Evening view (above), after a family rest stop at the Acropolis (right)
An unforgettable opera in the shadow of the Parthenon, palpable, monastic peace and breathtaking views of ancient rock formations and ruins contrasting the sun-dappled ocean… these are the sorts of experiences that make me love traveling, especially with my family.
My husband, Dean, and I both studied overseas in college (he in Oxford, me in Japan) and traveled together in our early years of marriage, although not especially far and definitely on a budget!
When we began our journey as parents, it was important to us that our children also enjoy travel. We took our oldest, Reilly, on his first plane ride when he was just six months old. Since then, we’ve travelled to all 50 states as a family (with all three boys, Reilly, Spenser and Riordan) and to several international destinations.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that Reilly’s high school graduation gift was that he got to choose the location for our summer family vacation. He chose Greece.
Although Reilly graduated in 2021, the pandemic forced us to postpone our trip to summer 2022. It was worth the wait!
We visited three separate locations — Athens, Santorini and Naxos, starting and ending the trip in Athens.
Having heard that Athens is merely a stopover to more exotic locales, we were not certain what to expect, but we had a wonderful time.
A trip to the Parthenon is a must for any first-timers in Athens, and we had a very knowledgeable guide who brought history to life with her stories. Perhaps the best part of our first days, however, was a day trip out of the city that included a visit to the monasteries of Meteora.
We were looking for a trip to see Thermopylae (as fans of the movie “300”) and Delphi. The best option (found on “Get Your Guide,” an invaluable online resource for any trip planner) included Meteora in the schedule. Meteora turned out to be the most amazing part of that day.
Located in Thessily, there are multiple Orthodox monasteries, each built on the top of an individual vertical rock formation. Several of the buildings, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, seem to be floating in the air. One such building is only reachable via a steep climb down into a valley and back up the rock pillar or by a cable car (this particular monastery was featured in a James Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only”).
We toured two of the monasteries and made several other stops for photographs. The terrain is stunning and the beauty of the abbeys is almost overwhelming. Even amidst other tourists, the sense of peace is palpable.
Of course, they would not be tourist destinations without gift shops! My middle son, Spenser, purchased a hand-carved wooden cross necklace inscribed “Meteora” that he wears daily. It has served as a conversation starter with many friends and acquaintances. Possibly the best souvenir ever.
Our next stop was the island of Santorini, which the Nash family unanimously agrees is the most beautiful place we have ever been. The whitewashed walls of the buildings and blue domes of the churches create a stunning contrast to the rugged cliffs and sun-dappled ocean. We stayed out of the towns teeming with daytrippers from the many cruise ships docked nearby, and instead hiked across the island from Fira to Oia and drank in the gorgeous views the whole way.
We also took a guided tour of some of the smaller towns of Santorini, learning the history of the island and the life of its inhabitants in the best possible way—through first-hand experience.
Our guide for this “local life tour” first took us to the village of Pyrgos, a traditional hilltop town with the remains of a fortress castle, perfect for exploration. We saw goods being transported up the hill the traditional way — via donkey — and visited a beautiful local church before stopping to visit with Dionysus, a local resident. Dionysus had prepared a luxurious and delicious tea for us, which we took in his garden while hearing his stories of life on Santorini. He even permitted us a tour of his “sea captain’s house,” a traditional sign of status on the island.
Following tea, we toured Emporio, another island village. After wandering through the labyrinthian streets (and stopping for several photo ops), we ended the tour at a local farm. Petros, the owner, makes the most divine tomato paste I have ever tasted (and given that I married into an Italian family, I have tasted a lot of tomato paste!).
We then joined his cook and learned how to make several traditional Santorinian dishes, including tomato fritters and lightly fried eggplant chips. After the cooking lessons, we relaxed under a giant tree and enjoyed the fruits of our labors with a stunning view of the ocean.
Although we were sad to leave Santorini after only a few days, Naxos was a delight as well. We spent a day on a catamaran touring the Small Cyclades islands and swimming in the Aegean Sea, which was shockingly cold given the extended heat wave all of Greece was experiencing. We worked up an appetite, however, and feasted on moussaka and fresh fruits.
After such an active day, we relaxed that evening with a viewing of “Casablanca” at a nearby outdoor movie theater. We sprawled on couches and enjoyed the classic film together in the cool of the evening.
Our final day on Naxos was another private excursion, this one a hike through the Tragea Valley in the interior of the island. We hiked through villages and saw several small churches, including the Byzantine church of Panagia Drosiani. This stunning building is one of the oldest churches in the Cyclades and we were able to view not just the exterior but the interior as well, including frescoes dating from the 7th century.
Our excursion ended at a local taverna, truly off the beaten path, where our guide ordered a variety of local dishes for us to share. The views and the food both were stunning.
After our time on Santorini and Naxos (both of which we highly recommend as vacation destinations), we returned to Athens before our flight home.
The highlight of our last night was attending an opera at Odeon of Herodes Atticus (or the “Herodion,” as it is known locally), in the shadow of the Parthenon. The Greek National Opera’s production of “Tosca” was magnificent.
It was brutally hot, even after dark. The stone seats were hard, even with cushions. And the opera itself is long, especially if you must get up early for a flight. And yet, we are so glad that we ended our visit to Greece by seeing a production at the Acropolis. The music was beautiful and the sets were stunning. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience.
Story and photos by Janet Nash