Our Love Affair with Greece

When you spend 24 hours a day with someone for 8 months in a row, conversation starts to get creative: i.e. we frequently ask each other unrealistic hypothetical questions, like… “If next year you were forced to return to one destination we’ve visited this year, where would you go?” The answer for both of us: Greece.

Our three week frolic through Greece was idyllic, romantic, relaxing, delicious, enchanting… and probably every other luring adjective you can dream up. We went for the ruins—amazing in their own rite—but left in love with the terrain, the food, the people. Thanks to this no-job thing, we had time to linger. Lingering is good in Greece. In fact, we could have lingered longer. It’s perhaps the one place we’ve been this ZINK Year where the MO is slow no matter your default speed—a place where you’re forced to slow down, decompress, soak in what’s before you (not what’s in your head), and gulp down the incredibly cheap wine.

Need more convincing? The scenery is sumptuous, especially in spring; the food is local and fresh (and cheap for Europe); the people are some of the kindest, warmest, most generous you’ll encounter; and the history is omnipresent—ancient ruins and walls and olive trees blanket the landscape, giving you a calming sense of timelessness and selflessness, a reminder that thousands of generations have walked this same path before you and will do it after you leave… If you’ve spent the past months stressing over a wedding, work, or anything, visit Greece, especially the Southern Peloponnese. Below is an outline of our itinerary and suggestions for each destination. Go! Grecians need your money and you need their intoxicating charm.

*****

Athens 

Before we arrived in Athens, we’d spent the past five months in either frenetic Asian cities or desolate natural landscapes. So our first impression of Greece was an overwhelming sense of European-ness: cobblestone streets, café tables spilling onto sidewalks, soot-stained 19th-century townhouses, and well-dressed urbanites sucking cigarettes. As we traveled more through the continent, we realized the “Europe” we’d found Athens was grittier, poorer, slower than its neighbors, but for us, maybe more charming. And as many great cities we’d see in Europe, only one is lucky enough to go about its modern day-to-day living beneath the world’s most beautiful ancient building.

Oh, the Parthenon. You will be swept away by its beauty up close and swooned at a distance: its massive, yet delicate 2500-year-old frame is visible from every point in the city. Other highlights: The brand-new Acropolis Museum with its ancient statuary, epic view of the Parthenon, and its disturbing placeholders for the missing Elgin marbles that controversially live in the British Museum in London; the Plaka district, a bougainvillea-draped village within the city; The drab, but important National Archaelogical Museum, where you’ll see the pounded-gold Mask of Agamemnon; the colossal Corinthian columns at the Temple of Olympian Zeus; and the lovely Centrotel Hotel, which was hardly central and located in a rough neighborhood, BUT… was super cheap ($50/night) and nice. We’d stay there again. You could linger in Athens, but for those with limited time, make it a 2-3 day stop.

The Parthenon, aka the most beautiful ancient building in the world

You’ll see the Acropolis from nearly every spot in the city, but our favorite view was atop Filopappou Hill.

Porch of the Caryatids on top of the Acropolis

Athens by night: Streets abuzz and glowing ruins

Athens by night: Streets abuzz and glowing ruins

*****

Delphi

The 2.5-hour drive from Athens is a commitment, but if the ancient Greeks could do it by foot, we can all manage a quick trip to Delphi in our rental car.

Set into the shadow of a gorgeous mountainside covered in wildflowers in spring, Delphi is a quaint, if touristy, little town famous its ruins. Ancient Greeks from all corners of the country would journey here for Apollo, who spoke directly through Pythia (the oracle), an older woman who sat on top of a “chasm in the Earth.” Her gibberish answers to such questions as “Should I invade neighboring lands?” would then be translated by priests. With such prophetic knowledge, the Greeks would return home, put her advice to use, and benefit greatly.

Unfortunately, the oracle abandoned her post 1600 years ago and the temple she once lived beneath is in pretty bad shape. But walking in the dappled morning sunlight among the toppled marble and stone of once a grand complex in the 4th century B.C. was appropriately our most mythical ruin visit and one I wouldn’t miss on a trip to Greece. (Stay overnight to visit the ruins first thing in the morning).

Set right at the base of Mount Parnassus, the Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronoia was partially reconstructed in the early 1900s. The rest of Delphi remains as it fell.

The Temple of Apollo, where the oracle sat and prophesied to open-eared Greeks.

Arrive at 8:30 am to avoid the crowds; we had the whole complex to ourselves.

The 5000-seat theater overlooking the temple

A note on transportation:  We’ve heard buses are doable, but for maximum discovery ability, you’ll want to rent a car in Athens for your trips to Delphi and the Peloponnese. We rented the cheapest car available through Budget, a beat-up Hyundai i-10—$200 for a 9-day rental. Driving in Athens is crazy, especially when you’re in a rickety manual-transmission vehicle, and the whole rental process was a little sketchy—Budget placed a $2000 hold on our credit card to ensure we returned the car. We did return the car and all was fine. The surprise? Gas is nearly $9/gallon in Greece (the 5th highest in the world!), and since we drove so much, we ended up spending another $370 in gas and road tolls. If an option, consider paying extra for a fuel-efficient vehicle.

*****

The Peloponnese

Want romance? Want a trip back in time? Want to be showered in love by locals? Want gorgeous scenery? Head quickly to the Peloponnese (the giant Southern peninsula of mainland Greece), one of our favorite destinations in the world. For more inspiration, watch Before Midnight, filmed entirely in the Southern Peloponnese. The towns:

  • Nafplio: Set on the sea in the shadow of a gigantic 17th-century Venetian fortress, Old Town Nafplio and its meandering streets make for a relaxing 2-3 day stop. We camped out at the lovely Byron Hotel for three nights, which may have been a night too long for a town that’s charming, but definitely touristy. (When we return, we’ll spend more time in the Southern Peloponnese towns like Kardamyli). If you go, don’t miss Mezedopoleio O Noulis, one of our favorite dining experiences in Greece. (For more pics of Nafplio, click here).

    Sunset at Nafplio’s Old Town port. You can sit down for pricey drinks at one of the seaside bars, or… just park yourself on a bench each night like we did.

  • Epidavros is home to the best preserved ancient Greek theater. The 14,000-seat, 3rd-century B.C. theater is grand–test out the perfect acoustics by standing in the middle of the proskenion and orating to your husband way up in the stands–but perhaps our favorite part of the area was the no-tourist-in-sight ruins outside of the theater, where you can ramble in and over the stone remains of the recuperation halls of the once-renowned healing center. Epidavros makes for a good day trip from Nafplio; you won’t need more than 2 hours to meander through the complex.

    The acoustic-perfect Epidavros theater, less than an hour’s drive from Nafplio.

  • Kardamyli: We are smitten with Kardamyli. One idyllic main street lined with tavernas. The bright-blue Mediterranean sea. A brilliant red-rock gorge and steep mountains that rise from the water with walking paths to hidden chapels and monasteries. The opulent roof-top breakfasts with doughnuts, omelettes, and cakes at Stella’s Rooms, a 3-room guest house run by the wonderfully overbearing, but hospitable Stella. We will return here one day, hopefully for a month. (For more pictures, click here).

    The tiny village of Kardamyli boasts plenty of good restaurants. Try Kiki’s Taverna, one of our fave little spots.

    Don’t miss a hike through the Viros Gorge, directly behind the town of Kardamyli.

    Walking along one of the many paths in the Kardamyli foothills

    In the foothills, you’ll discover tiny chapels like this one that are still cared for by locals.

    Introducing… Stella’s Rooms incredible breakfast spread. For $70/night, you get this and a lovely room. Not cheap for Greece, but worth every calorie.

  • Areopoli is another seaside town south of Kardamyli. We stopped here for an hour or so, long enough to get lost in its ancient streets. We’ve heard the village of Limeni is even more charming. There are so many towns to discover along the Mani peninsula coastline. Give yourself days to do it.

    The old cobblestone streets of Areopoli, the launchpad for the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821.

    View of the Mani coastline; you’ll zoom up and down the mountainous coast in your rental car.

    Dig into a seafood lunch on the coast. Here, fresh grilled calamari from Saga Fish Taverna in Gytheio.

     

  • Monemvasia: If you don’t have time to linger in the small towns that dot the Mani coastline (Kardamyli, Areopoli, Limeni, Agios Nikolaos), head straight to the Medieval castle-town of Monemvasia. It’ll blow your mind in charm and scenery, especially if you visit in the spring before the summer crowds arrive. To save money (theme of this entire blog, obvi), we stayed on the mainland at Angela’s House hotel. We adored this place and Demetrios the host, who sent us home with a bottle of olive oil straight from his farm. That said, if you make it to Monemvasia, just buck up and pay for an expensive room in the “castle,” a pedestrian-only stone village built into a cliff. The town is adorable; the castle ruins on top of the island are spectacular. This place is unbelievably special.

    Lunch (and a pitcher of wine!) on a Monemvasia rooftop.

    Lunch (and a pitcher of wine!) on a Monemvasia rooftop.

  • View of Monemvasia from the top of the island

    View of Monemvasia from the top of the island

    The ruins of a once-grand Byzantine fortress a top the island

    The sun rises behind the island of Monemvasia, connected to the Peloponnese mainland by a causeway

The Islands

White homes. Blue doors. Pink bougainvillea. Late-night, rowdy parties. If this is your image of the Greek islands, you’re right on point. For us (and our revered Rick Steves), the islands are lovely and worth a quick stop, but we’d rather devote our lingering to the Southern Peloponnese. However…

Santorini is a must. You’ll be there with hordes of tourists–even in off-season. The prices are outrageous; the cruise ship crowds are annoying; the entire island feasts only on tourism. But it really is a must-see destination. The 3.5-hour hike along the rim of the caldera was one of the most spectacular things we did this ZINK Year. You’ll get jaw-dropping views of the sea, see colorful lava-rock terrain (smothered in wildflowers), and walk through adorable villages filled with the distinctive white-washed cave homes miraculously nested into the cliff face. And if you time your hike right, you’ll arrive in the town Oia at sunset with the rest of the crowds to watch the orange orb seep into the horizon.

Hotel tip: Splurge for a room on the caldera. That’s why you’re here. We recommend the luxe, but small Chromata: 1-2 nights here will be plenty to soak it all in. (We saved $150+ a night by staying at Stelios’ Place, right next to Perissa’s black-sand beach. A great option for the super cheap, but… you’re a 45-minute bus ride away from what you came to see!)

A church on the rim of Santorini’s giant caldera

One of our favorite days this ZINK Year was hiking along the rim of Santorini’s caldera. Bring your camera for the amazing views, colorful wildflowers, and up-close shots of the island’s amazing cliff homes.

While most of the 3.5-hour hike from Fira to Oia is on a paved sidewalk, you’ll have to walk through plenty of slippery volcano scree. Wear hiking shoes and bring plenty of water.

Let’s just call this… Paradise. Do splurge for a room on the caldera, where you’ll get pools and views like this one.

End your caldera trek in Oia, just in time for the famous sunset.

It’s all gorgeous, but I think Santorini’s at its very best at twilight. Simply magical.

Once you’re already way out in the Aegean and have time to discover more of those lands from the Odyssey, you may as well do it. We stopped at Naxos, thanks to its glowing article in the New York Times (but were a bit underwhelmed ourselves); Syros, for logistical reasons (but really did love the cosmopolitan feel of its main port, Ermoupoli); and Samos, as a gateway for our trip into Turkey. While two days in Santorini was plenty, we could have stayed two weeks in Samos. It’s less grand, but far more relaxed with a more varied terrain. Linger here as long as you can to… discover hidden cave chapels, frolic through poppy fields, and sunbathe on desolate beaches.

The “Nat Geo” ruin (once the entrance a temple for Apollo) greets you at the Naxos port

Naxos is made for driving. You can rent a car for the day on most Greek islands for ~$30/day. Just keep in mind that gas costs $9/gallon.

Naxos from way up above.

Poppy fields on Samos, just outside of Pythagoreio.

Find a beach. Any beach. Chances are, you’ll have it to yourself. (Here, we’re at an unnamed beach south of Limnionas. Supporting cast: Our dear friends, Amelia and Davin).

For more Greek island action, visit our Flickr albums for Santorini, Naxos, and Samos.

*****

Now that we’ve convinced you that Greece should be your next destination, here are a few quick tips:

1. Most hotels on the islands — even budget options — will provide free transportation to/from the port. Take advantage of this service; you’ll save tons!

2. Carry small bills with you when driving in the country. You’ll pass plenty of tolls.

3. Order the gyro pita (2-3 euro), not the platter (7-8 euro). All restaurants will push the latter, but it’s a tourist scam. Buy two pitas if you’re that hungry.

4. Show up for dinner late. Tavernas are pretty dead (and full of tourists) until 9 pm or so. For a more local experience, show up late.

5. Save for Santorini where the glitterati roam, Greece is casual. Pack light and comfortable.

6. Spend time with your innkeeper. We stumbled upon incredibly kind hosts, who were eager to discuss everything with us: their families, their business, their politics. It’s amazing what we learned about the culture. Ask questions and listen.

7. Plan your trip in the spring. You’ll get wildflowers, off-season prices, and perfect weather.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Our Love Affair with Greece

  1. I remember reading that the Delphic omphalos (i.e., the site where the temple is located) was, in fact, an aperture in the earth from which natural gas flowed. No wonder she had visions!

  2. Ha! That’s exactly right, Geoffrey. I was reminded of the Simpsons episode “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland” the entire time we we there.

    -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I’m_Goin’_to_Praiseland
    -http://seekcartoon.com/watch/26776-the-simpsons-season-12-episode-19-im-goin-to-praiseland.html#.U63NGI1dVXc

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