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Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up! July 10, 2009

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Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-up! July 5, 2009

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 [Note: Travel Diary updated to include Greece!]

Round Up 4

Get up and close to the Parthenon at the Acropolis

Keeping up with my tradition of a outlining the highlights following a big trip (like my European Adventure Round-up), here is a big fat round-up of my spectacular adventure in Greece!

Overview

As an aspiring writer who is kicking things off with a fantasy novel, I am a sucker for the ancient world.  For those who have not read my European Adventure Round-Up, my favourite attraction from that trip was Palatine Hill in Rome (a large area of ancient ruins).  Greece is full of places like that, and many of them more spectacular and better preserved, plus there are the amazing, absolutely breathtaking views.  I had never been much of a scenery kind of guy, but the things I saw on this trip just blew me away!  I had already seen too many churchs and cathedrals (to the point where they kind of all melt into one), so Greece was an exciting new experience for me.

We had roughly 8 days in total, but you need to keep in mind that my wife and I were lugging my 60 year-old parents with us (though they are in supreme shape and after often mistaken for being in their late 40s).  Hence there was a lot of starting and stopping, some decent rests in between.  We probably saw less things but it was a lot more relaxing than it would have been had it just been the two of us.  If I had more time and money, 2 weeks would have been perfect, though you could easily spend a month island hopping if you wanted to.

Places visited

  • 2 days in Athens;
  • 1 day cruise to the Saronic islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina;
  • 1 day trip by taxi to the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio)
  • 1 day trip by taxi to Delphi;
  • 1/2 a day on the Cycladic island of Milos; and
  • 1 day on the Cycladic island of Santorini.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

Best experience(s)

It’s too hard to pick a single experience as the best in Greece, so I’ll pick 2.

The first of course is the marvellous island(s) of Santorini, definitely one of the most beautiful places in the world.  There’s just something magical about the place, made more mystical due to the suggestion that it may be the lost island of Atlantis.  Every picture you take in Santorini could be slapped onto a postcard.  Whether you’re into ancient archaeological sites (Ancient Thera or Akrotiri – when it opens again), beautiful scenery (Fira, Oia), volcanoes (Nea Kameni) or just like to hang out on the beach (Kamari, Perissa or the Red Beach), Santorini caters.  No wonder it is a favourite for celebrities and weddings.  It’s a place I’d very much like to visit again if I get the chance.

Santorini Oia

People waiting to catch the sunset in Oia (Santorini)

The second is the archaeological site of Delphi, one of the surprises of the trip.  Delphi is jaw-dropping because of where it is situated, the sheer size of the site, the granduer of the structures and the amazing level of preservation.  There are temples, theatres, halls, treasuries, stadiums – you name it.  If you only see one archaeological site in Greece, Delphi is the place to go (though it’s hard to skip the Acropolis in Athens).

Worst experience

Easy – our hellish ferry ride from Athens to Santorini that took 23 hours instead of the scheduled 5.  Double-booked seats, poor safety, mass vomiting, disorganisation to absolute chaos, the ride just about had it all.  I think it’s something I’ll look back upon as a fascinating experience, but it’s certainly not something I want to go through again!

Most beautiful/spectacular

Too hard to pick.  In terms of pure natural beauty, you can’t go past Santorini.  Views from both Fira and Oia are unmatched.  he volcanic island of Nea Kameni is also worth visiting.  On the other hand, the island of Hydra (though we only spent 90 minutes there) was also very pretty.  But if you prefer views over Athens, Lycabettus Hill and the top of the Acropolis are my picks.

In terms of the biggest spectacle, there’s the archaeological sites of Delphi, the Acropolis and Ancient Agora.  I just can’t make up my mind.

Round Up 2

You can see the Acropolis atop Lycabettus Jill

Most informative

I only went to 2 museums, the massive National Archaeological Museum in Athens (near Victoria metro station) and the small but impressive Museum of Prehistoric Thira on Santorini.  Nevertheless, both were excellent and I would recommend them to anyone wanting to learn a bit about the fascinating history of Greece.

Note at the time of visiting, the highly anticipated Acropolis Museum in Athens had not yet opened, but it has now, and I hear that is a must-visit too.

Most underrated

I hadn’t heard of Palamidi Castle in Nafplio before, but if you are visiting the Peloponnese I’d recommend checking it out.  It is exceptionally well-preserved and you can explore the various bastions, climbing up to the top if you want to.  The views are also impressive.  The place gave me plenty of ideas for the settings in my fantasy novel.

Round Up 7

Palamidi Castle was superb

Most overrated

I don’t want to call any place ‘overrated’ in Greece because they were all good in my opinion, but if I had to pick one it would probably be the Mycenaen Acropolis.  Apart from the Lion Gate at the entrance and a few grave circles here and there, there wasn’t all that much to see in terms of archaeological structures.  That said, the view from the top was still mighty impressive.  However, if you visit somewhere like Delphi then you can probably give Mycenae a miss.

Top 5 must-see attractions

It’s extremely difficult to pick 5 out of so many attractions in Greece.  Of the top of my head here are mine, in descending order.

5. Ancient Agora (Athens) – I wish I had spent more time here because it was so big and there was a museum there too, but even just an hour or so in Ancient Agora was enough to place it in my top 5.  The Temple of Hephaestus is perhaps the most complete and well-preserved structure I’ve ever seen at around 2,500 years old, but it’s not the only thing to see there.  If you’re in the area make sure you go and take a look.

4. Palamidi Castle (Nafplio) – maybe I am overrating it here, but the surprise element probably has something to do with Palamidi Castle being ranked 4th.  The scale and scope and views are all top-notch and I love how you can explore the grounds – each bastion is a mini-adventure.

3. Nea Kameni (Santorini) – you can’t really call the whole of Santorini an ‘attraction’, but it’ll be a crime not to include something from Santorini in the top 5 – so I’ve chosen Nea Kameni, the magnificent volcano that left me awestruck at its devastating power.  If you’re making the 90 minute trek to the top of the volcano and back, make sure you wear a hat or bring an umbrella and bring plenty of fluids, and remember to avoid wearing open-toed shoes.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni volcano at Santorini

2. The Acropolis (Athens) – it was a tough choice to put the Acropolis at number 2.  Typically, the number one attraction can get hyped up too much, but no amount of hype can make the Acropolis disappointing.  It needs to be seen, simple as that.  Don’t forget to check out the Theatre of Dionysos and Odeum of Herodes while you’re there.  And now, with the Acropolis Museum, it’s a must-must-visit.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi – there’s an element of surprise with this one as well, but the archaeological site of Delphi is a true wonder of the Ancient Greek world that every visitor to Greece should experience.  When you’re there, try and imagine what it was like more than 2,600 years ago, and no matter how unbearable hot it gets, try and make it to the very top.  The view of the entire archaeological site is something I will always remember.

Round Up 8

Delphi is No. 1

There were many other attractions that I left off the list that are worth visiting.  Just missing the cut include Lycabettus Hill, the Temple of Olympic Zeus, the island of Hydra and the National Archaeological Museum.  The towns of Fira and Oia (especially for the sunset) on Santorini aren’t too shabby either.

Places I wish I saw (or want to see next time)

My biggest disappointments on the trip were missing the theatre at Epidavros (Epidaurus) and the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi.  I would have also liked to have visited more places on the Peloponnese, such as Olympia and Sparta.  On the mainland I wish I had time to visit Meteora, which I hear is awesome, but you’d need to take a 2-day trip from Athens.  In terms of islands of course I wanted to see Mykonos and also Crete.  If I visit Athens again I’d also like to see the new Acropolis Museum and the Benzaki Museum near Syntagma Square.  Maybe next time.

Additional information

For more details see the following individual posts or my Travel Diary:

Santorini in One Day! July 3, 2009

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The amazing Santorini caldera
The amazing Santorini caldera

As a result of the nightmarish ferry ride from Athens that took 23 hours instead of the scheduled 5, we only had a solitary day (plus a couple of spare hours) to explore the wonderful island(s) of Santorini (also known as Thira).  Not ideal, but we actually ended up seeing everything we wanted.  So if you too are strapped for time, rest assured, it can be done!

Santorini is widely regarded as the most beautiful of the Greek Islands, and even though I only saw 4 other islands apart from it (Melos, Hydra, Poros, Aegina), I would find it difficult to believe otherwise.  Santorini is actually a family of islands which used to be one single island before a major volcanic event around 1500 BC.  Some believe it is the legendary lost city of Atlantis!

Part I: Taxi tour

Anyway, we arrived at the port of Athinios at around 7am or so, and we got straight to it.  No spare time for messing around.  There were surprisingly few taxis awaiting us and they were very selective in their passengers, only willing to take multiple groups of people to maximise their fares.  With 4 people in our group, it just wasn’t possible to get a cab, so we caught the bus to Fira (the main town on Santorini), and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it only took around 10-15 minutes and was a fraction of the price.

After checking in at the superb Hotel Atlantis (really magnificent, probably the best location in Fira) with rooms that overlook the spectacular sea and white houses along the majestic caldera (and the volcanic island of Nea Kameni) and enjoying a delicious, freshly made breakfast on demand (including fresh OJ!), we got down to business and hired a cab from the hotel.  If we were going to see Santorini in a day we couldn’t afford to go cheap.

Santorini 1

The view from our room at Hotel Atlantis

Our plan was to hire the cab for a couple of hours to go see a few of the main sites around the main island.  It was not cheap, costing at 1 Euro a minute (so for 2 hours that meant 120 Euros, or 30 Euros per person).  If you have more time or less money you can hire a car, or if you are more adventurous a bike, scooter or one of those 4 wheelers (quads) which looked like a lot of fun, if you don’t mind the scorching sun and heat.

The driver spoke a bit of English and was ultra-friendly.  On our way to the first stop, the Red Beach, the driver took us to a lovely little look-out point where we took some mandatory snaps of the stunning caldera and the ocean.  Words really don’t do it justice.

We then had to climb some rocky terrain to get to the viewing point of the Red Beach (we didn’t make the long trek down to the beach itself), which was, not surprisingly, red!  Volcanoes can do some freaky things, because the cliff walls and sand were both dark red, unlike any place I had ever seen before.

Santorini Red Beach

The Red Beach near Akrotiri

Unfortunately, the nearby archaeological site of Akrotiri was closed (and will remain closed until at least the summer of 2010 due to some roof collapse accident several years back).  Unfortunate because the site is apparently a ‘must-see’, so if I ever go back it’s going to be at the top of my list.

Nevertheless, we ventured on to the next stop, east towards the other archaeological site of Ancient Thera near the black Kamari Beach.  It was a long climb up, and we were running short on time, so we didn’t get to see it all, but a lovely couple who were on their way down were nice enough to show us their photos.  I’m glad we didn’t go all the way up because it was super hot and there wasn’t all that much to see to be honest (especially after visiting Delphi).  On the way down we got to see the black pebbles of Kamari Beach, and the driver even stopped by when we reached the bottom.  He also got us some local fruits and vegies to try which was cool.

Santorini Kamari

The Black Kamari Beach from afar

Santorini Kamari 2

Kamari Beach up close

Part II: Volcano cruise

One of the best things you can do in Santorini is to take a cruise out to Nea Kameni, the old volcani island in the centre that made Santorini the way it is today.  The one we took cost 18 Euros per person and lasted for 3 hours.

Santorini Cable

Views of Fira from the Cable Car down to the Old Port

 The adventure really starts even before you make it down to the Old Port in Fira.  Some walk or take a donkey down (which smells a bit in my opinion) but we took the cable car, which cost 4 Euros each way (cheaper than donkey) and offers stunning views of Fira and the port.  The boat first took us to the Hot Springs, where we stopped for around half an hour and allowed those with their costumes to take a dip in the water.  We just chilled on board and took some photos, and time passed pretty quickly.

Santorini Hot Springs

Natural hot springs near the volcano

Then we headed around the corner to Nea Kameni, passing the black volcanic shores along the way, taking in the awesome destructive and creative power of the volcano.  Nea Kameni costs a small fee to enter if you want to walk around, and I would recommend it because it is well worth the money.  It’s about a 90 minute walk to and back, and in the summer heat it can be pretty brutal, but if you make it to the top the view is truly spectacular.

Santorini Volcano

The black volcanic rocks of Nea Kameni

The boat took us back to the mainland by 5pm.

Part III: Oia sunset

Perhaps the most common photo taken of Santorini (or even all of the Greek Islands) is the sunset from Oia, a town located at the northern tip of Santorini.  We took a cab there which costed 13 Euros.

Oia is extremely picturesque, and has a different feel to what you get in Fira.  Walk through the narrow streets along the white squarish houses, with the sun setting in the background.  There’s no words to describe the beauty.  We had a Greek dinner and then followed the crowd to the look-out point.  You’ll know where it is because that’s where everyone is heading.

The sunset we got to witness was okay.  Certainly very pretty but not as beathtaking as one would envisage, probably because of the clouds on the horizon that blocked the last remaining moments.  Furthermore, here’s a tip: don’t go to the popular look-out spots!  There’s actually plenty of places where you can get an awesome view of the sunset, so ask around and avoid the crowds.  This is particularly important if you want to get out of there as soon as the sun sets, because when the crowds start moving it can take a long time.

The oft-photographed sunset from Oia

The oft-photographed Oia sunset

We were lucky to make it on one of the first buses back to Fira, which only cost 1.60 Euros each.  However, the ticket seller on the bus (who walks down the isles once the bus starts moving) is quite a chunker and if you are standing you’ll probably be crushed by his enormous ass and gigantic breasts.

Part IV: Museum

On the last day we had a couple of hours before we had to head to the airport, so apart from wandering the streets of Fira, we also went to the nearby (virtually next to the hotel) Museum of Prehistoric Thira, which is quite small but well worth it as it houses much of the artifacts from Akrotiri.  Since we couldn’t visit the archaeological site, this was the next best thing, and it was highly interesting, with lots of things I did not expect to exist 3,500 years ago, such as advanced wall paintings and pottery, stamps, jewelery and even giant clips (which look exactly the same as their modern-day counterparts)!  It was also cool to learn about how Santorini became the way it is today, for those who like to spice up their trip with a bit of knowledge.

After that and some final snaps of the memorable views, we checked out and caught a cab to the airport, just 10-15 mins away and costs 15 Euros.  And there you have it, Santorini in a day (and a little bit)!

Santorini Houses

Last pic of beautiful Fira

PS: I’m trying to set up some link where I can post more hi-res pics from my travels…

Travel Update: Copenhagen! July 1, 2009

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If you’ve read more than one of my posts, you’ll probably know I’m not a big fan of the heat.  And right now, I’m boiling hot, sitting in my hotel room in Copenhagen (just arrived from Stockholm today).

It’s the last leg of my European travels, and I’ll be sure to write up a mega round-up when it’s all over in a few days, but right now I’m trying to enjoy the final moments of this fantastic journey.  I’m so behind that I haven’t even finished my posts on Greece!

Anyway, be wary of hotels in Copenhagen.  We chose the Astoria based on its extreme proximity to the Central Train Station in Copenhagen, but there’s no air conditioning!  Because it apparently gets pretty cold here in winter and they only need cooling for a month a year, so most hotels go cheap when it comes to air conditioning (or so they tell us).  Must be global warming or something.  That said, we’re still forking out around 900 DKK per room per night (you do the math, but it’s not cheap!) for a 3-star hotel that doesn’t have air conditioning or free boiled water for that matter.  That said, there is free Internet :)

Ferry from Hell: Athens to Santorini June 28, 2009

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The Superjet boat scheduled from Athens to Santorini

The Superjet boat scheduled from Athens to Santorini

Most people who visit Greece will find an opportunity to visit at least one of the Greek islands, most probably in the Cyclades.  Flights can be rather expensive and can sell out quickly (especially during peak season), so venturing out by sea is generally the preferred choice.  There are plenty of ferry companies competing for your services, so shop around and make an informed choice.  The following is a true short story of sorts chronicling the nightmarish trip we took from Piraeus (the Athens port) to the beautiful island of Santorini by Superjet (of the Sea Jet company), supposedly the fastest way there by water.

Or so we thought…

Ferry from Athens (Piraeus) to Santorini (Thira)

Flights from Athens to Santorini only take 30-45 minutes, but each ticket costs around 115-120 Euros.   On the other hand, the fastest ferry, Superjet, takes only 5 hours (whereas the slower ones can take as long as 8 or 9 hours) and less than half the price.  Factor in the time for check-in at the airport and immigration and collecting luggage, we thought that a flight would not save that much time compared to a fast ferry, so we went with the cheaper option.  We booked online and got the tickets mailed to us in advance.

[Note that Santorini is also known as Thira and the main town on the island is called Fira, so don’t get confused!]

An ominous start

Our departure time was 7:15am, but its’s a good idea to get there around an hour earlier because there is very limited luggage space, and there’s also another very important reason which I explain below.  So we departed our hotel by 6am by taxi.  Things did not get off to a great start when the taxi driver got lost at the port of Piraeus, and directions requested from ground staff were not exactly accurate.  Nevertheless we got there, still relatively early and towards the front of the queue that was already forming by the smallish, pink and white ferry.

We got on board and stashed our luggage by the back door and found our seats at the very first row, right in the centre.  As it turned out, the Superjet was no luxury cruise for passengers to enjoy.  It was simply a speedy mode of transportation.  There were just rows and rows of seats and not much else.  No tables, no common area to chill out, only one mini-bar on the ground floor.  The upper deck was for smokers.  No one would be allowed to go outside to catch some sea breeze or enjoy the views.  It was going to be a long 5 hours.

Before long, crowds were flocking in and the seats soon filled up.  It became clear that there was not enough space for people to put their luggage, as the bags and suitcases began flooding into the isles and every empty space passengers came across.  Here’s a photo of the emergency exit, situated right in front of where we sat.

Superjet

Safety first

That wasn’t all.

Minutes before departure, a worried-looking, slim, curly-haired lady stood in front of us and told us that we were sitting in her seat.  We told her she was wrong, but somehow she just kept standing there.  When her friend arrived, she told us again, and we asked her to show us her ticket.  Turns out she got the ticket number confused with the seat number (it was all in Greek, so it was pretty confusing), which we pointed out to her.  Embarrassed, she moved on to the seats beside us, but oddly enough, they were also occupied.

Then some quiet bickering commenced, which started to turn heads when it got loud.  The girls sped off with their luggage, and the remaining group told everyone that the girls had gotten on the wrong boat!  However, the girls soon returned with an attendant.  Actually, they were on the right boat, and those were their seats, but the seats had been double-booked.  The ferry company screwed up.  The girls had to be moved upstairs, among the smokers.

See what I meant when I said it was a good idea to get there early?

The Ferry from Hell

We were scheduled to arrive at Santorini at 12 noon.  Even though the ferry left slightly late (around 7:30), I wasn’t concerned at all.  Not yet anyway.

The first few hours passed quite smoothly, and by about 10am, we were already wondering what we were going to do for the afternoon in Santorini.

Then, the boat started to rock.  A lot.  So much so that I was starting to feel nauseous.  My mother vomited into a bag beside me.  So did dozens of people by the sound of things behind me.  I didn’t dare look back as I was close to joining them myself.  I was very proud actually, as I considered myself the King of Vomit (having once literally exhausted all the vomit bags on a long haul flight – this was before I discovered the miracle drug that is Xanax – now it’s all smooth flying).

It was awful.  Think Lardass and the pie-eating contest from Stand By Me.  The attendant lady was busy running around dishing out more vomit bags, almost tripping over the luggage piled up where they shouldn’t be.

My dad, who fancies himself as a bit of a pressure point master, started to tap his fingers on the top of my head, kind of like a massage.  Surprisingly, it really helped with the nausea.  Within a few minutes everyone on the boat was doing it!

It was around 11:30am (just 20 minutes from the scheduled arrival time) when a poor English speaker announced that we were going to arrive 20 minutes late at the island of Melos (or Milos).  It wasn’t until after we arrived at Melos that we were told that we had to turn around because of poor weather, and we wouldn’t be leaving the dock for another hour and a half (ie 1:30pm).  And as it turned out, Melos was another 2 hours from Santorini, so the earliest we would be getting there is 3:30pm.  Seeing that there wasn’t much we could do, we decided to make the best of it and go grab a bite to eat near the pier.

The Waiting Game

After a hasty lunch with our eyes fixated on the boat in the distance, we hurried back and crowded around the attendant lady who announced (with a barely audible voice) that the weather was still no good and the boat would not be leaving until 3:30pm now.  After much of the crowd dispersed, she spoke to the captain again and changed her tune, saying that 2:30pm was a possibility.  But what about all those people that heard 3:30 and wouldn’t be back until then?  I guess it would be bad luck if the boat took off without them.

So we went back out, sitting by the water, grabbing an ice cream and waiting for the time to tick by.  By now we just wanted to get to Santorini before dinner.  We could still catch the sunset!

Melos 1

The island of Milos (or Melos)

At 2:30pm, we went back, and fair enough, the wait was now until 3:30.  At 3:30, we went back and were told that it would now be 5:30.  And if at 5:30 it wasn’t ready to go then the boat would head back to Athens.  Frustrated, we headed back to the boat.  Given how unpredictable things were, we decided to stick close to base.  A nap, some light reading and sudoku passed the time.

WTF?

Just when we thought things could not get much worse, at about 5pm we heard a commotion at the back of the boat.

My wife and I raced there to see an attendant surrounded by people (by now more like an angry mob).  We were fortunate to squeeze into a space beside her, and heard her say that the boat was about to head back to Athens!  There was another big boat departing Melos at 9:30pm tonight to Santorini, and another at midnight – these would not be affected by the waves like our small Superjet.  Otherwise we’d have to wait and catch the 10:20am Superjet the next morning.  There were mixed messages and rumours floating around about whether the company was going to pay for the night of accommodation.  We’d have to sort everything out ourselves at the ticket office in Melos.  Truthfully, we were just glad that unlike 60-70% of the rest of the boat, we heard what we did.

We split up.  My wife would grab my parents and I would race to the ticket office near the pier to arrange new tickets.  Upon exiting the back door, I was caught up in a frenzied crowd.  Dozens of people who didn’t want to go back to Athens were trying to get on the boat, while those who didn’t were trying to get off, creating a massive logjam at the bridge connecting the boat with land.  The boat’s captain was stuck in the middle, trying to explain to dozens of others (without the aid of a loud speaker) what was happening.

It was one of the most chaotic scenes I had ever witnessed in my life.

Quick thinking ensued and I literally jumped off the boat.  It was the only way I could avoid being crushed by the crowd swarming in from both ends, neither side willing to budge.  I raced up to the ticket office, and fortunately, I was only third in line, and there were two people helping at the counter.

About 10 minutes later, I was still third in line, and the line behind me had now extended far into the streets.  There was a lot of confusion, and the ticket office really didn’t have a clue, the staff arguing amongst themselves over whether a refund would be granted, whether they would issue tickets on the spot or they’d get the tickets from somewhere else, and whether they’d gather everyone’s tickets in one go or do it individually.

Furthermore, there was no ferry at 9:30pm.  It was either the slow midnight ferry which would arrive at Santorini by 6am, or the 10:20am fast ferry the next morning, which would arrive by noon.

Needless to say, some people were now hanging by a thread, emotionally speaking.  People behind us complained that they had booked expensive, non-refundable tours in Santorini for that day or early next morning.  Some girls said they had to get to Santorini that night to attend a wedding.  One guy said he had been trying to get home for 3 days.  Another little dude pushed to the front and began slapping the counter with one hand while holding his tickets in the other.  His voice was breaking and it seemed like he would burst into tears any second.  He may have been the groom.  Us losing a night of accommodation in Santorini didn’t seem so bad in comparison.

Anyway, after another 20 minutes, it was finally my turn.  We opted for the midnight snail ferry that would take 6 hours.  We had no choice, considering that would be our only day in Santorini and we didn’t want to waste any more time.  As I grabbed my replacement tickets and headed out the door of the travel agency, the line had gotten even longer.  At this rate there was no guarantee people at the back would even make it to the front of the counter by midnight!  Naturally, I was swarmed by people wanting to know what the deal was.

Oh, and by the way, according to the travel agency, there was apparently another big ferry which docked next to us at around 4pm that could have taken us to Santorini by that day (though this was refuted by some).  Unfortunately the staff on our Superjet boat forgot to mention it.

Conclusion

With another 6 hours on our hands, we decided it was time to tour the island of Melos.  The tourism office was open and the lady there was very friendly and helpful.  We took a cab up to the village of Plaka, with its traditional narrow pathways and pretty white and blue buildings.  It only took about 30 minutes but it was well worth it.  We followed that up with a hearty dinner, some more icecream and then a leisurely stroll along the banks.  Melos wasn’t anything special but at least we got to experience another island.

Melos Plaka

Plaka in Milos is full of buildings like this

Given everything that had happened, we weren’t going to relax until we got on that boat.  And it did come, eventually, after several false alarms, at just after midnight.  We were crammed into the lower deck, with rows of wide seats that were slightly more comfortable than what you would get on a Business Class flight.  Good enough for us.  We were exhausted and we needed to get some sleep.  After all, we needed to cram a day and a half of activities in Santorini into one.

We finally arrived at Santorini at around 6:30am, roughly 23 hours after departing Athens and 18.5 hours after the scheduled arrival.

If you’ve read this far, then I don’t really need to say it, but I will, just in case.  Avoid taking small boats when island hopping in Greece.  Chances are, you won’t be as unlucky as we were, but apparently our experience was not uncommon.  Play it safe.  The larger ferries may be slower, but at least you’re more or less guaranteed to get there on time.  And they’re cheaper too.

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