On June 2nd, 2011, Nicholas Chupein made dinner and set the table while Catherina Kusch watched TV with the dog known as Squirrely. Nick poured champagne. Cat thought they were just celebrating the rental of the third floor apartment in their three flat, but it was so much more. Nick went for his pocket, stopped himself and went for it again. He pulled out the tiniest jewelry box Cat had ever seen. He was still popping the question as she clumsily grabbed Nick’s great, great grandmother’s ring and placed it on her own trembling finger.
By the time we were engaged, we had been together for nearly five years and had co-habitated for about three. Still, it was a big step in our relationship and we felt profoundly closer and happier than ever. As we planned our wedding and honeymoon, we talked about all those little things that are important to us: family and friends, nature, history, music and delicious food. At no time during these discussions did towels, fine china or crystal stemware come up in conversation. We knew right away that a traditional registry was not going to work for us. When we heard about Traveler’s Joy, we knew it was for us.
We wanted the memories from an amazing journey that would last us a lifetime, but expressing this to some of our guests posed a bit of a problem. We didn’t want to ask for cold hard cash or, worse yet, colder harder gift cards. We wanted them to feel like a part of our honeymoon experience, and using Traveler’s Joy to set up a customized trip gift guide was the perfect solution.
First thing’s first! Where to go? We both have so many places around the world that we want to visit. We narrowed our choices by eliminating any places that either one of us had already visited, instead focusing on locations and experiences that were totally new to the both of us. Not only were historic and cultural attractions a must, but we also wanted time to lay on the beach, relax and just enjoy each other. We found the best of both worlds and decided on the trip of a lifetime, a tour of Istanbul, Athens, and the Greek Islands of Sifnos, Paros and Santorini.
We used several guidebooks to plot our course in Istanbul. We loved the look of the beautiful Empress Zoe bed and breakfast, which is located in the Old Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul and is in close proximity to many of the attractions we wanted to see…The Blue Mosque, The Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace to name a few.
Our Greek guide books and online research led us to the decision to use a Greek travel agency, which is the best and easiest way to book accommodations and navigate the fickle island ferry schedules.
We contacted a highly recommended agency, Dolphin Hellos, for more information. They advised us to book our flights, send them the dates along with the cities we wanted to visit, and they would handle everything else. We booked all of our air travel directly through Turkish Air because they had the best deals on direct flights. We sent the flight itinerary to our travel agent who, in turn, sent us information on hotels, bed and breakfasts and tours from which to choose. At that point, we were getting really excited. Our dream vacation was about to become a reality!
By mid March of 2012, we had booked our Istanbul bed and breakfast, our Athens hotel and scenic tour and all of our stays among Sifnos, Paros and Santorini. Our ferry tickets would be waiting for us when we arrived at our hotel in Athens. And we filled our Traveler’s Joy registry with all of the exciting sights we wanted to see. Basically, all we had left to do was pack and wait…oh yeah, and get married.
On Monday evening, July 16th, 2012, still basking in the glow of our amazing wedding ceremony and reception, which took place just two days earlier, we departed Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on the 10-hour flight bound for Istanbul, Turkey.
After checking into the Empress Zoe, where the next morning we would enjoy freshly squeezed apricot juice in a garden terrace while the three luckiest cats in all of Turkey lounged in the sun, we got straight to the business of experiencing all that Istanbul had to offer.
Right around the corner from our hotel was a ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. It wasn’t until we arrived that we realized that the dervishes whirled as a part of their religious ritual. The music was intricate and complex and contained stories about the believers’ love for God (Allah), and the dancing was both joyful and solemn. It took place in the original home and studio of Dede Effendi, one of the most important early composers of the music. We were both a bit embarrassed to be fighting off sleep during the ceremony. But the room was so warm and the music so lovely, and us coming straight from the airport, so jet lagged. What could we do?
On our stroll around the neighborhood after the ceremony, we stopped at one of the many restaurants that line the streets and dined on the most delectable grilled sea bream, which had been caught that morning in the Bosphorus, with fresh vegetables. When our bellies were full and our thirst was quenched by wine, we went back to the bed and breakfast to try to sleep through our first night in this exotic city.
Right away the next morning, it was time to go, go, go! We had just two full days left to explore Istanbul, and we didn’t want to miss a thing. We walked through the narrow cobbled streets (Nick is amazing at navigating in unfamiliar territory) to The Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Honestly, this market could easily drive the most experienced mall walker to distraction. There is merchandise as far as the eye can see, and each corridor is a new path to colorful baubles and sparkling jewels. But Cat was on a mission for a Turkish rug, and she got it. Impressing her new husband, she even haggled the price down by half! And with a sense of accomplishment, and rug in hand, we headed further into the city (still on foot) toward the Bosphorus.
Nick is an architect, so a sailing tour of the Bosphorus gave him the perfect opportunity to view the historical architecture of Istanbul. After a long morning and early afternoon full of walking, it was so nice to take a seat on the upper deck of the ferry that would take us up and down the Istanbul Strait. We listened to a guided tour and just enjoyed the breeze.
Three hours later and rest time was over. We returned to Sultanahmet back the way we came, this time stopping at a spice market for some souvenirs and to sample the famous Turkish delight. We tried to purchase only a couple of pieces of candy to taste, but the vendors just won’t sell you two pieces. The candy is inexpensive, and for about four dollars (seven Turkish Lira) we bought about a pound of pistachio, honey, fig and rose petal delight. They were, indeed, delightful, but we still have a few pieces remaining in our pantry.
We began the next day with another delicious breakfast on the terrace in the perfectly cool summer weather. Since taking this trip, Cat has a new found love for one of Nick’s favorite activities: dining al fresco. The plan for the day was to hit several well known landmarks, which were all quite close together. We passed the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which was once a thriving sports center but today is survived by only a few fragments of the structure, on our way to The Blue Mosque, an early 17th century Muslim place of worship with six minarets (the standard is four) on the exterior and vibrant blue tile work adorning the interior for which the temple is named. Women must cover their legs and shoulders to enter, but suitable coverings are available at no cost upon arrival. We spent about thirty minutes at the mosque with our local “tour guide” who we met outside.
This hospitable and enterprising fellow owned a carpet shop nearby and after leaving the temple we walked with him to his shop, enjoyed a cup of his delicious apple tea, and purchased a pillowcase to go with our rug, before moving on to the ancient Hagia Sophia. This really is an incredible sight. Built in 360 AD, The Hagia Sophia is a church built by the Roman emperor Constantine, famed for its massive dome and used as a model for all churches to follow. For nearly one thousand years, it was the world’s largest cathedral and has passed from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Muslim faith until it was secularized in 1931. Today it is a museum and well worth a visit. We took our time climbing the stairs, viewing the structure and examining the mosaic work. When we had our fill, we found ourselves steps away from The Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred cisterns below Istanbul, where the Romans stored their drinking water. It was cool and dark and oddly quiet for how many people were walking through the maze of mismatched pillars that held the city above our heads. When we surfaced, it was time for lunch at another lovely outdoor café. We split a delicious frothy, chocolate coffee beverage for dessert - it was so very good…the kind of good that makes you angry because you know you can’t have one of these things every day.
Refreshed and caffeinated, we marched on to our final landmark, Topkapi Palace. We oohed and ahhed over the courtyard, gardens and dozens upon dozens of rooms filled with priceless treasures from all the years of different kings (pashas). We paid a little extra to see the special grounds where the members of the harem lived and studied. Cat joked that the people of Topkapi would keep her for the harem. Nick humored her. He’s a very nice man. With this monument crossed off our list, the Istanbul sightseeing machine could finally call it a day. We had one last evening to listen to live music while eating outdoors. The next morning we were headed to Athens, Greece.
Let’s not sugarcoat it; Athens, in its current economic state, is sad. The hotel standards are far below the American expectation, so our three-star hotel was less than satisfactory. We tried taking a walk through the downtown area to find a restaurant, but far too many businesses were closed. There is trash everywhere, and graffiti is a problem. But we would not be discouraged; our ferry tickets were delivered to us as planned, and our afternoon tour of The Acropolis and the historic city was terrific. After a hot night in our A/C challenged room, we headed for the port to sail to our first island, Sifnos.
As soon as we set foot on this very small and lightly populated island, we looked at each other and both said, “I think I could live here.” Sifnos is glorious - the highlight of our trip - and we both want to go back. George, the owner of our bed and breakfast, picked us up at the dock and drove us to Hotel Delfini. The service, ambience and food were superior to anything we’ve ever experienced in our lives. They treated us like family. We arrived early, before check in time, but George’s wife, who is a master of Greek cuisine and chef for the hotel, supplied us with cookies and fresh orange juice and coffee. We were completely happy to lounge in the outdoor dining area overlooking the Aegean Sea, when George mentioned that we could go for a swim. He pointed to a stone path leading down to the water next to the hotel. At the bottom, we could just barely make out a ladder. We changed quickly and jumped in. We were swimming in our own private sea! The water was clean and cold and just what we needed.
The next day was even better if that’s imaginable. With no plan, we took a public transit bus up into the town of Apollonia to explore. We found a neighborhood map, saw a couple of interesting windmills on it, and set out to find them. The sidewalks were basically stairs and slopes, so it was a nice hike. We loved walking amidst the whitewashed and blue trimmed homes. Sifnos must be the cleanest place on Earth. We saw several old women literally scrubbing and mopping the ground. We found the windmills on the crest of the tallest hill, overlooking the Aegean and surrounding islands. The stunning view was absolutely worth the climb which became progressively more strenuous as the sun beat down on us.
After one more dip in the water, it was time for another ferry ride, this time to Paros, where we spent some of our most relaxing time. We chose this island because we wanted to see the Church of One Hundred Doors, which actually only has ninety-nine doors, but who’s counting? This island is more geared toward a party crowd and has lots of nice clothing shops. We’re not really into the club scene, and by this time into the trip, we’d done a lot of sightseeing and a lot of traveling. It was time to crash. The Contaratos Beach Hotel in Naousa has a spectacular salt water pool complete with diving board and was steps from a secluded beach on the bay, and we took full advantage. On our way out of Paros, we made it to the church. It had a stronger affect on Cat than we had anticipated. It’s still used as a place of worship, so she made a donation and lit a candle for her late mother. In that moment, she thought about how much her mother enjoyed traveling and how happy she would be to know that her daughter was exploring a faraway place.
The next ferry would take us to the breathtaking and world-famous sunsets of the ancient volcanic island, Santorini. We were so taken by the ring of islets that we called our travel agent to extend our stay in Santorini by one day…one of the best decisions of our lives.
We rented a car so that we could get the most out of our three days on Santorini. We visited the ancient ruins of Akrotiri, a city destroyed by ash from a volcanic eruption 2500 years ago, similar to that of Pompeii. However, the ancient Minoan people of Akrotiri had enough warning to leave the area. No human remains were found at this site. Not far from the ruins is the famous Red Beach named for the red clay cliffs that surround it. This beach is packed and the waves are boisterous. We spent just a short time people-watching before we decided to try the Black Beach on the eastern side of the island. This was much more our speed. It wasn’t so clogged with people, and the water was much calmer. The bottom is covered with slick rocks that are as slippery as ice. We learned quickly that you must jump right in. The black pebbles that cover the beach become extremely hot so don’t get caught without your flip flops. Ouch!
After swimming and sunbathing, we found our way to a family owned vineyard, Gavalas Winery. The proprietor himself gave us a tour and brief history of the business. He was incredibly charming and it was so sweet to see him greet his wife. He gave us a tasting, and we bought several delicious bottles of wine. Sadly, these never made it home due to a most unfortunate packing malfunction.
On our last day in Santorini, we took a sailing tour of the volcano located at the center of the caldera, Nia Kameni. Our German tour guide (who gave the tour in German, French, Italian, Korean, English, and “Australian”) had a wealth of knowledge including the history of the Island’s volcanic activity and the great eruption that ended the Minoan civilization. The long hot hike up to the volcano’s edge wore us both out, but when we returned to the main island, we still had energy to shop for a few souvenirs. Nick managed to find a nice music store that sold instruments. He had his sights set on a bazouki, and the shopkeeper was delighted to see Nick pick up one of the stringed instruments and just start playing. We left with a new addition to Nick’s music collection.
That evening, we drove to the Northwestern tip of the island to have dinner in Oia. We wanted a new view of the sunset, and there was a great sounding Indian and Greek fusion restaurant we hoped to find. The sunset was magnificent and while walking through the narrow paths of the village, we stumbled upon a museum that was exhibiting artists’ depictions of musical instruments. We couldn’t pass that up, so we spent a little time gazing at the artwork before finding that incredible restaurant called Karma. After some amazing wine, unbelievable food and an indulgent dessert, it was time to visit our hotel, the Ellinon Thea, one last time.
The next day, we said goodbye to the islands and the beaches and the donkeys (you’ve got to be aware of the donkeys) and took the ferry back to Athens where we caught a little sleep before catching our flight back home to Chicago on July 29th, 2012. The total for the entire trip was about $8,500 including airfare (which came to about $2400 since we decided to fly direct); and the cost of the rug, the bazouki and other souvenirs was probably close to $1,000. It was worth every penny. We would definitely recommend our journey to any couple looking for a romantic and cultural getaway outside the typical resort or cruise experience. The only thing we would do differently is stay at the finest hotel near the Acropolis in Athens and experience the Plaka district and Archaeological museum (there’s never enough time for it all!).
In our very new roles as husband and wife, we learned a few lessons on our honeymoon. Making a plan and executing it well are great, but sometimes, the greatest experiences develop when we give ourselves time to explore on our own. If you treat strangers like family, they will remember you forever. And always, always, always pack your wine carefully.