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Trip Report Trip Report - Istanbul and Greece

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My husband and I just returned from 3 weeks in Europe. We had a wonderful time overall, but definitely learned a few lessons the hard way! I decided to try my hand at a trip report – hope it is entertaining/useful! We are in our 20s, art/culture/history fans, and usually like to see all the sights when we travel, though we have been trying to take it easy lately. We’re also amateur foodies and love hunting down good restaurants to try!

Day 1

Our flight to Istanbul almost didn’t happen after this episode in the security line:

TSA officer: “Do you have any sharp objects in your bag?”
My husband: “No?”
*TSA officer searches bag and finds three large kitchen knives that have apparently been hiding there since our college graduation 4 years ago.*

Fortunately he ultimately took pity on us and let us through, and we just barely made our flight. We flew Delta, and the experience was certainly uninspiring. It was an old plane without personal TV screens and at least one tray table held up by a rubber band wrapped around the seat. We had a palatable dinner on board and breakfast just before landing in Istanbul on time (10AM). Would have flown Turkish Air if we could afford it.

We quickly navigated customs and baggage pickup, eager to explore the city. Alas, our efficiency had been in vain – the aiport pickup we had arranged with our hotel never arrived. (It was pretty terrible, actually – a nice Turkish guy called our hotel to remind them we were waiting, they claimed to be 5 minutes away, but 20 minutes later, still no sign of the driver). Instead, we took the Metro and a tram to Sultanahmet (the Old City). It was so cheap and very easy to navigate – plus, we met some friendly locals, who helped us with our luggage and gave us travel advice despite speaking not a word of English! I highly recommend using public transport to/from the airport.

Despite an apparent lack of street signs in parts of Sultanahmet, finding Hotel Peninsula turned out to be pretty simple with a map (which we picked up at the airport). We passed both the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque on our 10-minute walk from the tram stop - a fitting Istanbul welcome!

We checked in to our ground floor room at the hotel, where the guys at the reception not very convincingly claimed that of course our driver had been there and we had just missed him. I think it would be more fair to call this place a hostel than a hotel, but it suited our needs. The room was a good size, clean, nice bathroom, and a great location in Sultanahmet. We did get our involuntary 5AM wake-up calls from the mosque next door, but I, for one, did not mind – the call to prayer is so hauntingly beautiful.

We don’t nap after flying to avoid jetlag, so we refreshed ourselves with quick showers and headed straight for the Haghia Sophia. We bought the Museum Pass at a “Museum Pass Truck” right outside (this turned out to be great for skipping lines and saving money – it pays for itself after a few major sights). We also got the audioguide here, which was helpful given the lack of signage inside, but (like all the other audioguides we got in Istanbul) a bit dry and not as detailed as we would have liked.

The Haghia Sophia was as incredible as we expected. I would say it is less beautiful than awe-inspiring – the enormous scale, the potpourri of Christian and Muslim elements, the tangible evidence of centuries upon centuries of history. We spent just about an hour and a half admiring it before heading to lunch at the famous Kofte place recommended by Fodor’s (Sultanahmet Koftecisi?). This did not disappoint – cheap, quick, and tasty.

We then visited the Blue Mosque just across the way from the Haghia Sophia. This was a very different experience, since it’s a functioning mosque. First, the guards are extremely strict about covering up, much more so than European churches. As I learned very quickly, covered shoulders and knees are not enough – if they can see any leg or arm, they’ll make you put on a garment reminiscent of doctors’ scrubs. Not fun. Second, they don’t have signs or audioguides, so it is difficult to learn anything about the mosque if you are on your own. Have to admit, I felt a bit jealous of all the tour groups getting shown around. But of course, we could still fully appreciate the beauty of the mosque. The intricacy of the designs and the colors overwhelmed us from the second we stepped in, and for a while, I simply sat on the carpeted floor and stared all around – it was magical.

By the time we left the Blue Mosque, it was midday, and the Basilica Cistern provided a welcome respite from the heat. Such an unusual and beautiful sight – and a good audioguide here as well. Beware, this is the one place that does not accept the Museum Pass.

Next, we walked to Eminonu, and checked out the New Mosque, where we actually got to see afternoon prayers – a fascinating experience. We took a quick walk through the Spice Market, but didn’t stay long – all of the stalls seemed to sell the exact same things (down to the brands/packaging), and the vendors were extremely aggressive.

For dinner, we went to Hamdi, which we loved – yummy kebabs and Turkish pizza and baklava, a gorgeous view across the Golden Horn, and great service. We finished off our very full first day in Istanbul with a whirling dervish show at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center – another unique, mesmerizing experience.

Day 2

We got breakfast at our hotel’s rooftop terrace – it seems that nearly all of the many hotels in this area have rooftop terraces with views of the Sea of Marmara – and headed to the Topkapi Palace. It was crowded when we came in and only got more crowded as the day wore on, but very much worth it. The tickets to the palace and the Harem were included in our pass, so we were able to skip those lines. We got an audioguide and went to see the Harem right away and (even crammed with tourists) this was our favorite part of the palace. The twin rooms of the Gilded Cage, where the Ottomans kept heirs to the throne locked up, were the highlight of the visit. Interestingly, they don’t label the rooms as the Gilded Cage – I think they call it something innocent, like “the Summer Palace”! After exploring the harem, we wandered the grounds, the beautiful gardens and pavilions (the Circumcision Room was a highlight, as was the Treasury. The latter had its own long, but rapidly-moving line). We spent about 4 hours at the palace in all.

We had a cooking class scheduled for the afternoon/evening, and still had about an hour before that started – not enough for a major sight, but perfect for the compact Mosaic Museum, located on the outskirts of a Sultanahmet bazaar (a bit hard to find, but if you ask a few vendors, you’ll eventually make it there). The museum was built over the remains of a huge mosaic that once decorated the courtyard of a Byzantine palace. The original mosaic was made of 75-80 MILLION little tiles, but only about an eighth of it survived/has been excavated. You can walk along the mosaic on walkways built above it, as well as read a bit about how it was restored. We absolutely loved this quiet little museum, and it was an interesting contrast to the Ottoman landmarks we had visited.

And then, it was time for the cooking class with Cooking A La Turka, hands down one of my favorite experiences in Istanbul and certainly our best meal in the city. Our group of 9 (11 is the maximum group size) made a 5 course meal including such delights as a spicy red lentil soup, vine leaves stuffed with meat, and the famous “Imam Fainted” dish. We met some really fun people, used a 2-foot long cleaver knife, and learned that eggplants are much more complicated than you might think. If you don’t do the class, at least have dinner in their adorable restaurant (it’s just a few tables, so reserve in advance).

Day 3

We did not have a set itinerary for our 3rd day in Istanbul, so we decided to set out and be spontaneous. We had heard that the Taksim Square protests had quieted down somewhat, so we decided to venture out to Beyoglu (as locals were quick to remind us whenever we got too excited about the beauty of Sultanahmet, the Old City is not at all representative of the real Istanbul, and we couldn’t leave without seeing the real Istanbul.) We walked over the bridge to the Galata tower and then made our way to the famous Istiklal Avenue. Only here did we see the first signs that all was not right in Istanbul – a few cracked windows and spray painted slogans on a few buildings. Overall though, the boulevard was peaceful, the stores were open, and shoppers were rushing to and fro. I was not a fan of Istiklal Avenue…it’s a pretty street, but it is ALL stores, many of them American brands. In Sultanahmet, everyone is selling something – I thought by escaping to Beyoglu, we’d have a break from the rampant commercialism, but it was exactly the same, just more upscale and in stores rather than stalls or on the street.

Taksim Square, on the other hand, was quite touching to visit. We saw a lot of slogans and posters and flags, even though no protests were happening so early in the day. Thunderclouds gathered overhead just as we entered the square, making the scene look even more dramatic. We looked around a bit and walked back down Istiklal Avenue.

We were hoping to eat at 360 Istanbul, recommended by Fodors, but unfortunately, they have an incorrect address printed in the guidebook, so we could not find it. We ended up crossing the bridge once more and eating at Borsa Lokantasi, which is recommended by Fodors as well, but I’m honestly not sure why, because it was not good at all.

At this point, we weren’t the happiest travelers in the world, so we decided to try to salvage the day by taking a cab out to see the mosaics at the Chora church. These were definitely worth the trek out (and by trek, I mean affordable 15 minute taxi ride from Eminonu!) The gold mosaics literally sparkle – I can’t imagine how they could be so well-preserved after so many years. Another highlight was the little colony of cats living on the grounds of the Chora church. Feral cats are EVERYWHERE in Istanbul, but this place takes the cake for the most adorable little kittens we saw on our whole trip.

The one challenge of going to Chora was getting a cab back that wouldn’t rip us off – we tried to get an official yellow cab, but he waved us to a friend of his in an unmarked car, and we were most definitely ripped off (not by much, but the experience still leaves a bad taste in my mouth). If I could do it again, I would try to insist on taking a real taxi, but you’re sort of stuck in a random residential district, so perhaps that’s not always possible.

We took an evening cruise on the Bosphorus, using the official company rather than the many private companies targeting tourists. On the bright side, it was much cheaper and felt more authentic – lots of Turks on the ferry with us. But because they were locals and not very interested in the guided tour voiceover playing on the speakers, people were talking loudly, and we heard not a single word about what we were seeing. It was also a very full ship (at least on the outside deck)! But definitely a relaxing and beautiful experience, and evening was the perfect time to do it.

We had a late dinner at Teras (note, the address in Fodor’s is wrong for this one as well!) Simply unbeatable views on all sides, great service, and so much food!! (We got the tasting menu, and I could barely try everything). The food was solid, but some things were definitely better than others, particularly on the meze tray. Regardless, I would recommend Teras if only for the view.

Day 4

The one major sight we hadn’t seen in Sultanahmet was the archaeological museum (we were also interested in the museum of modern art and the Dolmabahce palace, but sadly, the protests in those areas were continuing, and we did not feel safe going). The museum is housed in three buildings, one of which is partially under restoration. I think many of the exhibits must have been put together a while ago, because they are not as well-curated as many other museums I’ve seen. Many displays are stuffed with objects with little information provided, so it feels rather overwhelming to try to make sense of them. However, we loved the exhibits of Turkish tiles and the elaborate sarcophagi. We spent about 3 hours here before being completely “museum-ed out”.

We didn’t want to leave Istanbul without stepping foot on the Asian side, so we took a quick ferry over to eat at Ciya, which was as delicious as the reviews had led me to expect. I had a wonderfully filling dish involving pieces of bread and meat soaked in a bowl of yogurt. We had detailed directions to the restaurant, which was great, because I doubt we would have been able to find it otherwise! The small bit of the Asian side we saw (basically the area by the port) was just as crowded and full of people selling things as the rest of Istanbul, and I really wish we had time to go inland and explore some more. But we had a flight to Athens to catch, so, just an hour after setting foot on the Asian side, we headed back to Sultanahmet.

We clearly did not learn our lesson from the failed airport pick up and arranged for a car to the airport with the hotel. They recommended a 6:30PM pickup for our 9PM flight to Athens. An hour of Istanbul Friday night traffic later, it became clear they were wrong. This was definitely a low point of the entire trip. Standing in bumper to bumper traffic until the driver gave up and drove all the way around the city to try a different road, which was not much better. Trying to communicate with the driver to see if there was any chance of making it on time. Realizing he spoke no English...asking him to call his boss, who spoke some English, and then cowering as the boss yelled at me for not requesting the car an hour earlier. Glumly staring out the window as the minutes ticked by. Running like mad through the airport when we finally made it an hour and a half later. Don’t repeat our mistake - take the metro!

We did make the flight, just barely, and some fortunate twist of fate placed us in the extra leg room seats for the trip to Athens. We flew Olympic, and they were just great – new plane, good food, nice staff. The Athens airport was blissfully easy to navigate – we easily found our way to the metro and took it straight to Sintagma Square, where we were staying at the newly renovated luxury King George Hotel (thank you Starwood points). We checked in around midnight and learned that amazingly, we had been upgraded to a suite. We like to think it was the universe paying us back for the hellish drive to the airport, though it probably had more to do with supply and demand :)

Up next: Athens and the Peloponnese!

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    Loved reading your report. We were in Istanbul for 6 days a few weeks ago and loved it just as much as you did. We didn't eat at any of the same places, but we had great food (only one overpriced meal at a hotel restaurant), took a cooking class at A La Turka (and have made the lentil soup at home, having spent a day looking for red pepper paste here in San Francisco), visited all the major sites and more. FWIW, we wandered from the Chora Church over to the city walls and to Maktul Mustafa Pasa Mosque, and were able to hail a regular taxi (not only not a ripoff, it was actually cheaper on the return then going) on the main street (looking at Google Maps, I think it was on Beyerbeyli Caddesi). It was an interesting ride through a different residential area.

    Sounds like a great trip, as was ours.

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    @sf7307 - Glad you loved Istanbul as well! And great to hear that you were able to find red pepper paste in the US - we definitely want to try making the soup again soon, but were warned the paste can be hard to track down!

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    I am also following . . .

    Btw red pepper paste is also used/made in Hungary so you might have success finding it at a real European deli. It comes in jars & squeeze tubes.

    Ian

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    Glad to hear you are enjoying! Here’s Athens.

    Day 5
    After the previous night’s ordeal in Istanbul, we avoided wakeup calls, pulled our curtains closed, and slept until noon, which, alas, derailed our plans to avoid the midday heat. We headed out into the sun, walking from Syntagma Square up the main pedestrian shopping street. As we walked, I reveled in Athens. I had heard again and again that the city was dirty, crowded, trafficky, hardly worth visiting. But so far, we had seen a very different Athens, full of charming streets, gorgeous buildings both new and old, and beautiful people, and I couldn’t wait to explore more of it.

    Before hitting up some museums, we stopped by Fodor’s-recommended O Platanos for lunch. Situated in a quaint backstreet that felt like a village rather than the heart of the nation’s capital, the restaurant was nearly empty. We tried tzatziki, Greek salad, and two meat dishes. Sadly, the food ranged from bland to questionable (I swear my homemade tzatziki is better than theirs) and the service was indifferent, resulting in a subpar introduction to Greek cuisine. In fact, we would remain wary of all tavernas for the rest of our time in Greece – I blame O Platanos for setting a bad precedent!

    Hunger sated, we opted for a lesser-known Athens attraction for our first stop – the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum. Located by the Acropolis, this museum shows off the collections of the iconic Greek designer. The jewelry is heavily influenced by Greek history (we saw Neolithic, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Classical Greek collections), as well as other cultural inspirations (the Suleyman collection reminded us of our time in Istanbul, while the Labyrinth made us think of our upcoming visit to Crete). Lalaounis even had a collection inspired by sperm cells. I must say it was beautiful, though I don’t think I could wear it after learning what the designs represent! We spent about 1.5 hours here, though you could probably do it in an hour. By the end, I decided I wanted to buy a Lalaounis piece of jewelry pronto (successful marketing in action).

    Anyway, we moved on to the New Acropolis Museum next. We did the Rick Steves tour and absolutely loved it. It was our first time using Rick Steves, and we loved the way he guides you through the attraction, providing just the right amount of background and detail. The museum itself is extremely well done – from the active archaeological site underfoot, to the panoramic views of the Acropolis through the glass walls, to the kouri, the caryatids, and the information on the city’s history (I didn’t know exactly what happened to Athens after its Classical heyday, so it was fascinating to learn how the city’s reputation saved it from complete destruction by Alexander the Great, the Romans, and other conquerors).

    We wanted to visit the Acropolis next, but a thunderstorm was brewing, so climbing to the top of a hill did not seem to be the best idea. Instead, we walked to the Agora, where we sadly learned that the site had closed at 3:00. At this point, it had started raining and I was starting to feel the effects of what I would later learn was a stomach virus (my husband is convinced it was caused by the food at O Platanos, but who knows). We decided to retreat to our hotel. I took a nap, the rain stopped, and we went out again to try our luck at dinner.

    After our Greek taverna fail, we tried Café Boheme for dinner, and had a much better experience. Delicious thin crust pizzas, hearty salads, and a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake (which we got on the house because the staff at Café Boheme is wonderful <3). It’s just a bit off the beaten path, but we found it to be an easy and worthwhile walk. After dinner we strolled (and climbed a good number of stairs) through a beautiful residential neighborhood to the Mt Lycabettus funicular. It was all terraces and flowers and cute apartments, and I would live there in a heartbeat.

    The funicular whisked us up to a beautiful night-time panorama of the shimmering white city (though we were subjected to much less attractive flashing alcohol ads on the way up!) We admired the view for a bit before returning to the city and catching a ridiculously cheap cab back to the hotel. (Competition for cabs at the base of the funicular was fierce, so we walked down partway and caught a cab there).

    Day 6

    We were taking no chances on our second and last day in Athens – a 7AM wakeup call ensured that we would be at the Acropolis by 8. Even at opening time, two large tour groups had slipped in ahead of us. By the time we finished up an hour and a half later, several others had joined them, and the site was overflowing with people. It was also hot – I was glad to have brought an umbrella to provide some shade. The Rick Steves tour gave us all of the information we needed (and of course, we had learned a lot at the museum the prior day). I really think that without background information, much of the beauty of ancient ruins disappears - even relatively well-preserved ruins, like the Acropolis, and certainly ones where little is left, like much of the Agora. My favorite building on the hill was actually not the Parthenon, but the smaller Erechtheion, with its lovely caryatids.

    Next, we explored the Agora, just downhill from the Acropolis. There, we relied on Rick Steves once more, though we did this tour backwards, since the closest entrance from the Acropolis is actually the exit in the tour. We particularly liked the amazingly well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, the remains of a water drainage system, and ruins of a theater. We finished at around noon, and it was getting quite hot, so we took a cab to the Numismatic Museum.

    The museum turned out to be next door to the Lalaounis jewelry shop. I was all fired up to acquire some Greek gold, but sadly, it was Sunday so the shops were closed. Oh, Greece. (I think my husband was quite happy, though). So instead of spending money at the store, we went to look at money at the Numismatic Museum. This place is truly a hidden gem. It was the home the archaeologist Schliemann, who excavated Troy and Mycenae. The museum has an excellent audioguide (for the first floor only – written descriptions on the second). There are a lot of coins, so I would really not try to see it all – we did, and got a headache for our troubles. My favorites were the coins from Ancient Greek city states – owls for Athens, Pegasus the flying horse for Corinth, and so on. Learning about the rooms of the mansion and Schliemann’s life was also fascinating.

    Our next stop was the famous Archaeological Museum (apparently the only museum in Athens open past 3 on Sundays). But turns out that it is no longer open past 3 for austerity-related reasons, so we arrived right at closing time and were rather disappointed. Since everything else was closed as well, it was back to the hotel for us, for another afternoon nap (my husband had been stricken by the stomach virus by now, so he quite appreciated this break).

    That evening, we ventured out for a walk, during which we explored Syntagma Square, saw the Temple of Olympian Zeus (but only from afar, as it was closed) and strolled the National Botanical Gardens (nothing extraordinary, but a pleasant park). We rounded off the day with a show at the Dora Stratou Dance Theater, which was surprisingly difficult to get to on foot – I would take a cab. Contrary to the theater’s name, there was no dancing the night we went – instead of the regular dance troupe, they had several village groups from around Greece singing folk songs. It was hard not understanding any of the lyrics, but we enjoyed nevertheless. We walked back home in the darkness, sharing a Greek frozen yogurt on the way, (so much better than the ubiquitous fro-yo places in the US), and headed off to bed.

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    And our Peloponnese road trip!

    Day 7

    We ate at the King George, splurging on a ritzy breakfast complete with panoramic views of the Acropolis. At 20 EUR per person, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it was an affordable luxury.

    Then, it was time for our Peloponnese road trip! We took the metro to our car rental place, arriving a few hours later than planned. To our dismay, we found out that they had given our car away and had no automatics left. A bit strange given that we had already paid for the car, methinks. After a 10-minute scramble, they magically found a nice Mercedes automatic on site for us, so we ended up getting quite the upgrade at no extra cost. By the way, we rented through AutoEurope, though the actual company we rented from was National…but the rental place was run by yet another company...don’t get how rentals work in Greece, but it all worked out in the end.

    We set off for Corinth, a short drive from Athens. Our GPS died just as we were approaching, so we were on our own. I swear our entire trip was this Zen parable: http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/2005/06/Bad-Luck-Good-Luck-Who-Knows.aspx# Makes me wonder if this mix of incredible moments and terrible moments is just an inevitable part of travel, or if we could have done something to avoid the latter…

    We had a detailed road map of Greece, which meant that we would be able to get around with relative easy 95% of the time… it was only when we arrived at each destination and had to navigate the back roads of a small town that we got into trouble.

    We stumbled upon the Acrocorinth first and climbed the fortress in the midday heat. From the limited signage on the site, we gathered that it was a mix of Turkish and Venetian fortifications, that the ruins include (mostly unrecognizable) churches, baths, houses, and more. We searched in vain for the remains of the Temple of Aphrodite, famous in ancient times for its large staff of prostitutes, but did stumble upon a mosque – it had a mihrab inside, so we didn’t even need a sign to identify it! The views here were also beautiful - I just wanted to sit for hours and take in the sea, the sky and the green fields. With the entire land laid out like a picture before you, you can really see why the ancients chose these acropolises for defense.

    We drove to Corinth next and were in for a surprise. Much like the Archaeological museum and the rest of Athens, this site closed at…wait for it…3PM. It was 2:35. Of course, the Acrocorinth was open late and we should have gone there second. If only we had known! Oh well, no time for regrets. We bought tickets anyway and raced through the site, admiring the Temple of Apollo and the famous fountain. We didn’t quite make it out by 3, but an obliging guide gave us a few extra minutes and even pointed out important sights, like the place where St. Paul gave talks on Christianity. The guide only spoke Greek, but somehow we understood him anyway, which is one of the magical things about Greece.

    We found out that Mycenae was open late, so we drove there next. To save time, we split an ice cream for lunch – who knew how late the site would really be open?!? And indeed, “late” was still not as late as we expected – our guidebook said 7:30, the Corinth guide said 7, the reality was 6. But we found two hours to be just enough time to explore the small museum and the site itself. Perhaps because it was later in the day, Mycenae was really deserted, and we enjoyed climbing to the top and trying to identify the ruins along the way. Though to be honest, it was hard to figure out what was what, even with the signs and our pamphlet. I missed Rick Steves! The highlight of Mycenae for us was walking inside a huge, cave-like tholos tomb (such tombs are where many of the Mycenaean artifacts were found).

    We reached Napflio, our home base for the night, after 7PM. Checking into the Byron hotel – cute, if basic – we explored the enchanting (but touristy) streets and decided to give traditional Greek cuisine another try at a taverna recommended by Fodor’s (Ta Fanaria). Alas, despite the allure of sitting in a cute alley right off one of the main streets, the food was terrible. We didn’t completely give up on traditional tavernas after that, but I can tell you with complete certainty that we much prefer contemporary fare. Yes, the salads in the tavernas are fresh and yummy, and you can get some good cheese…but other than that, there’s a lot of bland, meat-heavy fare - not for us.

    We wandered around some more (Napflio seems to be a town of fewer sites than streets to wander) and returned to our hotel, where we sat on our terrace and started reading the Odyssey. I hope this will become a new family vacation tradition – reading a book from the country we are visiting. We went on to finish the Odyssey during the rest of our time in Greece, and we both really enjoyed the book – not to mention that long waits, bus rides, etc, went much faster.

    Day 8

    Dinner at Ta Fanaria had completely wreaked havoc on my stomach…it hurt so much I couldn’t sleep, which has never happened to me before. So the next morning we headed to the local hospital. It was quite a challenge figuring out the workings of this labyrinthine, shabby building. Crisscrossing hallways with peeling plaster that did not inspire confidence, Soviet-style lines at a number of doors and windows, and a generally unwelcoming air. We located the check-in kiosk and got a number (just like the deli counter). 15 minute wait, 5 EUR fee (!!!!), and on to the next queue for an hourlong wait for a doctor (or nurse?) who was actually very nice and spoke great English. Then a battery of tests, which you have to get paperwork for at one window, then carry the samples to another window, and then get the results and bring back to the doctor…quite the adventure.
    And the Gorgons of the lab…I know this is not strictly relevant to trip-reporting, but I simply have to describe the scene. A white hallway ending in a closed door. People clustered around, waiting, completely at the mercy of the three women of the lab. You have no idea how long your lab results will take. When they are ready, you will not be notified. The locals don’t really know either. Confusion reigns.

    You knock on the door and one of them opens, looking fierce. You balefully whisper your last name, avoiding direct eye contact. “No”. She says. “Not ready.” And she closes the door in your face. Does she hate tourists?, you wonder, until you repeatedly see Greeks get the same treatment. Time passes. Someone tries again. Rebuff, closed door, wait, and then all over again with another patient.

    Finally, someone comes up and receives a nod. They leave triumphantly, the coveted lab results in hand. Minutes later, two more patients, emboldened by their comrade’s success, knock timidly and are rewarded. And then we are all crowding the door calling out our last names and, voila, I am one of the lucky ones and my results are ready. (It turns out I have a stomach virus, I get some meds, and 4 hours after stepping foot into the hospital, I am done, which actually is no worse than the US, even though their systems are confusing and their equipment is old. Wouldn’t get a heart transplant here, but seemed an effective system for minor ailments).

    Seeking to salvage the rest of the day, we drove up to the Acronapflio, which is less of a formal sight than other acropolises we saw (it doesn’t have opening or closing hours, and there are no exhibits or entrance fees). We had a cup of tea at the beautiful Napflio Palace hotel, with gorgeous views of Napflio bay and enjoyed relaxing and doing nothing for a while. Then we headed off to the Archaeological Museum.

    The museum was small and well-organized, with exhibits from prehistory and onward. We really enjoyed looking at the ancient pottery from 20,000+ years ago and comparing it to the more “contemporary” pottery (“only” 2,000-3,000 years old). One of the star exhibits in the museum was a bronze cuirass (i.e. part of a soldier’s armor). This was such an important piece that the museum had a short video dedicated to the story of its discovery playing. Lo and behold, the video features the Napflio hospital, the very same one where I had just whiled away my morning!! And the all-too-familiar X-ray room where I had stood just hours ago, and the technician laying the cuirass out in front of the machine and joking, “Should I tell it to keep still?” So it turns out I had visited a very historic hospital indeed.

    It was time for a midday meal. Chastened by our experience at Ta Fanaria, we chose an Italian place at the port. Expectations were not high, but Scuola was simply excellent. Modern, off-beat décor, great service, and great pizza (at least my husband says so – I had to stick to plain pasta). And very reasonably priced. And this place wasn’t even in Fodor’s – I really think they need to update their food recs for Greece! As a side note, somewhat unexpectedly, there was a huge photo of George Clooney covering the wall in the girls bathroom :D

    The long drive to Mystras now loomed before us. Instead of driving through Tripoli, we went down the coast via the scenic route: Leonidio ⇒ Geraki ⇒ Sparta. The views were simply stupendous. I’ve driven the PCH in California, the roads of Kauai, the hills of Tuscany – and this is all of them combined. Who knew Greece had such gorgeous mountains? Here, vertical cliffs towering above you, the bare rugged shades of brown shooting straight up. Here gently rolling slopes planted with trees, here bright green ridges, here dark pine forests. And on the coast, the road snaking along the blue, blue water. This drive took 3.5 hours, taking it slow. And you should take it slow, because the roads are perilous. Switchbacks abound…in places the entire road is nothing but switchbacks. The paths are incredibly narrow, there are barely any railings…and every few minutes little shrines to people who have died in an accident on that very spot (or, sometimes, to people who crashed but miraculously avoided dying), shaped like churches. A poignant reminder to us to drive safely.

    After the incomparable views of our drive, we weren’t expecting to be impressed by our cheap, last-minute hotel choice. But we were wrong. Hotel Byzantion is a family run little hotel. The owners were very kind and welcoming. As they signed us in, we saw their adorable little girls running around playing, creating a truly homey, cozy atmosphere. The hotel feels new, has an elevator, a nice pool in the back, a terrace for breakfast, and just overall nice common areas. Good sized, comfortable rooms with terraces (ours had a beautiful view of Mystras). It’s located minutes away from Mystras, easy to find, ample free parking. And while other hotels mostly had Wi-fi, this one also had actual computers to use, which is great when you don’t travel with your laptop, which I don’t. Color me satisfied. Why is this place not in Fodor’s?
    One disclaimer: our double room had two single beds pushed together, not sure if one larger bed is an option!


    Day 9

    We headed to Mystras early, driving all the way up to the Upper Town entrance. Some logistics: the Upper and Lower town are connected, but have two separate entrances/parking lots. The guy selling tickets recommended that we see the castle at the very top first, drive down to the lower entrance, and then work our way up through the rest of the site. But we actually left the car at the top and made our way DOWN through the entire site, which minimized uphill walking and doubling back. Of course, when we finished, someone had to go back up and get the car. But it is just a 20 minute walk if you aren’t stopping to sightsee.

    We did have to do one hike up – to the Acropolis to see the castle. All alone at the top, we had an “I’m the king of the world!” moment, just before a number of tourists converged on the summit all at once, and we scurried down, pretending to be Frankish soldiers escaping the Byzantine invaders. After that, we headed down the slope of the hill, taking in remains of churches, monasteries, residential buildings, and the like. All in all, it was about 3.5 hours of wending our way between the stone ruins, meeting a few but not too many fellow tourists along the way. Since Mystras is a medieval city, the ruins are more intact than the ancient Greek sites. But, it is still mostly unidentifiable stone walls with a few preserved buildings in between. A few of these buildings were locked, some were undergoing restoration, but this did not detract from Mystras’ overall appeal. Like at other sites, we got the free maps with brief descriptions of each building, and read the plaques scattered throughout the site, but found ourselves hungry for more information.

    We reluctantly said goodbye to the wonderful Byzantion Hotel, had a quick lunch, and set off for Ancient Olympia. After failing to find opening hours for Olympia online, we were 99% sure it would be closed by the time we arrived, but decided it was close enough to our route to Delphi, our ultimate destination, and it would be worthwhile to peer through the fence at the very least. (By the way, after coming home, I discovered this website that lists all the hours for the sites: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh32.jsp). So on we drove, first through the gorgeous (but very slow) mountain paths from Mystras to Kalamata, then for a bit down the sleek and completely empty highway to Athens, and then onto a regional highway to Pyrgos and a final turnoff to Olympia. Taking the Olympia detour added an hour or so to our drive, but it was utterly worth it.

    Ancient Olympia itself was hard to find. Don’t be like us and turn on a random country road because “it looks like Olympia would be this way” and get trapped in a field, requiring the car to actually be LIFTED out on the road. (At least now we know that my husband can lift a car). Much better to ask for directions at one of the many hotels.

    Another logistical note: the ticket booth when we drove into the site was closed, but once you park in the lot and walk down the long, winding alleyway on the right, you’ll see an open booth and the site itself. Unexpectedly, Olympia was actually open until 8, giving us just over two hours to enjoy it.

    And enjoy it we did. The temperature a pleasant 72, no scorching sun, the air fresh after a recent rain shower – now, this is the way to see ancient ruins. The perfect weather was only part of the reason we fell in love with Olympia, though. The site is beautifully tranquil, the setting bucolic, and everything is so spread out that, although we had to share Olympia with a number of other tourists, we felt like we had it to ourselves.

    There is definitely more to see here than in a place like Corinth or Mycenae. With our free maps and the signs throughout the site, we figured out what each building was. Again, we wished we had more information…but to get the big picture, you really don’t need much. The columns of the Palestra, where athletes practiced wrestling, the temples of Zeus and Hera, reminding us of Olympia’s alter ego as a religious sanctuary, and of course the Olympic stadium itself, the vast open space spreading out before us, overwhelming us with the footsteps of the thousands who walked and ran this ground before us.

    After the site, we walked to the museum, which had a lot of the things we’d come to expect from archaeological museums (jars and flasks of every shape, little votive statues, remarkably modern-looking glass beads) but also some that were very unique, such as the clay statue of Zeus abducting Ganymede, the Hermes of Praxiteles (a marble statue so lifelike I would have thought it was by one of the Italian Renaissance masters), and well preserved pediments from one of the temples. When we were planning our vacation, we wondered if we would tire of archaeological museums by this point, and it turned out the answer was a resounding “No” – Olympia was a highlight of the trip.

    We stayed in Olympia until just after closing time and then drove the 4.5 hours to Delphi. We found the roads easy to navigate in the dark, unlike the mountain paths we had been driving for the previous few days, and I got to do some stargazing and napping. Once in Delphi, we checked into the Amalia Hotel, and, satisfied with our room, went to bed.

    Day 10

    After our late night drive, we slept in until 10AM and missed breakfast. Downtrodden, my husband went to ask about the nearest supermarket, and, lo and behold, they offered to make us breakfast to order for no charge. They even made some un-breakfasty things for me (rice and hard-boiled egg), while my lucky other half got a variety of rolls, pastries, croissants, toasts, tea, yogurt…let no one claim Amalia Hotels service is impersonal! We breakfasted on our terrace, enjoying gorgeous mountain and garden views, before heading off to the archaeological site.

    After a little hiccup with the tickets (note to self: there are no ATMs at archaeological sites), we entered the site. It started pouring rain literally the minute we swiped our tickets, leaving us wondering whether we should have hit up the museum first. But minutes later, the rain stopped, and for the rest of our visit, the weather alternated between sunny and cloudy. And let me tell you, there was absolutely no debate about which was better. In fact, when we later ranked all the archaeological sites we had seen just for fun, there was a significant correlation between how much we liked the site and the weather conditions we had faced while exploring it (hot sun = not good).

    Delphi is a fascinating site, just like everyone says. Of course, it was pretty full of tourist groups, which took away from the tranquility, but still wonderful. We loved the temple of Apollo, but even more beguiling was the Treasury of the Athenians and the ancient theater. I thought the whole concept of city-states building treasuries at sacred places like Delphi was really interesting. Also, how cool is the oracle’s strategy for success – making predictions so vague that they couldn’t be proven wrong? Now that is some modern business sense! The site was one long uphill climb, but the views were beautiful. The stadium at the very top was the one letdown – it was fine, but in my opinion not worth the additional climb. Olympia’s stadium was much more evocative…plus you can’t run or even walk onto this one!

    The well-curated, midsize Delphi museum was next - we really enjoyed the one-of-a-kind sculptures here. Then, a lunner at Epikouros, easily our best “traditional Greek” meal. We enjoyed every bit, from the vegetable soup to the "goat in the oven" to the yummy yogurt and honey dessert on the house. (Though maybe I am biased – it felt so, so good to be eating real food again).

    We wanted to linger at Epikouros and enjoy the views, but it was time to drive back to Athens (about 3 hours) to return our car and catch the overnight ferry to Crete. On our way, we passed the place where three roads meet, from the Oedipus myth, and the not-very-inspiring modern city of Thebes, also of Oedipus fame.

    We found our way back easily even without the GPS, left the car behind, and took the metro to Piraeus. Very easy to navigate there via the metro, but the port is HUGE, and we did have to hike quite a bit to get to our ship. Not pleasant with suitcases. I’d recommend a taxi or bus if your ship is not at gate E5, which is right by the metro.

    We had reserved 2 beds in a 4-person cabin. Upon boarding, we were dismayed to learn that we would be assigned to separate cabins, even though the ship was mostly empty. If we wanted to stay together, we’d have to pay an additional 36 EUR for a private cabin, which seemed like quite a ripoff. We saw quite a few people spending the night on deck, stretched out on a row of chairs or blankets on the floor. If we hadn’t been in the middle of a very active trip with luggage and sans blankets, I think this would have been a fine option. As it was, our overpriced private cabin was comfortable, the sailing was smooth, and I slept as well as I did at any of the hotels.

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    This is an interesting read. Thanks for posting.

    One thing I want to comment and I think will help others reading this, it is that I am always impressed that people follow guide books as a bible!

    I think guidebooks are great for generic pointers and advice. But especially on info such as timetables of sites and museums, it is necessary to check with up to date sources (such as the odysseus link you posted, it is the official related site of Greek Ministry of Culture).

    Usually I prefer to ask localy for suggestions on eating options too, many things might change since a writer researched, edited and then till a guidebook to finaly get published...

    Some of your unconveniances could have been avoided...

    I am glad you seem to enjoyed your trip anyway : )

    Awaiting for your Crete report : )

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    @mariha2912 -- You're totally right. I think what tripped us up is that we have always used Fodor's religiously throughout Europe and it had never failed us before. As we venture outside Europe/US on future trips I think it will be even more important to double-check details online, so I'm glad we learned this lesson now. No wonder people start planning months and months before setting out...I guess spontaneous travel isn't actually as romantic as it sounds (this trip was very much a last-minute decision - we barely had time to book our flights and hotels for 3 weeks, much less check opening hours and such!)

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    Here is the last part of our journey…Crete. I have to say upfront that I was disappointed with Crete’s oft-praised natural beauty. We honeymooned in Hawaii, and I assumed Crete would be at least as pretty as Kauai and Maui. But Crete’s North shore, where we stayed, actually reminded me of Myrtle Beach – developed, touristy, and not exceptionally beautiful. It seems fine for a simple, inexpensive beach vacation, but not what one expects when you travel all the way to Europe! Our stay was dotted with incredible moments nevertheless…but I think we had unrealistic expectations, and to prevent others from making this mistake, here are some pictures to clear up what Crete actually looks like (fantasy vs. reality).

    BEACH FANTASY: http://www.explorecrete.com/travel/images/panoramic-beach-8769750_S.jpg

    BEACH REALITY: http://www.cts.com.gr/Custom/Resources/Files/photos/abc/beach.jpg

    VILLAGE FANTASY: http://www.economycarhire.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Santorini-Greek-Islands-300x201.jpg

    VILLAGE REALITY: http://www.webcrete.net/images/stories/chania/town-villages/kato_stalos-village-1.jpg

    SEA VIEW FANTASY: http://ven.cdn-hotels.com/hotels/2000000/1220000/1218100/1218018/1218018_111_b.jpg

    SEA VIEW REALITY: http://www.thehotel.gr/files/150/agioi-theodoroi-view-2.jpg


    Day 11

    Our first day in Crete started on a high note. Our ferry docked at 6:30AM, but we slept for an extra hour since nothing is open that early. Heraklion, where we docked, was remarkably easy to navigate. A tourist center provided everything from maps and information to luggage storage and food. A yellow line on the sidewalk (“Ariadne’s Golden Thread”) led us to town, to the bus station where we would take the bus to Knossos and later a bus to Chania, our home base. The bus to Knossos was cheap and fast, and once we got there we decided to splurge for a private guide, just once, to see what it was like.

    We did not get to choose our guide, but we were happy with her overall. She knew a lot about Knossos and presented the information well. Her English was easy enough to understand, but she had occasional trouble understanding our questions, which was perhaps the one drawback. We had a comprehensive tour including all the nooks and crannies. I had heard that the palace underwent a controversial restoration, but I did not realize that the restoration had actually been carried out long ago by the archaeologist who excavated Knossos. I for one appreciated it, since it allowed us to understand the palace and the lives of its inhabitants much better

    No question, a guided tour was better than walking around on our own. Rick Steves was a worthy substitute in Athens, but in Corinth, Mycenae, Olympia, and Delphi, we were starved for information that a guide would provide. As we ambled through, we thought of the Acropolis in Athens. Here too, tour groups converged on the site starting at opening time and only getting worse from there. Here too, it was hot and sunny and we couldn’t imagine visiting any later in the day.

    After Knossos, we caught the bus back into town, and toured the Archaeological Museum (or rather its highlights – due to a restoration, only a few rooms are open). We enjoyed seeing originals of the Knossos frescoes – perhaps the most striking was an exhibit that showed how the same fresco fragments could be reconstructed in two completely different ways – one version had a boy gathering grapes, while the other featured two monkeys. It really drove home the point hat we know so little about these ancient civilizations that even our best guesses are just that, and for all we know, the Minoans might have been completely different from our conception of them.

    Knossos also made me think about the rise and fall of civilizations – this one was so advanced, so powerful, and now it is all but gone, traces hanging on museum walls. And that seems to be the destiny of every civilization. So, one might argue, why bother building up a great empire if it’s doomed to fall anyway?

    On a more cheerful note, we walked to the harbor down the main pedestrian street, and we discovered a gem of a restaurant for lunch, just opened that week. The idea was that they have a grocery store selling fresh local fare, and use the same ingredients in their own very innovative menu. So it was authentic Cretan cooking, but also modern – just what we like. We not only stuffed ourselves at the restaurant, but bought a few souvenirs, including olive oil, saffron, and two jams (plum vanilla and a delicious strawberry chocolate).

    After lunch and our stroll, we checked out the Crete history museum, which taught us that the history of Crete was extremely depressing, what with being besieged by the Turks, occupied by the Nazis, and the like. The very first room of the museum gives a great overview of all this, and then you can pick and choose to learn more about periods that interest you in the other rooms.

    At this point it was late afternoon and we decided to get the 3-hour bus ride to Chania over with. We picked up our luggage, got tickets, and made it to Chania without a problem. It was in Chania itself that the trouble began.

    We had booked an apartment with a sea view in Stalos, a village a few miles out of Chania. We wanted some beach time and a break from cities, so it seemed perfect in theory. Plus it was rated very highly on TripAdvisor. We asked at the bus station which bus to take, asked the bus driver where to get off, and ended up in the middle of the one major road leading out of Chania with no hotel in sight. After asking a few more people, it turned out our hotel was in UPPER Stalos, two kilometers up a hill. We took an extremely overpriced taxi up there (7 EUR for literally 2 minutes) and were dropped off on an unassuming little street. Authentic Greek village? Definitely. Idyllic and charming? Not quite. We entered and were met by our friendly and accommodating host, who took us up to our apartment.

    Now this is the part of our vacation that I am not proud of. The apartment seemed tiny, with an unusual layout (kitchenette right at the door, sink and bathroom across from it, stairs, tiny living room, more stairs, tiny bed alcove.) There were two terraces, but the views were uninspiring, and you could barely see a corner of the sea far off in the distance. And the neighboring apartments’ terraces were right next to us with no privacy barrier between them.

    There was nothing to do in walking distance, buses were rare, and cabs were a ripoff. I felt cheated after reading 5 star reviews claiming this place was “heaven on earth.” And by the promise of sea views, which led me to the false assumption that this place was somewhat close to a beach. In my head I had been picturing sparkling clear waters and white houses, like pictures of Santorini, and it just wasn’t that at all. To make a long story short, I bawled for about an hour, probably scaring all of our neighbors. Then I sat silently on the terrace, staring out at the hills.

    I probably sound like a spoiled brat here, but in my defense, I had handled all the other hiccups during the trip well, even the stomach virus and the hospital, and I guess I had been telling myself all along, “Well, no worries if things aren’t perfect now, just wait till we get to Crete!” So I had built up this completely unrealistic Greek island paradise in my head. Instead, I should have done more research to understand exactly where the hotel stood and what public transportation options were and what Crete actually looked like.

    Anyway, as a postscript, once I had recalibrated my expectations, we saw the charm of the hotel and ended up staying 2 extra nights. The rooms really are cute and functional, the staff is incredibly helpful, and once we realized how crowded the strip of hotels right outside of Chania was, it became clear that Upper Stalos was the best option in the immediate area despite its shortcomings. And once we got a car, which is really a must in my opinion, things got even better.

    Day 12

    I woke up feeling emotionally hungover, but resolved to give Crete a chance. We got some food at the local mini mart, just 50 meters away. The shopkeeper was very friendly and happy to help as we picked out a fresh loaf of bread, eggs, sausages, lentils, and of course Greek yogurt and Cretan honey. We ate breakfast and got a lift to the bus stop from the innkeeper. After hearing about our desires for a beach, he had recommended going to Falasarna, the nicest beach in the area and just an hour away.

    The bus traveled slowly over the winding road, stopping every few minutes to pick up and unload passengers. Only a few miles from Falasarna, we had to switch buses for some unexplained reason. In all, the trip was close to 1.5 hours from Stalos, leaving us just under 4 hours at the beach before the bus home.

    We walked from the bus stop to the beach, whereupon we discovered that my husband’s wallet, with all of our money in it, was missing :/ This put a bit of a damper on things – we couldn’t get a beach towel, for example – but we actually reacted to this mishap with a pretty Zen attitude…I think after the disappointment of the other night, I had become sort of inured to things going wrong and not much could bother me anymore.

    Falasarna was not a terrible beach, but it was developed, relatively full of people, and not all that pretty. The water was clean, the sand was not, and the surrounding scenery was fine, but not beautiful. Island paradise it was not. Nevertheless, we had a great time. We found an uncrowded stretch of sand and pulled out the Odyssey, which became our favorite beachtime activity. We also splashed around in the water for quite a bit. After 2+ hours in the sun, we started to look for some shade. We settled on one of the many worn-out chaise lounges with umbrellas lining the beach. We enjoyed just a few minutes of pleasant lounging before a beach employee informed us that the lounges weren’t free and asked for 6 euros. Sadly, we had no wallet and no euros, so we had to evacuate.

    Next, we tried getting shade at the snack bar. There, I miraculously found 5 euros in my bag, which was enough to get an ice cream and legitimately claim a table! It’s actually pretty amazing how gloriously happy these small successes can make you feel.

    The bus back was delayed and also took forever. We decided to stay on all the way to Chania for dinner. We figured out the way to the city center from the bus station without much trouble, got some cash from the ATM using my backup ATM card, and walked the beautiful harbor, admiring the old Turkish and Venetian buildings. Sadly, the food on offer was nowhere as appealing as the view. We passed a number of eateries and chose one that was full, with mostly locals. This tried and true strategy did not work – we got soggy, gross-looking pizza.

    We decided to return to Stalos instead and try one of the tavernas our innkeeper had recommended. On the way back, we walked through parts of “the real Chania”, which was nothing like the Old Town! We ultimately found a cab and 10 minutes and 14 euros later, we were home.

    At the first tavern we came upon, we were put off by the impossibly extensive menu. The next place, with just a few choices, seemed more appealing. We ordered just a few mezes – loved the tzatziki and cheese pies, did not love the souvlaki (but it’s Greece, and you have to try it at least once!) An elderly local couple came in for dinner shortly after us, and the owner and the waitress joined them. Another local came by and the conversation turned into an energetic argument. The owners’ dog milled about the tables, defending a large bone from foes real or imagined. The owner’s grandchildren ran by laughing. It was dark in Upper Stalos and the village cats were skulking in the corners, and there was a ceiling of vines curling above us with bunches of green grapes just out of reach. The locals argued and clicked their worry beads…it was as authentic as you could imagine.

    As for the wallet, we asked the bus conductor on the way back from Falasarna about it (again overcoming language barriers in that peculiarly Greek way), she phoned the driver from that morning, and it turned out he had it and could drop it off with us the next day.

    Day 13

    My husband rose early to catch a ride to the airport with a local guide he had met and picked up our rental car. I stayed back to make lentils and hardboiled eggs for breakfast and do some laundry. After breakfast, Crete beckoned – after two days of reliance on buses and feeling marooned in Upper Stalos, we felt intoxicatingly free. Of course, we were still tethered to Stalos by the missing wallet and the bus drivers’ promise to return it that afternoon. Nevertheless, we decided to fit in a quick trip south to Sougia, another beach recommended by the locals.

    Sougia, a smaller and less crowded beach than Falasarna, was a 1.5 hour car ride through the moderately pretty mountains. There were no lounges or umbrellas on this beach, but plenty of tavernas, snack shops, and places selling beach essentials. Also convenient parking very close to the beach. In terms of natural beauty, the area was solid, if not amazing. The main downside? It is not a sand beach! We found a spot to lie on without too many stones, but there was no avoiding them when we went into the water, and we kept slipping and falling! It was fun for an afternoon, but I wouldn’t want to keep coming back.

    After some swimming and the latest adventures of “O-dizzle” (as we had nicknamed the Odyssey’s protagonist by now), we rushed back to Stalos to get our wallet back safe and sound. As always seems to be the case with us, this great news was paired with some bad news: I discovered I had left one of my flip flops back in Sougia. Don’t even ask how I managed to do that. Fortunately, now that we had a car, it was no sweat to stop by the apartment for some new shoes.

    Anyway, we went to Chania and finally the Fodor’s guidebook lived up to expectations – we ate at the wonderful Tamam, sharing a number of mezes. I also had some amazing wine. We confirmed once more that we prefer these more hipped-up places to the traditional tavernas.

    Stuffed to the brim, we decided to go for another long drive, West this time, to see the sunset. Quite ambitious given that sunset was fast approaching (we had taken our time with dinner and strolled the old town – a magical experience interrupted too often by the touts on every street trying to drag you into their restaurant).

    We stopped at a random beach on the west coast, about halfway down to Elafonissi (we were hoping to reach Elafonissi, but the sun was setting rapidly, so we changed our plans). Perhaps because it was almost dark, the beach was totally empty – only a few older Greeks sitting outside a nearby taverna. We grabbed lounges and watched, amazed, as the sun rushed below the horizon in no more than 10 minutes start to finish. We had made it just in time. Then the colors of the sky faded and the stars came out in full force, the Big Dipper asserting its rightful place in the middle of the sky. The local men in the tavern started singing folk songs, and this spontaneous concert, paired with the show in the sky, made for a romantic evening indeed. Less romantic, but no less unique, was the drive back, during which my wonderful husband navigated switchbacks in total darkness along treacherous cliffs with several herds of wild goats sleeping right in the road.

    Day 14

    We survived our drive back home, and all too soon, it was our last day on Crete. We had breakfast and searched out an Internet café to print our boarding passes for our upcoming Ryanair flight (if you don’t, you get charged 60 euro!) Then we drove all the way to the Southwest corner of Crete to the famous Elafonissi beach. In additions to several locals recommending it, it was described in the guidebook as gorgeous and secluded, so it sounded perfect.

    Two hours later, as we walked onto the beach, one thing became obvious. It was not at all secluded. Elafonissi was crammed with umbrellas and lounges for rent, changing stalls, and snack bars. And the beach was teeming with humanity...literally 95% of the hundreds of lounge chairs were taken, the water was salted with swimmers and waders, and the few spots of sand not covered by lounges were claimed by towels. Oh, and the lounges were so close together that you were maybe a foot away from the stranger next to you, and if they were to start smoking, it got unbearable (speaking from experience!)

    I was taken aback, but not that upset -- Elafonissi was incredibly beautiful and I understood why everyone else wanted a piece of it too. The turquoise water stretched out forever, just a foot or so deep. You could walk and walk and walk. You could wade to an island off to the side. It was warm and clear. The sand was pristine. The surrounding scenery was picturesque. If you wanted deeper water, it was there too, a good 20 minutes away, colder, more intensely blue, equally impressive. We rented the chairs and umbrella (7 EUR for the set) and started reading the Odyssey. After a while, we ventured into the water, where all around us, couples were staging photo shoots – women posing in their bikinis, men snapping pictures. We were inspired to do the same, and I had much fun frolicking in the water and pretending to be a model. We returned to our lounges for food (not very inspiring selection at the snack bar, but edible).

    At 5PM, a wonderful thing happened – the beach emptied rapidly and almost completely. Soon it was just a few people and rows of empty chaise lounges. We much preferred this quiet Elafonissi and stayed until after 7PM.

    We then drove to Paleochora, a nearby resort town (but still an hour away, because nothing is close to anything in Crete). We watched the sunset as we drove through the mountains, which was gorgeous, and arrived at Paleochora after dark. It seemed like a pretty busy place, with a number of hotels and restaurants. Fittingly, we ate at the Odysseus restaurant for our last meal in Greece.

    And that is the story of our trip. The next day, we would bid farewell to Greece and fly to Norway for a week…certainly a huge contrast to our experiences in the South!

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    I'm not sure why you expected Crete to look like Hawaii. BTW, your "village fantasy" photo was of Santorini, and it really does look that way. You stayed in an area on Crete popular with package holidaymakers from northern Europe, and to them it is like Americans going to Myrtle Beach. ;-)

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    @Heimdall - didn't expect it to LOOK LIKE Hawaii, but to be as pretty as Hawaii (in its own unique way). If anything, I expected it to look like Santorini, hence my inaccurate fantasy :) Why? Because if you read guidebooks and trip reports, they all mention Crete's natural beauty, like so:

    "From every point of view travelers discover landscapes of amazing variety. Mountains, split with deep gorges and honeycombed with caves, rise in sheer walls from the sea. Snowcapped peaks loom behind sandy shoreline, vineyards, and olive groves. Miles of beaches, some with a wealth of amenities and others isolated and unspoiled, fringe the coast."

    I know the north shore isn't the best of it, but we ventured south several times and it wasn't that beautiful there either, except the sunsets...maybe we missed the very best bits? My fault for not doing more research and booking such an ambitious trip at the last minute, but I wanted to share so no one else makes the same mistake.

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    Seems that you went to Crete having the wrong expectations...
    Your " sea view fantasy" for instance is in Nafplio..
    A hotel balcony overlooking Bourtzi.

    Crete is a huge island, and full of beauty, but it takes time to be explored, while you stayed in the most touristy part of Western Crete, which gave you the wrong impression of the island.

    I am glad that at the end you did the best out of the situation and you will have something to remember.....

    What in a way impressed me was the story with your wallt...there are not many places in Europe, where you could find your lost wallet in a bus......

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    >My fault for not doing more research and booking such an ambitious trip at the last minute, but I wanted to share so no one else makes the same mistake.

    And therein lies the truth. We have all done the same to some degree & kudos to you for admitting it. One of the most valuable resources on the net for travelers are the Trip Reports that give the detailed nitty gritty of a destination & Fodors hosts the best collection that I have found. Thank you for your honest reporting & for taking the time to write & post it.

    Ian

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  3. 3 Limavady, Ireland?? Where is it?
  4. 4 Christmas in London
  5. 5 Trip Report Autumn in Paris
  6. 6 Updated ATM info for Greece and Turkey
  7. 7 Norway Advice
  8. 8 Trip Report Notes on Amsterdam, Bruges & Paris - Sept 8-28, 2014
  9. 9 Visiting Mostar, Bosnia and Kotor, Montenegro from Croatia
  10. 10 Travel from London Heathrow to Belfast or Dublin
  11. 11 Kids in Pubs -- N Ireland and Ireland
  12. 12 Winter in Paris
  13. 13 Spain-Would appreciate input on itinerary
  14. 14 Stay in 1 Place or Multiple
  15. 15 Transportation or Driver recommendations / experiences Ireland/ N Ireland
  16. 16 Where to stay in Tuscany with a 5 year old
  17. 17 Is this enough time for Canterbury, Beachy Head, and Dover?
  18. 18 Review of 4.5 days in London
  19. 19 Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Vienna
  20. 20 What kind of Tourist are you?
  21. 21 Trip Report TR: Self indulgence in London and Venice
  22. 22 Need help with Baltics trip.
  23. 23 Restaurants Venice, Rome, and Florence
  24. 24 Trip Report Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice with 4 teenagers, 1 kid, 19 days perfect!
  25. 25 Planning Europe trip
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