Stanbr and Lollypeter’s
Belated Greece Trip Report.
Athens, Western Crete, Paros, Naxos
We were in Greece for 4 weeks starting on May 13 2010. While this report is rather late in coming, hopefully it will be helpful for people planning this year’s vacation.
I apologize for the length of the report I think I may have gotten carried away.
We are Canadian in our late 50’s and are budget travelers, preferring c class self catering accommodation. We prefer to spend our euros on activities and dining rather than splurge on higher class hotels.
We enjoy exploring antiquities, towns, and mountain villages. We enjoy sitting at a waterfront bar taking in the vistas, imagining the history and the people who have lived their lives in this place. The beach is not a priority for us but we do like to spend an hour or two being lazy and soaking up the sun.
We like the familiar so we tend to go back to places we have been before, where we know what we want to see and to build relationships with local people.
We travel from Vancouver Island, so we have a long day. First to Vancouver, then Frankfurt and finally Athens, about 24 hours of travel. We arrive just about supper time so we hop on the Metro and head to Monestraki where we normally stay at Hotel Attalos.
This year we decided to something crazy so we booked at Athens Style Hostel. It is very close to the Metro Monestraki station. Fortunately it has a few private rooms so we were not in the dorm rooms with 8 strangers. We loved it for its location, price, the rooftop bar with its views of the Acropolis, 2 euro draft beer and the buzz of all those young people having fun. Having said that, the décor was a bit extreme, with a space fantasy motif that was garish to say the least. Surprisingly the mattress was quite comfortable; a rarity in Greece. I suspect we would consider going back but would look to upgrade to one of their studio rooms which they are marketing to business travelers.
For our first morning we walked around the Plaka, and Monastiraki revisiting old haunts and refamiliarizing ourselves with the area. We did the Athens central market area, which is vibrant and an interesting experience. We visited the new Acropolis museum. (Ladies the floors are made of glass so a skirt is not a good idea)
We visited Mars Hill and enjoyed the new stair access. The last time we were there the marble was as slippery as ice. This time we climbed up Filopappos Hill. What magnificent views of the Acropolis from this vantage point. I would highly recommend spending an hour doing this little hike.
When we arrived back at the hostel, Lolly was able to fire up her notebook and we received a timely post fromTravellerjan detailing her trip ( she was about a week ahead of us) In it she recommended a little taverna in Psiri called the Elephant and the Ant. No one at the hostel had any idea where it was but we went on an expedition to find it. It turned out to be no more than a 5 minute walk from Athens Style and we enjoyed a lovely dinner there. It was an inside taverna and we like to dine outside so we noted the taverna next door. It was crowded, noisy and everyone was having a good time so we decided to eat there the next night. I cannot even tell you the name of the taverna as it was unpronounceable, but it was priced right and the food was excellent.
The next day bright and early we walked up to the Acropolis at opening and enjoyed an hour before it became too crowded. We spent the rest of the day visiting the Agoras, Hadrians Library and the Plaka area.
We walked to Parliament and discovered ourselves in a noisy demonstration. Remember this is the same time frame where there were many protests and strikes and lots of people were concerned about the potential danger of visiting Greece. The whole area was cordoned off with police tape, the police were all around the area and… life outside the cordoned area just went on like normal. We stood and watched the event for a few minutes but got bored and went to the National Gardens to relax and read for an hour. By the time we returned it was all over, the police and protesters were all gone. It was as if nothing had happened. It was a real lesson for us that all the stories of violence were very isolated and did not have much of an effect on tourists or life in Athens.
We spent 14 days in Western Crete in 2007 and never got close to seeing everything we wanted to. So we went back for 5 days to try and finish our original plan.
We flew to Chania that evening and were picked up by Athens Car Crete and were taken to their office where we picked up our rental car. This company has very good rates with all inclusive insurance. Their cars are generally a couple of years old and have a few scratches and dents but are in good mechanical condition.
A guy sitting next to me on the flight asked if he could share a ride with us. This was a good thing because it was dark we had no idea where we were going and it took all three of us to navigate into Chania. In about 15 minutes we found ourselves on the main street and found a sign pointing to the old city and harbour. After winding our way down very narrow streets we found free parking in Tolon Square at the foot of Theotokopoulou St and walked about 3 minutes to our pension, Natalies Rooms. Miracles do happen!
Natalies is a two unit 400 year old house down a quiet alley. It has a kitchenette a double bed and a lovely seating area in the alley and is inexpensive. Just right for us.
Photos near Natalie’s rooms
Chania is absolutely stunning. There is a beautiful waterfront promenade around the Venetian era harbour. There are rickety buildings and confusing back alleys to explore. One can easily spend 2 days in Chania just wandering around. The harbour area is full of expensive tavernas with what I would consider to be sub standard quality of food. The waterfront bars on the other hand are a great place to sit for a long time just watching people go by and watching the sun set over the town and the sea.
For good dining, the back alleys away from the harbour are where the action is. We had read about Taverna Tamam so we searched it out. We have found over the years that in the early season many tavernas are sitting empty while a few are bustling and people wait for tables. This indicates the price, quality and experience are a winning combination. Tamam is as good as its reputation suggests.
We wanted to specifically travel to Falassarna Beach to explore the archeological site because we missed it the first time. We found the beach alright and had a great hour on the sand and played in the surf. However we never did find Ancient Falassarna. We found a sign that pointed up a dirt road through an olive grove but Lollys back was acting up and after driving a hundred meters up the bumpy road we had to give up on that quest.
Natalie told us about Ancient Aptera. I had never heard of it but we have certainly become big fans. It is 18 km east of Chania on a mountain top with magnificent views of Souda Bay. There is evidence of habitation back 1800 years, however the best preserved are Roman Era with the foundations of a villa, amphitheatre, baths, and giant vaulted cisterns. We walked through the cisterns and were amazed at their size and the complexity of their construction. Flocks of birds flew through them and the reverberation of wings was magical.
There is a fortress which appears to be under some renovation but it was closed. It took us about 3 hours to walk through the site. Bring water as there is no infrastructure up there.
This an album of Western Crete but it contains images of Falassarna and Aptera.
We had met a Greek travel agent in Naxos several years ago but he had joined Piraeus Bank and had been transferred to Chania. On an impulse we found a Piraeus bank branch walked in and found an English speaking employee. We told him our friend had transferred to Chania from Naxos, his first name was Demetrius his last name was so Greek we couldn’t even try to pronounce it. He made a couple of phone calls and then handed the phone to me and there was Demetrius. His branch was a 5 minute walk away so we met him and were invited to his home for dinner. We ate around a big table in the cool of the garden with kids and dogs, simple dishes and a bottle of ouzo. What a wonderful evening.
We departed Chania and drove south and east to the Libyan Sea. We wanted to visit Prevalli Beach and its famous Palm Forest. On our previous trip we toured Prevalli Monastery and nearby found a parking lot on the Cliffside with a path leading way down to the beach. Unfortunately, that meant a climb back up the cliff and we were just not up to it. From the top we could see there was a road into the beach and we spent the rest of the day looking for it.
This time we decided to do the cliffside walk. The beach was unique with a river running through it and its remarkable palm forest. The walk back up the cliffside turned out to be over 500 stairs all of different heights varying from 6 inches to over a foot. All that in 33 degree centigrade heat. It was worth it.
We headed back north to Heraklion for the night before our ferry to Santorini. It was very hot and I think the whole city was out on the beaches that day. We could not find a parking space got stuck at a dead end street, the hotels were full and we were hot and miserable. After two hours we finally did find a nice apartment hotel for 30 euros about 500 meters from the beach but we were so tired we turned on the air conditioner ate some sweet buns and shared a bottle of wine. For some reason we just do not remember Heraklion fondly.
The next morning we drove the rental car to the ferry port and on instruction from Athens Car just parked it in the designated area for rental cars in front of the terminal, left the keys under the floor mat and walked away. You have to love how casual the Greeks can be.
The Strike Day
Indeed strikes can affect tourists. This story really emphasizes why we keep telling people to make sure they are back in Athens at least 2 days before their return flight.
We were trying to catch the Flying Cat to Santorini where we would transfer to the Blue Star for Naxos. The ticket agency was supposed to open at 8:30 and there were several people lined up waiting to buy ticket but the agent didn’t walk in until 9 o’clock. He managed to get all the ticket processed in time for the 9:45 ferry but only then did he tell us that there was a strike that day and only the Flying Cat was working. Now I am not quite as impressed with how casual Greeks can be.
We scrambled and extended our tickets to Paros which was as close to Naxos as we could get that day. We were met by the usual crowd of hotel owners at the ferry dock and lucked into a nice studio near the beach in Parikia. That actually turned out to be an absolutely delightful afternoon, sitting on the beach, sharing a couple of drinks and chilling out. Sometimes unexpected disruptions can lead to memorable moments.
We did explore Parikia again and while it is lovely it lacks the depth and character of Naxos Town, which has won our hearts.
Off to Naxos
We were a day late but that isn’t the first time something like that has happened. Our hotelier is used to us arriving on the wrong day or on the ferry instead of the airplane so he just handed us a beer and asked what adventures we have been up to.
We used to stay at Hotel Glaros because it is a budget hotel and every room has an ocean view. We now stay at the sister property Glaros Studios which is an apartment hotel. It is located about 400 meters away and is in a residential neighbourhood. We wanted to see what it would be like to live life the way the natives do. Everything’s so close, you are just meters away from the next balcony and you can hear everything that goes on. On our past few trips there has been one guy who practices the bouzouki every evening. He used to be pretty raw but now after all these years he is actually quite good and we had a lovely serenade each evening before heading out to dinner.
St George Beach
Glaros Studios is about a 3 minute walk to St George beach. It is actually only about 200 meters from the beach but Naxos Resort Beach hotel has closed its walkway to riff raff like us so we have to walk all the way around it.
We have chosen to stay at St George Beach rather than the better beaches along the west coast because St George is directly adjacent to Naxos town so one gets all the benefits of a beach holiday but you are only a 10 minute stroll to the waterfront promenade and all Chora’s shopping, dining, sites and activities. St George is also just far enough from all the action that it is quiet at night. We have learned that it can be very noisy in Greece at night and that is simply not an issue here.
Naxos Town, Chora
We never tire of wandering in the back alleys of Chora, wending our way up to the Kastro area. There are so many nooks and crannies it is easy to spend hours each day exploring and taking pictures. Look for the baker in the old market area. Just follow your nose. The bread is baked in a wood fired oven and it is really just the best bread ever.
There are a couple of shops that sell local Naxian products including the local liquor Citron, a sweet drink that goes well on ice or in orange juice. Do not mistake this for Raki which is moonshine and every household seems to have access to a still so they make their own.
The local Naxian cheese is so good. It is a hard cheese, strong and a very little goes a long way. There is nothing like a little snack of Naxos cheese, olives, that baker’s bread and some red wine. Priceless.
We have several favorite taverns in Naxos but 3 stand out.
Taverna to Kastro is high up in the town under the walls of the Kastro. It has been our favourite since our first night in Naxos in 1996. There were some reports a year ago that the quality had declined, so we were very anxious to get there to determine that for ourselves. The owner, Soulous recognized us as we approached, gave us a great welcome, pulled out a bottle of Ouzo and parked us at table near the kitchen saying that one of the best tables was going to come free in 10 minutes and he was saving it for us.
Taverna to Kastro still has people waiting for a table and the food is excellent. True there are lots of tourist there but after all, we are tourists too so that can’t be a bad thing. There continue to be lots of locals dining there each night.
Good Heart on the waterfront. This taverna has good food which is well priced. Not every waterfront promenade taverna can say the same thing.
Nikos taverna is just down one of the roads leading from the Central Square. They have a lady who tries to call you in to dine which can be abit annoying however they do get lots of business. Their food is good, so is the wine, portions are large and there are lots of Greeks eating there. We ate at Nikos twice on this last trip and found the same people dining there both times.
We decided to have a full beach day. When that happens we hop the local bus and head out to Plaka beach. It is one of a string of beaches that stretch several kilometers along the west coast. This is our favorite beach. There are pockets of sunbeds, a few tavernas and some hotels out here but for the most part in early June there are secluded areas where you can find solitude.
We rented a car for a day and took a drive out to visit mountain villages. Other than a stop at Demeters Temple (to replace my previous pictures of this archeological site which seem to have gone missing) we had no concrete plans for this day. We just went the direction the car was pointing. We have toured Naxos by car many times but somehow we ended up on some new roads, saw things from different perspectives and found old churches that we simply have never discovered before.
This day was highlighted by a stop in Koronos the village where our hotelier’s mother was born. We have always just driven by but decided to stop to explore. Koronos is built down the side of two mountains. It is all downhill and there did not seem to be a soul around so we just started to walk down. We could hear music and eventually at the bottom where the two mountains meet we found Taverna Matina. It had a natural spring so we decided to stop there. They provided us with a pitcher of this water and it was so clear and sweet. It turns out that this taverna is owned by a farm family and all the food was produced on the farm. I suspect that the Mythos beer was not included in that statement.
We had a Greek salad with a soft cheese that had been made just that morning. I swear this was the best meal we had on that whole trip The lamb dishes going by our table looked exquisite but we did not allow ourselves to be tempted because we had to walk all the way back up the mountain to get to the car.
We thought we would be the only ones at this taverna but people kept arriving, including two small tour groups with local guides. I think the secret is out; this is a must do, dining experience on Naxos.
Too soon, our week in Naxos ended and we flew back to Athens. For our last night we returned to our unnamed taverna in Psirri.
No wonder Greece just keeps calling us back.