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Athens, Greece – A Surprising Beauty

July 13, 2016

Athens – a great combination of culture, excitement and a little grunge, all of which combines to creates an intriguing city. I’m not quite sure what we expected from Europe’s oldest city, but we were pleasantly surprised. We payed a visit to the Acropolis and spent the afternoon meandering through the old town of Plaka in what was a fantastic day (if a little warm at this time of year!)

Athens graffiti

Sightseeing around Athens

The Acropolis

The Acropolis and it’s surrounding slopes and the home to one of the great wonders of the world; it was the birthplace of democracy and Western civilisation we know it. These structures, including the infamous Parthenon, were built at the height of ancient Greece’s Golden Age, in the 5th century BC and no visit to Athens is complete without paying homage to these incredibly historic sites.

The castle of Athens is the most precious jewel in the world – Peter IV of Aragon, 11 September 1380

Tickets to the Acropolis and it’s surrounding slopes will set an adult back €20 each. If you’d like to take an additional structures in the area, full access is granted for €30 each. We settled on the cheaper tickets and came away with a great sense of the area. The Parthenon and the other ancient buildings built high on the hill were by far the most impressive and the expansive views over Athens were the icing on the cake.

Athens Acropolis

It’s hard to imagine exactly how the ancient Greeks would have gone about the practicality of building with such heavy materials, perched high atop the city. Not only though, did they manage to do so, but they built structures of beauty that would stand the test of time.

Athens Acropolis

Athens Acropolis

With that said, work is currently underway to preserve and rebuild damaged areas of these structures of future generations to enjoy.

We recently visited ancient Olympia to see the origin of the Olympic Games, but found the Acropolis (in particular, the Parthenon) to be significantly more impressive – by comparison, Olympia was not much more than rubble.

Athens Acropolis

Athen’s Old Town: Plaka

One of the oldest parts of Athens, Plaka is found on the northern slopes of the Acropolis. The narrow cobblestoned streets felt more like France than we’d ever imagined Greece would, lined by gorgeous big trees, Greek flags flittered about in the breeze. As we wandered in and out of shops we enjoyed a number of street performers and munched on the most delicious gelato and sorbet. The area houses many different cafes and tavernas, so there is no shortage of places to stop for lunch – we decided on Greek slovakis (chicken in Greek pita) which cost €8 (for two pitas and two cans of fizzy) and were delicious!

Athens food

Plaka is strikingly beautiful but retains a touch of edge, making Athens all the more enjoyable. We had a fantastic days in this historic city and would highly recommend it to those of you looking to plan a trip – it’s definitely a city worth seeing for yourself.

How do I get from the port to Athens?

The cruises dock about 25 minutes from the city and though there are a few ways to get into the city, the metro is the cheapest option. It’s straight-forward (whereas the buses are only signposted in Greek), and much cheaper than a taxi or hop-on hop-off bus (which was quoted to us at €60 each). To get to the metro from the port, turn to the left and follow the road around as it skirts the ocean. The tracks are about a 15 minute walk and found opposite gate 7.

Jump on the metro at Piraeus (the green line, M1), ride it until you get to Omonia and then transfer at that station onto the red line (M2) and ride the few stops to Akropoli.  Once you’re finished at the Acropolis, you can walk around Plaka and then carry out this same journey in reverse to get back to the port.

Athens metro map

Single tickets are €1.30 each or you can buy a full day pass for all public transport for €4.50 per adult. As it turned out, we would have only needed two single tickets each, so didn’t need the full day passes that we purchased – save yourself the money and get singles unless you’re planning a massive day of exploration.

Athens metro

 

Europe Greece Santorini

Uncovering the Not-So-Hidden Gem of Santorini

July 9, 2016

Santorini is the most iconic and recognisable of all of the Greek Islands; with it already being so familiar, is it worth the trek to see in person?  The answer is a resounding ‘yes’!

This crescent shaped island was formed in 1500 BC when the volcano that the villages now perch apon erupted.  The combination of this eruption and the subsequent subsidence, formed the uniquely shaped islands, forming what is now known as Santorini (along with Thirasia and Aspronisi).

Getting Around Santorini

Cruise ships drop anchor off the coast, closest to Fira.  From there, you have a few options to get you up the cliff-side to the town perched atop the crater rim.  Mules and pedestrians share the winding pathway to the top or you can pick up cablecar tickets for €5 per person (in each direction).

As we knew we wanted to check out Oia, we picked up a package down at the dock that would ferry us out to the shore that Oia is accessed from, then shuttle us up the hill and bus us over to Fira, before allowing us to come back down the hill in the cablecar.  Our transport for the day was €20 each and it meant that we beat the majority of the crowds over to Oia which ended up being a great move.

Oia

Oia is home to the iconic (and insanely beautiful) Church of Panagia – most photos you’ll see of Santorini heavily feature these domes and for good reason, they’re gorgeous.  If tracking this church down is on your agenda, just remember that you’ll need to transfer across from either the dock at Fira or Fira itself.  Once you get to Oia, the church sits on the hill in the middle of the village – after ducking into a few alleyways, you’ll soon spot it.

Church Oia Santorini

This town is much more than it’s churches though.  In fact, most of the photos you’ll see of Santorini will have been taken in Oia – in our opinion it was the most striking part of the island and we’d highly recommend including a visit to this village on your trip to Santorini.  To get a view of the windmill and views of both sides of the village, head to the right (as you face the ocean) where you’ll find an old stone structure out on a mini-peninsular – the perfect spot for photos!

Oia Santorini Windmill

The whole village is pedestrian only and the narrow alleyways wind in and out of shops and restaurants, with stunning views out over the ocean and terraced building almost every step of the way.  The shops had a range of high quality gear at reasonable prices (with the odd designer-brand-excessively-expensive shop thrown in the mix) including turkish towels and throws (if you don’t already travel with one of these, get yourself one ASAP), Greek inspired jewellery, leather shoes, clothing, hand-blown glass designs and more.

Oia was exactly what I’d imagined when I thought of Santorini and wow, was it impressive!  Though we could have happily have spent all day soaking up the sights of this gorgeous wee town, Fira was calling and we couldn’t ignore it.

Fira

Fira is, for most people, the entrance point to Santorini.  As stated earlier, there are a few options to get you to the top of the town – just be aware that if you choose to walk, there is very little shade on the pathway and it’s quite a hike.

Once you’re at the top, you’ll find a similar range of shops, cafes and restaurants to Oia.  Fira seemed to have more fine jewellery shops and certainly more gelato (which we made sure to indulge in) but the biggest difference between the two towns was the layout of the buildings themselves.  Oia provided views out over the whitewashed buildings, clinging to the cliff as almost every bend, whereas we sometimes walked a fair way in Fira without a glimpse of the coastline.  It’s a beautiful town and when the views open up, is just as spectacular, it just doesn’t happen quite as often.

Fira Santorini

After making our way down on the cablecar, I’m sitting back aboard the cruise (wifi-ing up a storm thanks to my new favourite travel gadget, the Skyroam) reflecting on an amazing day in a place that really is the stuff of dreams.

Pictures are great, but if you can get to Santorini for yourself, don’t hesitate for a moment!

Europe Greece Mykonos

A Magical Day on Mykonos

July 9, 2016

Mykonos is one of the smallest islands in the Cyclades and though it often plays second fiddle to the renowned Santorini, there is plenty to see to warrant a visit to it’s shores.

According to Greek mythology, Hercules slew a number of giants in this area; the large rocks that are found scattered across the island are even said to be their petrified corpses. Mythology and history aside, the gorgeous beaches and stunning weather draw tourists in throughout the year and for good reason. Deep blue, azure waters meet pristine sand and pebble beaches, with the aforementioned rocks scattered throughout the countryside.

The weather for our visit to Mykonos was glorious – temperatures approaching the high twenties (celsius) and a surprisingly strong prevailing wind in places that helped cut through the heat. For those that feel the heat, there are plenty of fantastic opportunities to jump in the ocean to cool off too.

Things to See and Do in Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town, the gateway to the rest of the island, it well worth a visit in itself. Narrow winding streets weave in and out of whitewashed houses and shops, punctuated by the occasional pop of colour in the form of a red church dome or blue door. Mykonos Town is quintessentially Greece and absolutely stunning. Wandering through the maze of buildings, it’s easy to get caught up in the gentle buzz of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops selling a variety of goods.


Mykonos Town has a lovely, inviting feel about it – the perfect combination of energy and calm. The town itself provides countless photo-worthy backdrops but there are also a number of sights that are worth hunting out.


Perhaps the most iconic Mykonos site, the five windmills perched atop the cliff make for awesome photos. Their stark white bases practically glow against the bright blue skyline.


Just down the hill from the windmills, Little Venice is found – these buildings are built out over the water and on a day where the waves kick up as high as they did today, it’s a wonder that they’re still standing!

Mykonos Island is also home to a large number of churches but the most impressive, Panagia Paraportiani, is again not far from the windmills. This church is actually made up of five churches – four of which are found on the ground level and one above. Part of the church dates back to 1425 whilst additions were made in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Exploring the Island by Quad Bike

Walking a little way up from the water, we noticed both private and public buses to certain spots around the island but were lured in by the flexibility that hiring a quad bike would offer us. The quads were €25 (for each bike, hired from Joe’s Club) and can carry two people comfortably. Though bus would have been cheaper, they’d be nowhere near as much fun, nor would we have seen half of what we did, so the decision for us was easy.


From Mykonos Town we set off (via the petrol station) for Ano Mera where we had a little look around the 16th century monastery of Ano Merathe before heading towards the ocean. We called into Elia Bay briefly and then continued onto Agrari where we relaxed on the pebble beach. As we looked down on Agrari, we knew we were onto a good thing at Mykonos – what a striking place!


Next we headed for Super Paradise where we marvelled at the view. We decided not to take the quad down to the beach because of the steep incline – though the bike had plenty of power, it struggled a bit on big hills and with so many glorious beaches around, we didn’t want to push our luck and get stuck.

On we raced, via the airport, to Paradise Beach – our tummies were calling out to us and it was definitely time for lunch. With a number of options to choose from, we decided on the Tropicana Club, set right on the stunning Paradise Beach.  We chilled out, listening to slowed-down dance tunes watching people come and go.  There’s no doubt that Mykonos has a bit of a party atmosphere in places and I can imagine Tropicana going off late afternoon through to the early morning, but whilst we were there it was lovely and calm.


In total we put €10 worth of fuel into the quad which was more than enough to zip us around everywhere we wanted to go. For €35 for the quad and €15 for lunch, the two of us had a fun day in the sun at minimal expense – we’d definitely recommend getting yourself a quad or scooter to help you see Mykonos should you choose to visit. The roads were quiet and safe and the drivers courteous.

If you’re in Mykonos, grab yourself a quad bike and get out there exploring all that this beautiful island has to offer!

Crete Europe Greece

Incredible Crete

July 7, 2016

If you’re planning a trip to Greece, seriously consider adding Crete to your list.  Today we had the pleasure of visiting Chania, a gorgeous little town, overlooking the Aegean Sea and framed by mountains.  A day here really isn’t enough to uncover all that the island has to offer but it was a fabulous taster of this unique and interesting spot.

Crete

Crete is the largest of all the Greek Islands and is the fifth largest in the Mediterranean as a whole.  The Lefka Ori (‘White Mountains’) that dominate the landscape in Western Crete reference the off-white and grey limestone peaks that are covered in snow from winter to spring.  On a warm summers day like today though, there’s not a spot of snow to be seen, just temperates approaching the mid-thirties and a much appreciated gentle breeze.

Chania, Crete’s second largest city, is known for producing high quality leather goods (it took everything in me not to buy a gorgeous little leather jacket!), local jewellery and it’s delicious Greek food – meat, cheese, olives – you’ll find it all here, as fresh as it comes.

Old Town Chania

The town itself is vibrant and overflowing with a combination of high quality, internationally recognised brands, and local vendors selling their wares in markets and stalls.  Shop assistants were amongst the friendliest we’ve encountered anywhere in Europe (though it would seem they’re justified being in a good mood – they live on an island paradise!)

We’ve got a number of beach destinations coming up (and explored the ancient Olympia ruins yesterday) so opted to spend our time on Crete checking out Chania, but research tells us that they have countless pristine beaches ready to be explored and ruins that give a nod to the islands varied history.

Over the years, Crete has passed through the hands of the Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, with it’s eventual addition to the modern nation of Greece in 1913.  With so many influences over the years, it is not surprising that the island is home to such a variety of architectural wonders, both ancient and more recent.

Old Town Chania

To get into Chania from the port of Souda, pick up tickets as your leave the port for €1.70 per person, per direction. The bus runs every 20 minutes or so and will drop you off in the middle of the gorgeous old town.

Europe Greece Katakolon/Olympia

Walking Through Ancient Olympia – Greece

July 7, 2016

The first stop on our cruise saw us disembark at the sleepy seaside town of Katakolon, the gateway to ancient Olympia.  A half hour journey from the port, sits Olympia; the area that was home to the first Olympic Games and was in use for over a thousand years.  Here, the fittest and strongest ancient Greek competed against one another to demonstrate their physical prowess and to pay tribute to their gods.  The first Olympiad was held in 776BC and every four years following that where the ancient Greeks gathered to watch or compete in these athletic competitions.

Nowadays, these ruins host countless tourists as they soak up the sights of these historic sporting grounds, whilst trying to shelter from the baking Greek summer sun.

Ancient OlympiaAncient Olympia

The Temple of Zeus (or what remains of it) is one of the key ruins left behind – this temple once housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a 40-foot statue of Zeus crafted from gold and ivory.  The ancient pillars lay in ruin, signalling just how large this temple must have been.

Ancient Olympia temple of zeus

Another key site at ancient Olympia is the stadium itself.  Stepping through the stone arch, the grounds open up right in front of you and it’s not hard to imagine the chariot races that once would have happened there.  Though it’s not much to look at now, the fact that these ancient people organised sporting events on such a massive scale is impressive in itself.

Ancient Olympia stadium

To get to Olympia, you have a few different options – the cruise ships offer tours (which guarantee you’ll get back to the ship on time), or you can jump on the train or a private bus tour once you’re ashore.  There is also the option to rent a car to get yourself to the ancient grounds but with the bus and train being reliable and well-priced, it wouldn’t be our recommendation.

Royal Caribbean offered two organised tours to the site; for USD89.75 per adult, they take you to the grounds and show you around (in what looked like relatively large groups) the archaeological site and museum, before you’re given some free time to look around and shop in modern Olympia.  Alternatively, for USD44.75, they organise a transfer only option – guests who choose this excursion will need to pay the entrance fee upon arrival at the site.

Ancient Olympia

If you’re wanting a little more flexibility or to save some money (always our preference!), you can organise your own transport in town upon your arrival and take yourself for a walk around the grounds.  Entrance to ancient Olympia and the archaeological museum is €12 for each adult, which combined with the bus in (€10 each) offers a substantial saving on booking through the cruise line!  Instead of paying USD44.75 (€40) for their bus and €12 entrance fee (which would add to €52), we carried out the same trip independently for only €22 each.

In regard to independent transport, there is a train that operates just along from the port; though we’d initially planned on taking this, it seemed to be easier to catch a bus and as the price was relatively comparable, we decided to jump aboard.  We purchased our tickets from the guys wearing blue shirts as they seemed to be the friendliest of the vendors selling tickets and after the 30 minute trip out, we were given 3 hours, 15 minutes to explore the grounds, museum and modern town (which had a lovely feel about it) before meeting back for the return trip.  This had us back to the ship at about 1.30pm, plenty of time to ensure we made the 4.30pm all-aboard call.

The bus was €10/adult return, whereas the train did appear to be the cheaper option if you’re travelling in a larger group – online we’d read that the first ticket was €10, two tickets were €15 and four tickets were only €20 in total.  We didn’t see the train running but from what we read online it does appear to be reliable so I presume it was just that we didn’t cross paths.

We were pleased with our decision to head out to ancient Olympia but the experience overall didn’t compete with seeing the likes of Petra or the Giza pyramids.  If you’re in the area, we would recommend making the journey out to have a look around, but definitely do it independently to save yourself some money – if we’d have spent twice the amount to go through Royal Caribbean, I think we would have come away disappointed.  

If you do go, we’d love to hear what you think of the experience.  Oh and don’t forget to pack a hat, water and sunscreen too as there’s not much shelter out there!

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