Athens and the Greek Islands: The Greece Megamix

We arrived in Greece just under 2 weeks ago after what can only be described as a fairly infuriating last day in Positano/Naples.  The day went something like this:

  • Check out of Air BnB at 10 am.  Cue thunderstorms and torrential rain.  Spend 4 hours walking the streets trying to keep dry.
  • Return to Air BnB to pick up luggage and end up in awkward confrontation with Italian host’s mother who accuses us of the heinous crime of damaging the umbrella we had borrowed from her.  Pay crazy Italian 10 Euros in order to collect luggage and avoid having a hit put out on us.
  • Catch shuttle to Naples and end up in middle of Friday rush hour traffic. Shuttle driver makes Speedy (our first Naples taxi driver) look like an AA driving instructor.  Experience is similar to being in a car chase from a Lethal Weapon movie, albeit with no stuntmen and a very real chance of dying.
  • Arrive at airport hotel in Naples.  Hotel looks to be the business – great room and an excellent room service meal.  At midnight a full jazz band cranks into life in the garden and some husky voiced, leathery Italian woman bursts into a B-grade rendition of Happy Birthday.  I’ve heard better singing during open mic night at Petone Workers’.  The music carries on until 1 am.   I am livid, and let the man on reception know it.
  • Wake up at 3 am to catch flight only to find out it’s been delayed.  Reset alarm for another hour of sleep.  Wake up to a message from our friends at Easyjet reminding us that flight delays do not alter the cut-off time for check-in – we have approximately 45 minutes to get to the airport, drop our bags and clear security.  Cue mad panic.  Get ripped off by taxi driver, because we don’t have time to argue and then spend 3 hours waiting in the airport anyway.  Morale is low – I curl up in a ball eating a croissant and Campbell seeks solace in the smokers’ lounge.

After all of that, it was such a relief to touch down in Athens.  We had 2 days before we joined our tour, so stuck with our usual approach of booking an Air BnB apartment a little bit out of the city.  This time around we stayed in Gazi.  It was a great little area with loads of cafes, bars and restaurants and still within walking distance of the more touristy neighbourhoods of Plaka and Monastiraki.  It was a very artistic neighbourhood that seemed to attract a more alternative crowd, as well as locals looking to wine and dine away from the city.  On our first day we witnessed a lot of angry teenage boys protesting and tagging the local park and, in the evening, we ate souvlaki at the local cafe while watching short, dark and handsome Greek guys picking up short, dark and beautiful Greek girls by taking them for a spin on their motorbikes and popping wheelies down the main street.

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We enjoyed our time in Athens, but we did not find it to be a particularly pretty city.  It has the archaeological sites and amazing ruins, but has none of the wonderful architecture, public spaces and atmosphere of a lot of the other cities we have visited.  The buildings are densely-packed and almost all the same colour of beige.  On the plus side, it is a fairly easy place to navigate and there are some interesting flea markets, shopping streets and little laneways with cute eateries and bars.  The locals are also incredibly friendly and have helped us a lot given that we cannot read or speak any Greek.

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The Tour

Day 1:  Today we moved to our hotel to join our Greek Island Hopper tour.  We were both a bit nervous about this particular tour – the more we heard, and the more reviews we read (hint – nothing good comes of reading reviews after you’ve booked and paid), the more convinced we were that we were going to be the lame married couple on a tour of young, hot 20-somethings.  And, what would you know, that’s exactly what happened.  On our tour of 30 people, there were 27 girls (although totally outside of my control, even I acknowledge that this equates to an entitlement to a round of golf for Campbell).  Of those 27, 25 came from Australia and 22 were born in the 90s.  As they descended into the welcome meeting in a cloud of giggles and Aussie twang Campbell and I exchanged a look that translated to a combination of “you have got to be shitting me!” and “kill me, kill me now”.  Our tour guide, Sakis, looked pretty similar.

Sakis was our age, and a really nice guy.  There were so many times when I looked at him on the trip and thought “screw doing this for a job”.  He patiently guided us around, ignoring the fact that half the group spoke over the top of him and at a pitch only small dogs should be able to hear.  He even waited until 1 am one night to walk home a couple of girls who’d decided to do some last minute tog shopping.  He started every sentence with “Soooo, ok” and described everything as being “really really nice”, or in a “great location”.  He is just about to finish up with the tour company and you could tell he was a bit jaded – I’m pretty sure he upgraded his seat on the ferry ride home last night just so he didn’t have to spend 8 hours travelling with us.

Despite all this, things started to look up after we’d spent a few hours with the group at the first dinner.  Of course not everybody was our cup of tea (there was a large posse of girls interested exclusively in getting shit-faced, boys, eliminating tan lines and shopping – yawn), but we also met a couple of lovely Aussie school teachers (Kaitlyn and Clare), a really interesting guy from Las Vegas (Andrew) and a couple from Lower Hutt.  Campbell and Callum got straight into yarning about Petone Riverside Cricket Club (albeit that Campbell was playing when Callum was in nappies) and discovered Jasmine’s best friend works at the fish and chip store owned by one of Campbell’s best friends.  After a low key dinner, we all made our way back to the hotel where the adage “you’re only as old as you feel” really held true – Campbell and I outlasted all of the young guns and enjoyed a few drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis before heading to bed.

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Day 2:  Day 2 kicked off with a walking tour around Athens, including a visit to the Greek Parliament at Syntagma Square.  Some of the group took an optional tour to Cape Sounion in the afternoon, but we opted instead to wander the streets of Athens and do a bit of shopping before we hit the islands.  We didn’t last very long – Athens is so hot.  It is also dusty and exposed (there is very little in the way of greenery or shade) and walking the streets is like being an ant under a magnifying glass.  Despite that, we had a great afternoon, especially after being plied with Ouzo and Mastika by a lovely woman at a Greek food store.

The evening was spent at a traditional taverna in Plaka, one of Athens oldest neighbourhoods.  The restaurant was clearly a tourist trap and the food was pretty dismal, but the Greek dancing and music performance went some way to make up for it.  The kids let the side down again and Campbell and I had to take one for the team and polish off most of the wine that came with dinner.  We already have the sense that we would need to self-medicate to get through elements of the tour.

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Day 3:  We were up at 5 am this morning to get ready for our ferry to Mykonos.  The ferry ride was an “experience”.  The journey took 5 hours and the seas were the roughest I have ever been on.  People were falling over, vomiting into plastic bags and tables and chairs were being knocked over and flying around the deck because of the wind.  It was one of those laugh or cry moments, and a group of us decided to tough it out on the top deck eating nougat that we bought from some hustlers who jumped on the ferry, and getting absolutely saturated.  We were so pleased to finally reach Mykonos and have the afternoon to spend poolside.

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In the evening, Sakis arranged dinner for us at another taverna, followed by a tequila tasting at a local pub and then entrance to one of Mykonos’ infamous nightclubs.  The young guns were very concerned for the well-being of us oldies and we endured well-meaning comments like “are you two actually coming out?!”, “you know you don’t have to do shots if you don’t want to” etc etc.  It was infuriating and hilarious at the same time.  Despite a lukewarm start, we ended up having an excellent night and got to see why Mykonos is so famous for its nightlife.  We also met a great couple from the UK (John and Lauren) who we encouraged to gatecrash the tour and hit the nightclub with us.

We stumbled to catch a bus home at 2 am (via the souvlaki store, of course), and who should we bump into, but the rest of our group.  After talking a big game about partying until sunrise, we found them in various states at the local bakery hoovering donuts and pastries and ready to hit the hay.  Amateurs.

Day 4:  We were a bit dusty when we woke up, but after a breakfast of champions at the hotel we were ready to explore.  Sakis took us on a quick walk to a couple of Mykonos’ most famous beaches, but in the end we decided to set up camp on our home beach of Platas Gialos.  We shelled out for a couple of loungers and a brolly and spent a good 5 hours enjoying the beach.  Campbell had an especially good time after 6 of the most gorgeous, tanned Italian girls took the sun loungers next to ours.  While I slept with my mouth wide open and snored so loud that I kept waking myself up, they sunbathed topless and (according to Campbell) put on quite an impressive show of rubbing sunscreen onto one another’s bums.  Once again, those $10 pervy sunglasses he picked up in San Fran paid dividends.

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We decided to take a break from the sorority house in the evening (estrogen levels were at near toxic levels) and skipped the group dinner to take a wander around Mykonos town, take some photos and have dinner (more souvlaki).

Day 5:  It was time to leave Mykonos behind and make our way to Paros.  We were both really looking forward to Paros, which Sakis had told us was a lot less touristy and a lot more representative of the majority of the Greek Islands.  After a lot of waiting round, we had a quick trip on the high-speed ferry and were in Paros by mid-afternoon.  After getting settled into our room, we really only had time to do a bit of laundry and hang by the pool before it was time for dinner.  Dinner was a bust, but we followed it up with a night at a local shisha lounge.  I’d never done shisha before, but Campbell showed his wealth of experience and took to the pipe like he was back in the garage listening to Snoop Dogg.  We finished up the night at a local nightclub where we hit the dance floor and the Birthday boy treated us to some of his signature moves.

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Day 6:  Our second day in Paros was a free day, and we decided to hire some quads to explore the island with Clare and Kaitlyn.  After a few false starts trying to arrange bikes, we finally got things sorted and were ready to hit the road.  All those times hooning around Waikawa beach with the Stevensons certainly came in handy.  It was an awesome day, and we managed to go around the entire outside of the island, stopping at Golden Beach for lunch, the fishing village of Naoussa for gelato in the afternoon and winding up with a swim at Kolibithres.

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Day 7:  We were off again today to head to Santorini.  Santorini is a beautiful volcanic island, which is famous for the blue domed buildings built into the cliffside.  The village of Oia is probably the most well-known – it features on almost every postcard and travel brochure for Santorini.  We made our way up there on our first evening to see what all the fuss was about.  It is undeniably a beautiful spot, but it was incredibly hard to enjoy given the massive number of tourists, bridal parties, tour groups and amorous couples.  In the end we took a few quick snapshots and then headed away from the sunset to the other, quieter side of the village.

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We didn’t finish up in Oia until late, so we decided to bunk out on the group dinner and get something easy (souvlaki) and head back to the hotel.  We have really struggled with not being able to pick where we eat, and started to get a bit over eating “authentic” Greek food that was average and expensive.  My appetite for souvlaki has also reached addiction status, and I don’t feel right if I don’t get one under my belt each day.

Day 8:  We had a full-on day exploring the island of Santorini.  We took a quick spin in a traditional kike, which dropped us on the island of Nea Kameni, an active volcano.  We hiked to the top crater for amazing views of the entire cluster of Santorini islands (there are 5 in total) and some time for photos.  The crater still releases sulphurous gases, which most of the group found pretty disgusting.  They couldn’t quite believe that we have whole cities that smell like that at home.

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Next stop was a quick round trip of the island on the kike, finishing up at a small inlet where you can swim in natural hot springs and cover yourself in the thermal mud.  It’s about a 100m swim into the inlet, during which you have to try to avoid the mass of tiny dead fish that get cooked by the thermal activity.  The mud smells like death, but apparently has loads of minerals that are great for your skin.  I decided to get amongst it – a cheap arse facial is just what I needed after months of sweating.  The mud can be black, grey, brown, green and red, and stains like nothing else.  Even after a thorough rinse in the ocean, I managed to bring home masses of mud on my clothes.  I also acquired a stowaway – a dead fish in my bikini top who I didn’t discover till I got home and it flopped out on the bathroom floor.  Nice.

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We wrapped up the day with a donkey/mule ride from the Old Port back to the centre of Fira, the capital of Santorini.  The donkeys were incredibly sweet, even though they were lazy and badly behaved.  Mine stopped whenever he felt like it, walked so close to the wall that my leg scraped the entire way up and pooped and pissed like he’d been holding it in all day.  I thought he was great.  The afternoon was spent poolside before a farewell dinner at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the sea. We did our best to soldier on to the pubs, but we really weren’t feeling it.  We bailed out at about 11.30 pm and sloped home to let the others carry on.  Judging by the state of most of the troops the next morning, I think we made the right call.

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Day 9:  Yesterday was our last day, so we hit the shops of Santorini to get a few souvenirs.  I had my heart set on getting a donkey bell, so went on a mission to find one of those while Campbell joined the old boys at the local Keno club (definitely showing his age!).  At 2 pm we started the massive journey home – an 8 hour ferry back to Athens and a short bus trip to our hotel.  Everyone was pretty wrecked, and it was a pretty uneventful close to the trip.

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Observations from the tour:

  • Greek Islands:  I don’t really know what I was expecting the Greek Islands to be like, but I definitely wasn’t expecting the rocky, arid, almost alien landscapes that greeted us.  Aside from the towns and villages, the islands are desolate.  There is very little vegetation and you can drive for miles on hot, barren roads without seeing much of anything.  That’s not to say that the islands aren’t beautiful, they’re just totally different to what we thought.  We also weren’t expecting it to be so windy – you want to have your good undies on (or only wear shorts) whenever you’re out and about in the Greek Islands, because chances are you’re going to flash your gruts at some point.
  • Island Hopping:  When people talk about visiting the Greek Islands, they often use the term “island hopping”.  Island hopping sounds a bit cute and conjures up images of fun, short, easy trips between islands – kinda like a wee jaunt from Wellington to Eastbourne.  That’s not the case at all.  In the last week we have spent hours at ferry terminals slumped over our luggage and waiting to board a boat.  It is hot and very busy and tempers get a bit frayed.  The ferries are enormous and fit hundreds of people onboard.  When you are close to arriving at the destination port, an announcement comes over the loud speaker, which is effectively a signal for everybody to go mental, rush down to the luggage hold, trample over one another and then wait another half an hour to dock.  On arrival, the back of the ferry opens up and forms a ramp that connects to the dock.  Everybody spills out the back and commences going mental again trying to find the shuttle, or bus to take them to their accommodation.

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  • Group Travel:  Group travel is hit and miss.  Our Cuba trip set the bar pretty high and, sadly, this trip just didn’t meet expectations.  Some of that was down to the structure/pace of the trip itself, but ultimately I think it’s the people that make the experience.  Don’t get me wrong, we met some great people, but overall the group dynamic was off.  In future, I think we would only do a tour again when it was (a) necessary from a logistics/local knowledge perspective and (b) when it revolved around some kind of activity (hiking, cycling etc – like Cuba).  We are not well-suited to hours spent on buses, ferries etc and (you’ll be shocked to hear) that neither of us really like being told what to do and when to do it.
  • Food:  The food in Greece is amazing.  There is loads of meat, seafood, salad and cheese.  Souvlaki has been a total revelation – I have no idea how I have lived 31 years without getting amongst souvlaki – they are delicious.  Essentially it’s meat (mainly chicken or pork) wrapped in a fresh pita (spongy pita, not that cardboard stuff we get at home) with tomato, onion, fries, tzatziki and herbs.  First job when I get home is to suss out a good souvlaki place – two cheeseburgers (no pickle) is no longer going to cut the mustard after a night on the wines.  It’s a testament to the quality of the food here that Greece is one of the few countries where McDonald’s has failed to make an impression, or a profit.  Sakis is the same age as me and has never eaten McDonald’s.  Greece is also one of the few places we have been with proper bakeries – they even have pies (sort of).  Pies here are a different shape (I know that shouldn’t matter, but it does) and tend to involve spinach, cheese, eggs and bacon – still not a steak and cheese in sight.  Our pie cravings are almost at catastrophic, “should we try and make one ourselves at home”, levels.  There was an article on Stuff yesterday naming the winners of the annual NZ Pie Awards, which just about tipped us over the edge.

We are now back in Athens and have one night here before we pick up our car and hit the Pelion Peninsula.  It’ll be a day of life admin – washing, banking, emailing etc, but we’re also planning to head up to the Acropolis this afternoon and tick that one of the bucket list.  There’ll be time for one more souvlaki dinner with Kaitlyn tonight and we’ll be good to go tomorrow.  We’re both looking forward to travelling independently again – doing what we want when we want!

A&C

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One thought on “Athens and the Greek Islands: The Greece Megamix”

  1. I wondered if you would be drinking ouzo so, very popular with our dinner party friends back in the 70s. I hope I get to try the dish you got addicted to Aimee, sometime in the future. Lots of love to you both, Nana Joan.. Oxox

    Like

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