Greece while being a part of Europe, offers an experience unlike the other famous European destinations. Instead of medieval castles we get enchanting ancient ruins which can only be reconstructed in our imagination aided by their rich mythological tales. Instead of green meadows and pine forests we get bare rugged hills, sheer cliffs and smoking volcanoes surrounded by the deep blue waters of the Aegean sea. Instead of the French-Italian inspired continental cuisine found across most of Europe, the cuisine of Greece is a blend of European and Turkish/ Middle Eastern influences along with a distinct local flavor.
Where in Greece?
From the tourist’s perspective, Greece can be divided into two parts. The first one being the ancient Greece comprising monuments and museums of Athens, the ruins of temple of Apollo at Delphi that has inspired many a legend and the Peloponnese or the peninsular region that has the monasteries of Meteora, the site of the first Olympics at Mount Olympus, the kingdom of Mycenae which features in the Troy mythology and the site of the battle of Thermopylae that inspired the movie 300.
The second part of Greece is the Cyclades or group of isles in the Aegean Sea with pristine beaches, romantic sunsets, picture postcard villages with whitewashed houses and blue domed churches, fresh seafood and heavenly wine. While the first part is frequented by the history loving travelers, the second part attracts leisure seekers from across the world and features some of the best luxury boutique hotels and villas.
There is also a third part, Greece’s largest island of Crete that gave birth to the legend of the Minotaur, but it is a destination in itself and a separate trip is required to explore Crete and its wonders.
When to Visit?
The most popular (and most expensive!) season for visiting Greece is June – August. We had also planned our trip in July. The advantage in summer is that the sun sets at eight in the night, giving a lot of daytime to roam around. However, the traveler should note that its peak summer in Greece at that time and the temperatures hover around the mid 30’s. So the time of your travel depends upon the destinations that you want to visit.
Summer is undoubtedly the best time to visit Mykonos, for three reasons. Firstly Mykonos is all about its beautiful beaches and the waters of the Aegean Sea get warm enough for swimming only during this season. Secondly, Mykonos transforms into a party hub in summer with some of the best nightlife in Europe. Thirdly, Mykonos is known as the island of winds, it’s always windy and the cool breeze never lets you feel the heat.
Santorini on the other hand is more of a year round destination, while it also has a couple of beaches, its known more for its white and blue villages, stunning views of the caldera and sunsets. Our experience in visiting Santorini in July was mixed, while the nights were pleasant the days were uncomfortably hot. With the sun beating down mercilessly, the rocky surface of the island gets very hot, and there are no trees to offer any sort of shade. The temperatures drop into the 20’s during shoulder season of May or September, which should be a much better time to visit Santorini.
Similarly Athens is also a year round destination, it is quite pleasant to walk through in summer, but the historical sites such as the Acropolis are best explored early morning (or late evening). The museums however are fully air-conditioned and offer good respite.
What to pack?
Yes it’s true, you will have to bid goodbye to the much loved garment of the Indians, the Jeans! The heat and humidity combination makes shorts or three-fourths an ideal choice (also dresses for girls 🙂 ). Don’t forget to pack your hat, sunscreen and sunglasses as they are required not just for the beach but for practically everywhere. The hat you might choose to forget as local markets in Athens are teeming with Greece souvenir hats, I myself am guilty of buying one for 12 euros! Finally, bring your trusted pair of walking shoes as the historical sites involve a lot of walking and climbing, and in Santorini they actually let you climb the volcano!
What to read-up before going?
Well, if you insist on reading beyond my thoroughly comprehensive blog 🙂 , you can visit Santorini Dave’s highly informative blog for checking out the best hotels, restaurants and tours. Another interesting blog was Sabina Trojanova’s Girl vs Globe, in which she talks about the best sunset spots in Santorini. Otherwise Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet and Greece Tourism website offers enough information for the tourist.
You may also want to brush up on your knowledge of the Greek mythology, although it is not a must as all historical sites contain detailed signboards and museums. However, for the history buff, the best book you can find is the Greek Myths by Robert Greaves. I carried this book as my travel companion, lugging the voluminous manuscript around airports and seaports, but could only finish the first 100 pages, so better read it before going. A much more interesting read is the Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan, a fantasy adventure series written for teens, it introduces the reader to Greek myths in a fun way.
It is my advice that a trip to Greece should at least last a week in which you can cover Athens and minimum one of the Cycladic islands. While the islands are connected with Airports, most major international flights operate to and fro from Athens, which necessitates that one spends the first and last day of their trip in Athens. We decided to plan our itinerary in such a way that we get to experience both the parts of Greece.
We made a 8 nights itinerary exploring Athens and Delphi from mainland Greece for 2 nights, then head off first to Mykonos for 2 nights and then to Santorini, the most romantic island of Europe for 3 nights before heading back to Athens for our final night. In case you have more time, you can take a four day historical tour of classical Greece that also covers Meteora, Mount Olympus and Mycenae instead of the one day tour of Delphi that we took. You can also explore some other Cycladic islands like Rhodes, Zakynthos etc, which are less touristy than the hotspots.
How to Travel?
There is no direct flight from Athens to India (we were travelling from Delhi, India); the best we could find was Turkish Airlines with a brief stopover in Istanbul. I must put in a word of praise about Turkish Airlines here, comfortable chairs, good entertainment options and excellent food, with sandwiches so fresh that the aroma of freshly baked bread pervaded the entire cabin during breakfast.
The travel between mainland Athens and the islands is either by Flight or Ferry, with most tourists preferring to go by ferry, not just because it is the cheaper alternative but also because it offers a phenomenal viewing experience of the Aegean Sea from up close. Choosing the right ferry is important, while the fastest ferries are SEA JETS, they are compact and have airplane like seats, they ride rough and most of them also don’t have a deck.
Having travelled on both, I would recommend going by the BLUE STAR ferries, while they will take a couple more hours to reach your destination they are much more comfortable. They have deck area where you can sit and admire the views or lean against the rails enjoying the wind in your hair. They also have the option of booking cabins for a little extra quid, we were glad we did this when we got a proper sailor’s cabin with bunk beds, attached bathroom and a personal window!!
What to See?
Now let me try to answer the most important question, in which I can only speak with about the places I have personally visited.
Athens has a lot of historical places, but undoubtedly the most significant is the Acropolis, towering over the city from atop the Lycabettus hill. No trip to Greece can be complete without having seen the Acropolis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. While it is a formidable structure in its own right, when you think about the fact that it was made in 600 BC, then you can truly appreciate the effort its construction would have involved and marvel at its architecture. There is also a world famous Acropolis museum that houses archaeological findings on this site.
We took an interesting Athens by Night Tour the day we arrived. While the tour doesn’t cover many historical places, it drives you around the entire city including the scenic area by the Piraeus port. The tour ends with a dinner in traditional Greek Taverna – Neos Rigas ( meaning the New King). There was an interesting line up of song and dance performances at the Taverna including Turkish Sufi ensemble, tap dance and belly dance etc that gave a sneak peek into the nightlife of Athens. Like every other European city, Athens also has a tourist district, it’s called Plaka. Situated below the Acropolis, Plaka’s crammed with souvenir shops and roadside restaurants, some of which are quite good. We got wire bracelets made of our names in Greek letters there, totally not required but still worth it!
An unexpected attraction that we stumbled upon is the Athens Zoo (Also known as Attica Zoological Park), situated far from the city near the Airport; it is quite large and houses a variety of rare birds and animals. They have a separate aviary for birds of every continent, which is the first of its kind. It was also heartening to see the Zoo involved in conservation of the extremely rare Persian Leopard which are specially kept here for breeding and later to be reintroduced to the wild. The other major attractions included Angola Lions, Cheetahs, Puma, Dolphins, White Rhinos, Komodo Dragon and the local wildlife like Cretan Wild Goat.
Delphi is a popular day trip from Athens. Delphi was the ancient site of the Temple of Apollo that housed the Oracle and has always found a prominent place in Greek Mythology. Our tour guide recalled some interesting legends associated with Delphi, like the time when the governor of Athens, Themistocles was advised to build a navy to ward off threats to Greece (remember 300 movie part II?) or the time when Alexander the Great approached for advice, but Apollo being away, Dionysus the wine god was in-charge and sent him to his doom. The tourist should temper their expectations as the site is nothing but excavated ruins, still, the remaining magnificent columns of the Temple against the backdrop of sheer hills is awe inspiring. The museum is very good; it also houses the famous statue of the ancient charioteer.
Mykonos is also known as the glamour island of Europe, all the action is concentrated either in the tourist area of Fabrika/Little Venice or on its numerous beaches. The most famous beaches that we had heard about in Mykonos were Paradise and Super Paradise beach, but on going to the actual location, we found that the hype was not so much about the beach as it was about the party scene there. Big speakers thumped out deep bass beats, cocktails flowed like water and the young adult crowd danced in a wild frenzy. Well if you are a large group or if you really want to get drunk and party then probably its the place for you, but going as a couple or as a family may not be the best idea.
The next day we went to the more family friendly Ornos beach. It is a beautiful beach where golden sands melt into the royal blue of the Aegean. You can rent a sunbed for the day for 25 euros, and they serve you cocktails at your seat. We followed the carefully documented regimen of sipping on Pina Coladas and plunging into the ocean all day. Mykonos is famed for its nightlife and it would be an injustice if you didn’t sample any of it, we went for the Drag Queen cabaret show at the Elysium hotel and I, having never attended a drag show before got treated to an entirely new experience in which cross dressed boys did their dance drama act. We had booked a morning tour to the ancient island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, but I can’t tell you how it was because I was soundly sleeping away the hangover in my room when the boats were being loaded for the tour.
Another attraction is the area of Fabrika or Little Venice, allegedly the most photographed neighborhood in Europe. It has cobbled streets sloping down to the ocean with shops, bars, clubs and eateries lined up on both sides of the road. All shops are white and a red door here or a blue window there provides excellent photo opportunities.
And of course there are the famous windmills of Little Venice, I was immediately reminded of the song ‘Tauba Tumhare ye Ishaare’ from the Bollywood movie Chalte Chalte in which Shah Rukh and Rani forsake the trees to dance around these windmills. It’s a popular spot, where people gather in the evenings to watch the sunset, there is a loud cheer when the sun goes down !
Santorini is known as the black pearl of the Aegean because of the active volcano that simmers next to it. The volcano has made a deep crater called the caldera, and most hotels and restaurants are caldera facing as the sunset is best enjoyed here. Santorini is a large island and has several villages. The most famous out of these are Fira and Oia, while both have their charm, if you are short on time then head straight to Oia. While in Fira, a good way to explore the island and nearby villages is by renting a quadbike or a scooter which we did for a modest sum.
Our travel agent had pre booked a full day standard tour to the volcano, hot springs and Thirassia Island that turned out to be quite disappointing. For starters, the tour operators hoard you by the dozen into rustic wooden boats with no shade. The hot springs are located in the middle of the sea, jump in only if you are a very strong swimmer, climbing an active volcano in sweltering heat is not my idea of a holiday and Thirassia is a jaded old village with only two restaurants, the real Captain Johns and the copycat Captain Johns.
We unfortunately got tricked into eating at the copycat Captain Johns and had a horrible experience. We later realized it would have been much better to take a personalized catamaran cruise around the caldera, which would have ended with a fabulous unobstructed view of the sunset from the sea.
Oia is the place where ‘the blue domed church’ is located. It’s the same church that has gained so much popularity in recent times that it has become a mascot for Greece; present on all souvenirs, a trip to Santorini has to include a mandatory selfie beside the blue church. I and my wife even dressed in blue to blend in with the background. Walking through the marble tiled streets of Oia with the Aegean Sea stretching below, cute little white shops on the side, and street musicians playing their melodies is a memorable experience in itself.
Coming to the world famous sunset in Oia, well honestly it is good but over rated. There is a very small viewing area and the entire crowd throngs to it, it’s very difficult to get a viewing point with all the jostling for space. If you have the money, you can take a boutique hotel right on the edge of the caldera or take a sunset cruise and enjoy the sunset at your leisure. Personally I found the sunset in Fira to be equally good, and there is a large viewing area where you can relax with a glass of wine and watch the orange ball of the sun plop into the sea.
Where to Stay?
Hotels in Greece become quite expensive during summer. Wherever you stay, make sure that you are within walking distance from the main tourist areas like the Plaka in Athens or the Fabrika in Mykonos. In Santorini, the caldera facing hotels are more expensive, you can choose a hotel on the other side of the caldera that will cost much less and you can always walk up to the caldera side.
In Athens we stayed in the Electra Metropolis which is situated right at the edge of Plaka, and is probably the best hotel there. The classy restaurant on the top floor offers a great view of the Acropolis (and delectable food too!!) , all lit up at night
In Mykonos we opted for Elysium Hotel (four star), while Elysium is primarily a gay hotel, it’s straight friendly too, and the staff of the hotel are very polite and courteous. It’s also a short walk to the Fabrika, but being on top of a hill, the walk while returning can be taxing. Elysium also hosts the Drag Queen Show at night which is quite a popular excursion for the tourists.
In Santorini we opted for the El Greco resort just outside Fira, it is the largest hotel in Santorini, but not the best as the hotel staff is too busy to give any special attention to your needs or make you feel comfortable, the food specially is pathetic!! In Oia, we stayed at the Laokasti Villa, which although is a three star hotel, but very cute and with a very friendly staff. My advice would be that when staying at the islands, shell out some extra money and stay at the luxury boutique hotels or Villas; it will enhance your experience manifold.
Where to Eat?
To get the complete details of the culinary experience of Greece, please wait for my separate blog post exclusively on this subject. However, in brief, Greek Cuisine involves a lot of Salads, Grilled Meats, seafood and the mandatory wine to go with it. They have this interesting concept of wine bars, where you don’t have to buy wines by the bottle, but you can sample different wines by the glass. When in Santorini, do try out the local Santorini wine, it’s the smoothest wine that I have tasted.
Every meal starts with a complimentary bread basket and a jar of olive oil, the soothing taste of olive oil on warm breads sets the right tone. The cheapest and most easily available dishes are the Souvlaki and Gyro, which are the Greek versions of Tikka and Shawarma respectively.
Greek Salad is something I never liked, but having it in Greece gives it real potency. The goat’s cheese on the top is soft and crumbly, the olives fresh and full of flavor. Special word of praise for the Santorini tomatoes, they are slightly bigger than cherry tomatoes, but oh so sweet and luscious. Sweet Dishes are primarily the Baklava borrowed from Turkey and Greek Yoghurt, a light and tasty dessert made of creamy goat milk curd, strawberry compote and berries on top.
In conclusion I would like to say that Greece is a well-balanced destination, it provides a wide variety of experiences and has enough to please both the excursion loving and the leisure loving travelers. Many travel agents exclude Mykonos from the Greece itinerary stating it will be the same as Santorini, well it’s not, it’s definitely worth spending a couple of days there. Greece is not the best place from a shopping perspective, and it does not give you the feel of a typical Europe picture postcard, but it has its own charm. The Aegean Sea has to be seen to be believed, its colour is just so blue that one can never find the right adjective for that shade of blue. The islands with their blue and white villages and windmills give the experience of being in a different world far away from our cities, and the thousands of years old ruins of Athens serve as a stark reminder to the tourist, that the land you walk upon was once inhabited by the Gods!!
Copyrights of all images with Shikhar Ranjan@2017