Greece

The Island of Santorini – Black sand beaches and Ancient Thera

Map of Santorini Island

Map of Santorini Island.

On the east side of Santorini are two towns both with black “sand” (more like “black pebbles”) beaches.  In between these towns on a very high (over 1,000 feet) hill, (called Mésa Vounó) are the ruins of Ancient Thera (also spelled Thira). We took the bus from Fira to Kamári, the location of the northern black sand beach and launch point up to Ancient Thera. There is a small tourist agency at the Kamári bus stop (renting ATV’s etc.), that provides transportation up to the site if one prefers not to walk. The road up to Ancient Thera is steep—with at least 25 switchbacks. We hired a little van to take us up (and back down) the steep road for €10 per person. From the point where the van drops you off, it is still another quarter mile hike to the main site. There is a small entry fee of €2 per person.

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View of Kamari and black sand beach from Mesa Vouno.

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Agios Stefanos Church – 8th/9th century.

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Interior of Agios Stefanos.

After paying the entry fee and prior to reaching the ancient Greek site, there is the little Church of St. Stephen (Agios Stefanos), off the right side of the trail.  The current little church dates from 8th or 9th century A.D., and is built out of the ruins of a 6th century church on the same spot.  Construction in the 8th and 9th century was rough and done quickly, during the tumultuous era of Arab invasions.

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Hiking up to Ancient Thera.

Ancient Thera, was first settled by people from Sparta, and was named for their leader, Theras.

It was a Greek city-state founded in the 8thcentury B.C. The city occupied a strategic and fortified position overlooking much of the eastern coast of Santorini, and had cultivatable lands nearby below the city.  Ancient Thera was a large, highly developed city, and consisted of open air sanctuaries, temples, public buildings, a theater, shops, residences, a sophisticate road network, cisterns, and sewage system.  Residences in the city were for the more wealthy people.

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Cistern in Ancient Thera.

Most homes were two levels, using local volcanic rock (some of it red stone), and most homes had cisterns below to collect rain water. Most homes had decorative plaster inside and mosaic floors were common (some remnants remain). Thera was a naval base during the Ptolemy monarchs of Egypt (who eventually came under Roman rule), and most of the ruins date from 3rd and 4th centuries B.C.  Beginning in the 3rd century A.D., the city began to decline, but was still inhabited as late as the 8thcentury A.D.  It was eventually excavated in 1896.

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Street corner in Ancient Thera.

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Street in Ancient Thera.

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Taverna Andreas in Kamari.

After touring Ancient Thera, we ate lunch in Kamári, at an excellent restaurant (Taverna Andreas). We then walked out on the “boardwalk” by the beach.  It’s lined with small shops and restaurants, but compared with Fira, it’s very quiet and laid-back. The beach is well-maintained—clean with lots of sun chairs, shade and services. Since the beach is mainly small black pebbles, it can get hot in the summer sun (not bad in late May). The view of Mésa Vounó from the beach is dramatic.

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Beach at Kamari – Mesa Vouno in distance.

The town of Perissa is south of Mésa Vounó, and also has a black sand beach and tourist services.

Be forewarned that the bus (which runs about every hour) does not look kindly on those with wet swimsuits climbing onboard and getting the cloth seats wet!  Either change before boarding, or ensure you are dry, or plan to stand for the 15-20 minute trip back to Fira.

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The boardwalk – Kamari beach.

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Another view of the black sand beach of Kamari.

Reference:  Informational sign posts in Ancient Thera.

The Island of Santorini – Into the Caldera

Map of Santorini Island

Map of Santorini Island.

On our first day in Santorini we decided to hike down to the old harbor, directly below Fira. We walked down the 580 steps. We hired a boat for (€15/person or €70 for the boat) to take us out to Nea Kameni island (the volcano) in the middle of Santorini’s caldera. We were glad we made this little trip.

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Our boat to Nea Kameni Island.

The trip to Nea Kameni  takes about 25 minutes, and provides nice views of the rim of Santorini, about 1,100 feet nearly straight up from the sea.

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View of Nea Kameni Harbor.

We arrived at the little harbor on Nea Kameni fairly early (around 9:30 am) and had most of the island to ourselves. There is a fee of €2 to hike up to the crater, which takes about 20 minutes. We immediately noticed how barren the landscape is– dark volcanic rock with very little vegetation. It feels like another world. By standing on Nea Kameni island, one gains a perspective on how massive and forceful the volcanic eruption must have been 3,500 years ago to blow about 2/3 of the island into dust!  Santorini has had its share of natural disasters. There were additional eruptions in 198 B.C. and again about 735 A.D. Also, a big earthquake in 1956 leveled Fira and Oia. We enjoyed the great views in all directions, including the little island of Palaia Kameni  just to the west of Nea Kameni—with another extremely rugged landscape.

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Hiking up to the crater.

What I didn’t realize until our trip was that the volcano is still active. At the top, depending on the wind, you might catch a whiff of sulfur odor.  Along the east edge of the crater, we noticed steam coming out of a hole to the side of the trail, and we could tell it was the source of that lovely sulfur smell. I put my hand in one of the vents and was amazed  at how hot the air was—even 3,500 years after the first explosion. We were hoping another explosion wasn’t in store during our stay.

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On top of the crater-view of Palaia Kameni in distance.

The ancient Minoans were not so lucky. Their town of Akrotiri on the south side of Santorini was buried by the explosion in 1,500 B.C. and wasn’t excavated until 1967. Interestingly, no human or animal remains were found, suggesting that the population had some sort of warning and escaped in time. Akrotiri is full of artifacts and great frescoes, some of which are now in the museum in Fira. Unfortunately, Akrotiri has been closed to tourists for several years due to the collapse of the huge roof covering the site. Our visit was in May 2011, and we heard it is supposed to open soon, but no date was given, and “soon” has been a term used for quite a while.

There are no services on Nea Kameni, so take some water and wear good sturdy shoes for the walk.

Reference:  DK Eyewitness Travel: The Greek Islands, Main Consultant: Marc Dubin, 2007.

The Island of Santorini – Fira and Oia

Map of Santorini Island

Map of Santorini Island.

When one thinks of Greece, images of whitewashed homes and churches with blue domes is usually what comes to mind. Well, there is no better location for actually seeing these images of Greece than the crescent-shaped island of Santorini. Seeing Fira (the main town) and Oia (the picture-perfect village at the north end of the island where everyone goes to watch the sunset) in person was really beyond words. We flew to Santorini from Rhodes via Athens. It was a pretty quick connection–we left Rhodes at 4:30 pm, made our connection in Athens and were in Santorini by 7:00 pm–in time for the sunset.

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View from Hotel Keti (Fira, Santorini). Our room – lower right.

Our hotel, Hotel Keti, was at the south end of Fira, directly below the cathedral and literally on the edge of the caldera. The only thing we didn’t like about the hotel was the hard beds (a Greek mainstay). The view from our hotel, as shown in the pictures in this post, was absolutely stunning.

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View of the Caldera – Santorini.

From our hotel we could see most of Fira, the old harbor and the cruise ships in the caldera. (The caldera is what’s left from the island’s volcanic explosion in 1600 B.C. – more to come on that in another post: “Into the Caldera”). I recommend staying in a hotel that offers views of the caldera. It is definitely worth the splurge. Our room was large and had a separate sitting area, with a window view of the caldera in addition to a private patio. We paid €105 per night (double) in late May, right before high season. The hotel staff was great, and very helpful. Due to the great setting, we felt like we could have spent our three days right there on the hotel’s patio!

Be forewarned—Fira is all stairs….if stairs are a problem, it will be difficult to get around the town.  So, best to think ahead of anything you need before heading back to your hotel room.

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Mules resting while waiting for passengers.

The main thing to do in Fira itself is to wander through the town, along the cliffside, from one end of the town to the other–afternoon is best when the sunlight dances off the white buildings. We also walked the 600 steps down to the old port right below Fira (where we took a boat ride).  The locals bring down about 100 mules for the cruise day-trippers to ride up the steps. There also is a tram running from the port to the top of the cliff in town that is €4 each way.  Being lazy, we took the tram back up from the port!!

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Oia, Santorini.

We visited Oia in the afternoon, debating whether to stay for the famous sunset views. We ended up going back to our hotel and watching the sunset from there, which was beautiful and relaxing. Oia is a small village, and one of the most the picture-perfect towns in Greece. From the bus stop, walk a block to the main pedestrian route, and turn right (north) and head out to the point, to “Oia Castle.” You are literally at the end of Santorini, and are rewarded with a wonderful 360 view of the town, a windmill, the little harbor, the caldera, Fira in the distance and other little islands. It would be easy to spend the day right here. When ready, walk south along the little alleys, and wherever possible, turn right out to the caldera and to take in the views of the little churches and homes set along the cliff.

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Fira Bus Station.

We did not rent a car in Santorini. The island is small, and the bus goes about everywhere you want.  The “bus station” was just a couple blocks from our hotel. The fare to most destinations on the island was €1.60, including from the airport to Fira. The fare to the ferry terminal was a little more, €2.20 per person. I would suggest getting to the bus station earlier than the posted departure time, because when the bus fills, it takes off, regardless of the exact time! If I was to rent anything, it would be an ATV, which are available everywhere, it would be a fun way to get around the island. In May, we saw about 3 cruise ships a day entering the harbor, so it’s a busy island, but a must-do sight when you visit Greece.

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House with a view – Oia.

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Another view of Oia.

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Another glorious sunset over Santorini.

The Island of Rhodes – West Coast

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Stairway – main avenue of Kameiros.

On our last full day in Rhodes we drove down the west coast.  Beyond the airport, this side of the island is pretty quiet. The west side of Rhodes is greener, with more trees than the east coast. We made four stops:  Ancient Kameiros, Kritinia Castle, Monolithos, and Fourni Beach.

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View of Ancient Kameiros – looking towards the sea.

Ancient Kameiros

This was a site we could enjoy without crowds. There was just one small tour bus there during our visit.  These ruins from the 5thcentury B.C. weren’t discovered until 1859, and were excavated in 1929. What a setting, on a hill above the Aegean. The ruins are quite extensive on the slope of the hill, with a main street running southwest from the Acropolis to the lower part of the town towards the sea. Kameiros was a sister city to Lindos, but its economy was based on agricultural products rather than shipping like Lindos. The city was suddenly abandoned around 300-400 A.D, with little explanation, and buried and forgotten for centuries. Because it was not disturbed, it is considered one of the best preserved classical Greek cities. There is an entrance fee of €4.

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Kritinia Castle.

Kritinia Castle (Kastello)

This castle was built (late 15thcentury) by the Knights of Rhodes on a high point commanding a great strategic view of the coast of Rhodes and west to the island of Symi. As castles go, there is very little remaining (the wall pictured makes the castle look more complete than it is). However the views of the coast from inside the castle walls are wonderful and we enjoyed the stop. No entry fee.

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View of Symi Island from Kritinia Castle.

Monolithos

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Monolithos castle ruins and church (top of hill).

Further down the west coast (about 80 km from Rhodes town) is the site of Monolithos, named because the fortress sits on top of a 750 foot “monolith” rock between the road and the sea.  It is quite a view, looking down on the castle (15th century) ruins and little white church on the top of the rock pinnacle.  There is a little parking lot near the short trail up to the castle ruins, with a little shop for refreshments. Also in this area (in and around the village of Siana) are lots of small roadside stands selling local honey and souma (local alcoholic drink).  The ruins are free.

Fourni Beach

At the parking lot of Monolithos we saw a sign pointing to Fourni Beach and we decided to check it out.  We were glad we did. The beach is perhaps 2-3 km down a very windy steep road. It’s a lot farther down to the water than we imagined from the top of Monolithos! The beach is sandy and secluded, but has restrooms and a taverna. Hike out to the point at the south side of the beach for a view of other coves and beaches.

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Fourni Beach.

Rhodes Island

Map of Rhodes Island, Greece.

The Island of Rhodes – East Coast

Rhodes Island

Map of Rhodes Island, Greece.

We spent one of our days on Rhodes driving down the East coast to Lindos. We rented a 5 passenger car at Margaritis rent-a-car in the new town of Rhodes for €30 per day (inclusive of all fees). The car rental is within walking distance of the Old City. As mentioned in my Greece Overview post, gasoline is expensive in Greece, about $8 per gallon. However, renting a car is an economical way to transport 5 people and to have the freedom to stop wherever you want.  Gas stations are plentiful throughout Rhodes.

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View from the Acropolis, Lindos, Rhodes.

Lindos

Our first (and farthest) stop was Lindos. Unfortunately, it is a very popular cruise ship day tour from Rhodes, so we had to contend with a lot of people in the little town as well as making their way up to the Acropolis. I was wondering if we would run into the same issue on the rest of the island, but outside of Rhodes old town and Lindos, the rest of the island is pretty quiet, especially the west coast.

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Hiking up to the fortress on the Acropolis, Lindos, Rhodes.

Lindos is about an hour’s drive south from Rhodes.  On the way, just outside of Rhodes, there are a fair amount of beach resorts and hotels (especially around Faliraki Beach).  The further south you go, the quieter the island becomes. Lindos is a great sight, with the glistening white town nestled below its Acropolis, set on the rugged coast line, with beautiful bays both to the north and to the south of the Acropolis hill. A few parking spots are available on the road leading in to town, at the turnoff from the main road.  It is just a minute walk down to the village square.

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Church of the Virgin (Panagia), Lindos, Rhodes.

The town of Lindos is full of whitewashed buildings along pedestrian walkways filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and even pedicure establishments—have your feet brushed up by the little fish in the tank!  Be sure to stop in the Byzantine church of the Panagia, (rebuilt in the 15th century) and admire the view from the stairs of the bell tower, and the 18th century frescoes inside the chapel.

The settlement of Lindos goes back to Neolithic times (3rd millennium B.C.), but the Greek history starts around 1,200 B.C. The Acropolis has a combination of historical sights, ranging from 4th century B.C. Temple of Lindian Athena to the fortifications and churches of Knights of Rhodes in the 13th and 14th century.  There is an entry fee of €6 to the Acropolis.  The views of Lindos town, and the bays north and south of the acropolis are excellent, and one can easily see why it was such a strategic settlement given the commanding views and natural harbors.

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St. Paul’s Bay, Lindos, Rhodes.

From the Acropolis, looking to the south, is St. Paul’s bay, where the apostle Paul set shore. To reach the bay, just continue south on the main road a few hundred yards.  From the dirt parking lot, one can hike down to the beach or hike up the rocks for an excellent view of the bay with the Acropolis in the background.

Anthony Quinn Beach 

Our Hotel Attiki host, Mara, told us about ‘Anthony Quinn Beach,’ which is north of Lindos, about halfway back to Rhodes.  There are little hand-painted signs on the main road and on the side road that guide you to this bay, just a kilometer or so off the highway.  There are other beautiful bays close by too.  I guess that Anthony Quinn holds a special place in the Greeks’ hearts due to his movie “Zorba the Greek” (1964).

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Anthony Quinn Beach, Lindos, Rhodes.

This bay is beautiful and calm, but rocky.  I personally don’t mind rocky beaches—less sand to get into everything! There are restrooms here for changing clothes, and lounge chairs that can be rented for €3 per day.  The water is very clear, and we enjoyed swimming here.  If you have a pair of water shoes, bring them!  Even though it was still in May, the water is cool but warm enough to swim in.  I would guess the water was in the low 70’s F.

Butterfly Valley

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Butterfly Valley, Rhodes.

After our swim, we decided to drive back to Rhodes via the “Butterfly Valley” route which winds up through the hills of Rhodes, and the vegetation changes from dry scrub brush to evergreen trees.  Butterfly Valley is famous for the colorful moths that come out June through September due to an attraction to the storax trees.  We were there right prior to the peak season and saw just a few moths.  The walk up the valley along the beautiful stream reminded me of being in the mountains in Colorado.  We hiked all the way up to the Kalopetras monastery (a tiny church complex) built in 1782, supposedly 800 meters from the starting point, but it seemed more than a kilometer total.

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Kalopetra Monastery, Rhodes.

Rhodes Old Town-Home of the Knights of St. John (Knights of Rhodes)

Rhodes Island

Map of Rhodes Island, Greece.

We flew to the island of Rhodes from Athens, about a 50 minute flight on Aegean Airlines. The Rhodes airport is on the west coast, about 20 km from Rhodes town, which is located at the northern tip of the island. The old medieval city is surrounded by the newer city. Several of the island’s west coast bus routes stop at the airport; it’s an easy way to get into town, and only costs €2.30. The bus station is just a couple blocks outside the old walled city, and near the Rhodes harbor.

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Sokratous Street–Rhodes Old Town.

I have enjoyed reading about the history of the medieval Christian Crusades, and therefore Rhodes has been on my priority list of places to visit. I was excited to have the chance as part of our trip through Greece. Although Rhodes history goes back to ancient times (408 B.C.), the old walled city dates to 1309, with the arrival of the Knights of St. John (from Cyprus, and prior to that the Holy Land), whose charter was to defend the Holy Land and care for pilgrims enroute. The Ottoman Empire finally conquered Rhodes in 1522, and consequently there are several old mosques in Rhodes (we did not find any of them open).

Although Rhodes has much to offer, in this post I will focus on the Old City. In other posts I will cover our tour of both coasts.

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Walls of Rhodes-near Grand Master’s Palace.

Old City Walls

Built by the Knights of St. John to defend against the Barbary Pirates and the Ottoman Empire, the walls of Rhodes Old Town are extensive and massive-2.5 miles in length. One can walk in the large moat between the outermost wall and the inner wall that surrounds the city to get a perspective on the height and circumference of the fortifications. One entry point to the moat area is near the Grand Masters Palace. Huge round granite projectiles are found in the moat area-which date to 305 B.C.

Street of the Knights and the Grand Masters Palace

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Street of the Knights-Rhodes.

The Street of the Knights contains the “Inns of the Tongues” –where the Knights from the different regions of Europe met, and were organized by language (7 groups) along this cobblestone street. The façade of both sides of the street is well preserved.

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Mosaic floors – Grand Masters Palace.

At the high end of the Street is the Grand Master’s Palace, home of 19 Grand Masters of the Knights of Rhodes. Built in the 14th century with many beautiful Greek and Roman floor mosaics, and statues largely taken from the nearby island of Kos. The palace is constructed around a large atrium. The Palace was restored early in the 20th century. It is a massive structure and definitely worth visiting.

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Street Scene – Rhodes Old Town.

Streets of the Old City

We enjoyed wandering the streets of the old city. The main route is crowded with tourist shops catering to the cruise ship crowds, but if you get off the main street you will find quiet back alleys that are fun to explore and have great restaurants at lower prices.

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Choosing our dinner at Mpoukia…Mpoukia!

One of the restaurants (Mpoukia…Mpoukia!) we ate at was a traditional Greek kitchen where we went back into the kitchen and ordered from the dishes prepared for the day-just like home! Many alleyways have arches supporting the buildings on either side of the narrow streets.

Ancient Rhodes Acropolis

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Rhodes Acropolis.

Sitting on a hill (Monte Smith) to the southwest of the town of Rhodes is the ancient acropolis (which is free). We drove up to the acropolis with our rental car. The guidebooks barely mention (if at all) this sight, and we were surprised that there was more to it than what we thought. There are the ruins of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, a theater where you can find the “sweet spot” of perfect voice projection, and a very well-preserved (and restored) 2nd century B.C. stadium (where you can actually do a foot race!). In the general area, signs point to other small ruins.

Accommodations

We stayed at Hotel Attiki, a 500 year-old building in the heart of the old town, just one block off the historic Street of the Knights. The location of this hotel is fantastic and the operators are extremely friendly. The hotel has a nice elevated outdoor courtyard and free wireless internet.

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Hotel Attiki – Rhodes Old Town.

Other Things to Do

We spent three days on Rhodes, which gave us time to sufficiently see sights on both coasts, and the Old Town without feeling rushed.

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Rhodes Harbor.

From the harbor, there are many local boat tours that will take you on day trips to Marmaris, Turkey, as well as other Greek isles (Symi, Kos) and tours around Rhodes Island. A week on Rhodes would provide plenty of time to do some of the tours to nearby locations.

Reference: Rhodes: The island of the Sun, A Tourist’s Guide to the City and the Country Side, Marmatakis Brothers, Crete (no publication date given).

Overview of Greece

Greece Trip

Our Primary Destinations in Greece (over two weeks).

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Greece twice—in the mid 1980’s and very recently (May-June 2011).  The country has changed a lot over the past 25 years. I recall when I visited the first time that the country felt quite poor, and for a visitor, it was inexpensive. Now that Greece is on the Euro, prices are much higher, and there is more evidence of prosperity—many nice homes and BMW’s speeding past us on smooth highways.

 

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Syntagma Square, Athens – Government Austerity Demonstrations.

The current government debt problems are definitely a concern, and during our stay in Athens we ended up in the middle of a huge protest on Syntagma Square (an almost daily occurrence we understand). The protests are not violent and almost have a festive atmosphere.

Here is some information that I hope will be helpful in planning a visit to Greece.

Places to Visit

Greece is a large country, including about 2,000 islands. When planning to visit, one must decide how much of the country to cover, which will depend on time and budget. The mainland can be divided into roughly two parts–north of the Corinth Canal and south–the Peloponnese peninsula. The islands are quite varied in landscape and features, and very dispersed over the Aegean Sea. Since my first visit was focused on some sights of the Peloponnese peninsula and Thessalonki, we decided this time to visit 3 islands and a few other sites on the northern mainland. We chose the islands of Rhodes, Santorini and Naxos. These islands provided a great variety of natural and historic sights, and were relatively easy to get to. In future posts, I will review each of these islands. On the mainland, we rented a car and drove up to Delphi and then on to Meteora, which is about 5-6 hours by car from Athens. Delphi is an ancient Greek and Roman site, and Meteora has the famous monasteries dating from the 1300’s perched on rock pinnacles. Both sites were outstanding, and I will share more information on each in separate posts.  Our final day was spent in Athens.

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Naxos Island – West Coast.

Our itinerary provided a good mix of beautiful beaches, ancient Greek and Roman sites, medieval sites, natural scenery, and quaint towns.

Another option is to take a cruise through the islands and to some mainland ports. If you don’t mind large crowds, having just one day in a port, and missing the quiet evenings on shore, a cruise could be a good option, and saves the hassle of the transportation logistics between islands.

Food

Suffice it to say that we loved the Greek food. It is outstanding, especially if you like meat and seafood.  Most restaurants and tavernas offered a variety of Greek dishes and some Italian fare (pasta and pizzas).  It was hard to go wrong with a restaurant choice.  We loved the grilled meats (slouvaki), meatballs, moussaka and gyro sandwiches.

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Enjoying our Greek salads!

We also couldn’t resist ordering Greek salads (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives with a slab of feta cheese and a dash of olive oil) at every meal. We found great gelato most places too!

Language

As might be expected, in all the main tourist areas, English was widely spoken. What surprised us was that even in non-tourist locations like Lamia (3 hours north of Athens), we found storekeepers who were thrilled to see a tourist and spoke English quite well. We did learn a few Greek phrases which is always considerate and fun.

Driving

In spite of what many guide books and websites say, driving in Greece was no problem.  On the highways, just stay to the right and let those that want to drive 150 km/hour pass you. Even in Athens the traffic was quite orderly. We found most road signs in Greek and English, sometimes the English sign would be separately posted (Greek sign first, then 50 yards later an English sign). Some signs for small towns and other locations were only in Greek. Driving on the islands was very easy; there is little traffic outside the main towns. Gasoline was extremely expensive, almost $8 US per gallon. Around Athens there are tolls on the highways (most are 2 Euros or more), so be prepared for them.

Getting Around the Islands

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Aegean Airlines plane on Rhodes.

We flew to Rhodes from Athens, and then to Santorini (via Athens). Flights on Aegean or Olympic Airlines are not cheap (between $90-200 per person per destination). We took the ferry from Santorini to Naxos.  Ferries are cheaper, but take longer and may be held up by weather.

Places to Stay

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Our hotel (Doupiani House) in Meteora.

Except for Athens, we stayed in small hotels, and found the recommendations in the Lonely Planet guidebook and online at Booking.com to be very good. The hotel staffs were very helpful and friendly.   The only thing we didn’t like about most rooms was the hard beds! They seem to be standard in Greece.  Most of the little hotels also included free wireless internet access, and breakfast was included in a few.  Room rates varied from €34 per night (2 people) on Naxos to €100 per night on Santorini (for a hotel that was right on the edge of the caldera—worth it!).

Information on Greece

I used three guidebooks: Eyewitness Travel for the Greek Islands, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s.  Each guidebook provides a unique perspective and was helpful. Matt Barrett’s website on Greece also has a lot of information.