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

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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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:

See Athens in 2 Days! June 22, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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Update: new pictures added!

The Acropolis!
The Parthenon at the Acropolis!

When I told my friends I was heading to Greece for a week and that I had allocated 2 full days for its capital, Athens, the response I got was not overly enthusiastic.  They told me there wasn’t all that much to do, and a single day would be more than sufficient.

Well, they lied.

There’s heaps of things to do in Athens!  We used Athens as a base from which to get to other places (like the Peloponnese and Delphi and cruises to the nearby islands), but we did have a full 2 days to explore the city itself.  And it was barely enough.  If I had my way, 3 days would have been optimal.  However, keep in mind that I had my parents with me, and it was scorching hot, so if you are young, energetic and don’t mind the heat, you could probably squeeze all the main sights into 2 days.

Must See Attractions

1. The Acropolis

Usually the so-called ‘top attraction’ of a particular city will be underwhelming, but for me, the Acropolis lived up to its expectations, despite part of it being surrounded by scaffolding as part of maintenance.  If you only go to one attraction in Athens, make it the Acropolis.  It’s one of those things you just have to see and take in.

The nearest metro station is the aptly named Acropolis Station, and from there you just follow the signs.  On the way, you can check out the Lysicrates Monument, which is nothing special but worth a glance.  At the foot of the Acropolis is the wonderful Theatre of Dionysos, which is definitely worth a look before making the trek up.  You’ll also get a good view of the Odeum of Herodes, which they still use for shows and concerts.

Advice: wear comfortable shoes and preferably non-slip, because it can get a little slippery on the rocks.  And if it looks like a long way up, don’t despair, because it isn’t.  You’re up there before you even notice it.  And the view of the Parthenon and of Athens from the top is spectacular.  It’s also more crowded than any other attraction, so try and go early, especially before the noon sun hits.

There are plenty of guided tours available, and if you want to learn more about its history and so forth, then by all means, join a tour because it will be worth it.  However, I preferred to go at my own pace and read up on it beforehand or afterwards.

Note: the long-awaited Acropolis Museum will be opened to the public on 23 June 2009.  Apparently it is going to be superb (and from the promo I saw at the airport I have to agree).  For those visiting the Acropolis from that date make sure you check out the museum as well.

2. Lycabettus Hill

Lybacettus Hill

A sample of the views from Lycabettus Hill

If you want a spectacular view of the city, then head to Lycabettus Hill.  The nearest metro is Evangelismos Station, and from there you have to head north via a steep path up towards the cable car.  From memory the price is 6 Euros return per person.  At the top you can wander around, where there is a little chapel and legendary panoramic views of the city.  There is also a cafe or two where you can relax and sip on a drink while watching the sun go down.  Very nice and highly recommended.

3. Ancient Agora

Ancient Agora

The spectacular Temple of Hephaestus at Ancient Agora

Ancient Agora, Athens’ ancient markeplace is huge and worth a visit because of the well-preserved Temple of Hephasestus, which you would have seen if you were on top of the hill at the Acropolis.  There is also a museum there (which we didn’t visit) and plenty of other ruins lying around the site.  The second best archaeological site Athens has to offer in my opinion after the Acropolis.

4. National Archaeological Museum

If you’re a museum lover then you must go to the National Archaeological Museum, one of the great museums exhibiting ancient artifacts in the world.  Tickets are around 6 Euros I think and the nearest metro is Victoria, from which you’ll have to take a 10 minute walk.

Some of the things in there are simply amazing, and the artifacts are not confined to Athens.  Of particular interest are the items found in Santorini (which suggests it could be the mythical Atlantis?).  I was amazed to see the level of expertise they had 3,000 years ago in making pottery, jewellery, wall-paintings…they even had giant clips and pins that are almost identical to what we have today!

5. Temple of Olympian Zeus

Awesome

There’s not much to see at the site itself other than the giant pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but it is a majestic sight worth seeing.  You can get up pretty close to its 17m high pillars and you can also get a decent view of the Acropolis from there.  Don’t forget to check out the adjacent Hadrian’s Arch nearby and take a happy snap.  It’s located south-east of the Acropolis Station or you can take a walk there through the National Garden from Syntagma Square.

Other Sights and Attractions (in no particular order)

1. Syntagma Square – the ‘central’ station of Athens.  There are actually archaeological exhibits inside the station itself, which is pretty cool, and check out the various vendors in the square.  Across the road is Parliament, with the Tom of the Unknown Soldier.  Nothing special but worth a look if you’re staying nearby.

2. Zapion Exhibtion and Congress Hall – another attraction you can walk past if you take a stroll through the National Garden below Syntagma Square.  The architecture is impressive.

3. Panathinaikon Stadium – the site of the 1896, first modern Olympic Games.  It’s located very close to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the National Garden.  Definitely worth checking out.  I was amazed at how stylish it was.

Panathinaikon Stadium

Panathinaikon Stadium

4. Roman Market – this is where you go to eat traditional Greek food (like Souvlaki) and buy souvenirs.  There’s also cheap fruits (especially cherries sold by this guy who keeps yelling like a madman).  The recommended restaurant we went to was called O Thanisis and is located on Mitropoleos.  I’m not usually a fan of Greek food but this was excellent.  It’s right outside Monastiraki Station.

5. Roman Agora – if you go see Ancient Agora then you won’t really need to go here.  It’s near the Roman Market.  The Tower of Winds is quite interesting though.

6. Hadrian Library – also near the Roman Market.  If you got a combined ticket then might as well check it out for a few minutes.

7. Keramikos – I didn’t end up going there, but it’s an ancient Greek cemetary.

8. National Library, University & Academy – all three are wonderful pieces of architecture over a hundred years old and are lined up next to each other between Akadimias Street and Panepistimiou (El Venizelou).  We rode by via taxi a couple of times but didn’t stop.

9. Benzaki Museum – apparently really good too but we didn’t have enough time to go.

Where to Stay?

The most convenient area would be near Syntagma Square (Plaka area) or Monastiraki.  There’s lots of shops and hotels and restaurants in that area and you get easy access to the metro.

We stayed at 2 separate hotels, Hermes (3 stars) and Amalia (4 stars) which were both splendid and located in Plaka.  I would suggest you shop around and find some specials to get more value for your money.

Getting Around

I wouldn’t recommend taxi unless you want to get stuck in traffic a lot.  We used a combination of the metro and walking, which was very easy.  The metro is 1 Euro for a single ticket that lasts 90 minutes and allows you to go in and out of stations. It’s an honour system but if you get caught there’s a huge fine (I think) and plenty of embarrassment.  If you’re planning to use it a lot then get a day ticket for 3 Euros (and I think there are weekly tickets too).

Suggested Itinerary

I would recommend splitting the areas up.  You can get a combined ticket for 12 Euros, which allows you go to most of the places such as the Acropolis, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Temple of Olympian Zeus etc and you can use it for several days. Definitely worth it.

The first day we started in Syntagma Square, walked through the National Garden then checked out the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, before rounding back up to see Panathinaikon Stadium.  In the afternoon we went up to Lycabettus Hill and spent the afternoon there checking out the views.  For the second day we started early and went to the Acropolis then Ancient Agora (and the others nearby), then up to the National Archaeological Museum in the afternoon.  Nice and easy and you can squeeze in more attractions here and there if you want.

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