Yes, incredible as it still seems to me, that really happened. One day, out of the blue, I opened my email and found a message from Jeannette, one of the owners of The Blue Walk, inviting me to teach for them in Greece. They liked my work and felt we had a connection. They thought I'd be good fit with their company philosophy of slower travel in beautiful out-of-the-way places that most tourists never see. We talked and I felt it, too. They understand that walking along a cliff overlooking the sea might be more worthwhile than slogging through city streets; and stopping to sketch for an hour isn't a waste of time, it's what makes travel meaningful for many of us.
So I'm going to Greece this fall! And you're invited to come along. You can read more about my October 3-15 Art Walk Greece trip here, but that only tells part of the story. Since I've never been to Greece before, there's so much more I'd like to know about the trip, and I thought you might be interested, too. So I asked Jeannette to answer a few questions, to give us a better idea of what twelve days in the gorgeous Greek Isles will really be like. Here goes...
I’ve never been on a Blue Walk tour before. How are your tours different from other European tours?
First and foremost a Blue Walk is about connection - with the place where you are, the people you meet, maybe even with yourself in a new way. It's traveling on a personal level. Frequently our tours are referred to as a "trip of a lifetime". Beyond the destinations and the hotels - which are great - I think guests feel this because of our intention to create personal experiences.
We provide a mix of beautiful destinations, leisurely walks and outings to introduce you to a place, a chance to meet some local folks, and then lots of time for our guests to explore as they wish. It's not about long hours or days on a bus or a constant stream of facts being issued by our guides. It's about experiencing a place in the present, quiet moments looking into the horizon, meandering conversations had while walking a coastal path, having a best meal ever at an out of the way cafe. These are the things we love.
Most of us, when we are at home, have more than enough to keep us busy - a vacation is a chance to get away and relax. At the same time - you are in a new and beautiful place - you want to experience it! Finding a good balance is a challenge. Mostly we favor quality to quantity. And even then, our daily walks are always optional.
If a guest wants to explore additionally - or instead get a massage or relax by the pool - it's all good.
Our guided walks in Greece are very accessible to most guests - 45 minutes to 1 hour, mostly along coastlines and harbors of the villages we visit. There is one notable exception on Amorgos where we visit a working, medieval monastery built into the side of a cliff. The path up is rather steep, including 300 steps, and can be hot on sunny mornings. It's not a race though. Everyone who has done the walk has made it to the top - and been happy for it. The monastery and view are both very special.
What kind of footwear should I bring?
One of the great things about a Blue Walk is that no special equipment is required. A good pair of trainers or gym shoes should be all you need. Of course if you have a pair of hiking boots you love, you can certainly bring them along - especially if you'd like to do some hiking in your free time. It's not part of our regular programming, but Amorgos is covered with incredible hiking trails. A local guide may be hired to walk guests into more remote parts of the island.
Will we be incorporating sketching into our walking time?
For the most part our walking time will be separate from the sketching program. Our walks will introduce you to an area upon arrival or will be morning excursions, sometimes to a destination where a class will later take place. That being said - a student may bring their supplies on a walk, and if inspiration strikes, they are welcome to capture the moment. They may then catch up with the group at our end point.
Our tour begins with one day in Athens. What will we see in just one day that will give us a taste of the city?
There is so much to see! And our hotel is perfectly situated in the center of it all. To get to know the area, we will walk through the historic Plaka. The Plaka is Athens' oldest neighborhood and feels like a village within a city. In the shadow of the Acropolis, ancient archaeology sites are set among busy shops and beautiful artist wares (but you have to look for those). We'll have an opportunity to learn about Greek textiles and try mastika - a local liquor.
Athens has a great cafe and restaurant scene and in the evenings the streets are lined with tables filled with a mix of locals and visitors. Live music and talented street musicians are also plentiful. Within easy walking distance of the hotel is Syntagma Square, Greek Parliament and the changing of the guards, the National Gardens, and even the Acropolis and it's museum. Our morning walk will take in several of these sites. Guests will have time to explore on their own in addition to our group walks.
My father brought back goodies for me from a trip to Athens when I was a girl, and I've always dreamed of seeing it for myself. Now I will - wow! After we leave Athens, we'll head for the Greek Isles. People say they're fabulous - what’s so special about them?
The hospitality and warmth of the the Greek people is overwhelming. In many places, it feels like traveling back in time - the people live in such an open and friendly way. Traveling here is authentic and unique because you meet people, laugh with them, enjoy meals grown or caught locally and prepared with recipes centuries old. They live their history.
It is an ancient place, full of variety, life, and beauty. The surroundings - the culture, architecture, and language is at once completely different and totally engaging. And of course the warm, sunny weather and beautiful beaches are not bad either.
Which is your favorite island and why?
Ha! That is great! There is no way I could pick a favorite. Each island is so unique and special. Santorini is the epitome of the Greek panorama with its white cliff-top houses, blue domed churches, and spectacular views over the Aegean. It also has amazing galleries, archaeology, and (believe it or not) wineries. Naxos is bustling, with a charming harbor and historic center as well as a strong local economy. It still retains the feel of a functioning Greek town sharing space, but not completely overrun by, tourism. And then there is Amorgos. This is a magical place and often a guest favorite. Truly off the beaten path, the pace is slow, the hotel amenities incomparable, and the ability to relax and unwind is unavoidable.
I know this might be a question that’s impossible to answer, but what would you say is the prettiest spot we’ll see on the tour?
You're right - impossible! Each place offers so much in the way of views and charm. The angle of the light, the time of day, one's mood. So much can effect how we experience a place. But some highlights - a view of Acropolis at night, sitting deck-side on the ferry between islands, discovering winding passageways among white walls covered with cascading bougainvillea, ocean views enjoyed from coastal paths or your hotel balcony...you get the idea.
Here's another toughie...what’s your favorite place to spend an afternoon in the Greek Isles? Where’s the best spot to watch a sunset?
Again, this is such a tough one to answer. There is no one place because there are so many wonderful ways to spend time. On Amorgos, the hotel balcony with a glass of wine is always popular. Apollo's Gate in Naxos is an iconic frame for a sunset view. Probably the most famous is watching the sun go down from the tiny village of Oia on Santorini. All, and others, are wonderful and do not disappoint.
Do I have to speak Greek? How easy is it to communicate with people if I don't speak Greek?
Speaking Greek is absolutely not required - lucky us! Many Greeks, especially those in the hospitality industry, speak English very well if not fluently. It makes independent excursions and shopping trips much less intimidating and more fun.
For some travelers, experiencing a new language is one of the exciting parts of going to a foreign country. No worries - there will be plenty of opportunity to be surrounded by the Greek language and incomprehensible signage. Fortunately, it is still easy to get around.
That's a relief, but I think I'll try to learn at least a few words and phrases before the trip.
Are there stores where we can buy sundries like shampoo and toothpaste?
Absolutely. In Athens in particular you can find everything you need from sundries, to pharmaceuticals, to clothing.
What kind of clothes should I pack? Do I need dressy clothes?
We recommend our guests travel light, bringing only one rolling bag and a small bag or backpack. For ferry transfers between islands, each guest should be able to easily handle their own luggage.
Dressing in layers is always a good idea, and a wrap or sweater will serve you on your air-conditioned fights as well as on a cooler night on the islands. Although dress is quite casual, you may want to bring a nice outfit or two (but it’s not required.) Don’t forget a pair of well-broken-in, comfortable walking shoes and maybe a bathing suit for the beaches and spa!
Our tour is in early October. What’s the weather usually like then in Greece?
While there is really no such thing as “normal weather” anymore, early October in Greece should be mild, with highs in the 70s and lows into the 60s. Be prepared for cool evenings as well as warm days. It is quite possible we will experience light rain showers so a waterproof jacket or collapsible umbrella will come in handy. (While there at the same time last year the weather was perfect.)
High 70s sounds ideal. It should be perfect for our morning walks.
What Greek food specialties do we have to look forward to?
The food is amazing, and our guests always comment on how much they love it. Produce is local and tastes like it. You will see lots of fresh fish, grilled meat, and salads dressed with island-pressed olive oil, oregano, and a bit of sea salt. Mezze platters with hummus and tziki made with delicious greek yogurt are a wonderful way to start a meal. Everywhere you will find Greek Salad, but this is worlds away from any poor imitation you've had in the States. This will be the best salad you've ever had. Last season we had a guest who didn't like cheese (can you imagine?) but she couldn't get enough of the feta on the islands.
That salad plate, above, is making my mouth water! How many meals per day are customary in the area? What local wines will we enjoy while we're in the islands?
Three meals per day is normal on the islands. Each morning a generous buffet breakfast is included with the tour. Our daily excursions will provide a good variety of lunch locations to choose from. Dinners can be enjoyed at the hotel or from one of the many nearby restaurants.
Wine has been produced in the Cyclydes Islands of Greece (where we are traveling) since ancient times, and during the Middle Ages the wine of Santorini became famous worldwide under the influence of the Republic of Venice. Home to red and white varietals, the white Assyrtiko is the island’s flagship grape - high acid and full of citrus and mineral nuances. The grape is often referred to as a “white grape in red’s clothing,” due to the full-bodied wines it produces.
What kind of transportation will we use to tour the islands when we’re not walking?
We will use ferries to travel between islands. These are large, comfortable carriers with roomy airline-type seats. There are cafes aboard as well as a nice lounge and bar. Guests often sit deck-side to share a meal al fresco as we travel. For our daily excursions we will use a van or bus to move from place to place.
That certainly isn't like any ferry I've ever been on before - I think I might have to do a sketchbook page about the ferry experience on the tour.
We'll be surrounded by a beautiful blue sea when we're on the islands - is the water warm enough for swimming? Where’s the best beach for swimming on our tour?
This may be a somewhat subjective question. Ocean temps that time of year are around 72F. For those that dread ocean temps cooler than very warm (I freeze in Hawaii) swimming may not be ideal at this time of year. That said, some guests, especially those from colder climes, love it and have no problem.
Amorgos and Naxos both have lovely, nearby beaches that are good for swimming. On Amorgos it is about a 5 minute walk downhill where you may find a lovely secluded cove in one direction, or a wide sandy beach with beach chairs and other amenities in another. Our hotel in Naxos is only 50 yards from a lovely protected beach with many amenities. Both islands also offer opportunities for activities such as scuba and windsurfing.
I love market day in European cities. Will we be able to experience a market day during the tour?
I know! Unfortunately, we won't cross paths with any large markets. However, if anyone arrives in Athens a day early, there is an amazing "flea market" on Sundays. It's a wonderful array of antiques, junk, collections, and all sorts of interesting bits. The rest of the week it also makes for an interesting walk-through, resembling a Grand Bazaar, but on a smaller scale.
How much painting instruction time will there be? Independent time?
Most days there will be 1-2 hours of instruction. Leslie will teach a variety of lessons, usually during the earlier part of the day. Some will focus on watercolor technique, others on sketchbook journaling. Combined, they serve as a springboard for creating your own unique and personal travel journal.
Independent time varies per day and often begins around 3:30pm.
Can the artist-students bring a non painting partner along?
Non-painting partners are always invited on our Art Walk tours. Many of our artist/students travel solo, but not all. Partners are included in all activities except the course instruction and are welcomed as part of the group. So, there is plenty of time to spend with your partner during our daily walks and excursions, as well as during free time in the afternoon and evening.
You seem to have a great life, Jeannette, living in Europe and sharing some of your favorite places with visitors from all over the world. What’s the best part of your job?
I have to confess, right now, my partner Suzy and I, we are living the dream. I feel very fortunate indeed. Without question the best part about what I do - what makes me really happy - is getting to know our guests and sharing the experience of travel with them.
Travel brings joy and wonder and can even shift the way you see or think about things. It's one of the reasons we love incorporating the art courses in our walks. This type of illustrative art is a practice in observation - slowing down and really seeing what is in front of you. It brings you into the moment and cultivates awareness. Sharing this practice with our guests is the best thing I could hope for.
Thanks so much for giving me a better picture of what my Blue Walk tour with you will be like. I'm more excited than ever to see it all for myself!
For complete information and a full itinerary, click here.
To register, please visit TheBlueWalk.com