Posing for clichéd photos by the cornflower-blue domes in the town of Oia, my husband and I couldn’t believe we were finally in Santorini. We’d pored over endless pictures and planned our honeymoon to the Aegean paradise back in February.
Then came the pandemic.
After a January wedding in Mumbai, we returned to our home in Toulouse, France. In March arrived dreaded emails from the hotels, ferries and flights we had booked across Athens, Santorini and Mykonos—we could cancel up to one week before our trip in August. So we crossed our fingers and toes, even as our honeymoon shape-shifted beyond recognition, eventually down to nine days in Athens and Santorini. We took comfort in our French social security cards that would grant us convenient healthcare in select hospitals across Europe. Come what may we wanted to travel, and we wanted our honeymoon.
It felt surreal to walk the streets of Athens, arriving at our pre-booked Greek mythology walking tour of the city; exploring the millennia-old Temples of Zeus and Hephaestus, Hadrian’s Arch and Library, the Ancient and Roman Agoras, and the Panathenaic Stadium. Having seen only touristy photos of Athens, it was almost uncomfortable to not have anyone around—and not just because there weren’t enough people to take our photos!
On another walking tour, we saw the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Syntagma Square in the city centre, and landed up in the very pretty, very buzzy Plaka neighbourhood, wolfing down souvlaki as we walked. Nearby, under the shadow of the Acropolis, the open-air play had just five other (socially distanced) people. It took us a while to believe that the usual two-hour queues to the Acropolis and Temple of Athena were down to none. We walked right in, and spent the afternoon reading, exploring, and posing as my husband recounted nuggets of history about the 429 B.C. marvel.
Our friends’ wedding present to us was a lavish hotel stay in Athens. Every day, we’d get our temperatures checked and displayed on a monitor without complaint. At the grand breakfast buffet, we’d point at what we wanted because only the staff was allowed to touch the food. Lunch was closed, and replaced by a grab-and-go fridge in the lobby. It was worth skipping it one day for a meal of zucchini fritters and tzatziki, fava, and chilled watermelon in a local tavern.
In Santorini, our apartment came with the smell of being freshly sanitised. It was my husband’s birthday, and the gift was a horse ride at Efippos Riding Farm. We rode past magical dunes at the Caldera Beach, stopping for sunset-on-the-Aegean photos, eventually reaching the stunning black sand beach of Eros. In spite of missing crowds, we chose not to explore Santorini’s nightlife—indoor spaces made us uncomfortable. A day-long cruise to Nea Kameni (a dormant volcano and thermal springs close to Santorini) made up for the loss—the 100-plus seater cruise ship barely had 30 passengers. Cruising the Aegean, hiking a volcano, and having moussaka and stuffed tomatoes for dinner at Therasia Island felt like a day well spent.
On our last day, we rented a quad bike and drove around the white-washed streets of Santorini, making multiple stops at Thira and Oia villages without worrying about a million people breathing down our necks. A badge we got at the Prehistoric Town of Akrotiri museum read, ‘I visited Greece in 2020’—something we’d never forget Even in our bliss, we couldn’t ignore the string of locked cafés on the way; a chatty restaurateur we met told us the footfall was “one per cent” of summers past (we’d been leaving larger-than-usual tips this time around). When it was time to leave, we brought in the last night of our honeymoon with a fine seaside dinner of shellfish stew and cheesecake, made extra special by the attention bestowed by the staff.
Looking back, the time and money we spent researching and booking now feels like a small price to pay to travel mid-pandemic. And I say that in spite of the bumps, including having our return flight randomly picked for COVID-19 testing. After all, our honeymoon was everything we’d ever dreamed of.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.