Classics stand test of time for a reason
I am staring at the smoke floating from the dormant, yet still active, Santorini caldera when I feel a nudge on my arm. I turn around to see a sprightly, smiling woman in a bright-pink bikini top and figure-hugging denim shorts. She is in her early 20s and has a camera in her hand.
“Can you take a picture of me please?”
Viviane is from Haiti, and, like me, has joined a guided tour of Santorini — to many eyes, the most alluring of all Greek islands (not to mention one of the busiest, especially in peak season).
As this scorching hot summer’s day progresses, Viviane and I chum up with a pair of Uruguayans, Federico and Adrian. The three of us end up being Viviane’s personal photographers for the day. We snap more than 100 photos of her against a range of blackly volcanic Santorini backdrops, punctuated with white-cubed villages and stretches of Mediterranean Sea dotted with tour boats.
The only time Viviane lets her camera sleep is when our guide, Rosita, pauses to explain something to the group: first in English, then in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German and French.
This formulaic multilingual rigmarole — allied with Viviane’s photographic obsessions — begins to grate after a while. I ponder whether I should have come here after all. Wouldn’t it have been better to skip Santorini and visit the Greek islands that don’t get any tourists?
Thira, Santorini. Picture: Escape Travel
But by the time we arrive at our final destination — the quaint clifftop village of Oia — these feelings have subsided. Alongside hundreds of other tourists, Viviane, Federico, Adrian and I sip ice-cold bottles of Mythos beer and watch the sun slowly melt into the Mediterranean Sea.
An orange glow begins to bathe Oia’s whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches — and, with relish, we ask Viviane to take photos of us against this spectacular setting.
Normally an avid solo traveller, I am, ultimately, glad I signed up for the tour. Because Santorini’s sights are sprinkled over several areas and islands, it was the most practical way of fitting everything in. Rosita’s commentary was informative and told me things that weren’t in my guidebook (as well as teaching me new words in five different languages). And, of course, it was good to mingle with other wanderlustful explorers: it’s not every day you get to meet people from Haiti and Uruguay.
This enjoyably enervating day was also a vivid reminder that the most-cherished European destinations tend to be popular for a reason. Usually partial to discovering pastures “new”, I developed a new-found appreciation of the continent’s tried-and-trusted hotspots.
Sailing the Greek islands brought me into contact with an array of other myth-drenched, postcard-perfect affairs: from the Old Town of Rhodes and the antique windmills of Mykonos, to the mural-laced Palace of Knossos in Crete and the turquoise shores of Cephalonia (which enjoyed a tourist boom after the success of Louis de Bernieres’ novel-turned- movie, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).
As for the Greek mainland, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen images in holiday brochures and travel supplements, there’s a surreal thrill when you glimpse the Parthenon, on Athens’ Acropolis, for the first time. The excitement builds as you clamber up the craggy hill and treat yourself to a breather in the shadow of the Parthenon’s crumbling facade.
Similar emotions stir when touring that other tourist hotspot of classical Europe: Italy.
Iconic Roman draws like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and St Peter’s Basilica all enchant wide-eyed visitors with their history, grandeur and photogenic appeal.
Groups flock towards St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. Pictures: Steve McKenna
In Florence, tour groups cluster around the city’s Gothic and Renaissance-era gems, including the extraordinary zebra-striped duomo (cathedral), the paintings and sculptures of the Uffizi gallery and Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David.
The canal-fuelled charms of Venice, the incredible buried city of Pompeii and the bizarre Leaning Tower of Pisa are other notable reasons why Italy seduces more international tourists than anywhere else in Europe except Spain and France.
While some travellers prefer to sunbake in solitude on isolated Mediterranean beaches, or sip wine in rustic hilltop villages far away from the madding crowds, it takes a particularly strong — or perhaps contrary — character not to be tempted by the big-name metropolitan attractions.
Paris, the City of Light, dazzles with its romance-filled boulevards and world-famous sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sacre-Coeur and the beguiling cobbled streets of the Montmartre neighbourhood.
No trip to Barcelona is complete without taking in the quirky architectural legacy of Antonio Gaudi. Topping the city touring itineraries, Gaudi’s still- unfinished La Sagrada Familia cathedral has a genuine magnetic quality. So, too, has Camp Nou — home of Barcelona FC, one of the world’s most feted soccer clubs. Exploring Barca’s legendary stadium, ambling through the well-stocked trophy room, and strolling beside an immaculately groomed pitch which has been graced by the likes of Ronaldinho, Romario and Lionel Messi, is a spine-tingling experience for soccer fans.
While balmy southern Europe tops many people’s dream destinations, the continent’s cooler northern regions have provided me with countless unforgettable touring moments.
I was bamboozled — in a good way — by the vast art collection of the Hermitage, which is housed in St Petersburg’s lavish, lime-green Winter Palace. Joining the hordes gathered by the ticket offices, I rubbed shoulders with art snobs, who, by the sounds of their chitchat, would have had no problem distinguishing between their Monets and Manets. And I chatted to characters who admitted they didn’t really have a clue about art but knew what they liked when they saw it.
In London, I bought a steaming mug of tea from a market vendor beside the frosty River Thames and eyed the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, as a guide regaled us with stories of Guy Fawkes and gunpowder plots.
Another classic European moment for me was becoming embroiled in a snowstorm along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. His words buffeted by the wind, our tour guide informed us that the Scottish capital had been a kind of “medieval Manhattan” in the 15th century thanks to its towering tenement buildings, which loomed over the cobbled streets sloping down from the castle.
The very mention of Berlin conjures up memories of Chris, a history lecturer and tour guide in the German capital. “We’re now in what was East Berlin, ” he said, on at least half-a-dozen occasions, as we weaved between the eastern and western sectors of this once-divided city, “ticking off” sights such as the Reichstag, the Berlin Wall (or at least the remains of it) and the disorienting, avant-garde Holocaust Memorial.
A tour group pauses at the avant-garde Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Picture: Steve Mckenna
In Iceland, one of the furthest- flung parts of Europe, I was rewarded by taking the island’s most popular tour, the Golden Circle. Comprising a clutch of thunderous waterfalls, tempestuous geysers and ethereal lakes, it was an appetite-whetting introduction to the country.
It must be said: visiting Europe’s most popular sites isn’t all fun and games. Some cities, such as Paris and Barcelona, attract more than their fair share of touts, beggars and pickpockets. And, in Rome, it can be annoying to queue up and jostle for hours. But the rewards usually outweigh the hassles.
Besides, you can always arrange your trip for when the crowds are at their thinnest. For instance, St Mark’s Square in Venice will be jam-packed in July. In late November, however, you’ll have the whole place to yourself. More or less, anyway. Just be sure to bring your wellies.
© The West Australian
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