So much of what has been in the news about this country lately has been negative — a bad economy, mass demonstrations, worker strikes, general ennui.
But what I experienced in Greece was nothing but nice, accommodating — and proud to be Greek — people, not to mention gorgeous views. Unfortunately, prices weren’t as low as I thought they might be (the euro was worth about a third more than the U.S. dollar). Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any strikes.
Traveling in Greece
Getting from point A to point B in Greece isn’t always a no-brainer. My husband Rory and I needed to go to a wedding in Stoupa, which is south of Kalamata on the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese region. I thought it would be easy getting from Athens to this area since there’s an international airport in Kalamata, but apparently flights between Athens and Kalamata are inconsistent and not always available. Also, the only port that runs ferries to the Cyclades islands is in Athens.
Because we planned to travel around and because this turned out to be much harder than we thought, we went with Athens-based travel agency Fantasy Travel. Even though it was a bit tough making the plans given the 10 hour time difference between Los Angeles and Athens, the folks at Fantasy Travel took care of everything, including transfers to and from airports, rental car (which was delivered to our hotel!) and hotels. I just gave them my budget, and they made it work.
Staying in Athens
We started our trip in Athens and stayed for about three days at Central Hotel in the Plaka, the old part of the city at the base of the Acropolis with narrow, labyrinthine streets (some streets are so narrow that two cars cannot pass each other; we saw many a car backing up to let the other pass). It took us nearly the whole three days we were there to get our bearings, and we never did find a particular restaurant that supposedly served delicious lamb. But no matter; we had fun exploring!
Central Hotel was one of the nicest places we stayed in Greece. Our room was small and basic, but it was clean and the design was modern. One big difference between American hotels and Greek ones, and from what I hear others in continental Europe, are the small showers. The one in our room at Central was fine, but some of the others we had later in the trip were tiny. Also, you’re not supposed to put anything — I mean anything — in the toilets in Greece. There’s a reason why all the wastebaskets are covered. Central also has a lovely rooftop restaurant, which offers great views of Athens and the Acropolis, especially at night (see the view in the photo at the top of this post).
Eating in Athens
Our first meal in Greece was dinner at a hole in the wall (almost literally) family-owned restaurant just across the street from our hotel. Greeks eat late, so we often wouldn’t have dinner until 9 p.m., and they take their time, sometimes two to three hours for dinner. (Also, breakfast isn’t a big thing here, but most hotels offer some kind of morning meal for tourists.) We had a Greek salad, or horiatiki, which Rory loved so much in Greece that we had it at pretty much every meal for two weeks! But this was OK because the produce in Greece is amazing: the tomatoes and green bell peppers are so sweet, and the feta is a dream. We also had souvlaki, but I’ve decided that I prefer Persian kabobs, which offer larger pieces of juicy meat. We did like the Mythos beer, which you can get in some places in the States (Momed in Beverly Hills carries it), better than the other ubiquitous brew offered in Greece, Fix.
My favorite dinner in Athens was at Dioceves in the Plaka. The restaurant has a nice patio, which is great to enjoy dinner on a warm summer night. I had rabbit — a huge plate, as most portions are in Greece — and a very large slice of baklava, along with the house wine, which was very decent. Most of the restaurants in Greece make their own wine, and it’s usually good and reasonably priced.
Taking in the Sights
We took a sightseeing tour of the historical sites in Athens (I thought we should ease our way into this new city by being true tourists for at least half a day). This was also set up by our travel agency. Most of the tour happened by comfortable tour bus except for the trip to the Acropolis (acropolis is a term for a settlement built on elevated ground). We visited the site of the Panathenaic Stadium, the site of the first Olympic games of modern times in 1896, the Hellenic Parliament building, and tomb of the unknown soldier. The best parts were the Acropolis Museum (built in 2009 and often referred to as the “new” Acropolis Museum), which is really beautiful and offers a great primer for seeing the historical sites on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, Erechtheion, Propylea and Odeon. Of course, the Parthenon was beyond amazing. It’s been under restoration for years, which you can see in the contrast between the new and old marble. There is little shade at the Acropolis, so if you go, make sure to wear sunscreen and bring a hat!
We stopped at a cute little cafe at the base of the Acropolis where I had a tasty slice of spanakopita served with a side of tzatziki. The owner was very nice, and the place was a nice little spot to relax after an educational history lesson at the Acropolis. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the place!
Walking Around Athens
We walked everywhere, so I don’t know what it’s like to take public transportation in Athens, but I hear it’s relatively easy. We visited the cavernous Central Market, where all kinds of foods, including fruit, spices and meats, are sold. From there, we went to the National Archeological Museum, which houses an enormous collection of all kinds of artifacts from all different eras. We also walked through the National Gardens, which are so large you could easily think you’re in the middle of the woods. It’s like being in New York’s Central Park. And we saw the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Athens Gate. It’s amazing how so much history is woven into the fabric of the city!