunrise over overflowing crowds anytime.

Ancient Athens (Sept. 15-17)

The Acropolis

The Acropolis 

After going on a solo dinner date (pita and tzatziki, a stuffed tomato, a zucchini patty and moussaka) and making a few friends during my first night in Athens, I woke up semi-refreshed (reminder: I went to bed at 6:30 am on my last night in Bulgaria) and joined my eighth walking tour of the trip through my hostel. We hit up most of the main sites of Athens – mostly ruins of the ancient city – and stopped at an open square for our break, where I bought a kilo of green grapes for €1 and a souvlaki. They were the best grapes I’d ever had (a phrase Europeans like to make fun of us Americans for saying, but it’s true), freshly-picked and perfectly sweet and tangy and juicy, and I ate pretty much the entire kilo over the last hour and a half of the tour, sharing some of them with a few of my new friends from the tour.

Great view of the Acropolis

Great view of the Acropolis

We ended our tour outside of the Acropolis Museum, but my group opted to grab a meal with each other before heading in. We found a small, off-the-path family-owned restaurant whose friendly owner gave us a few free bites. We shared all of our plates and barely spent any money on all of it, a traveler’s success. I would be eating nothing but Greek food for days and days, but this was not a bad thing.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

After lunch, we stopped at the Acropolis Museum for about an hour to get some background on the Acropolis. The museum has gathered most of the old sculptures that were looted from the Acropolis, but I didn’t realize this until watching a film at the very end of the museum that explained the history and architecture. We sat down for coffee at the museum, where some little kids ran chased each other around and around and forced a memorable frown on one of the waitresses. It started raining, so we paid our bill and ran home under the awnings of the main street of Athens. We would meet again when the rain had stopped.

Watching the sun set from the Acropolis

Watching the sunset from the Acropolis

At about 6:30 in a cloud and rain-free sky, we all met back up and headed up to the Acropolis to watch the sun set. We took a lot of pictures and got yelled at a few times – once for sitting on the ledge, once for taking a jumping photo (not my idea but it turned out cute) and once because it was time to leave. The views of the sunset were stunning, and the Acropolis was impressive after our short history lesson at the museum.

Greek militia taking down the flag

Greek militia taking down the flag

We headed from our sunset viewing to another delicious Greek dinner at some Trip Advisor recommended restaurant. The Trip Advisor stickers are generally pretty reliable signs of a good stop, and we again split all of our food – meatballs with the most incredible tomato sauce, saganaki (fried cheese), Greek salad (which does not include lettuce and tastes much better that way – the tomatoes in this area of the world are ridiculously good), vegetable pies (more like egg rolls), stuffed mushrooms, wine (of course) and probably more things that I don’t remember. It was a great meal with a great group and only cost €9 per person to split everything. After, the group went shopping while two of us headed for ice cream and back to the hostel, getting massively lost on the way. I went to sleep early, having to wake up at 5 in the morning to catch my ferry to Santorini. It was a struggle to find a ferry, and I had to change some of my original route and hostel plans to get out of Athens and get to the islands.