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Our Ridiculously Wonderful Time in Greece

Our Ridiculously Wonderful Time in Greece

Jun 30th, 2011, 03:50 AM
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Our Ridiculously Wonderful Time in Greece

Hi all, just back from 2.5 weeks in Greece with my family - probably the best vacation of my life (and I do like a good vacation).

We had it all: sparkling sunshine, beautiful beaches and crystal clear seas, gorgeous harbor towns, stunning hikes, fabulous meals, and an abundance of interesting culture and history (ancient, medieval and modern), plus a peaceful demonstration and blackout here and there. I am not sure I can document everything, but wanted to offer my insights and observations for whatever they are worth. This will be a bit rambling, so apologies for that in advance.

Our itinerary was: Chania (5 days), Athens (2 days), Delphi (1 day), Nafplion (4 days), Monemvasia (1 day), Kythira (5 days). I loved everything we did and the pace of the trip was just right - not too fast, not too slow. And it was great to end up in Kythira, a beautiful, somewhat mysterious island, where we lost all sense of time. My children were just the right ages for the trip (9 and 10) - they were very much interested in the historical sites and the mythology, but also just loved being able to swim for hours and hours on end (and climb in caves, jump from rocks, etc.). They were also able to stay up late and pull their own bags - they are excellent travelers.

I will note that although we were in Athens for one of the big demonstrations/strikes, it didn't really affect us. Central Athens sort of shut down for the day, but we found plenty of ways to amuse ourselves. I don't pretend to understand completely all of Greece's financial woes, but I did observe that much of Greece operates on a cash-based financial system. Many business owners (restaurants, bed & breakfasts, gas stations, supermarkets) openly admitted that they do not take credit cards because they do not want to pay taxes. It's a bit self-defeating for the Greek economy, but as a practical matter, this meant that we used A LOT of cash - I felt like I was constantly looking for ATMs! Apart from our stays in larger hotels and a couple of restaurants in Athens, we didn't put anything on our credit cards.

I didn't know very much Greek before I went (though thanks to my ancient Greek classes in college, I could read the signs!), but we all learned to say hello, thank you, etc. I found that even small efforts to speak Greek were rewarded with huge smiles and, when my children spoke, extra ice cream or cookies. My boys got lots of pats on the head from every waiter in every restaurant.

I love that Greek restaurants are basically open all day and many are right on the beach. Greece wakes up late and stays up late, which was fine with us. We often ate lunch at 2 p.m. or later, preceded and followed by a dip in the sea, and dinner at 9 p.m. or later. It is all very conducive to relaxing, which I definitely needed.

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the particular places we visited (will have to do this in installments because I'm running out of time!).

1. Chania - Crete is just amazing, and western Crete is particularly beautiful. Next time I go, I will spend two weeks on the island. The food was fantastic, Chania is gorgeous, and the beaches were spectacular. We hiked the amazing Samaria Gorge - it was arduous, but we all did fine. We used Diktynna for our tours and I would highly recommend their services. The guides were excellent. We stayed at the Ammos Hotel, which gets high marks on TA, and I would highly recommend it. A very charming small hotel. And with two kids, it was definitely best to stay on the beach rather than in Chania town itself. We had excellent meals at Tamam and Well of the Turk (I'm still dreaming about an avocado/orange/olive/mint salad I had there).

2. Athens - I had been to Athens many years ago on a college backpacking jaunt and recalled a fairly unpleasant city experience (maybe it was my youth hostel!). But wow, how Athens sparkles now. The city looks fantastic. We had a great visit. Toured the new Acropolis Museum - wonderful - wandered the Plaka, hiked up to Lycabettus Hill. We used Context for a great visit to the Acropolis and Agora. We had a lovely dinner at Psarra and really tasty souvlaki at Thanasis. We stayed at the AVA hotel, which was perfectly located for our touristic purposes, but a little charmless (especially in comparison to the other places we stayed in Greece).

Next up - Delphi!
txtree is offline  
Jun 30th, 2011, 04:48 AM
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Looking forward to reading more... your enthusiasm is infectious!
ParisAmsterdam is offline  
Jun 30th, 2011, 07:01 AM
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Makes me want to get on the next flight.
Nikki is online now  
Jun 30th, 2011, 01:01 PM
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Love your style -- I, too, feel your enthusiasm. Can't wait to hear more... it's got me eagerly anticipating my September trip!

progol is offline  
Jun 30th, 2011, 02:03 PM
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3. At about 3 pm, we rented a car in Athens and easily found our way onto the highway toward Delphi. The drive was fine and took under two hours (note: there is a nice little bakery on the left after the turnoff to Delphi). We arrived in Delphi before 6 pm and found our B&B (Pitho Rooms, simple but charming). Delphi is just as beautiful as I remembered it. We headed to the museum, where we were lucky enough to be the only visitors. (Tip: we found that we could avoid most crowds by visiting sites early in the morning, in the late afternoon, or at lunch time.) Afterwards, we made our way to the taverna across from our B&B and had a nice meal that was enhanced by the spectacular sunset.

I should mention that our weather throughout the trip was perfect. Warm (like in the 80s) during the day, cool (in the 60s) at night. Delphi was a little cooler than other places, but that didn't stop the mosquitoes! We had to buy some citronella spray aptly named "Relax!" I was also forced to buy some beautiful Korres lotions in Athens to hydrate my skin - Greece is arid and my skin needed the serious stuff.

Anyway, in the morning, we toured the archaeological sites in Delphi. My children impressed me last night by remembering the omphalos and the story of how Zeus released two eagles in separate directions to find the center of the world. Delphi is definitely special (although we weren't able to get an answer from the Oracle about whether my son would ever get an iPhone).

4. Then we were off to Nafplion and the Peloponnesus. The drive down the mountain to Antirio was beautiful and the bridge across the gulf a real sight. We had thought we might catch the ferry at Agio Nikolaos, but that didn't really work out. Which was fine because we were able to stop for lunch in Rio and watch as a spectacular thunderstorm covered Mount Parnassos and Delphi, where we had just come from. I have to say, the driving in Greece was sometimes harrowing, but nowhere worse than the drive from Rio toward Corinth. It was a two-lane highway (one lane in each direction), but was being used as a four-lane road. And no one was going slow. It was not really pleasant. Fortunately we reached the exit toward Nafplion and things improved dramatically (as in, we actually had two lanes in our direction).

We stayed for four days just outside of Nafplion at Hotel Perivoli. We all really liked this little hotel - set up on a hill, surrounded by orange groves, with views to the sea and across the Peloponnesus. It felt like some of the lovely Umbrian villas we've rented in the past. And it had a pool, which was key for my children who had suffered through two straight days with no swimming. The location was a great base for exploring Nafplion, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Tiryns, etc. We did all of that over the course of our stay - all just wonderful. And Nafplion, also a Venetian harbor town, is just as beautiful as Chania. We had our best meal at O Noulis (coincidentally the only restaurant that lit fire to our saganaki, to the great delight of my children), but also liked Ta Fanaria.

This reminds me of the food. We ate tzatziki at every meal (except breakfast), every day. Was there ever a more perfect condiment created? And of course the Xoriatiki (greek salad) and Xorta (they called it spinach, but it was a different, more fibrous wild green, still delicious). We had the best olives on Crete, but it was fun to taste all the different varieties of olives and the various ways they were cured (in vinegar, in salt, with lemon, etc.) We also really liked every lamb dish we tried, some of the loukaniko (sausage, it varied from restaurant to restaurant), gouvetsi (usually lamb with pasta), roasted goat, roasted rooster, fried rabbit.

We ate a lot of meat and less fish than you might expect - it seems that in the areas where we traveled, there was not a strong fishing culture. I was told that, especially on Crete, the people didn't fish historically because of the dangers posed by marauding pirates, invading Venetians and sieging Turks. So when we ordered fresh fish, especially big whole fish, it was super expensive, even in the little tavernas right on the water. Octopus (we had some good dishes) was less expensive, as were red mullets and sardines.

I digress. Apart from touring historical sites, we also rented bikes one day in Nafplion (at the very friendly Nafplio Bike store - http://www.nafplio-bike.gr/shop/) and were directed to a dirt path leading out of town toward the popular local beach. En route, there was a small pebble cove, where we stopped. There were a few others who had made their way to this perfect little beach, but it was relatively secluded and a wonderful find. After a while of swimming and snorkeling, we ended up biking on to the main beach, but it was crowded and less beautiful. On a different day, we also visited Tolo - a gorgeous beach but highly trafficked by not-so-attractive pasty (or sunburned) Northern European tourists. (Is that catty? Well, it's true.)

5. Leaving Nafplion, we headed down the coast to Monemvasia. We took the coastal road to Leonidion. I was driving, but it was hard to keep my eyes on the road - wow, it was beautiful. We turned inland at Leonidion and headed into the mountains toward Kosmas. I do not have the words to describe this stretch of road. It is breathtaking and I had to pull over a few times just to take it in. Eventually we came upon the monastery of Elonas, which had been built - improbably - into a cliff. The story (according to our blue guide) is that the faithful were building a monastery on top of the mountain, and they would leave their tools at the site every night. When they would return the next day, all of their tools would have been moved to this little ledge way down the cliff. They would go down and get their tools and start again. This kept happening and one day, they saw an vision of the Virgin, a sign that the monastery was supposed to be built into the side of the mountain. It's really remarkable. We stopped for a bit, picked up some holy water for our friend's Yaya, and then on to the cute village of Kosmas for a delightful lunch.

Finally, we wound our way down the mountain and over to Monemvasia. Wow. Monemvasia is absurdly beautiful - a medieval town built on an island rock. We wandered around, near sunset, with our mouths agape. It is stunning. You must go (though don't go in August, when I hear the crowds are unbearable). My husband who has been to every beautiful town in France and Italy said that Monemvasia was even more beautiful than any of those places. I have to agree - it's a pretty special little place. Very very romantic. Had we been on our honeymoon, we definitely would have stayed at Monopati Apartments, a cute little place tucked up in the village. Instead we stayed with our kids in a B&B just over the causeway. Which was nice - after touring the rock, we crossed back and had dinner at a seaside restaurant called Scorpios. All in all, a day of major beauty.

Phew - next up Kythira, the island of a thousand mysteries!
txtree is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 12:12 AM
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Nice to read an article about Greece that is not about debt, crisis, and clashes! Visit or submit pics if you 'd like on my blog GREEK PIC http://greekpic.blogspot.com/
Antonis_Vlavo is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 12:29 AM
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txtree, I loved your accurate and passionate description of Greece! It is truly a magical place. I recently explained the things that make me, and many other Greeks, happy. Even at this time of crisis. It's my passport to eudaimonia: http://bit.ly/iBaBCa
You;ll love it!
onic2000 is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 02:44 AM
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This is a great read, look forward to more.
AnnMarie_C is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 04:45 AM
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6. Kythira (or Cythera or Kithera), a not-so-small island off the southern coast of the Peloponnesus, just north of Crete. Our friends summer there and we were visiting them; otherwise, I am not sure it would have occurred to us to put this on the itinerary. It seems that only a handful of intrepid and adventurous Dutch tourists go, plus a bunch of Australians whose families were originally from the island. But I feel lucky to have been there.

We arrived by morning ferry from Neapoli (an easy boat ride) to the port at Diakofti (you could also fly there or travel by ferry from Crete). The beach here is quite pretty, but the landscape of the island from this side is really uninviting - an arid moonscape. I couldn't quite imagine why my friend decided to buy a house here. But then we drove to Mylopotamos, in the central, western part of the island, a very charming little town with some shops (including one that sells colorful pareos and espadrilles - quite fabulous) and two excellent restaurants. We hiked down to the waterfalls/watermills and then I began to understand some of the magic of the island. It was misty, mossy, waterfally gorgeous. We swam in crystal clear, cool natural springs pools. We collected fresh oregano, thyme and dill. We ran into baby goats baa-ing for their mother (who eventually showed up). We visited an old watermill where villagers would come to have their wheat ground. We then went to the most extraordinary beach (accessibly only by climbing down a cliff). We jumped from rocks into the beautiful blue sea, we swam in caves, we laid on the beautiful pebbles and felt the warmth of the sun. Did I say it was magical?

And so went the next five days. One beach after the other, all stunning, all practically deserted. Visits to haunting ruins like those of Paleochora, the old island capital that was sacked in the late 1500s by invading Turks who sold some residents into slavery and slaughtered the rest (we read that some locals flung themselves and their children off the cliff rather than submit to the Turks). One charming village after the next. Small bakeries serving the best spanakopita we tried. A wonderful lunch at a restaurant called Skandeia that made me feel like I was in the south of France. And did I mention that I had practically no cell service? How nice was that??

If you are up for a bit of an adventure on a rugged island, if you like hiking, climbing, exploring. If you don't mind driving a fair amount (including through one-lane villages where you have to pull in your rear-view mirrors to avoid scraping the buildings). If you don't mind going to the internet cafe to check your email. And if you want off the beaten path, I would most definitely suggest you check out Kythira (though I'm sure nobody on the island wants me to publicize its existence - they are very protective of the low-key nature of their paradise).

As you can tell, we had a spectacular trip. It ended with an overnight ferry ride to Piraeus and then an easy drive to the Athens airport. We were sad to leave Greece, but lucky I guess since we traveled home on Monday, just before the two-day strike.

Antonis, I will definitely send you a couple of my pictures. I took A LOT of pictures, and I keep looking at them, amazed that I got to spend time in such beautiful, historically and culturally significant places for the second time in my life. Really a wonderful experience.

Thanks to everyone who posts about Greece on this board. I read all of your advice and am grateful for it - it really helped with my planning and travels.
txtree is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 05:41 AM
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clehrman is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 06:24 AM
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I have been to Greece several times. I love Greece and always discover something new. I enjoyed your report and am so happy you had such a wonderful time. I hope the Greeks can solve their problems sooner than later.

yipper is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 07:03 AM
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Thanks for such a lovely report. It makes me want to go back to Greece all the more.
ParisAmsterdam is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 08:01 AM
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Thanks for the great report-- it was nice to read (and remember our trip).
Doh is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 08:10 AM
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So glad all the planning (I remember it!) with what to incorporate with Kythira worked out so well, sounds as if you thoroughly enjoyed yourself!
I hope you are planning your next visit
yiassas is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 08:38 AM
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A splendid report that conveys so well your delight with your discoveries ... and at the end, a bonus! A place that most of us haven't been to, and now are obsessed to visit!

About the fish situation -- it is not so much that there is not a 'fishing culture', but the sad fact that the Mediterranean/Aegean is almost "fished out" ... that is, so much fish has been taken that the stock of most larger-fish varieties has not been able to recover.

It is a story of hardship & unintended consequences -- not only involving Greece but also Italy, Spain, France, other bordering countries. When WW II ended, people were starving... especially in Greece where the Nazis had systematically stripped the country of food; not only all crops but all the livestock! Practically only remaining source of protein; the sea. And the fleet had been decimated, and the nets destroyed. How then to fish? War had left behind stockpiles of munitions and dynamite etc. Boatmen learned that explosions would bring heaps of dead fish to the surface. Thus fish carnage continued all across the Med for many years -- by the time it was halted, the fish stock was depleted beyond recovery. Now the chief fish harvests are small fish -- sardines, whitebait & the like -- plus octopi and squid. Larger fish like mullet & bream are so rare that as you say, awfully costly. A sad story ... but rejoice instead in lamb, goat, rabbit, pork dishes, and the legendary vegetable creations.
travelerjan is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 10:27 AM
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txtree, I enjoyed your report. You seem like just the right types to travel: energetic and adventurous about food.

One question: did you have a cell phone? If so, how was reception in the Peloponnese?
Mimar is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 10:51 AM
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Mimar, go back and readh txtree's July 1 entry... as regards monemvasia. Cellphone reception in Nafplio and the Argolid area in general is excellent.
travelerjan is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 10:56 AM
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Your explanation about the fish situation is both interesting and sad... kind of like the political situation there these days. ;^(

In 2008 in 10 days I never once ate fish and the prices seemed bizarre... now I know why.

ParisAmsterdam is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 12:02 PM
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travelerjan, thanks for the explanation about the fishing situation. It did seem a bit tragic, given that there was so much beautiful water everywhere. Though I also think the security issue hampered fishing on Crete and Kythira for many centuries.

By the way, I forgot to mention the staka we had on Crete. It is this warm, buttery, fresh cheese sort of mush. Very delectable. They use it in cooking (e.g., to moisten the roasting meats) but also serve it as a spread. My boys LOVED it. And the fresh cheese, mizithra. YUM.

As for cell service, it was great pretty much everywhere except on Kythira and in some of the more remote mountainous parts of the Peloponnesus.

Yiassas, yes, we are planning another visit in 2013! Everyone I met said we had the best itinerary, but if only we had time to visit the Mani, it would have been perfect. So now I must see the Mani and possibly Corfu. And Sparta. And I should probably return to Santorini . . . .

I do hope Greece emerges from the current crisis and grows stronger as a result.
txtree is offline  
Jul 1st, 2011, 12:11 PM
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The Peloponnese is huge, in general you have a strong signal everywhere

Regarding fish, it may be very expensive to order it at a restaurant, Greeks love to cook it at home though, in many ways ( that you won't find in traditional tavernas )and buying fish from the local open air market, that takes place in every neighbourhood once per week, isn't that expensive....
Btw these green markets are very very interesting, you can find them eveerywhere in Greece, in bigger cities and of course everywhere in Athens...ask locals for "laiki", and try to visit one... it's a unique experience

Before Mc Donalds, Pizza etc, Greeks use to eat fish twice per week, now it's getting less.. but still fish is essential in the Greek kitchen.
The country covers it's own needs at a percentage of 62%, rest has to be imported from neighbouring countries..
( Italy's percentage is 59%, Turkey 105% which means they have more, than they can eat... so they export the rest)

Fish consumption per caput is 37 kg in Spain, 24 kg in France, 13,5 in Greece and 12,5 in Italy..
Statistics can sometimes be very interesting.....
clausar is offline  

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