Greece, a land with easy-going lifestyle, graffiti-walled paintings, chicken and pork gyros but no lamb and hummus, street dogs and cats, ABBA, trace of ancient ruins of the 4th century, the emerald-green Mediterranean Sea and the breathtaking views of dome-like architecture across the cliffs in Santorini quickly come to mind.
Downtown Athens is about 45-60 min away from the airport with no traffic via ground transportation. Or a blue metro line #3 offers service to/from the airport. The Hellenic metro system is comfortable, clean and efficient means of getting around the city for 1 euro each way and free transfers within an hour and half of ticket validation time. In City Center, the Hilton, Best Western and Crown Plaza are all walking distance from each other, close to shops and restaurants. Do not be surprised how weak our US dollar is after Greece adopted the Euro system. The average cost for one night in low-season beginning of October to March can range about 99-150 euros, $140-220 USD. (Note: 1 Euro was about $1.45 USD beg. of October 2010).
Green metro line # 1 gets you to Port Piraeus. From here, huge ferries transport cars and passengers between the Cyclic Islands and the mainland. Just like a cruise ship, you will find a coffee/snack bar, a restaurant, a casino with arcade games, a duty-free store, TV and Wi-Fi internet. Three euros will get you two hours of internet connection but be aware, the network is very slow and spotty. If you have not purchased your ferry ticket either online or through one of the travel agencies, or have an unassigned economy class seating, plan to arrive no later than one hour prior to the port. When choosing which seat to buy on the ferry out of so many options to choose from, take note that economy class seats are 34 euro one-way and the seats are on a first-come first-served basis. A few more euros are worth the airplane seats, which are reserved seats that recline. Then for 14 more euros per person from economy class, you can lounge around in business class, lie down and rest. If you will be traveling long distance, for example Crete (9 hours), or Santorini (7.5 hours), and have a minimum of two persons, you might want to consider paying the extra $40 per person to get a cabin. Check the ferry schedules on www.bluemap.gr for blue star ferries that depart mornings and evenings. Taking a fast-speed ferry when offered to your destination is definitely recommended to save you time and boredom although in the future, I would rather fly about 45 min. to get to the islands for the same amount of price as taking a ferry, if not cheaper. Aegean and Olympic Air offer several flights during the day and with a ZED (zonal employee discount) on Aegean Air for airline employees, the cost for round-trip airfare comes out to be about $75.
One day is perfect for sightseeing in Athens and the city is easily accessible by metro, mini bus, trolley bus, train or foot. Plaka is a cute area to walk around, shop and dine. For museum fanatics, there are plenty to check out. Take a few hours and get lost walking in 447-432BC and visit the Acropolis, the “Mini me” of the Parthenon, also known as the first fortress and the city’s place of religious worship. The size of the Parthenon can blow your mind, as it is so much bigger than what it looks like in photos! For 12 euros (cash only), you have access to Ancient Agora, Theatre of Dionysos, Roman Agora, Kerameikos, Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, built to make the boundaries of the old and new city. Live entertainment, plays and concerts on stage from famous artists such as Andrea Bocelli are still held at the Theatre of Dionissus and Herodes Atticos Theatre.
Based on others’ experiences about nightlife in Athens, it is known to be like Vegas, a city that never sleeps. Greek people like to party and have fun or “Kefi.” Ladies, be careful with the aggressive golden glowing gods that send you free drinks. These prowling men, once you let them a way in will not leave you alone for the rest of the night, expecting a happy ending.
Upon arrival at the port in Santorini, many hotel representatives greet the tourists to provide last minute accommodations as they disembark the boat. Artemis was one. He gave us brochures with pictures of the vacant rooms in his villa. His genuine smile and reassuring eloquent sales technique, “You can stay here for just one night,” led us to give Artemis Village a try. On our 20-25 min drive to the hotel, Artemis gave us a brief summary of the island, local places to eat and sightsee. His wife Anna was just as nice and offered us complimentary coffee every morning. Artemis Village is a quaint place to stay and offers ma and pa’s first-class hospitality. Located at the end of Karterados, beginning of Monolithos, 100 meters from the beach and just 5 min away from downtown Fira, it has a panoramic swimming pool, rooms with a/c, TV, clean sheets and towels, fridge, free Wi-Fi and a computer in the lobby for guests, free transportation to wherever you wish to go and a balcony that overlooks the blue Aegean Sea. The middle room on the top floor is worth the extra 5 euros per night, total of 35 euros because of the balcony that has an unobstructed view of the water, perfect to relax and have a snack. Though Artemis Village does not have a kitchen that serves light snacks and beverages, it is possible to arrange food delivery with the help from the front desk or hope that the restaurant which is located 2 minutes away and is notorious for weird operating hours, is actually open. For a safe and comfortable stay where you can hear the soothing sound of waves crashing morning and night as you wake up and sleep, check out www.artemisvillage.com.
130 nautical miles from Port Piraeus in Athens, Oia, a northwestern town in Santorini, draws people from all over the world for its mesmerizing, picturesque white buildings that have blue dome-shaped roofs and pastel-colored yellow homes. They fit like a puzzle 300m above the clear emerald Mediterranean Sea. This part of the island is the best spot to watch the sunset when it’s not overcast. You can also visit the old castle and take great photos.
Who would have thought that a volcano eruption would create such a beautiful island called Santorini? From the bay of Fira or Thira, the capital of Santorini, you can take a short 3 hour boat excursion out to Nea Kameni and hike the volcano for an hour then swim in the hot springs of Palea Kameni. Based on the history and research of nine past eruptions, the prediction of the volcano reactivating again is in 75 years from the last eruption in 1950. However, the fact that it is an active volcano can be witnessed at the existence of hot gas vents made out of water vapor, carbon dioxide and a small amount of hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and methane at the central craters on the peak of Nea Kameni and the gush of semi-warm bubbles in the hot springs. Water temperature is in the low 60s (F) and contrary to its name, hot springs is actually not hot, but lukewarm.
Getting down to the port of Fira is pretty interesting. You can descend 300m via a cable car in 3-4 mins. or walk down for 20 mins. Many enjoy a donkey ride back to the humongous cliffs rather than a vicious walk up the stairs.
Wine lovers can enjoy many wineries to go wine tasting in the island. The wine museum, located on the road to Kamari Beach in Koutsoyannopoulos Winery (Volcan Wines), is really neat because it is situated 8m underground and 300m long. 26 stops of the self-guided audio tour illustrate the history and process of winemaking since 1960. After the tour you then proceed to taste a sample of 4 wines. We brought home Kamaritis, a natural sweet 10 year old dessert wine made from three red and three white grapes. It can be enjoyed chilled with sweets, cheese, fruits, nuts, or by itself. Kamaritis comes from Greek word “Kamara” meaning underground cave room and only the visitors to the winery can experience it as a token of appreciation for visiting.
Santorini has diverse sand beaches mostly located in the southern part of the island. You can go swimming in the black-sand beaches of Perissa, Kamari or Monolithos, as well as the red-sand beach in Akrotiri where the sand is made out of volcano’s red lava, or take a boat out to the white sand beach from Akrotiri. Kamari beach has many shops and restaurants to spend one lazy day or even just an afternoon. Buses from the downtown Fira bus station will get you to all the beaches and pretty much all over the island. Experienced drivers can rent mopeds or 4-wheelers for 24 hours to venture out the whole island at 15 euros. Otherwise, a bus or a short cab ride will take you where you need to go. Luckily, we went off-season and were able to avoid a mob of 70,000-90,000 people on the island compared to 20,000 now. It definitely made transportation, hotels, food, sightseeing all readily accessible and less expensive.
Greek or Hellenic people are very hospitable. They treat you like their own daughter and son and make you feel at home. Ironically, this friendly gesture makes them excellent salesmen at the same time. How can you be doubtful when they greet you with warm smiles?
I have always wondered how Greek people have a long lifespan and maintain a healthy golden glow. In addition to a yearlong sunshine, their diets rich in olives and olive oil, Greek salad, fresh caught fish and their “go with the flow” lifestyle involve very little stress. Even their work schedules seem to be very relaxed. Businesses are open only until 2:30PM on Mondays, calling it a half-day. The rest of the week gets no worse, with stores closing mid-day around 2PM for “siesta,” closed Sundays. Once recharged, stores reopen at 5PM, ready for the late nights. Exchange some of your currency into euros at the airport so you will not be stranded without cash.
The best souvenir finds would be loofah or sea sponges. Loofahs come in all sizes, from the size of regular bath sponges we have in the states, to the size of a basketball. Sea sponges act as an exfoliator and leaves your skin baby soft. Just make sure to throw it in a dishwasher/microwave or change them out frequently to prevent bacteria build-up. Wine is another gift to take back home. Greek table red and white wines are both served chilled. With 12% alcohol, it does its job. The sacrifice? They both taste like cheap $1.99 cooking wine, a.k.a. “Two-Buck Chuck.”
You are missing out if you do not give a Souvlaki or “shish-kebab” a try. This grilled meat on a skewer comes with either rice or potato fries and tzatziki (cucumber dressing). Where in the world did Americans come up with lamb gyros anyway? And hummus? After visiting restaurant after restaurant just to make sure, I was left dumbfounded that there are only chicken or pork gyros in Greece. Also, in the states, hummus comes in several different kinds…roasted red peppers, edamame, garlic and olive oil, tomato and basil and original, to name a few. But the closest find in the motherland is what’s called fava or green peas instead of chickpeas. After a taste of fava, I immediately had cravings for the hummus I believed to be Greek. Fresh grilled fish is to die for. Try Sea Bass, which is usually the “Catch of the Day” from the Mediterranean. And don’t forget to try Ouzo, a traditional alcoholic drink that tastes like licorice. One shot of this clear liquid should warm your throat. For something more refreshing, Mythos is a great option, similar to a Miller Lite, yet with a bit of hop like Amstel Light.
The climate has been warm but wet, windy and gloomy most of the week until the very last day of our visit. Despite the weather, we made the most of our vacation and documented hundreds of pictures to look back to, cherish and share. No matter how skilled of a photographer you are however, pictures do no justice as actually seeing it yourself, thus I am truly blessed. I close my eyes and still see the stunning backdrops of Oia, so marvelous that I could not help from repeating to myself, “I want to live here.”