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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.

Final Stop: Stockholm and Copenhagen! July 6, 2009

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Tivoli in Copenhagen is a wonderland Tivoli in Copenhagen is a wonderland

[Note: Travel Diary updated to include this trip!]

Last journey in Europe: the Scandanavian cities of Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark)!  This was yout typical ‘unwind’ trip – it took place right after my graduation and several days before we were set to leave the UK for good.  After exhausting but totally excellent adventures in places like Greece and Italy, northern Europe was the place to go to relax.  We started off in Stockholm, stayed for about a day and a half, then took the train to Copenhagen and stayed there for a day and a half.  Short but sufficient.  Besides, with the prices in those cities you wouldn’t want to stay for too long!

Note that even though Sweden and Copenhagen are part of the EU, both countries still retained their local currencies – the Swedish Krona (SEK) and the Danish Krone (DKK).

Initial impressions

Stockholm

Having done less research than usual before visiting a city, I was very surprised when I first arrived in Stockholm.  It was less touristy than I had envisaged, though it met expectations in terms of cleanliness.  There were very few people walking the streets, and even fewer cars – the exact opposite of what I had experienced in London.  The city is essentially made up of a series of islands, so no matter which way you walk, you are likely to run into water sooner or later.  And when you do, you’re likely to fall in love with the city because the waters are so crystal clean and incredibly beautiful.

Swedes are very proud of their clean water and their tap water is highly drinkable.  Honestly, it tasted just like bottled spring water.

St George in St Nicholas' Church in Stockholm

Dragon slayer St George in St Nicholas' Church in Stockholm

Copenhagen

After visiting Stockholm, Copenhagen was a little bit of a shock.  I had expected the two cities to be similar, but Copenhagen was more touristy, dirtier and substantially more crowded (though still not that bad).  However, the place really grew on me during the second day, and now I am very fond of it.  There are some exceptional attractions in Copenhagen which are really worth checking out, and while things are expensive, it is the ‘cheap’ food that really satisfied my taste buds.  The Nyhavn area is also quite pretty with its multi-coloured houses and restaurants lining the sides.

Best attractions

Stockholm

There are plenty of things to see in Stockholm, with over 70 art galleries and 70 museums, the Royal Palace (the interior is a bit overrated in my opinion, the Swedish Parliament and so forth.  Of course, with only a day and a half, we had to be extra selective.  Here are the top 3 things I thought were worth checking out:

3. Gamla Stan (Old Town) – this is a nice area to walk through and check out.  It has a distinct flavour to it, and even though it is rather touristy it was time well spent.  The streets may seem a little grotty with many dark stains, but it’s probably just all the dried spilt ice cream!  Speaking of ice cream, there are quite a few vendors around, as well as high-priced restaurants and souvenir stores.  If you head there from the north, you’ll get to see the Swedish Parliament and the Royal Palace from the outside, as well as some pretty views of the waters, including the City Hall where the annual Nobel prize banquet is held.

2. Boat cruise – with the many islands, if you have limited time, the best way to see Stockholm is a boat cruise.  Most of them are conducted by Stockholm Sightseeing, and the most popular cruise is the Under the Bridges tour, which costs 190 SKK a head and lasts for roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes.  It is very relaxing – you just sit there, enjoy the views, the breeze and listen to the audio guide if you want to (in about 10 languages).  It’s not cheap but you really get to see a lot in a short period of time.

There are also several hop-on, hop-off boats which can be handy (40 SKK per person one way) if you want to get from island to island.

If you have slightly more time, consider taking a trip to the Stockholm archipelago, a maritime landscape of 30,000 islands, islets and skerries.  We didn’t get a chance to go but apparently it is magnificent.

Stockholm Vasa

The maginificent Vasa Museum is my No. 1 in Stockholm

1. Vasa Museum – without a doubt one of the best and most unique museums I’ve been to and the highlight of my trip to Stockholm.  The Vasa is a warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 but was not salvaged until 1961 – 333 years later.  Despite this, the ship remains in remarkably good shape – something to do with the mixture of salt and freshwater at the point where it sunk (apparently).  The wreckage is the museum’s centrepiece, but there are 5 floors of fascinating things to explore, see and learn.  Do yourself a favour and make sure you don’t miss it.

Copenhagen

We ended up seeing quite a bit in Copenhagen.  Like Stockholm, we caught a short 50 minute cruise that took us to see many of the main attractions, such as the Little Mermaid (just a statue by the water), Nyhavn (and the place where Hans Christian Anderson lived), the Black Diamond (just a building) and the Opera House, as well as Our Saviour’s Church.  We also walked to see much of the same the next day, including the Marble Church which was pretty cool.  However, these are my top 3.

Copenhagen Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid...that's all there is

3. Stroget – the famous shopping street was a little disappointing to be honest, but if you’re in Copenhagen it’s hard to avoid it.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, with plenty of shops, hot dog vendors and ice cream shops (some with exquisite ice cream), the latter two of which are a lot more up my alley.  The good thing about Stroget is that there are several other attractions in close proximity to it.

2. Rosenborg Castle – this one was a big surprise.  We almost went there by default, thinking that we didn’t have enough places to go, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.  The Castle itself is impressive, but it is the beautiful gardens and the park surrounding it that make it worth visiting.  We must have sat there for a good hour or more just admiring the scenery.

Copenhagen Rosenborg

Rosenborg Castle was a pleasant surprise

1. Tivoli – the big theme park in the middle of the city, and one of the most popular places for tourists.  However, you don’t have to like rides to enjoy Tivoli (we didn’t go on any).  Entrance is 85 DKK, but each ride costs extra (I think between 20 and 40 DKK ).  The best time is to go is when it is just starting to get dark, so you can see what it is like in daylight and then when the lights come on, it’s a totally different feel.  For those who want to experience that fairytale carnival sensation you often see in movies, Tivoli is about as close as you’ll get.  Apart from the screaming youths flying overhead in the various rides and the many food and candy vendors, you’ll also see some very well-kept gardens with colourful flowers to appreciate.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I really liked just walking around and absorbing the summer carnival atmosphere.

Copenhagen Tivoli 2

Tivoli at night

Just missing the cut is the National Museum, which has plenty of interesting exhibits and turn into a bit of a maze, but they really could turn up the air-conditioning in summer.

Eating

Stockholm

The must-try foods in Stockholm, apart from ice cream, are salmon and Swedish meatballs.  We tried both once in a restaurant in Gamla Stan and they were excellent.  I must say though, I have had better of both elsewhere.

There is also a nice little French crepe place in Sodermalm too, for those so inclined.

Stockholm Swedish Meatballs

Mmm...Swedish Meatballs

Copenhagen

I only expected the waffles and ice cream to be tasty, but while they were indeed, it was the hotdogs that blew me away!  You’ll see them everywhere, especially near the Town Hall and in Stroget and Nyhavn.  Make sure you try them.  The regular hotdog (boiled, or you can get the grilled sausage) with fresh hot bread, onions, fried onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard, mayo – was just divine.  We must have had 3 or 4 of them in just a couple of days!

And the ice cream – superb.  Look out for ‘Paradis‘ – there’s a couple in Stroget.  The Pistachio is the best I’ve ever tasted.  The Ferrero Rocher is not bad either.  Unfortunately Paradis doesn’t have the ‘soft ice’ addition that some other places have.

Oh, and don’t forget the Danish open sandwiches (essentially just a sandwich without the top piece of bread).

Copenhagen Town Hall

Lots of hotdog vendors near Town Hall

Hotels

We booked hotels about as close as you can get to the main train stations, both 3 stars – Scandia in Stockholm and Astoria in Copenhagen.  Super expensive for the quality, but it was good enough for a couple of nights each.  Be warned though – most 3 star hotels in Copenhagen (we’re told) don’t have air conditioning.  This is usually not a problem, but if you go in the summer, like we did, it can be rather unbearable at night if you keep the windows closed.  We had a couple of fans, but for security reasons we kept the window largely closed on the first night, and I couldn’t sleep.  It was brutal.  On the second night we ignored safety concerns and left the window wide open, and slept like a baby (despite the bright neon sign flashing on the building across).

In all, it was a fitting end to our stay in Europe!

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…

Review: the Peloponnese and Delphi by Taxi! June 25, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
6 comments
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

For those visiting Athens in small groups or are willing to dish out a little extra cash, you may want to consider hiring a taxi for a day or two to visit places outside the capital.  As a sucker for ancient ruins and Greek mythology, my family of 4 (parents, wife and myself) took two separate day trips by taxi to the east side of the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio) and Delphi, some of the most amazing and fascinating places in all of Greece.  Here’s what I thought of it.

Why taxi?

All-day taxi hire prices in Greece are generally quite reasonable, and there are plenty of services around that specialize in such tours.  We went with Greece Taxi (which was the cheapest by a slim margin) but there are lots of others such as Greek Taxi and George the Famous Taxi Driver of Greece

The only con I can think of is of course the lack of a knowledgeable tour guide.  Your taxi driver may know a little general information, but they are not experienced guides who will be able to answer all your questions.  However, if you are like me and like to read things up for yourself in your own time (either before or after), or if you are or are with people who just like to see things and know some basic stuff without going into the intricate details (such as my parents and my wife) then it might not make much of a difference.  Most of the sites provide a short outline and have information boards anyway.

My experience

Booking online in advance with Greece Taxi was easy and straightforward.  They were very fast in responding to inquiries and wrote and spoke excellent English.

Both tours were also pleasant, though if I were to pick one I would go for Delphi (which I’m told is the msot popular one-day tour).  Before I arrived in Greece, I was most looking forward to the Peloponnese trip, but if you were going to visit just one place outside of Athens, I would recommend Delphi.

The Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio)

Corinth Canal

The spectacular Corinth Canal

Our driver Bill arrived a little late due to traffic, but when we called up the office to check they were very apologetic and good about it.  Bill was pretty funny, and spoke enough English to communicate and tell us a bit about the places we were going to.  The funniest thing was that he printed off info off the web for us and added his own comments and corrections to them.

Bill drove like an absolute demon, going up to 160-180 km/h, but for the most part he was in control.  The first stop was Corinth Canal, which was spectacular to look for a little while.   Then we headed to the archaeological site of Ancient Corinth (at one time one of the 3 major powers in Greece), where we got to see the majestic Temple of Apollo (there seemed to be quite a few of these in Greece).  Much of the place was in ruins but there was enough to see (including a small museum) to get your money’s worth.  Entry was 7 Euros per person (free for EU students!).  About 60-90 minutes was sufficient for us.

Ancient Corinth

The Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth

Next we headed to the ancient city of Mycenae, also worth a look but probably the one place I would personally skip if there was something else better (and there probably was, read on).  The Mycenean acropolis is perched on a hill and you have to walk up to see the various archaelogical finds.  The highlights include the Lion Gate at the entry and Grave Circle A, which dates back to 16th Century BC.  Roughly 45 minutes to an hour is ample time.  Entry is 8 Euros each (students free).

Mycenae

The Mycenaean acropolis

The third stop was the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio, we we had a lengthy albeit expensive lunch, while Bill went to visit his cousin and grandmother.  After lunch we went to visit Palamidi Castle up on the hill, one of the most underrated attractions on the Peloponnese.  The castle was most probably our highlight of the day, and we spent about 2 hours there as there was much to see and explore.  You can go right in and see the well-preserved bastions (as it was built in the early 19th Century) – it was a true architectural masterpiece, and the views overlooking the sea were magnificent.  Entry is 4 Euros (students free).  We had a feeling that you can easily spend a couple of days in Nafplio.

Palamidi 1

The very underrated Palamidi Castle in Nafplio

Unfortunately, Bill told us that time had run out and it was time to head back to Athens.  Here’s an important tip: make sure you know what’s on your itinerary.  We didn’t, so we didn’t know that we were supposed to visit Epidavros (or Epidaurus) and its famous theatre on the way back.  We did inquire about it but Bill told us there wasn’t enough time to fit it in the schedule (even though we stuck to his time recommendations at each location).  I had a feeling Bill was trying to get home early for the day, as we arrived back at our hotel an hour earlier (so our trip was 9 hours instead of the 10 we paid for).  So it was a little disappointing because I was really looking forward to seeing the theatre, and we actually did have time to go see it but were kind of tricked out of it.  Apart from that bitter pill the rest of the trip was awesome.

Palamidi 2

Some views from the top of Palamidi Castle

Delphi

Our driver today was David, who spoke perfect English (as he was originally living in Melbourne).  David also drove like a demon, but he maxed out at around 160 km/h.  It took a little while but we eventually reached the town of Levadia, where we stopped to take some photos.  There wasn’t enough time to see the Castle there but we did get to see the water wheel, some running water, stone bridges and a nymph statue – all very pretty.

Levadia

The Nymph at Levadia

We had another short stop (for coffee) just before reaching the town of Arachova (popular in the winter for skiiers), where we took some fantastic shots of the little houses perched on the hill.  Then we drove through the town’s narrow streets and eventually reached the brilliant, must-see archaelogical site of Delphi.  In my opinion if you see Delphi then you can live not seeing any other archaelogical sites in Greece.  It’s not only huge but also extraordinarily well preserved and there was so much to see (including a small museum).  It was, after all, considered by ancient Greeks as the centre of the world, and was where the Oracle once sat and delivered advice from the gods.

Arachova

The bustling town of Arachova

The combined entry ticket (site and museum) is 9 Euros (students free again!).  For me, the highlights were of course the Temple of Apollo, the Theatre (to make up for the one missed in Epidavros) and the Hall of the Knidians right at the top.  The view was amazing and only got better and better as you walked up.

Note that the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaea is literally just down the road, but as we didn’t see any signs pointing towards it we missed it.  Make sure you don’t!

We actually spent a little too much time at Delphi (like 3 hours) because we liked it so much, and consequently decided to skip lunch and head back to Athens early.  We arrived only a few minutes to the 9-hour limit we paid for due to traffic.

The Theatre and Temple at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi

The Temple and Theatre at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi

Conclusion

I would definitely recommend getting a taxi for day trips from Athens (or even a couple of days to go further inland like Sparta and Oympia in the Peloponnese or Meteora).  The price is reasonable if you have 3 or more people, you save a great deal of time and the drivers are friendly but don’t get in your way.  Particularly in the summer it can be great getting back to a nicely air-conditioned car.  Just be smart and be aware of your itinerary and the places you want to visit so you don’t miss out on anything like we did.  If there are changes you would like to make then it’s best to discuss them up front with your driver.

PS: Due to a request I have enlarged the photos by, wait for it, 2%…seriously, I’m working on it.

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