Greece

Greece: Kalambaka/Meteora, 23 June 2009

We started out in the morning for our hike to beat the afternoon sun. After loading up on breakfast and packing some water supplies, we headed towards the hills, and followed the signs towards the cliffs. When you don’t actually know where you are going, things always seem a whole lot further, and it always seems a lot longer. Yeah, for most part of the way, we really didn’t know where we were heading, or if there’d be anything at the end of the hike. So that was one long hour. Thankfully, at a clearing, we did sort of see the monasteries, and as we got further along in the journey, we did meet people who told us we were headed in the right direction.

Hiking up from Kalambaka to Meteora

On the way, and not quite knowing where this is going

Hiking up from Kalambaka to Meteora

On the way and not quite knowing where this is going

Holy Trinity Church, Meteora

Finally!

Upon reaching the top of the hill, we decided to go to St. Stephen’s first. St. Stephen’s is still an active monastery, hence, there are only very limited areas that are open. Well, they let you into their garden, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the town of Kalambaka, and you can check out some of their murals at the entrance, and donate to their cause by buying some souvenirs at their gift shop. The nuns in the gift shop didn’t look too happy with the influx of tourists, but I guess I wouldn’t be too, if I thought I signed up for a life of quiet contemplation, and ended up manning a cash register in the monastery.

St. Stephen's Church, Meteora

St. Stephen’s Monastery

St. Stephen's Church, Meteora

Art in St. Stephen’s Monastery

Our next stop was Church of the Holy Trinity. It is no longer an active site of worship. The climb up was pretty insane. After all the stairs we climbed to get up to Meteora, there were more stairs involved for the Church of the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless, it was pretty interesting. We saw how the monks used to try and deal with the height, through the use of lifting devices. There were also breathtaking views if you walked out of the monastery and tried scaling some of the rocks.

Meteora

View from Church of the Holy Trinity

Old lifting device in Holy Trinity Church

Lifting device at Church of the Holy Trinity

There are many, many other churches in Meteora, but the rest of them definitely required a bus trip. If you do decide to head to Meteora, be sure to check the opening times of the monasteries, as they differ.

Categories: Architecture, Greece, Travel Tip, UNESCO | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Greece – Athens to Kalambaka, 22 June 2009

Throughout our night on the boat from Heraklion to Piraeaus, I actually found myself wishing, hoping, and praying that our boat will be late, so that I can get more shuteye than 6 hours. Yes, I’m really not a fan of waking up early. Well, tough luck. At around 5am, the PA system came on, and we were told to start clearing out of our rooms, and prepare for disembarkation. Boo!

We arrived at the port of Pireaus at around 6 am, and then lugged our tired bodies to the metro, and headed towards the train station for our onward journey to Kalambaka. Tourists visit the town of Kalambaka mostly for the purpose of going to Meteora, which is famous for monasteries and nunneries perched atop a hill. This was supposed to complete our trip, as it would give a variety of sights, from ruins, to beaches, to islands, to religious architecture. Also, I just enjoy taking the rail.

Anyway, I digress. We got to the train station early, stood in line, and purchased our tickets to Kalambaka (~EUR 22, 5 hrs). As we still had some time to spare, and we were hungry, we popped into the cafe that was conveniently situated in the train station, and grabbed some grub while waiting for our train. Frankly, I don’t remember much about our train journey, as I passed out from the lack of sleep from the night before. The cabin was pretty nice, and not ratty at all, if anyone cares!

After arriving in Kalambaka, we set about looking for accommodations. After sorta just walking straight out of the train station and down the street (yes, prepare, we do not), we found Hotel Astoria that was good for us at EUR20 per person (can’t remember the name), and had ensuite bathroom. After dropping our bags, next part of mission – fill the ache in the belly. After a short 10 min walk, we hit town center, and of course, we ended up eating more gyros pita again. I wish I had more to say about Greek food, but unfortunately, my diet was limited to meals of gyros pita. They are excellent, btw, it’s just that I hit overkill. Damn my lousy budget!

As half of our day was gone, our biggest mission for today was to try and find a road up to Meteora, since we didn’t want to take a bus, or do a tour, but wanted to go our own. Well, all I can say is, follow the signs, and you’ll get up there. It took a while.

The town of Kalambaka also has some attractions to offer. In particular, they do have a couple of impressive-looking churches, and I think the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin has some relics.

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin, Kalambaka

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin

Chinese Shop in Kalambaka

Chinese shop in Kalambaka

Hiking up from Kalambaka

Ok, this was the sign we saw going down. So look for a sign like that that says “Meteora”

Kalambaka Town

Town of Kalambaka

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Greece – Crete, 21 June 2009

We didn’t have a plan, we didn’t have a guide. But we did have a full day before our overnight ship leaves at 10ish.

After poring over the maps we filched along the way, and for convenience’s sake, we ended up at Amoudara beach. Well, there was a bus right in front of our hotel that went straight to Amoudara. Kinda hard to argue with that! It was a nice scenic bus ride, and we basically did the thing whereby we got off the bus when everyone else did, and just kinda followed them, and found the beach. Heh!

The beach was long, there were plenty of sunbathers, and there was a cafe strategically located. It was actually really warm out there. I tried to go barefoot on the beach, and almost burnt my feet. Had to run back to get my flip flops. Waters were definitely warm enough for a real comfortable swim.

After our little beach outing, we basically just sat around at our hotel lobby, waiting for the time to board our ship. The ship was definitely well worth our 60 EUR. It wasn’t fancy, but hey, you can’t argue with a bed and a bathroom, versus sitting out on the boat for the whole night (like we did when we went from Athens to Tinos).

Amoudara Beach, Crete

Amoudara Beach

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Greece – Crete, 20 June 2009

Grand plan for today was to go to Knossos, the remains of the Minotoan civilization. We walked to the town center of Heraklion, Crete, and we took bus A to Knossos. Small tip: try to buy a return ticket, as it is cheaper.

The remains in Knossos has a museum, which is pretty nice. Also, it’s a nice respite from  the crazy heat. Personally, we perhaps should have gotten a guided tour, which might have added value to the experience. I don’t know anything about the Minotoan civilization, and I still don’t, to this day. I thought the ruins seemed a little strange, as the restoration made it look a little weird. This was a good half-day trip. But I guess if you had more interest in ancient cultures, you would find this trip more enjoyable.

Around mid-day, we took a bus back to Heraklion for some lunch, and a short walk through the market. After some rest, we decided to walk out to the Venetian fort. It was pretty darn windy, but that did not daunt young Greeks from practicing their sailing. We had a little drink at one of the cafes overlooking the waterfront, and waited for evening to come.

Anyway, we finally broke. After many, many days of eating variations of gyros pita, we could no longer deal with it. Guess where we ended up? McDonald’s. Not particularly proud of it, but it was a change.

Knossos, Crete

Minotoan Ruins at Knossos

Knossos, Crete

Murals at some of the ruins

Venetian Fort, Crete

Looking out from the Venetian Fort

Wall Painting, Crete

Graffiti at the Venetian Fort

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Greece – Crete, 19 June 2009

When I first planned this part of our journey, I was trying to get us back to Athens by 22 June, so our trip through the islands was kinda rushed. We also settled our boat tickets from Crete to Athens at Santorini for fear they might be out of space (we got a double room on a ship for 60 EUR each, for an overnight trip from Crete to Athens). Anyway, I kinda did end up boo boo-ing. I somehow miscalculated the dates, so we ended up having an extra day in Crete.

Long story short. Suddenly, there was no rush for us to do anything as we had extra time. So … we woke up at the early hour of 12 noon. Heh. Sauntered down the street, and on the way to town, we saw a little restaurant, and ended up eating – you guessed it – another gyros pita. This one was stuffed with a massive amount of fries. After our very slow lunch, we went into the center of Heraklion. It was kinda fort-y. I actually like that Heraklion is city-like. So we could go into shops and stuff, and not feel like outlandish tourists over here.

Getting around was kinda fun. Stuff was in the Greek alphabet, so was our map. After spending more than a week in Greece, we still sucked. So trying to figure out the street names was kinda fun for us. In any case, we did manage to wander into a few churches, and one which was turned into an art gallery.

The heat in Greece is pretty serious, so in the late afternoon, we ended up going to the History Museum, for some education, and eh, for some respite from the heat. It was a pretty neat two story exhibition, which covered the history of Crete from its ancient civilization to the present. My favourite is probably their special exhibition on literature from Crete. Apparently, Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, is actually from Heraklion!

St. Catherine of the Sinaites Church, Heraklion

 

St. Catherine of the Sinaites Church

St. Mark's Basilica, Heraklion

 

St. Mark’s Basilica

Nikos Kazantzakhs Bust, Crete

 

Bust of Nikos Kazantzakis

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Greece – Santorini to Heraklion (Crete), 18 June 2009

Our boat from Santorini to Crete leaves in the late afternoon, so we had the whole morning to do some exploration. We took our little quad bike, and made our way in the opposite direction – North to the town of Oia. It was a scenic trip. After we got up to the town of Oia, we were able to look back on Santorini, and take in the beauty of the whole island.

We returned to our hotel after lunch in Fira, and decided to just hang by the pool, while waiting for our coach to the port of Santorini. When departing from Santorini by boat, do give it some time, as the transfer from your hotel to the port will often take some time. We arrived in the port of Santorini in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, our ferry did not do the same. It was late by over an hour, and H and I had several moments, whereby we started wondering if we actually missed our ferry somehow.

Thankfully, arrive it did, eventually. But by the time we got to Heraklion, it was dark. I really took free-and-easy approach to this trip – no plans, just hope for the best. So far, things have worked out for us, as there were always enthusiastic hotel/guesthouse owners, advertising their holdings to us. Things were, however, very different in Heraklion. There was NOBODY at the port when we arrived, so we were kinda screwed. Didn’t help that Crete is a pretty darn large island. Thankfully, we saw a lady moving towards the taxi stand, and she moved like a woman with a plan. We told her about our situation, and she said we could share a cab with her, and go to the hotel she plans to room at. Good decision that was. She picked Athinaikon Hotel, which was really not far from the Heraklion Harbor, and a short walking distance from the main town of Heraklion. With some luck, she is also an excellent bargainer, so she actually got us very good room rates, below the rack rate. (I think we paid about 40 EUR or something, which was about 10-20 EUR less than rack rate)

Heraklion is definitely a very different town from the towns in the islands we’ve been on the past couple of days. It is a good-sized town, and whereby tourism didn’t seem to be the main driving force. Ok, I just got distracted by the bowling alley and the McDonald’s, which always makes me jump to conclusions.

Oia, Santorini

 

Oia, Santorini

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Greece – Santorini, 17 June 2009

Our first full day in Santorini. On our way to Fira town the night before, we walked by a place that did motor vehicle rentals. We saw a quad bike, so today, we decided to check out rental options, in order to facilitate our transportation situation in Santorini (not that great if you’re on foot, or trying to do it by public transport). Well, it was kinda a no brainer. When we asked about the quad bike, it costs 12 EUR for the day. We were sold without any bargaining. A small tip: we went for the one with a lower horse-power. You might want to consider the one with the higher horse-power, as Santorini is pretty hilly. We had a little bit of trouble on some of the hills.

Cool Buggy, Santorini

Some of the motor vehicular options available in Santorini

With our newfound mobility, we decided to head out to our first destination – a wine museum nestled in the middle of Santorini. We ended up at the Volcan Wine Museum (also known as the G. Koutsoyanno Poulos Winery) at around 10 am. For about 10EUR, they will give you a tour of their winery, and included in the price is a sampling of some of the wines they have, and a glass of wine of your choice, based on the samples. The tour was pretty informative, and the samples were fairly decent, too. I don’t actually know much about wine, so don’t take my word for me. Can’t argue with a museum tour and booze at the end! Well, it’s afternoon in some part of the world, right?

Volcan Wine Museum, Santorini

My travel companion and 5000l of wine

Volcan Wine Museum, Santorini

Selection at Volcan Wine Museum

Following our little museum excursion, we drove to another part of Santorini – Perissa Beach. Perissa beach is a black sand beach, and it wasn’t too crowded at this time of the year. We just found a cafe by the beachside, and settled down for some lunch, drinks, and a little chill out time. Yes, I had work to do, and had to carve out hour-long blocs by hook or by crook, even on vacation. Also, driving in the mid-day sun is an invitation for an early date with skin cancer.
Perissa Beach, Santorini

Perissa Beach

After our siesta of sorts, we proceeded to our final destination of the day – Pyrgos. It is supposed to have some churches, so off we went before the sun set on us. The church in Pyrgos is located on a hill, and involved walking through an uphill maze of staircases. I do kinda like the churches here – they are actually small, and manageable, versus large and impersonal. The view from the church is also pretty spectacular, and if you’re in the mood for more alcohol, there were stands along the way, selling home-made wines for like 4EUR.

Pyrgos, Santorini

Church at Pyrgos, Santorini

We ended the day by returning to our dinner place on the first night for more gyros pita (urgh!) and ended the evening with some drinks in our porch

View from our room in Hotel Olympia, Santorini

 

View from our room

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Greece – Mykonos to Santorini, 16 June 2009

We took a morning ferry from Tinos to Mykonos, and after we disembarked, we headed towards another travel agency, and purchased our onward journey from Mykonos to Santorini on the same afternoon. We walked around a little, got some lunch (yes, that’s turning into a theme for our trip) There certainly were many Singaporeans around Mykonos; guess it wasn’t a bad thing we didn’t end up on some sort of regular tour route!

Boat to Santorini arrived slightly late, but well, at least it showed up! It was getting close to evening when we arrived in Santorini, and well, we had no plan for accommodations, but to hope for the best. Thankfully, like in Tinos, many of the guesthouse owners/their representatives actually waited as we left the boat. After looking through a few options, we wound up choosing Olympia Hotel in Fira, which was going for 30Eur for a double. It is a lovely, classic Greek white and blue building with a swimming pool. While it doesn’t have the infinity pools of some of the other fancier options, or sea views, it was fairly central, and a short walk to the town of Fira. Also, it’s just hard to argue with the price. The rooms were nice, and had an ensuite bathroom that was decent, too. The hotel staff are also incredibly nice.

After checking in, we headed towards Fira town, and ended eating – you guessed it – gyros pita again. This time round, this place had Asterix and Obelix as its mascots. We also made enquiries at one of the tour agencies in Fira town about getting a boat onward to the island of Crete.

Travel tip: During the mid/high season, ferries do fill up. You are advised to try and book ferry tickets at least two days in advance. We did that, and we almost always got the last seats left in the ferry. Close shave, if you ask me.

We ended the evening by chilling out at our porch with beers.

Mykonos Town

Town of Mykonos

Hotel Olympia, Santorini

Hotel Olympia

Hotel Olympia, Santorini

Hotel Olympia

Hotel Olympia, Santorini

 

Sunset from our porch

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Greece – Tinos, 15 June 2009

Our grand plan was to do the Mykonos – Santorini – Crete route on our own, instead of being ferried around on a cruise ship. We did some checking, and figured we can try doing this by the regular ferries which ply the waters. After checking some of the ferry timings the night before, we decided to try and catch the first ferry.

We woke up at around 6 am, headed straight for the metro, and got to Piraeus at around 7.20 am. After asking around for a bit, we managed to get a ferry ticket (~12 EUR) on one of those large cruise ships leaving at 7.30 am. Hustling, we somehow managed to get on the boat just before it left. Everything really worked like clockwork for us! Well, at least for this part of the journey.

Here’s where things get interesting. Because everything is in Greek, and both of us are like super groggy from the lack of sleep (and lack of seat on the boat), when we heard the guy on the PA announce xxxx-ynos, we thought we were in Mykonos. Having never been to Greece, nor Mykonos, we evidently don’t know how Mykonos looks like, and seeing the number of tourists line up for disembarkation, we hopped off the cruise ship with them. Guess where we ended up? Tinos.

In retrospect, I guess it sort of worked out for us. According to guides and other travelers, Mykonos is sort of a party town, and since both of us aren’t really big party animals, spending the night in Tinos isn’t exactly the worst thing on earth. At the pier, we were met by a bunch of guys who wanted to fill their guesthouses for the night. Based on the pictures and prices, we ended choosing a place called Lucas Rooms (~30 EUR for a double, ensuite), which was about 10 min walk from the waterfront strip. It was a pretty little place, and very comfortable. I highly recommend it.

Well, this was not part of the plan, so we had to come up with a new plan. We just sorta walked around. Apparently, Tinos is a quite a popular site for domestic tourism. In particular, Greeks like to head to the northern part of the island. I can’t quite remember why now. We were in the southern part, so we ended up going to a church there, which is also an important tourist destination. Greeks like to go there as part of religious tourism, and bring home the holy water from the Church of Holy Mary. There was quite an array of religious paraphernalia on the way leading up to the church. In particular, there were candles of all manner.

In the afternoon, I also fulfilled one of my other dreams – take a dip in the Mediterranean. The water was kinda chilly, but once I got my metabolism up, all was good. We then bought our onward ticket from Tinos to Mykonos at one of the local ferry offices available at the waterfront. It was a pretty chilled out day.

Our Cute 30EUR Room, Tinos

Lucas rooms

Beautiful Sea, Tinos

Mediterranean Sea 

Church of Holy Mary, Tinos

Church of Holy Mary

BIG Offerings on way to Church of Holy Mary, Tinos

Candles for sale

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Greece – Hydra, 14 June 2009

Day trip time! We wanted to explore some of the little islands near Athens, and mainly, the rest of the crew were finally ruin-ed out as well, so we decided to head to the island of Hydra, from the port of Piraeus. Getting to Piraeus from Athens was a metro ride away, and while details are fuzzy now, I’m going to put money on about 30 mins by metro from our hostel. Hydra is a little over an hour away from Piraeus by the fast ferry.

We had no problems getting the tickets to Hydra (~25 EUR one way), so I guess there’s no real need to book in advance. After a scenic journey, we arrived in Hydra at around 10 am. The first sight was actually pretty interesting – donkeys. They offered some sort of donkey joy ride if you didn’t particularly feel like walking, and at the port of Hydra, there are many waterfront cafes, if you so wish.

We decided to walk around a little. Hydra is actually quite an interesting place. There is some altitude involved, as there are many stairs, which will lead you to different sights like churches. It’s all built upwards, and stairs connect much of this fort-like island (well, actually, there’s a fort, too). We just ended up wandering around. If you head towards the right of the island (orienting from the point you left the ferry), there are actually some good swimming spots with clear blue waters, though it involved descending a fairly long flight of stairs.

We had a nice little lunch at one of the cafes behind the main row of cafes at the waterfront, and shelled out 3 EUR for another gyros pita. I fed some of mine to some of the cute cats, which seemed to be everywhere on the island of Hydra. ‘Twas a nice day trip!

Transportation in Hydra

Waterfront of Hydra

Endless Stairs of Hydra

Stairs of Hydra 

Swimmers in Hydra

Swimmers at Hydra

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