Greece: A Country of Contrasts
When we first arrived in Greece, we boarded the Metro and there were signs warning us to beware of pickpockets. The sides of the train were covered in graffiti and there were kids, maybe 15 or 17 years old, playing the accordion and begging for money. It was very obvious to me that Greece is in bad economic shape. That being said, I never felt unsafe anywhere in Greece.
Our first day was in Athens. We went to visit the Acropolis and strolled the streets in the older part of Athens. The Acropolis was impressive. Perched on top of the hill made of solid marble and built between 495-429 BC it’s definitely not a spot to be missed when you visit Greece. However, Athens is not very high on my list of incredible cities. Athens was dirty, like garbage piled in the streets kind of dirty. It was in Athens that I came to the realization that Greece, although it is part of the EU, it is still a poor country and has some improving and growing to do to clean up. I was not expecting this at all. I guess I had a romantic idea of Greece being this place of white buildings and blue roofs and the Mediterranean sparkling, and it is, but just with garbage.
In the morning, we had an early ferry to Mykonos, a very expensive island with streets filled with stores like Chanel. Everything in Mykonos was more expensive than anywhere else we visited in Greece. We paid over 100 Euro a night for a crappy studio that would have cost us 40 Euro anywhere else in Greece. That being said, I loved the Greek Islands. I was finally near a sea that I could swim in. I was salty, sandy, covered in sunscreen and so very happy to be hot. When we were sitting on the beach with the crystal clear deep blue waters of the Med in front of us and the dry hillsides dotted with white homes and old windmills behind us, you can’t help but be struck by the in your face beauty of the islands.
After exploring the beaches the first day, we walked all over the old city in Mykonos and found ourselves at the port. This is when I was struck with a poignant contrast. On one side of the pier were old fishing boats laden with gear and ready to go out to sea to make what little bit money they could. On the other side were luxury yachts that most people could never fathom setting foot on, let alone owning.
That night we went down to Little Venice for dinner with a friend of ours who we met at our hostel in Athens. We had a few beers and watched the sun go down and the moon rise from behind the old windmills.
Then we went to dinner and I was so excited to see saganaki on the menu, I remember ordering saganaki at a little Greek restaurant in Omaha when I was a kid. It was cheese, fried, and served on fire and then you squeezed lemon over the top to put the fire out. I hadn’t had this in at least a decade and I was so excited. I then found out, that although traditional saganaki is breaded and fried cheese (it’s not served on fire, that’s just for show), it is typically served as a cheese with shrimp, covered in a red sauce. I was pretty disappointed, but I did end up finding the traditional saganaki later on our travels.
The next morning we rented a scooter and drove all over the island. Mykonos is known as a beach bar party island so we did a quick stop to check it out and found hundreds of 18-23 year olds wasted at 3pm dancing on the bars. We decided a secluded beach was more our style and searched for some privacy.
The next day we went to Ios. Ios was my absolute FAVORITE place of our entire trip so far. Not just in Greece but everywhere. We stayed at a place called Hotel Helena and Helena and her husband were extremely nice. They had recommendations of where to eat, where to go and visit, and we had very nice conversations with both of them. We walked to a beach nearby and swam and relaxed before heading up to town for drinks. The town in Ios is on top of the hillside and you can either walk up (a strenuous 15 minutes) or you can take the bus that departs every 10-15 minutes and costs only 1.60 Euro. We took the bus up and then walked back down. We wandered through the town and found a bar called Smiles. I loved this bar, they played Manu Chao, Gypsy Kings and reggae and they had Cubra Libre’s and Caipiranha’s. I was a very happy camper.
We ended up going to Smiles both nights we were in Ios but we found out that later at night, when the town gets busy (around 2 AM), the music there sucks. They were playing the Macarena and Ricky Martin, which was a major bummer. We went to another place both nights, Captain Gyro. It is hands down the best gyro in all of Greece.
Our second day in Ios we tried to rent a scooter only to find out that in Ios, you must have an International Drivers License to rent one. At first we were really bummed and thought that we would not have anyway to see the island, then we found Ios Marine. Ios Marine was like a beacon calling to us from across the port. We were able to rent a boat for the entire day and explore the west and south sides of the island by ourselves without any traffic. We ended up having the best experience on our trip so far. It was one of those amazing days that if you had to categorize it, would go into your top five days ever. We both realized how much we missed being on the ocean and we spent six hours driving from one beach to another. Some of the places we stopped we were all alone, to swim and free dive, enjoy a beer, and sunbathe nude.
Other places we stopped were a bit busy, like Manganari Beach, where we anchored for lunch. We swam from our boat to shore and walked up to Antoni’s Restaurant and ate the best meal in all of Greece. There are two restaurants at Manganari, AntonIOS and Antoni’s. If you find yourself in Ios, go to Antoni’s, it’s the one on the left with the stone path leading up to it. The owner Antoni grows all his own produce and makes his own Feta which is AMAZING and the calamari was the best I have ever eaten.
After our incredible lunch, we swam back out to the boat and drove to a little cove that had white marble covering the floor. The way the water reflected the light with the white marble was so beautiful it will be etched into my memory forever. We also found two caves to swim in and some cliffs to jump off. The entire experience something I could have never imagined and it was perfect.
The picture on the left below is of Ronen jumping off the cliff above the cave and the right is of me standing by the beautiful marble lined cove.
On our way back to the port we stopped at a beach that we had all to ourselves and had a few beers. It was the perfect end to an unforgettable day.
In the morning we had to leave for Santorini and I was not ready to say goodbye to Ios. I had fallen in love with that place. As I am writing I have a pang of sadness thinking about it and I am wishing I was there. It felt like home to me.
When we arrived to Santorini the cliffs were incredible but there were tons of people. After our time in Ios, I was bit overwhelmed by how busy it was. We took a taxi to our hostel, which was outside of the old town. The rooms were actually caves that were used to house the wine from the vineyard there. We ended up walking to town and having a few drinks at restaurant on the cliff to watch the sunset (that seems to be a typical way for us to spend our evenings).
The picture below on the right show some of the hundreds of donkeys that are used to carry lazy tourists up from the old port. I personally felt really bad for the donkeys, they seemed exhausted and pretty unhappy.
The next day we rented and ATV. Again, they wouldn’t let us rent a scooter without the International Drivers License but they would let us rent an ATV because it had four wheels so insurance would cover us. We drove around and found ourselves at a little market and winery called Faros Market, near the lighthouse. The owner was incredibly nice and we bought some of her cheese and she gave us a watermelon from her garden. If you haven’t had watermelon with feta then you are missing out on one of the best combinations ever. The sweet and juicy watermelon with the slightly firm and salty feta is a match made in heaven. We drove to the lighthouse and ate our watermelon and feta, the juice from the watermelon dripped all over our faces, hands and arms so we had to go for a swim. I know, bummer right, another swim in the Mediterranean.
After our snack and swim we drove around looking for a secluded beach but we couldn’t find one. We went to Oia, which is the fancier and wealthier of the two main towns in Santorini. It was too fancy for our taste but if you want to perfect picture of Santorini, with the white and blue houses on the steep cliffs, then Oia is the place to go.
Our ferry back to Piraeus (Athens) left late at night and was nine hours. I was very happy we had our sleeping mats and sleeping bags to curl up and get some shuteye on the deck of the ferry. When we arrived to Athens, we rented a car and headed out to explore the Greek countryside only to find out that the toll roads in Greece will cost you your first-born. Seriously, we ended up spending 38 Euro ($51 USD) on tolls, which was almost as much as gas cost us. Our first destination was Meteora.
Meteora is an area of central Greece that has steep cliffs and on top some of the peaks sit ancient monasteries. There used to be 21 monasteries and now only six remain. To see these buildings precariously erected on top of steep cliffs is quite impressive. What’s also impressive is the monks that used to live there. They used to only enter the monastery by using a rope or ladder and scaling the cliff. This feat was considered a testament to their faith in God, so much so that the only time the ropes and ladders were replaced was when God had the will to break them.
In the picture on the lower left, you can see four monasteries that are still standing and one that is just rubble.
This was the view from our balcony at KokaRoka.
We stayed at a cute little place right by the cliffs for our one night in Meteora and we ate a pizza place called Salsa. They served pizza, pasta, Mexican, Greek and burgers so when we decided to eat there I knew I was breaking one of my rules. I have a “rule” that if a restaurant serves more than two varieties of cuisine, then don’t eat there, because I have found they typically aren’t good at any of them. Unfortunately, my decision to break the rule ended up with both Ronen and I punished by food poisoning. The pizza and salad seemed fine when we ate it, but the next 24 hours was not enjoyable. My reasoning for my rule was reinforced.
We left Meteora and drove to Delphi. When we arrived we forced ourselves to suck it up and hike throughout the ruins even though we were still feeling awful and I am glad we did. Delphi was awesome, but I think they could use some more informational signs about the history of Delphi because both Ronen and I weren’t exactly sure what we were looking at.
After walking through the ruins, we found a hotel and slept for most of the evening and night. We got up to boil water and make an MRE for dinner and watch a movie before falling to sleep again. I was very happy when I woke up in the morning and felt like a human being again so we packed up and started our drive to Galaxidi and Nafpactos, two towns on the coast. On our drive we drove past a small fish farm and we just had to pull in and check it out. We ended up drinking coffee and chatting with the owner, Dina, for a couple of hours. She told us that she and her husband run the smallest fish farm in all of Greece and they are one of the few profitable farms as well, raising several species of fish such as Sea Bream and Sea Bass, and they also sell the mussels that grow on the nets. Dina also informed us that Greece exported more farmed fish last year than olive oil,120,000,000 tonnes of fish.
After having a great time meeting Dina we continued driving and saw a bunch of other fish farms. We decided to stop at one of the bigger ones and met the manager just as he was leaving and he invited us for a few beers with some co-workers. They also raise Sea Bream and Sea Bass and it was great chatting with them about their methods, as well as the industry in general and its importance in the future for providing seafood for the world. The manager, Dimitris, was nice enough to then take us back to the farm and take us out to visit the cages. It was a great day of aquaculture for us, and it really solidified my opinion on Greek people, that they are incredible warm, caring, and friendly.
We then continued our drive to Nafpactos and we walked around the little town and had a snack at the port before driving across a big beautiful bridge that cost us 13.20 Euro to drive across. I wish I was kidding, but then after we got off the bridge, we had to pay another 3.10 Euro. Like I said, the tolls in Greece are insane. We stayed the night in a hotel on the beach in Xylokastro. The boardwalk there was beautiful.
In the morning we continued our drive back towards Athens, we had a few hours to kill before our flight to Dubrovnik, Croatia so we did a little exploring and stumbled upon the Ancient City of Corinth. Holy cow was it impressive. It’s a massive castle on top of mountain. We spent 2 hours walking around in it and didn’t even see it all. It was first built between 400 BC and 600 BC before the Romans conquered it. Christian Crusaders then conquered it before it was finally taken over by the Ottomans in 1458 AD.
I have to say that Corinth was the most impressive Archeological site we visited. The sheer size of it was incredible! It was a wonderful way to end our Greece experience before hoping on a plane to Croatia.