Island Bromance: An Unlikely Friendship in Picture-Perfect Greece

Two improbable travel companions find common ground thanks to a week-long holiday and their wives.  
Boat Mykonos Greece
The writer and his family relax on a yacht in Mykonos after a day spent swimming and sunbathing. Somewhere in the back, Niklas, the captain of the boat, plays the bouzouki guitar. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

Niel and I didn’t know each other well. Though we were married to twins, we had not spent more than a day in each other’s company. Greece was to be the first vacation that the four of us took together. Our wives had done months of careful planning, chalking out itineraries for every day, to the hour. Niel, a photographer, sought slumberous spots with as little movement as possible. I, a writer, was drawn to restless vacations bursting with stories. The girls decided that the Greek islands would serve Niel’s pace well, and the remains of ancient Greece in Athens would satiate my curiosity.

Despite the meticulous scheduling, day one of the week-long trip did not start well. Around midnight, Niel and I stood outside the car drenched in sweat, poring over a map by the tepid light of the phone. We had been circling around Fira for over an hour. The heat of the molten afternoon had bled into evening, making the air immovably dense and sticky. Sweat had dribbled onto the map, smudging the ink that marked the way to our accommodation, a villa ominously named The Secret Hideaway. We had no Internet or GPS. We had lost our way, and I think each believed the other was responsible. Tempers were a bit frayed, and the atmosphere simmered with tension. At any moment, things could have gone wrong, terribly wrong.

Eventually sense prevailed, and we asked for directions. Hours later, soaking in the cool water of the villa’s pool, Niel and I, both sheepish about the incident, began talking. Dispensing with the politeness of formal family relationships, we spoke like two men, strangers on a journey seeking company. By the time the contours of morning light began to trace the horizon, we had established a certain amity. We climbed to the villa’s terrace to capture the burning pink and yellow light, he with camera and I with pen and notebook. A golden wafer of the sun appeared over the Aegean Sea, holding the promise of a glorious week. Things were fine again, almost cheerful.

Restaurant Santorini Greece

Food is quite the preoccupation in Greece, and restaurants stay open late. Islands like Santoríni have numerous sea-facing restaurants serving Mediterranean fare, international cuisines, and a range of delicious local white wines. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

We were anchored in Fira, the capital of Santorini. Its buildings—chalk-white swathes topped with sapphire domes—are among the most photographed in Greece. It’s also outstandingly commercialised, spilling over with lava stone jewellery shops and ice cream parlours, the latter providing an escape from the ferocious July heat. It’s easy to get lost in Fira’s narrow, stone-paved streets, which ascend or descend unannounced, wringing sporadically into steps; and merging with shops and private entrances at will.

One day, the sisters checked into a spa, leaving us husbands to our own devices. We decided to walk to the village of Oia on the island’s north side, an hour’s journey on foot. The path wound like a ribbon through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli. Houses and hotels curved along the lagoon, like clustered stacks of sugar cubes. The monotony was broken by the blue of the church domes and the infinity pools that speckled the white-washed townscape. Far off, cruise ships dotted the sea, waiting with relaxed informality for the day-trippers to return to them.

Sunsets from Oia are famously glorious. When we reached the village, a crowd was moving en masse towards a rock with the best vantage point. Hundreds of people were perched along the horseshoe-shaped cliff, armed with their cameras. Niel set up his tripod, and I grabbed a spot on the stone wall that looked over the lagoon 650 feet below. As the sky paled, and the sun turned liquid, the crowd became more boisterous. People cheered and clapped, and the rim of the cliff sparkled with their flashlights as darkness fell.

Shops Oia Greece

The walk from Fira to Oia, through Firostefani and Imerovigli, is peppered with quirky streetside stalls, offbeat art boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

Scooters Greece

Cars are limited to the outskirts of the towns on most of the Greek islands and mini bikes are often the best way to negotiate the narrow, serpentine streets. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

 

Niel patiently clicked for hours, even when the sun was long gone. I stood beside him, feeling oddly inactive. At first, I was frustrated, but then I began thinking about the nature of my restlessness. I realised that over the past year, none of my travels had involved staying in one place for more than a night. This was already my third on Santorini. Moreover, here I was, watching the sky for hours without stirring. As the minutes ticked by, I began to feel calmer, distanced from the feverishness of taking in one sight after another.

A day later on Mykonos, another island north of Santorini, we rented a skippered yacht. The sound from the island’s constant beach party faded as we sailed further out to sea. Niel and I lazed on the deck, sipping wine. As we traded stories, it became apparent that we had more in common than the fact that we had married into the same family—our struggles were the same. We’re both expats, hoping to make something of ourselves in alien surroundings. We are both driven to make a mark outside the daily drill of professional lives. And we are bound by similar histories and contexts, despite living continents away.

It was our last evening on the islands before heading towards the bustle of Athens. Niel was disappointed; for him, another day in the Aegean Sea was more appealing than roaming the ruins of a long-gone past. Surprised at myself, I agreed that a longer stay would have been welcome. But our flights were already booked.

Acropolis Athens Greece

The Parthenon on the Acropolis is dedicated to Athena, patron goddess and protector of the capital city of Athens. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

Just a few months ago, Athens was a city burning with riots, and economically it is still in shambles. But despite its recent turbulence, Athens is a magnificent capital, with each curving street leading to either a centuries-old ruin or a Byzantine church. Perched on a squat hill, like a faded photograph, is the Acropolis. It floats ethereally over the city like a watchful eye with a view into its past. The Persians, Romans, Ottomans, and the British plundered the Acropolis, leaving behind what appears to be a stony wasteland to the casual viewer. But to me, the rakishly scattered archaeological remains provide an uninterrupted link to 2,500 years of history.

The four of us explored the Acropolis, imagining what life must have been like when this city was alive. The heat was debilitating. In my drenched shirt, with squinty eyes, I studied the coppery pillars of the Parthenon, the site’s most iconic temple ruin, shimmering in the sun. Then I noticed a lone figure in the shade of a tree. It was Niel. Perhaps he was blown away by the caustic mix of history and heat. I walked up to him.

“Imagine, this was once the most powerful place on earth,” I said, attempting to strike up a conversation. “Then they lost it all to the civil wars.”

“But what’s the point of saving broken ruins?” Neil asked. “They could have rebuilt the Parthenon.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there is a lesson somewhere in these collapsed structures. Maybe defeated civilizations remind us of what loss looks like. People only remember victories.”

We sat in the shade, lost in our own thoughts. Perhaps we had different ideas about the Parthenon, but our silence was born not out of self-conscious politeness, but the gentle reticence that is essential to a healthy camaraderie.

Our journey was coming to an end.

“We have to do this every year,” Neil said, echoing my thoughts about our impending departure. “I would have never considered visiting the Acropolis had you not pushed for it.” As we got up again, I realised I felt the same way. I would not have experienced the stillness and the slower rhythms inherent in a place had it been not for Niel’s insistence on longer layovers.

We had come a long way from the awkwardness of the first day. Over the course of a week, we had driven across Greece, dived in the sea, walked miles, and waited for hours to capture that perfect shot. Travelling, I thought, can be about a lot of things—about escaping, about learning. But after years of having considered myself a solitary traveller, charting my own way, I was beginning to realise that journeys can also be about moulding friendships and strengthening families. In both travel and relationships, one must feel the lows to ride the highs. And to find a new friend, sometimes you must first lose your way.


 

The Guide

Odeon amphitheatre Greece

The Odeon was built by Greek aristocrat Herodes Atticus in A.D. 161. A stone amphitheatre located on the southwestern slope of the Acropolis, it had a capacity of 5,000. Nowadays, it is used as the main venue for the annual Athens Festival of arts. Photo: Swapneil Salaria

Orientation

Athens, on the east coast of Greece, is its capital and the seat of an ancient civilization. About 300 km offshore, in the Aegean Sea, Santorini’s distinct whitewashed homes are its key feature. Some 150 km north, a summer-party atmosphere is Mykonos’s claim to fame.

Getting There

Most Middle Eastern or European hubs have flights to Athens, and can be accessed from major Indian cities. From Athens there are regular ferries and flights to Santorini and Mykonos. The flight from Athens to Santorini takes about 30-45 min; ferries are slower. A ferry from Santorini to Mykonos takes about 6.5 hr.

While public transport is relatively good in Athens (3-day tourist pass €22/₹1,560), on the islands it is wiser to rent a car to get around (€35-65/₹2,500-4,600 a day).

Visa

Indians travelling to Greece need a Schengen visa. Visitors must submit the completed form and necessary accompanying documents to one of the VFS centres around the country. A confirmed ticket and other booking information is required, and the process can take up to 15 days (www.vfs-gr-in.com; ₹4,500 plus processing charges).

Where to Stay

Athens has convenient accommodations in the city centre listed on Airbnb (we spent €110/₹7,910 per night, for a place that accommodated four). On the two islands, the closer you stay to the water, the more expensive the accommodation. The four of us rented luxury villas in Mykanos and Santorini through booking.com for €475/₹34,160 per night, in the middle of the tourist season.

Time to Visit

Greece is very hot in the peak summer months (Jul-Aug), with temperatures hovering north of 35°C. The shoulder seasons (May-Jun and Sep-Oct) are more temperate, and visitors may even get bargain deals on accommodation.

What to Eat

It’s easy to eat well in Greece. A decent meal costs €10-15/₹720-1,080 per person and includes a lot of local, fresh produce. Try local specialities such as gyros (meat roasted on a rotisserie and eaten with tzatziki, tomatoes, and onions), souvlaki (kebabs grilled on skewers), saganaki (fried cheese), feta cheese, and Greek yogurt. My favourite snack to escape the heat was Greek yogurt with honey and fresh fruit. Greece has one of the oldest wineproducing regions in the world. Santorini and Mykonos both have vineyards, where you can tour and try out local wines.

Top Tip

On the islands, a luxury yacht trip is recommended. A 5- to 7-hr tour on a 54-foot yacht costs €550-750/₹39,550-54,000 (accommodates 7-10 people; includes lunch, snacks, and wine). A shorter, 3-hr trip costs about €300-450/₹21,580-32,360.

Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Unlikely Travel Companions”.

  • Nitin Chaudhary is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.

  • Swapneil Salaria is a sales professional based in the U.S. He loves technology, photography, and great American cities.

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