Growing up, I remember my Godmother hanging a stunning framed picture in her bathroom. It was of blinding white buildings with colourful doors and domed roofs, on a backdrop of crystal-clear water.
Could such a beautiful place actually exist? Well, any young woman who has watched Mama Mia the movie as many times as I have knows, yes, it exists and we all want to go there. It’s Greece. And would you look at that! Greece was my next European destination.
I’m a huge history buff – not that I can actually recall a lot that I have learned – but I really do like learning about old things. That is one of the reasons I fell in love with Rome and I was just as amped to get to Athens.
Sadly, I had heard the world’s historic leading capital wasn’t that great. A bit dirty, a bit dangerous. Upon arrival, I guess I could see where the anti-fans were coming from. However, I thought the city had great character and couldn’t wait to begin exploring!
Exploring a city, for us, is having an end point, but purposely getting lost on the way there. That’s when you stumble across the coolest things. So, we headed in the general direction of the infamous Acropolis and came across a huge seafood and meat market.
Leaving with our appetites more than wet, our noses led us to the cutest little lady selling fresh corn on the cob with seasoning from Tabasco sauce to lemon to curry powder. Obviously, we couldn’t pass up on such an opportunity so chowed down during our uphill walk to the Acropolis.
Seeing this monument was so exciting for me. A historical site which has stood the test of time through wars and weather alike. Unfortunately – and I say unfortunately loosely – they are currently restoring parts of the citadel. Sometimes, I don’t agree with such a decision. While professionals who I’m sure are bloody good, will ensure it is reconstructed back to its former glory, I tend to think it will lose a lot of it’s intriguing “age.” I would rather they simply ensured what’s left is protected.
So, sadly because of this, the Parthenon building (the one on all the postcards), was yet another iconic monument covered in scaffolding – a trend that seems to be following us throughout our travels…
Still, it was such a fantastic experience walking throughout the Acropolis, seeing the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. What made it even better was the free Rick Steves Audio Europe App. A very in depth, interesting, if a bit cheesy, commentary and walking guide of the site.
On the way back down to the modern world we picked up 1kg of the most delicious mandarins I have ever tasted, ever. And, they only cost £0.50p – supporting my theory again that street food is the way to go! Satisfies not only the taste buds but the budget too.
Finally, the time had come to indulge in what would become staple foods of our Greek journey – greek salad and gyros. As I write this, I am currently in South East Asia (yes, I have a lot of blogs to catch up on) and I still crave these delicious – and cheap! – dishes. If you read my post on Amsterdam, you would know just how much I adore cheese. The stronger and smellier, the better! So, you can imagine my delight when my greek salad was topped with a whole block of feta cheese. This happened in every restaurant too! Oh, heavenly.
The meal was accompanied by a delicious iced-coffee which seems to be the way to drink coffee in Greece! I couldn’t get over how many people we would pass at all hours of the day, with an iced-coffee in hand.
We also visited the Archaeology Museum (how could you not?!) which was incredibly interesting, before visiting the ruins of the Zeus Temple. We also had quite the magical night by treating ourselves to a film, but not just in any old theatre. We saw ‘Gone Girl’ (not as good as the book) at Cine Paris – a beautiful outdoor, rooftop cinema. Comfy seats, great snacks and the most amazing view of the Acropolis in the background.
As you have probably guessed, we like to make our own way to places when we can. I think the best way to see a country is to hire a car and road trip it! So that’s exactly what we did. First stop, nestled within the most picturesque valley, was Delphi.
Delphi in ancient times was considered the center of the known world, the place where heaven and earth met. This was the place on earth where man was closest to God. In Mythology, Delphi was the meeting place of two eagles, released by Zeus and sent in opposite directions. Where they met indicated the centre of the earth.
Unfortunately, I had contracted a head-splitting migraine and couldn’t focus as much as I would have liked to. But I was still able to take in my surroundings and sit in awe of the place. We also checked out the adjoining museum where lots of old statues, pots etc from the actual site were showcased.
If you visit Delphi, you should really try stay in the town overnight. It was so cute and in the most beautiful setting. However, Athens offers day trips and you can see that has hurt the little town financially. We stayed at Hotel Athina which was seemed a little, stuck in the 80’s but in a homely kind of way. Plus it had the most amazing balcony view! I almost wished we had a whole day just to chill on it!
Olympia, the site of the very first Olympics (if you hadn’t figured that out). From Rome up until now, you can imagine we have seen loads of ruins. So, these ones, while historic as they were, we weren’t that impressed. I could easily put this down to not having a detailed audio guide or the like.
However, the adjoined museum was actually very impressive filled with intact statues, relics and fighting weaponry. Totally worth the extra few quid.
So after Olympia, we really needed only somewhere to stay the night so thought we would head out to the coast. The beauty of having a car! Doing things on a whim. We came across the town of Zacharo, a sleepy little place that was just seeing the end of it’s high season.
We stayed near the beach at Evelyns house where the owner was so very friendly and told us that they never get tourists around Zacharo – it’s more of a holiday spot for the Greeks. Nailed it! We also questioned him about the millions – and I mean millions – of olive trees everywhere. In the valleys, in people’s gardens. Because if you think of it, how often do you really see Greek Olive Oil in the supermarket? Italy seems to monopolise that industry. He told us that the olives in Greece are used to produce extra virgin oil. However, instead of marketing it as a home brand, it is shipped to Italy, where often it is mixed with a lesser quality oil, but is advertised as extra virgin! So, the Italian “Extra Virgin” oil you buy, is most likely only going to be about 20% extra virgin. Food for thought huh?
And I can’t leave Zacharo without mentioning it’s perfect beach. It was huge, beautiful white sand, crazy warm water and literally no one on it. We had the whole thing to ourselves and went back for a morning swim before starting on our road trip again!
Nafplio was actually one of my favourite mainland stops – a gorgeous seaport town. We spent a night here in a quaint little backstreet guesthouse – Pension Eleni – owned by a little old Greek lady who greeted us with hugs and kisses. I fell in love with the quintessential Greek street it was located on, and was only a stones throw away from the main drag of shops and restaurants.
Budget was wearing thin now, so we spent only a day and a night here. A highlight for us was walking up to the the Castle of Palamidi. The views from here are spectacular and the castle/fort stretches along the ridge-line of the hill, so there’s actually loads to discover! Plus, the Greeks don’t seem to bothered with over the top health and safety, so it becomes quite an exhilarating adventure for those who are game.
Kalamata & Sparta
Not going to lie, there really isn’t a lot in these towns. Kalamata is probably worth giving a night or two (which we couldn’t afford to give), but Sparta is literally a drive through town. However, the drive to these places was incredible – seriously one of the best drives I think I’ve done. Up into huge mountains with beautiful views, then down into lush valleys with crystal clear rivers weaving throughout.
The Islands – Crete & Santorini
As the subtitle states, we sadly only made it to two Greek islands. It would have been nice to visit others, but I really am glad we spent the time we did on the mainland – a lot of people forget about the treasures it holds and opt for time spent on the picturesque, movie-set islands.
So, we began our Crete adventure in Chania. Stumbling into our accommodation Villa Katerina we were greeted by a large, old, boisterous, Greek woman who didn’t speak a lick of english. But while she was seemingly disputing a power bill with someone on the other end of the phone (there was a lot of yelling and hand gestures) she gave us iced-coffee and cake while we waited for her to finish. She then gave me a homemade bracelet! So cute.
After getting settled we wandered into the old town, and as quaint as it was, it was very commercial which I found disappointing. But, we weren’t actually there for the restaurants, bars or beaches, we were there for the Samaria Gorge walk! A huge 16km walk starting amongst the clouds, down into a ginormous derelict river bed. The scenery; spectacular. I’ll let the images below speak for themselves.
Greece not only holds a place in my heart for one of the best drives, but also one of the best walks I’ve done. I really can’t recommend this enough. And it is pretty much all downhill and finishes at a beach where you can reward yourself with a swim!
Unfortunately the rest of our time in Chania it was pouring with rain! Spent most of our days eating, chilling and streaming my little sister’s football games (she plays for the University of North Carolina. I’m a proud sister and tell anyone who will listen).
We then moved over to Rethymno. We had the most fantastic spot at Mamangakis Apartments and for a great price. Check out the view!
Sadly again, it was pouring with rain for the most part. We did get to check out the quaint old town which was nice but I can’t really give an educated opinion on the place as we spent most of the time indoors. It’s funny – when you are backpacking on a tight budget, a rainy day really throws you as there isn’t a lot of free stuff to do when it’s bucketing down! Movie watching and blogging with a sea view is nice though!
Then it was time to fulfill a dream I have had since, well, forever. Visit the idyllic island of Santorini! Six hours on a ferry later and we were there! We had the whole day as well, so found our hotel in Fira, and, of course, hired quad bikes instantaneously. We spent the rest of the day hooning (speeding for those non-kiwis) around the island. It was actually a lot bigger than I thought!
We left Oia for the next day though as we wanted to walk there. It took about 3.5 hours, but it was such an amazing walk. Starting by walking through the town of Fira, past all the luxury, white hotels, then into the volcanic rock areas, you are constantly up really high, providing spectacular views the entire time. It is not a difficult walk, and you can bus back. Do it!
Oia was extremely beautiful. I finally got my ‘blue-domed-roof’ photo that I had always dreamed about getting. In terms of the actual town however, I definitely preferred Fira. Just a bit more going on really.
Third day of fun activities landed on my birthday! It’s pretty cool to say I celebrated my 23rd in Queenstown, NZ, my 24th in Venice, Italy, my 25th in Nice, France and now my 26th in Santorini, Greece. Wow…
How did we celebrate? We walked down 600 steps, waded through really smelly donkeys to a pirate ship which took us to a volcanic island, swam in a not-so-warm thermal spring, drank beers as the pirate ship took us back to the mainland, climbed back up 600 steps through more donkeys, then perched ourselves on the best seat in town to watch the world-famous Santorini sunset.
Tips to seeing gorgeous Greece:
1. A must-see mainland
The allure of the incredibly beautiful Greek Islands is a powerful drawcard to anyone with even the slightest travelling-fibre in their body. I’m still gutted I didn’t get to see more! However, if you can, really try and get onto the mainland and even in off the coast. It has so much to offer, and the best way to see it is with the windows down, music on and being free to go wherever you like.
2. Use the overnight ferries
When you do begin island hopping, invest in the cheap and effective overnight ferries. Choose the sleeper berths. They are comfortable, with a private bathroom, and before you know it you’re on your next island refreshed and ready to explore.
A tip though is to cross-reference the timetable with the season you are visiting in. Our choices of ferries were bugger all due to being out of ‘high season’ which hindered how many places we could actually visit.
3. Out of season = lower costs
While I’ve just mentioned the ferry benefits of travelling during tourist time, it’s actually crazy how much cheaper things can be, even only slightly out of high season. We got there at the end and saw the prices of things like accommodation drop – some by up to 40%!
After maybe one too many free shots from our waiter at dinner (happy birthday to me), the evening ended with a bang. Or should I say snap. I fell down some stairs and badly sprained my ankle. So, the end of our Greek getaway resulted in me hopping – literally – onto an overnight ferry back to Athens, ready to fly to – can you believe it – our final European stop…Turkey!