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Trip Report Athens, Crete, and a Greek Islands cruise

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For anyone planning/ considering a Greek island cruise, especially if they're not “cruisers”, I’m posting this report. My friend N and I recently (early Oct.) spent 5 nights in Athens, 2 in Crete, and took a 7-night Holland America cruise (Homeric Quest). Neither of us had ever cruised before, although N has travelled extensively. We had a wonderful time, and agreed that although we are unlikely to become regular cruisers, it was a pleasant way to see several Greek islands easily and inexpensively (yes, I know people will point out the cheapness of ferries. Ferries are reasonable, but accommodation isn’t always!)
I’m going to post this in two sections: first, our stay in Athens and Crete, then the cruise. I’m putting it here rather than the cruise forum, since I have no cruising expertise, and most of my comments are about the places rather than the ship.

ATHENS
We stayed at the Athens Cypria, on the advice of a friend who’d been there recently. It was affordable and clean, and the location was good: 2 blocks from Syntagma Square, near metro, shopping, restaurants, walkable to the Acropolis. However, it was definitely budget accommodation, with worn/stained carpets, ragged towels, and “views” of either the 6m street/alley it faces, or the back alley behind.

SIGHTSEEING:
Ancient sites: We visited the Acropolis (obviously, but if I didn’t mention it you’d think I was strange, right?), where everything except the Propylaea (the gateway through which you/ancient Athenians enter) is roped off from visitors. However, only at the Erechtheion did I feel “blast--I need to get closer in order to see it”, and its caryatids (the originals) are in the Acropolis Museum. There is restoration work—cranes and equipment--going on currently inside the Parthenon. Having said that, the site is still stunning, the views terrific, and the sensation of “Pericles stood here” is unmatchable. Two warnings: some of the marble is very slippery, so the unwary visitors in high-heeled sandals weren’t doing so well. Also, hang on to your entrance ticket: it lets you in to the Ancient Agora, Theater of Dionysus, Kerameikos, Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion) and Roman Agora. We didn’t see all of these. The Theatre of Dionysus (this is not the theatre you look down on from the Acropolis entrance) is below the Acropolis, and just above the Acropolis Museum, and has some interesting “executive seating”. We walked down to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which looks very impressive from afar, but the huge columns are most of what remains. However, I was glad we did go there, because there is a very cool shot of the Acropolis through the remains of Hadrian’s Arch (this Roman emperor was a Greek-lover, to make a bad pun; the remains of his Library are impressive and his statue’s in the Ancient Agora) The Roman Agora (and Hadrian’s Library) are interesting , but they are situated such that you can basically see them just by walking around their perimeter. The Ancient Agora (major city meeting place) has a large, intact temple, a restored Stoa (portico where business could be transacted) containing a museum, and a huge overgrown area of atmospheric ruins.

Museums: The Acropolis Museum, at the bottom of the hill across from the Theatre of Dionysus, is new and very impressive. Essentially, the centre is a metal skeleton of the Parthenon, and the surviving decorations (i.e. the original carvings on the pediments, etc.) are displayed in the positions where they would have been seen by an ancient Greek. Copies of the pieces which are in foreign hands are recognizable because they are tinted a different colour than the original stone. This is also where you can see the original caryatids (the ladies holding the temple on their foreheads) from the Acropolis, and a myriad of statues / artifacts from the various temples. Allow plenty of time, and if you are there at noon, the 2nd floor restaurant provides reasonably-priced lunches plus a wonderful view of the Acropolis itself. One odd little pet peeve: there are signs everywhere saying “no photos”. So we didn’t take photos (it’s not our museum, after all). BUT... the place was full of people taking photos—including some using pretty-hard-to-ignore Ipads—while the guards watched them nonchalantly.
We also spent several hours at the National Archaeological Museum, on a separate day, to avoid marble burnout. We took the Metro to Omonia station, then walked around the square until we found the 28th October street—it’s just straight up the street, once you find the street! Someone on here suggested a taxi because the neighbourhood is “sketchy”, but we really didn’t think so—downmarket, yes, but not sketchy. Anyway, only exhaustion took me out of the museum. It really is stupendous. Gold death-masks from ancient Troy (I read about these in junior high—now I’m seeing them!), Mycenaen daggers, and wall-paintings, and jewels. Boar’s-tusk helmets. Cycladic grave goods. Kore statues. Bronze statues. Red-figure vases. Funerary stele. Can you tell that this history geek got a little carried away?

Other sights: We went into the tiny 13th-century Agios Eleftherios church next to the cathedral, since the cathedral is covered, inside and out, in scaffolding and tarps. Apparently it has been like that since 2009! We also visited the 11th c. Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea in the middle of the Ermou shopping area. Both of these are very tiny, atmospheric old stone buildings, but I felt a bit intrusive about visiting, since there never seemed to be any other tourists, just Orthodox visitors lighting candles and kissing the icons.
We walked past the Parliament frequently, as we were staying nearby, and I did stop to watch the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I know it’s narrow-minded of me, but I can’t really get a mood of military solemnity from men high-stepping in skirts, caps with foot-long tassels, and shoes with 3” pom-poms. North along Eleftheriou Venizelou street, which runs in front of the Parliament, are the imposing National Library and (?part of?) the Athens University. The buildings are neo-classic designs and these few blocks are delightfully graffiti-free.

A little shopping: we walked along Ermou, which is pedestrianized and has a lot of familiar chains as well as some local shoe/clothing stores, then up into the streets to the north, which provided an interesting experience, as the area is full of small shops “sorted” by product, so that there are 10 fabric shops, then 4 leather goods shops, etc. There were some good deals to be had here, for serious shoppers (which we aren’t). I wandered through Attica between Stadiou and Eleftheriou Venizelou , a nice department store, and we both walked down Adrianou in the Plaka, which has every kind of tourist tat you might imagine. And the flea market/stalls around Monastiraki Metro had quite a variety of objects, although this neighbourhood did start to look a bit sketchy as we went further west.

Day trip: We took a bus tour to Delphi. It cost €90 each, including lunch, guide, and entry to the site/museum; we looked at several of the agencies in the Plaka, and this seems to be the going rate. I think this would have been a doable drive, but we didn’t really feel up for the challenge, when the passenger option was so easy. So we sat back and admired the scenery: Delphi is quite high in the mountains—at some points you could see the Gulf of Corinth. In fact, the site is perched on such a hill that it made me realize how important this oracle must have been to the Greeks: you wouldn’t trek up here on foot if you didn’t think it was something special. The site is well-signposted, and the guide was competent, but the best part was the museum, which has some spectacular objects. I could definitely have spent longer there.

Politics/Economy: These issues show up on most threads about Athens. We arrived, apparently, during a demonstration in Syntagma (Parliament) Square. The Syntagma Metro station was closed, so we had to go on to Monastiraki station. Since our plans hadn’t considered this possibility, we then no real idea where we were in relation to our hotel, and the Market outside the crowded station, where we stood with our suitcases, definitely didn’t lend itself to a leisurely reconsideration of maps! And when N discovered her wallet had been taken on the Metro between the airport and the Market.... So we paid through the nose for a taxi (€18 for about 6 blocks—although he did rather earn it, because the traffic was insane, with police blocking all the main roads leading to the Parliament area.). However,after that long preamble, there wasn’t any feeling of threat or chaos (and N got a replacement credit card the next day). Although we heard some shouting, we never saw the demonstration. By the time we left our hotel for dinner, there was nothing to see but vans full of riot police (carrying shields, and looking bored). Unable to speak Greek, we really had no idea if they had been needed, but everyone else was certainly carrying on as usual, so we did the same. We certainly didn’t encounter anything to make us nervous. We heard a lot of shouting a couple of days later while we were on the Acropolis—and discovered too late that it was the Olympic torch going through Athens! (N is an Olympics enthusiast, and would have liked to have seen it).
On the islands we visited, although we saw a few abandoned half-built hotel/apartment developments, everything looked fairly prosperous. I suppose most of these areas have tourism as a major factor, and tourists are certainly still coming.
However, Athens city centre was a depressing spectacle. Graffiti covers every available surface, and I’m not talking about little newstands—H & M and the National Bank were equally covered. And every block had vacant/boarded up businesses. On our way back from Delphi, we were some of the last to be dropped off, and every hotel, save one near the National Library, was in an equally/worse graffiti-covered street. Every clerk/owner in the stores was very eager for business—usually you only had to pause at a window display for someone to pop out and begin urging you inside. I was surprised, since we had just come from Barcelona, where none of these this was obvious, although the news in Canada keeps mentioning the financial crises in “Spain and Greece”.

CRETE
Since I’m a history buff, and I remember reading National Geographic articles about King Minos and the Palace of Knossos in my teens, I wasn’t going to leave Greece without seeing Crete. We flew Aegean Air to Heraklion. They were also our airline from Barcelona, and we were quite impressed with the service (lunch served on a 3-hour flight! You don’t see that in Canada these days).
Crete was lovely. I think I could easily spend a week there, but since we only had 2 ½ days, here’s what we did. The airport is close to town (well, actually, it’s in town). We walked across a parking lot to the street, caught a bus to the city centre for a couple of €, then walked down towards the water to our hotel. The Marin Dream was a good choice: inexpensive, clean, nice bathroom, balcony with sea view, excellent breakfast included, and close to the city centre, the bus station, and the harbour. The beds were a bit hard, and there was no English TV channel, but 2 days without news didn’t kill us!

We spent the afternoon/evening of our arrival wandering up 25th Aug. street, which is a pedestrianized shopping/ cafe centre, and a great people-watching spot. We admired the reconstructed Venetian Loggia (now the City Hall), the 17th c. fountain in Lions Square, St. Titus Church (which has been a Byzantine church, a Catholic church, a mosque, and now an Orthodox church), and the Heraklion Cathedral (19th c. Orthodox, rather massive, in a pleasant square). We walked a km out on the sea wall past the Venetian fortress (which is closed for restoration) and admired the small fishing boats, the view of the harbourfront and the ferry/container port, and the huge arches which are the remains of the Venetian shipyards. Despite guidebooks which tell you that Heraklion is nothing but a traffic-clogged horror, we found the harbour area quite charming. However, if you plan on shopping, (we saw some very nice shops) check the hours: many stores close from 2-5 p.m., and on Wednesday some are only open in the morning.

The next morning we walked down the hill to the eastern bus station and bought our €2 ticket to Knossos. It’s a short bus ride, just outside the city, and the bus stops beside the entrance. Unfortunately: even though this was somewhat “off-season”, there were at least two cruise ships in the area, and the site was blocked. Also, be aware that the signage is somewhat limited (although there’s a lot of English included), since it presupposes you already know something about Knossos and the Minoans. Still, the ruin of a 3500-year-old palace was captivating even with crowds and heat. I won’t get into the arguments between those who like seeing the restored colours/frescoes, and those who think the site should have been left entirely as found, other than to say the contrasts are interesting (only part of the site is restored). And when you look down at the many staircases you can easily imagine the labyrinth legend gaining currency.
Returning to town, we got off beside the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (when I look at a map, the place we got off is called Pl. Eleftherias, but that isn’t what I remember the driver saying--anyway, it's just southeast of the harbourfront business centre). The entrance was very low-key, and there was a sign saying that the sculpture galleries were closed. I gasped inwardly (no snake goddesssss! I’ve imagined seeing her for 40 years!) but bit my tongue and we went in. Well, I saw the snake goddesses, and the gold bee pendant, the soapstone bull with ruby eyes, double-bladed axes (a Minoan symbol), jewels, vases, and of course the originals of the frescoes from Knossos. The frescoes are entrancing, a glamourous but very unfamiliar society: bull-leaping (seriously? Like Pamplona, but acrobatic??), androgynous figures like the wasp-waisted “Lily Prince”, dolphins cavorting, the “Parisienne” woman with her elaborate hairdressing, And I kept saying, 16th century B.C. Absolute wow... and since nothing I had heard/read about was missing, I can’t tell you what would have been in the sculpture gallery. So I guess I didn’t miss a thing!
We had dinner along the waterfront, and I wish I had noted the name, because the waiter got engrossed in a conversation with his counterpart next door, and when I “a-hemmed” to get his attention, he not only apologized, he brought us a free plate of fresh watermelon with dessert!

On our final day we caught an early bus to Agios Nikolaus, a popular resort about 90 minutes ride east, and spent most of the day there. We went mostly for the views of the island, but the town of Agios Nikolaus is very picturesque and compact. The season was clearly ending, as the many cafes were sparsely filled, and locals were wearing heavy jackets (we were wearing capris and t-shirts, and I waded along the beach, but we’re Canadian!) We passed several resort villages, and a lot of the bus passengers were clearly visitors from apartments along the coast, heading into a town for shopping/dining. The buses are quite cheap: €14.70 return, and we got back in plenty of time to collect our luggage and head off for the airport and our journey home.
I have to mention how pleasant everyone we encountered in Crete seemed—obviously they see hordes of tourists, and I expected a bit more of a brusque attitude, but everyone seemed quite cheerful and chatty.

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    Thanks for posting this. Plenty of hints and tips. I'm sorry to hear about your wallet theft. Hopefully it didn't disrupt your plans too much. Crete sounds wonderful - definitely on the "TO DO" list! Looking forward to your cruise comments.

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    We did something similar a couple of years back, next year we again do a 7 night cruise with land tours at both ends, this has worked out well for us. Looking forward to the rest of your trip...:)

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    Nice report, Thank you! I've stayed at Athens Cypria a few times myself, and although there are no views, feel it is good value for money. The luxury category rooms have sitting areas and huge bathrooms.

    You wrote: "On the islands we visited, although we saw a few abandoned half-built hotel/apartment developments..."

    They look abandoned, but are actually ongoing projects, and most will eventually be completed. Major building work on the islands is done during the off-season, so you won't see much activity during summer. No one, least of all the other hotel owners, wants a noisy building project next door that will disturb their guests.

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    Thanks for the comments.
    Ok, this is the cruise part of our trip. Before I start, here’s a link to a few Greek pictures.
    http://s560.photobucket.com/user/nfldbeothuk/library/Greece

    Holland America Cruise: Homeric Quest
    This was a 7-night cruise, starting and ending in Piraeus, the port of Athens. The stops were Corfu, Olympia, Santorini, Ephesus (Turkey), and Rhodes. The itinerary and the price were our two major reasons for choosing this cruise, although we did also consider info about the cruise line’s reputation.
    We were newbies, and had no basis for comparison. We selected the “open-seating” dining option (which we enjoyed, as we met a wide variety of people every evening), and we heard every opinion from “Holland America is wonderful” to “I’m never cruising with them again”. My take: It wasn’t high-end luxury or state-of-the-art, but neither was it 24-7 drinking or shrieking children in the pool—so it suited us well.
    Neither us of is a natural “cruiser”—neither pampering nor sitting still appeals—and it was sometimes annoying to have to return to the ship in mid-afternoon when there was so much more to see. We’re really about the place, more than the food or the room. But we did get some lovely views as we sailed in/out, and it was restful to unpack for a week. The stateroom (we had an “obstructed view”, which looked out on the deck, but you could see the ocean beyond) was much more spacious than my expectation—probably larger than either of our hotel rooms. It was comfortable, and the food was fine. The “dress-up” atmosphere meant I needed more clothes than usual, (heels, too), but I wanted to try out the whole cruising package. I was pleasantly surprised that you really DON’T notice the motion—even one evening when it was quite windy, there were warning signs on the doors to the deck, I never felt at all qualmish. And I’ve spent enough time on ferries to know that horrible sinking sensation which is almost seasickness!

    Corfu was my least favourite spot of the week. It made a nice day’s wander, and the views from both the “new” (16th c.) and the old fortress were lovely, but nothing seemed really outstanding. If you only see one fortress, the old one has more historic information and variety—a bit of everything from Roman mosaics to Venetian cannon to British barracks. We visited St. Spiradon’s church in the middle of town—people were lined up for the saint’s chapel, so we lined up too, but we didn’t realize his tomb was actually his (mummified?) corpse on display. Oh well, I guess it didn’t bother him any that we didn’t kiss the casket. We strolled around the harbour, but never had enough time for the Palace of SS Michael and George.

    Katakolon is the small-town port from which we, like most of the passengers, headed off to the site of ancient Olympia. We had booked ahead for a return bus ride to Olympia, via a site called katakolon-express.com, which has been mentioned here and on Tripadvisor. The options for the 30 minute drive were a taxi (expensive), the ship’s tour (more expensive), a bus (€10 return), or a small seasonal train (€5 one way, and a hard-to-pin-down schedule). Well, Katakolon Express sent an email announcing a meeting-point change, and we looked for the new spot (brilliantly identified as “a lot of benches and umbrellas”) but found no bus. After 30 minutes of wandering back and forth, we gave up on them and found another bus company on the main street. The price was the same, but they only waited 2 hours at Olympia (Katakolon-Express promised 3 hours, which was our preference). I never did get any reply to the 2 emails I sent to Katakolon-Express, so be warned!
    Ancient Olympia is huge: I hadn’t researched in detail, and was just expecting the ruins of a stadium. Well, there was a stadium, a gymnasium, a processional road, workshops, wrestling rings, temples, altars, and accommodations for athletes and dignitaries. Acres of ruins, with one huge column which had been re-erected for the 2004 Olympic games. It was neat to see the place where the Olympic torch is kindled, especially since I was on a local committee when it came through our town in 2010, but I think my favourite was the Zanes. “Bronze statues...erected with the fines imposed on athletes who had committed the offence of cheating. The inscriptions on the bases named the athletes and the nature of the infringement.” A few inscriptions remain, and we amused ourselves imagining modern versions! Two hours was just enough for an overview of the site, which has English/Greek/German signs by each location. Since I was determined to see the statue of Hermes in the nearby museum, N took the bus back to Katakolon while I walked through the trees to the museum. It is fairly small, but very impressive: Assyrian bronzes, the remains of the temple decorations (fairly intact), statues, vases, helmets, and the statue by Praxiteles, which is glorious. Then I asked directions of some fellow cruisers, and took the short-cut (around the museum on the left) across the stream back to the town and the station. I was quite alarmed when I reached it: there was a railway line, a platform, and a building...which was chained and derelict! Inquiry at the bar next door revealed that tickets could be purchased on board. So I lunched nearby, and the day's last tiny 3-car train showed up on time (1:10)to whisk me back to Katakolon. The port has a row of waterfront cafes with free wifi for customers, and lovely harbour views, which I appreciated since the ship’s wifi was VERY expensive (and unreliable, according to some who did pay).

    Santorini was high on N’s must-see list; she was determined to see the picturesque views of Oia shown on every travel brochure, and we had only 5 hours ashore. We were early in line for the tender (our ship was comparatively small, so the waiting was brief), and once ashore, as we stood at the port contemplating the steep path and the line for the funicular, she spied a sign advertising “Speedboat to Oia, and return bus to Fira” (Fira is the town where the tenders land). In a flash we had our tickets for the 15-min. speedboat ride to Oia, where a walk/bus brought us up to the bus station. Well, Oia did not disappoint—basically every street has a view of the sunken crater called the caldera, or of the whitewashed houses which cling to the cliffs. We walked up,down, and around, happened on a cafe overlooking one of the most iconic possible views for lunch, and caught the last bus back to Fira. More of the whitewashed picturesqueness expected of Santorini, streets of souvenir shops, and some museums for which we didn’t have time. Walking through Fira was not fun, as by now the crowds were overwhelming, and the line-up for the funicular was hot and long. However, in 27oC temperatures, the steep path littered with donkey droppings was equally unappealing, so we lined up and rode the funicular down.

    The next day’s port was Kusadasi, a large modern Turkish town which is the cruise gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus. We had a long day here, and I convinced N that this would be a good place to splurge for a guided tour, as we wanted to see several scattered sights. We booked with Ephesus Plus tours, and were very pleased with the experience. Our guide was a well-informed young woman whose husband works away for several months at a time, spoke admiringly of recent economic growth in Turkey, but dismissively of “eastern peasants” who want everyone to follow their view of Islam.
    We first visited the Virgin Mary House. I had never heard of this site before we planned our trip: Catholics (and Muslims, like our guide) believe that the Apostle John brought Mary here in her old age. It is a tiny brick building, with long lines to enter, and crowds filling bottles from the cistern or lighting candles to Mary.
    Next we went to the ancient ruins of Ephesus: A terrific experience. The site is very large; Ephesus was a a major Greek, then Roman, city until its port silted up. We saw a government assembly hall (official agora), statues, roads, monuments, the business centre (commercial agora), tombs, the theatre, and the massive facade of the Library of Celsus. The truly astounding part is the Terrace Houses (there’s an extra fee: pay it). These 1st c. apartments were luxury residences, and you can still admire the marble wall veneers, mosaic flooring, wall paintings, and even a marble table, as you move from one to another. I was totally thrilled when one of the archaeologists, giving a private tour to a group of Americans, recognized our guide as one of his former students and invited us to join his group. Ok, I’ll stop gushing now.
    We had a very tasty lunch, then watched the obligatory carpet-making demonstration (we told the guide beforehand that we weren’t buying carpets; she explained that the companies essentially subsidize the tours to get captive audiences, but that we could leave after the demonstration). It was interesting to see the silkworm cocoons and the hand-knotting, but we were out the door in 15 minutes—our luggage did not have space for carpets, although some of the modern designs are very lovely.
    After lunch we saw the remains of the Temple of Artemis (a few columns remain from the large site where the Ephesians told St. Paul “Asia and all the world worships”), and the remains of the Basilica of St. John (his tomb is marked; the baptistry, walls, and foundations remain of what was a major church before the 14th c. Turkish conquest and the later collapse of the port). From there we viewed Selcuk's Ottoman fortress and the domes of the 14th c. Isa Bey mosque. Our guide asked if we would like to see the mosque, and having only ever seen modern mosques in Canada, we immediately agreed. The massive, marble-faced entrance with black and white geometric designs is impressive, but inside is simply a huge carpeted open space, with a screen separating a small women’s section and a pulpit on the long wall.
    After our tour we returned to the port, left our guide and driver, and spent an hour window shopping around the restored 17th c. Caravanserai. What you want to know about shopping in Kusadasi can be summed up in the sign over the shopfront advertising “Genuine Fake Watches” in large letters!

    Our last port of call was the city/island of Rhodes—my first discovery here was that it is pronounced “Road-os”. The old city is surrounded by massive medieval walls, as this was a crusader fortress. There are Roman remains (which we didn’t see) although nothing remains of the famous Colossus. The restored Palace of the Grand Masters, which we toured, was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, who controlled the island in the 14th c. There is also a grim stone street, the “Street of the Knights”, lined with medieval inns constructed for the knights. But Rhodes was controlled by Greeks, Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Italians, before being returned to Greece in the 20th c., and if we had more time it certainly looked like an interesting city to wander—the museum in the Palace gives an idea of the historic variety.

    Altogether, we felt that we had an appetite-whetting taste of the Greek islands--and I definitely would like to see more of Turkey.

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    Thank you for taking the time to write your report. We are heading that direction next May so it was helpful - especially the shopping - my wife loves shopping in far off places . . . :(

    Ian

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