A Santorini Island Adventure


My wife Carol and I opened Christos Greek Restaurant on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis in June 1988. The first few years were a blur. It was a period marked by strong commitment to success tempered by occasional moments of doubt as the reality of the rate of failure in the industry set in. We knew we could not sustain the financial cost of failure, much less the devastating psychological blow of such a disaster. Our desire to succeed or, rather, our fear of failure, drove us to work twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

We faced a long list of issues: our relative inexperience in the business (offset by our passion for hospitality and food), a seriously temperamental chef who had designs to steal the business out from under us, and the economic recession that ensued shortly after we opened. But the largest obstacle was the prevailing perception amongst the residents of the affluent suburbs to the west (who we hoped to attract in good numbers) that Nicollet Avenue was unsafe. Opening on a shoestring budget exacerbated our stress. Despite having taken out a second and third mortgage on our house, finances were very tight. The situation was so dire that after we opened, I returned to my previous line of work to bring in much-needed income. I accepted a job offer to be the corporate controller of a medical device company. This meant that I worked in the corporate world on the weekdays and spent the rest of my waking hours working at the restaurant.

Fortunately, it’s not in our nature to back down from a challenge, even under incredibly stressful conditions. Soon, several favorable critics’ reviews helped dispel concerns about safety on Nicollet Avenue and enticed customers to try the restaurant. Our unrelenting commitment to personable service gained the confidence of a customer base that was beginning to form. We replaced the scheming chef who had created a toxic work environment, and we painstakingly streamlined our operating procedures. By the end of 1994, we had added a fledgling catering segment to our business and we were in the midst of building a respectable reputation. We were beginning to right the ship!


Gus Parpas with Besse Maragos

Gus Parpas with Besse Maragos

Along the way, many of our regulars had inquired about traveling to Greece. They had always wanted to travel there, but hoped to be escorted by people they knew, people who spoke the Greek language and understood Greek culture—people like us! We entertained the suggestion and explored the possibilities with Besse Maragos, a Greek-American agent with Schilling Travel in downtown Minneapolis who specialized in travel to Greece.

Born and raised in Chicago, Besse had been a prominent member of the Greek community of Minneapolis for years and a very active member of St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church, which overlooks Bde Maka Ska. She was best known for her philanthropic work on behalf of Children’s Heart Link. She was often in the thick of fundraising efforts and was the caretaker of families from Greece who visited Minneapolis to have their child receive desperately needed medical treatment.

Our first tour of Greece, dubbed “The Christos Aegean Odyssey,” was planned for September of 1995. A diverse group of thirty joined us on this adventure,  including friends, customers and, of course, Besse as our group escort. Having an experienced travel agent along made the trip much more enjoyable and carefree. She dealt with airline tickets, hotel reservations and ground transportation, cabin assignments on the ship, and she coordinated all activities. Her services were truly invaluable. Her sunny personality was a bonus. Also joining the group was our new chef, Mohamed Armeli.

The tour was very successful, so successful in fact that, by popular demand, we organized six additional tours in subsequent years. The ships we used changed after the third tour from conventional cruise ships to tall, four-mast clippers. These visually stunning vessels offer an intimate experience. They accommodate only one hundred guests vs. the thousands on a conventional cruise ship. And the sailing experience itself is phenomenal. After a multi-year Covid hiatus, the next tour, our eighth, is planned for October 2024.


The itinerary of our tours has remained essentially the same over the years: fly to Athens via Amsterdam, stay at a four- or five-star hotel near the center of town for two nights to enjoy a guided tour of the Acropolis and other noteworthy parts of Athens and experience authentic local cuisine at a taverna where the locals eat. One of the highlights of this short stay in Athens is the opportunity to roam the pláka, a neighborhood dating back to the Golden Age of Greece. The pláka, situated on the side of the hill the Acropolis is perched on, is a charming cluster of old buildings and narrow streets lined with shops, tavernas, and galleries. Bouzouki tunes fill the air and souvlaki aromas waft around each corner as street artists busily sell their wares and musicians perform on street corners. The pláka is an ideal place for visitors to buy their souvenirs. Amongst the buildings, ancient ruins are often scattered around, excavated as part of ongoing archaeological digs. If you close your eyes, you can sometimes see Socrates and a covey of disciples pondering philosophical questions such as ethics, virtue, and justice, as they wander about in their tunics and togas.

On the third day, we embark at Piraeus for a seven-day sail around the Aegean. Typically, there is a daily stop at an island port. At the end of the seven-day sailing cruise we disembark at a seaside resort for three days of R&R, which includes a winery tour and tasting and a farewell dinner at a neighborhood restaurant selected by me.

Carol’s job and mine is to socialize with the guests, answer questions, and provide background into Greek history and insight into contemporary Greek culture. Carol also serves as the shopping guru, pointing fellow travelers in the right direction to find suitable merchandise at a good price. Naturally, traveling together for two weeks provides the opportunity to connect with “shipmates.” Bonds forged on our Aegean Odysseys have proven durable over the years.

Given the opportunity, I slip away to shoot pictures. This is an enjoyable adventure in itself. During these photography outings, I meet people, enhance my knowledge of the history and culture of a place, and make local friends. All of the pictures hanging on the walls of Christos were taken on these expeditions.

Mohamed’s job, with my help, on his first tour was to hunt for food ideas. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he came with a great sense for Middle-Eastern cuisine. This proved very useful because the Cypriot food we serve at Christos reflects strong Middle-Eastern influences. We hunted for ingredients, cooking methods, recipes. He and I spoke with chefs we sought out at restaurants as well as vendors at the meat, fish, and vegetable markets. We spent time sifting through cookbooks and talking to anyone who would take the time to discuss their favorite local dish.

One of the highlights of this first trip was a planned visit to The Alexandria, a restaurant with a fine reputation for serving local specialties and, as the name suggests, cuisine from a broader Mediterranean range. This restaurant sits on the rim of the caldera with breathtaking views of the Aegean. The owner of The Alexandria, Dimitris, had befriended a columnist for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune whose travel agent was Besse. The columnist kindly offered to make an introduction for Mohamed and me to visit Dimitris. The meeting was set for 4:00 p.m. at The Alexandria on the day of our arrival to the island. In Greek time, that meant sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.


Santorini has had many names over the millennia, and it wasn’t always crescent-shaped as it is today. One of its early names was Strongili (“round” in Greek, the original shape of the island); later it became Kallisti (“the most beautiful”); eventually, the island was named Thera, after Theras, the mythical ruler of the island. Thera is still the name of the main town on the island. When the Venetians occupied the island during the Middle Ages, they started referring to it by the name of a cathedral in the area of Perissa on its southern end, Ayia Irini (Santa Irini in Italian, hence “Santorini”). This name stuck.

All along, a volcano on the island was active, but the inhabitants did not perceive it as a threat. These inhabitants were Greek Minoans, successful seafarers whose ships had plied all corners of the Mediterranean as evidenced by the artifacts found in their homes and the images portrayed in their wall paintings. These paintings, found mostly at the Akrotiri excavation site, are now preserved at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The wall border at Christos

The wall border at Christos

One of the “mansions” at Akrotiri had an elaborate border painted on the interior walls just below the ceiling to dress up the rooms. A few days before we opened Christos in June 1988, I sat back to survey the dining room. The room had an unfinished look about it. I recruited my friend, Joel LeGrande, an art director, who agreed that a finishing touch was needed and that the Akrotiri border would be perfect for this purpose. He created a stencil of this border from a book I owned titled Thera. This allowed me to duplicate the border ever so painstakingly in the insufferable heat of that summer, standing on scaffolding to reach nine feet off the floor. The painted border is identical in form and size to the original, with one small difference, which I did not discover until many years later when I laid eyes on the original at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The book I was copying from was in black-and-white. Therefore, I had to speculate on the colors. Sadly, my color guesses were all wrong—the border, the vine, the leaves. All of the components. Nevertheless, the border still serves the intended purpose of dressing up the walls of the Christos dining room, while paying tribute to those brave and enterprising shipmen who settled on the island four thousand years ago. It also serves as a reminder of my late friend, New York roommate, and art historian, Marios Serghiou, whose gift of the book Thera was the inspiration for the painted border.

Thirty-five hundred years ago, the volcano on the island erupted with such force that two thirds of the island sank straight down into the Aegean, creating the crescent shape we see today and leaving behind a caldera one thousand feet deep. From the rim of the caldera, the terrain slopes gently back to the sea on the other side of the island where the famous black sand beaches can be found. The eruption covered the entire island with several feet of volcanic ash, which eventually cured into pomace. Future excavations discovered no human remains, which led archaeologists to speculate that the inhabitants were given ample warning by the intensifying rumbling of the volcano.


Back on the road to The Alexandria. Mohamed and I left the ship at 2:00 p.m. The tender from the ship let us out at the dock. The first impression from the edge of the water was hair-raising. The view of houses clinging precariously to the rim of the caldera almost directly above our heads was unnerving. But we dismissed it on the grounds that the houses had probably been there for some time, and why would they crumble down now?

The switchbacks of Santorini

The switchbacks of Santorini

There are two ways to get to the top: climb 777 steps or ride the cable car. The cable car is much quicker, but the ride is steep and scary as the car dangles hundreds of feet above the rocky Aegean shore, squeaking and squealing as it swings from side to side. And of course, riding the cable car involves no exercise whatsoever. We decided that climbing the stairs suited us much better. Much to our surprise though, the stairs had to be shared with donkeys—big animals the size of mules that are used to give tourists a ride to the top. The drivers help the tourists mount side-saddle. A harrowing, but at the same time exhilarating, experience for the rider ensues. We quickly discovered that these donkeys-on-steroids don’t yield. On the way up, they don’t want to lose their momentum. On the way down, it’s too steep to put on the brakes. Either way, when a herd is coming (yes, they travel in packs of six or seven), it’s best to get out of the way. The drivers do their best to steer them, but they are almost always unsuccessful. The risk is that if one meets up with a herd while on the inside of the switchback, the likelihood of getting squashed against the volcanic rock retaining wall is high. Get caught on the outside and you are likely to get bumped off the short ledge and tumble into the caldera. The outcome is bad in either case.

On the way up, Mohamed and I had to employ evasive maneuvers more than once. At one point, faced with a stampede of animals, we climbed on top to the ledge and held on to a utility pole for dear life as a chasm hundreds of feet deep gaped below our feet while the grunting beasts brushed against our legs on their unstoppable march to the top. One more issue: When nature calls, the donkeys relieve themselves right where they are standing. Needless to say, the steps reek of urine, and piles of donkey dung are randomly strewn about. In daylight, these can be dodged. After dark is another story.

The view from the top

The view from the top

Having reached the rim of the caldera unscathed, we realized we were too early for our meeting. As we walked around, we began to appreciate how spectacular the views were from the top. From the edge of the rim, where all the whitewashed buildings cap every square inch of land, the cliffs plunge straight down into the Aegean Sea. We took time to snap pictures.

Still too early for our meeting, we wandered among the shops that line the rim. They hawked gold and silver, jewelry, painted ceramics, hand-woven scarves, oils and watercolors, and an endless array of trinkets. Mohamed thought this was an opportunity to practice his favorite sport: negotiating. As Carol and I often say, you can take the boy out of Jerusalem, but you can’t take Jerusalem out of the boy. The poor shopkeepers, accustomed to mild-mannered European and American tourists, didn’t know what hit them.

Mohamed’s bag of tricks is deep. And he is completely unapologetic about lowballing anyone. He takes the position that they don’t have to sell to him if they don’t want to. First, he softens them up with humor, makes them think he’s the nicest man that ever walked into the store. But look out, he’s sizing up his quarry, probing for weaknesses to exploit. How busy is the store? What kind of mood is the shopkeeper in? How much does this merchant have invested in the item he wants to buy? How far would he go to keep him from walking out the door empty handed?

Then he moves in for the kill:

“I saw the same thing three doors down for half the price!”

“I’ll pay you ten euros for this, not a cent more. I have to go, do we have a deal?”

“I have ten employees and three kids to buy for. This is all I’ve got, work with me.”

Mohamed only picked up a few T-shirts for the cooks at Christos, and I bought a cookbook of Cycladic recipes and necklaces made of polished volcanic rock for my nieces. Then we headed for The Alexandria.

The restaurant was built into the rim of the caldera. The views from there were nothing short of spectacular. The front was beautifully done with colorful flower pots and, appropriately, statues of Poseidon (God of the Seas) and Hephaestus (God of Fire and Volcanoes) flanking the entrance.

As we entered, a cook came out of the kitchen to greet us. He was Dimitris’ chef, a very pleasant man with a big smile. He said that Dimitris was on his way, and he offered us a drink.

While we were getting acquainted with the chef, I couldn’t help but admire the murals on the walls. Demitris was an artist who expressed himself in many ways, cooking being only one of them. A mural of Dionysius, the Greek God of Wine, took center stage on the dining room wall flanked by depictions of scenes of blackened Santorini shores and volcanic rock formations. This visually stunning backdrop evoked a sense of impending doom.

We sat at the bar as the chef brought out fava dip, a local favorite, prepared with pureed (but perfectly lumpy) yellow split peas blended with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and a hint of fresh dill, topped with raw red onion rings and served with piping-hot local bread and kalamata olives. Simple, delicious, healthy.

We were beginning to experience that special brand of hospitality that Santorini is famous for. Island traditions dictate that visitors be welcomed and treated like family.

Next came shrimp prepared in a unique Santorini style: lightly seasoned, broiled to perfection, topped with melted feta and served alongside marinated vine-ripened tomatoes. Delectable.

Mohamed, Dimitris and Gus

Mohamed, Dimitris and Gus

When Dimitris arrived, we moved to a dining room table. Dimitris looked vaguely familiar. We started to talk, first about their season, which was coming to an end in a month, then about economic conditions on the island. We perused the menu and inquired about certain dishes, which Dimitris explained. The menu was eclectic and featured fresh local produce and seafood. Dimitris wanted to know about the state of affairs in the States. He inquired about the arts scene in Minneapolis, which he had heard great things about.

The chef brought a plate of grilled baby octopus, and Dimitris opened a bottle of local white wine, an Assyrtico. The island offers very unconventional terroir for viticulture. Most of the classic varietals can’t thrive on this island, and neither can varietals that are indigenous to other parts of Greece. This is due to the volcanic crust covering the island, and also due to the Meltemia winds, which dry out the grapes in summer. Another factor is lack of water. Fortunately, the Assyrtico vine can survive from the dew that drips from the leaves. And the locals devised a method to train the Assyrtico vine into the form of a basket whereby the grape bunches hang inside the basket to remain protected from the wind. This tough, durable vine digs deep into the pomace to extract moisture and nutrients that sustain it and lend minerality to the juice. The result is a dry, steely white wine with wonderful tropical fruit notes. A perfect pairing for the fare our chef at the Alexandria was serving.

Suddenly, looking at me, Dimitris said, “I know you from somewhere, I’m sure.”

I responded that he looked familiar to me too, but I couldn’t place him.

Did he serve in the military in ‘65 and ’66 when I was in the Cyprus infantry and Greek military advisors were helping us prepare for an inevitable conflict with Turkey?

“I served in the military, but my unit was not deployed to Cyprus.”

“Did you ever come to the States?”

“Yes! But I was only in New York, and you live in Minneapolis.”

“Yes, but I lived in New York from ’67 to ’73.”

“That’s when I was there, in ’71.”

“Oh my God. Where did you live?”

“I stayed in SoHo with an artist friend who rented a loft there.”

“Wait, I worked on the loft of an English painter on Spring Street at about that time.”

His eyes lit up. “My friend’s loft was on Spring Street. What work did you do”?

“I did plaster restoration and painting.”

He leaned forward to the edge of his chair. “Were you with that student from Cyprus who worked on the loft of an English painter?”

“I am that student from Cyprus. Everyone on that job worked for me.”

It was all coming together now.

“So your friend’s loft was in the same building as the English painter and, once you realized that there was a Greek crew working in the building, you came down for coffee every day.”

“Exactly! My friend and the English painter knew each other well, so I was often in the loft you restored.”

“The English artist painted these enormous canvases on this massive freestanding wall. His kitchen was behind that wall.”

“Exactly! By the way, your crew did a fantastic job restoring his plaster walls. You had this amazing artisan from Kostantinoupolis, what was his name?”


“That’s it. He was an old-world craftsman, I admired him.”

“He is the uncle of my friend and classmate, Andreas Athanasiades. Their entire family fled a very hostile environment in Turkey and ended up in New York. Giuseppe was such a perfectionist. He once faked a heart attack, which miraculously got better the minute I let him climb a tall ladder to smooth out a small imperfection in the ceiling that was driving him crazy.”

“That’s the Giuseppe I remember!”

What a small world! Our paths had crossed in New York a quarter of a century ago under entirely different circumstances, and fate was throwing us back together.

The conversation flowed easily from that point. What happened to the English painter? How did Dimitris end up in Santorini? What happened to Giuseppe? How did I end up in Minneapolis after New York?

Out comes a bottle of Visanto, a dessert wine made from local sun-dried raisins fermented and vinified using a traditional Santorini technique. Delicious!

But it was getting late.


“Dimitri, we have to go.”

“You can’t leave now, the chef is preparing one of our dessert specialties, kanafa.” (Kanafa is a classic Middle Eastern sweet made with spun pastry called kateifi, sweet cheese resembling anari from Cyprus or myzythra from Greece, and often crushed pistachios. It’s baked and then drizzled with a citrus syrup). The Alexandria kanafa was out of this world, as we found out later when we tasted it on the ship.

“Dimitri, the dock workers are union, and the last tender to the ship will be pulling out at 8:30 sharp.”

“They are not going to leave without you.”

“I don’t think I want to take the chance.”

I nervously checked the time. It was 8:10. We still needed to find the top of the steps, which would not be an easy task, then run down the 777 steps in the dark, and be at the dock at 8:30.

Right then the chef showed up with the kanafa. I asked him to bag it for us. We hastily gathered our belongings, thanked Dimitris and his chef, and bolted out the door. We quickly came to what appeared to be the top of the steps. To be sure, we felt it would be prudent to check with a local if we were on the right path to the docks. The only one we could find nearby was a scruffy old man sitting outside a shop smoking a Turkish nargile (water pipe). While nargile is mostly used to smoke tobacco, it is not unusual to load it with hashish.

Desperate to confirm that we were at the head of the steps, I asked the old man for help. He mumbled something rather incomprehensible and pointed vaguely in the direction of the sea. Obviously, it was not ordinary tobacco in the nargile. But it was 8:16. No time to waste.

We tore down the steps, cameras and shopping bags swinging wildly.

Not surprisingly, Mohamed took this race to the boat as a competition and got out in front. I called out to him that if he stepped in one of those piles and slid down the steps, they wouldn’t let him back on the ship. We laughed at the thought of having to explain later how we missed the boat on account of donkey dung, but we kept running.

At 8:29 we arrived at the tender, huffing and puffing. The engines were already rumbling as we stepped in and found adjacent seats in the crowded hold of the boat. We were getting looks from some of our shipmates, obviously for cutting it so close, but we didn’t care.

Suddenly, the woman seated to my right started to sniff the air, like a weasel picking up a scent. Moments later, the man to Mohamed’s left started doing the same thing. Luckily, it was 8:31. The driver revved the motors, the boat started moving, and the sea breeze cleared the stench. Mohamed and I looked down at our sneakers and kept quiet.

An exciting but messy end to an eventful day on glorious Santorini.