Just as I suspected, my list of favorite places in the world keeps getting longer. During our nearly two weeks in Greece, I completely fell in love with the Greek Islands. If Bryan hadn’t booked a flight to Romania, I’d probably still be on some island, eating Greek salads every day.
We spent a day or so sightseeing in Athens. A day or two in Athens is really plenty. All of the tourist sights that most people go to see are all within a small area, so you really don’t need much time. A big percentage of the major sights we’ve visited in Europe this summer have been covered in scaffolding and under construction. So we really shouldn’t have been surprised to find that the Parthenon was as well. It’s frustrating to finally see a sight you’ve been longing to visit for so long and then find it surrounded by cranes, scaffolding, and crowds of other tourists. It definitely takes away from the ancient-feel of the architecture. This is especially a major pain for Bryan who is not satisfied until he captures the perfect photo. He really had to play around with angles to take some good ones (it’s not easy to hide a huge crane).
The ancient ruins in Athens are worth a day of sightseeing. But other than that, we didn’t find Athens the most attractive city. It’s a huge city and it’s pretty polluted with lots of traffic. A lot of the people we came across seemed stressed and agitated (although I guess that’s typical in big, crowded cities). It also wasn’t surprising given the huge economic crisis Greece is experiencing. Fortunately, we didn’t find ourselves in the middle of any protests, although there were parks and areas closed and police with their riot gear prepared for an impending protest.
In some areas of Athens, there is a shocking amount of open drug-use and sales (both day and night). If you want to teach your children not to use drugs, don’t bother enrolling them in the D.A.R.E. program. Take them around Athens. After seeing the effects of drugs on some of the people, no one would ever start using. We saw a woman passed out in the middle of the sidewalk in the morning with actual scales on her legs. I never knew something like that was even possible. Someone had left her a candy bar. The nice thing about Athens is that many of the sleeping homeless people we saw had food in front of them that someone had left them. We even witnessed a hooded individual drop a loaf of bread beside a sleeping homeless person. The Athens residents also seem to take care of their homeless dogs. All of the stray dogs we saw had collars and tags and are extremely well-fed. The smart dogs live outside of the Acropolis or other popular tourist spots.
In our typical style, our journey from Athens to our first Greek Island of Mykonos started off with a major fiasco. We booked an early morning ferry from Athens to Mykonos and took the metro 30 minutes across the city to the port. Bryan went to the office to pick-up our tickets and the woman asked for his passport. Much to his horror, Bryan realized that he had left his binder with our passports, most of our bankcards, important documents, and money in the nightstand drawer back in our hotel. He usually never takes the binder out of his smaller backpack, but he was tired of carrying it around and decided to leave it in the hotel room while we were sightseeing. We had an hour until our ferry left, and the hotel was a good 30 minutes away at best. How was this ever going to happen during rush hour? We ran out of the port and quickly flagged a taxi. We explained our situation to the driver. He told us to relax, gave us a high-five and told us he had it under control. “I’ll have you back in time to get a coffee and still catch your ferry,” he calmly assured us. He sped through the early morning traffic of Athens. Our taxi reached speeds of over 100 mph (180 km/h) through the city streets! Pedestrians darted out of our way as the driver laid on his horn, and the traffic and stoplights seemed to be on our side. Bryan ran up to our room, grabbed our binder, and jumped back in the taxi. We sped back to the port and low and behold the driver was right. We made it back on the ferry with a good 15 minutes to spare. I don’t know how this was possible. We would have never made it with any other taxi driver. Our driver didn’t even try to rip us off (most drivers would have taken advantage of our desperate situation). He only charged us what the meter read (though we gave him a very good tip because he definitely deserved it).
Bryan and I have wanted to visit the Greek Islands for quite a while. With all this anticipation, I was afraid that the reality of the Greek Islands wouldn’t live up to our expectations. Let me tell you though, even the most beautiful pictures of the Greek Islands don’t do the actual places justice. The Greek Islands are spectacular and surpassed my greatest expectations. The sea is a deep emerald blue and clear turquoise in parts. The coast is wild and rocky, with some white sandy beaches to swim in (along with a few black and red rocky volcanic beaches on Santorini). The bright white buildings cover the hills overlooking the sea. The Cycladic architecture looks like stacked sugar cubes with rounded edges. The blindingly white homes, churches, and other buildings are contrasted with various shades of bright blue on the doors, shutters, and trim. There are bright magenta bougainvillea flowers overflowing from many of the buildings. The narrow cobblestone streets are like an elaborate maze with white stone paths (Bryan and I kept losing each other). Around every turn, there seems to be a more beautiful photo opportunity.
The feel of the Greek Islands and the attitudes of the people are completely different from those in Athens. The residents of the Greek Isles are mostly friendly, relaxed, and helpful. For Bryan’s birthday on Corfu, our waitress sang him “Happy Birthday” and gave him a piece of cake. We were pleased with our timing in Greece because the most crowded season had already passed (the summer months are supposed to be crazy, so we wouldn’t recommend going then). There were still a few spots that were tourist-filled though (especially sunset in Oia on Santorini). The islands of Naxos and Paros were relaxed and outside the port there seemed to be almost all locals. Mykonos and Santorini were more crowded but there is good reason – they are spectacular. I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t have the full Greek Islands vacation experience on our budget. I was pleasantly surprised by the islands’ prices. We were able to stay in nice hotels with large, private rooms and ensuite bathrooms for $25-38 per night. Many of them even had beautiful ocean views or great pools. We also rented a small car or an ATV on nearly every island for $20-30 a day.
Having our own mode of transportation made a huge difference and allowed us to easily see more than the ports. On Naxos we stayed in a tiny fishing village called Apollon that was a perfect base for exploring the small local villages. It was a good experience to see the locals’ way of life, outside of the touristy regions. The older men sat around playing cards or other games, having a beer, and visiting with their friends. There were goat herders or men with donkeys making their way along the steep rocky cliffs of the island. Some of the main island roads were so narrow that we were told to honk our horn before going around curves in case of a car coming in the other direction. Aside from Corfu, the Greek Islands we visited had very little vegetation. They were mostly dry and dusty, but starkly beautiful. The landscape of Santorini is especially unique. Approaching moon-shaped Santorini by ferry is a breathtaking experience. The towering multi-colored volcanic rock cliffs tower above. The Cycladic-style white homes dangle over the top of the cliffs and look like snow from afar. There are gorgeous resorts in the top of the cliffs with infinity pools, bars, and hot tubs with spectacular sunset views.
Along with the spectacular scenery, the food is Greece is also amazing. I pretty much lived off big Greek salads and chicken gyros. The tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, and olive oil were so fresh and delicious. There were old Greek men on the side of the road selling huge bottles of homemade olive oil for only $2 (olive oil is pricey in the US!). I was tempted to buy some but with my luck I’d end up with a shattered bottle and sticky olive oil all over my clothes and backpack. 🙂
Before arriving in Greece, we had looked into visiting the islands by sailboat or cruiseship. The timing didn’t work and the available tours were pricey. And we really weren’t happy with the amount of time these itineraries allotted for each island. Things definitely worked out for the best though. In September, the winds and waves in Greece are strong so sailing would have been pretty rough and our landings may have been limited. We found it extremely easy and relatively affordable to take the numerous large ferries from island to island. We typically paid $10-20 for each ferry, and the trips were normally 1-3 hours each. Accommodation was plentiful and also inexpensive (not sure how it is in the summer). We went on www.kayak.com a day or so before arriving on each island to book a hotel room. When arriving by ferry, there are also dozens of hotel-owners with signs clambering for people to stay in their rooms.
I could have easily spent a few more weeks in the Greek Islands. After all, there are 227 inhabited Greek Islands so visiting five of the islands was really just scratching the surface. I definitely plan to return to Greece in the future to see more of the islands (such as Zakynthos) and eat more Greek salad. Leaving Greece to fly to Romania was kind of tough. We’d had a perfect vacation in Greece and honestly I was both intrigued and intimidated by Romania.