Athens, like most large European cities, is clogged with traffic and pollution. The traffic police are able to do little as the intersections and pedestrian crossings are snarled with more cars and foot traffic than the roadways and sidewalks were designed to accommodate. At any hour, the sidewalks look like Manhattan on a workday at lunch hour!
One summer day I was weaving in and out of oncoming pedestrian traffic along a sidewalk near Syntagma Square, when a sign in the window of a travel agency caught my eye. It depicted a cruise ship drifting along a calm body of water with a pristine beach in the background. The text promised “a relaxing day away from it all.” Wow, did that sound tempting! I went inside where an eager agent presented the opportunity to discover the “outstanding natural beauty of Greece and its islands in just a single day.” “How?,” I gushed, probably with a bit too much enthusiasm. The agent told me all I had to do was invest a mere 99 Euros and I could take a day cruise from the port of Athens to three nearby, enchanting islands. It was too much to resist.
Such a one-day trip is possible because Athens lies on the coast of the Saronic Gulf. This gulf contains many beautiful islands, some of which have played pivotal roles in the history of Greece. Salamis, for instance, was the site of a significant naval battle during the Greco-Persian wars. In this battle, the Athenians defeated Xerxes, thus assuring their place as the cradle of modern European culture.
I left my hotel that July morning with the promise that I would visit three of these enchanting islands. Arriving at the Athens Port of Piraeus, I was pleased to see a fair-sized ship with two enclosed decks plus an upper “sun” deck with comfortable lounge chairs. A small orchestra welcomed onboard with traditional Greek music and an occasional international favorite. Promptly at 8 a.m. we set sail for the Island of Poros. The sea was calm and sun was streaming down so I immediately headed up the stairs to the sun deck.
The port of Athens is one of the largest in all of Europe with approximately 15 million passengers sailing to and from here each year. There were dozens of luxury yachts moored in the harbor and several fishing vessels were jockeying for position in its waters as I headed out to sea. There were two other “day cruise” vessels loading passengers. I sat back to enjoy the fresh salt air and the gentle ocean breeze. There were flocks of seagulls diving for food and a bright, morning sun. I was literally in a photographer’s paradise.
After two hours of smooth sailing, I arrived at the Island of Poros. The seafront promenade was alive with merchants selling souvenirs of every kind. There were numerous outdoor cafes as well as an array of traditional taverns. The sun’s rays were glistening against the tiny, white houses that dot the hills that slope down to the water’s edge. The glow of these houses radiated a vintage “aura of whiteness” that is the “trademark” of this unique island.
A couple I had spoken with on the voyage to Poros asked if I would be interested in sharing a taxi to a nearby beach. After some negotiation with a taxi driver whose English was only slightly better than my Greek, the three of us were on our way.
We left Poros Town behind as we traveled first through lush vegetation before the paved road gave way to a dirt track that ran parallel to the gulf. The driver stopped in a tiny, sandy cove which he said was known as “love bay!” By comparison with the beaches along the Atlantic coastline in the USA, “love bay” was tiny indeed, but the sand was clean and the water was blue – crystal clear without a trace of pollution. There was not another human being or any kind of structure as far as I could see in any direction.
Just before noon, the ship set sail. A delicious buffet lunch had been prepared, and I feasted on it while listening to Greek music. After lunch, a small group of traditionally dressed young people entertained the passengers by demonstrating a few Greek folk dances. Some passengers were invited to join in for a lesson. Yes, it was a bit corny, but you will not likely get to watch trained ballerinas for 99 Euros.
Soon the ship reached Hydra, which is one of the most unique islands in Saronic Gulf. On this tiny island, there are no cars. Everyone uses their feet, or boats, or donkeys to get around. The clean air, the gentle breeze, the elegant white-stoned mansions, the narrow alleyways, the tiny churches all combine to create a fairytale-like atmosphere that makes the island, hands down, one of the most picturesque of all the Greek islands.
Hydra has been a retreat for famous personalities, including Aristotle Onassis. Scores of motion pictures have been filmed here. I found a table at one of the many outdoor cafes along the waterfront and took far too many photos of this incredibly beautiful place.
The final stop was on the Island of Aegina where the ship docked for only about 90 minutes. This island is less than 20 miles from the coastline of Greece, making it a popular destination for tourists (the faster hydrofoil ferries out of Piraeus take only 40 minutes to reach Aegina). Its elegant Neoclassical buildings, its narrow streets and alleys, and its bustling seafront promenade make it an ideal spot for a late afternoon stroll.
In the few minutes I had on Aegina, I decided to take a short taxi ride to the Temple of Athena – easily the most impressive archaeological site on the island. This temple was dedicated to goddess Athena and is located on the top of a hill overlooking the gulf. Built in 5th century BC, this magnificent structure originally boasted 32 Doric columns of which 25 are still standing today, making it one of the ancient architectural wonders of Greece.
The sun was beginning to disappear against the horizon as the ship departed the port of Aegina for the 80-minute voyage to Piraeus. The sea remained calm and the lights from Athens were a welcoming beacon in the distance. During the ride to my hotel I saw the Parthenon brightly illuminated atop the Acropolis. It is most surely the “signature” sight in Athens, if not in all of Greece, but today I had seen some other jewels in the array of sights that Greece has to offer. I finally settled into my room around 9:00 p.m., a bit tired to be sure, but convinced that the time and money invested in this day of great adventure and incredible sights, was, for me, a wise investment indeed.