Fly & Drive through Greece 2014

Prologue

With this pandemic still hanging around and me being grounded, I decided to revisit some of my past trips virtually. This trip has been quite some time ago. I had posted a couple photos, but not really written about it. Going through the stack of photos brought back some nice memories of a beautiful country with amazing history. We spend 2 weeks in Greece in March of 2014 due to having to use up some tickets on British Airways. The timing was a bit off from when people normally head to Greece, but that turned out to be true blessing. The weather was on the cold side, but most places had one very few tourists. So much so, that there were only a few hotels and restaurants open. I did dig through my old emails to try and find all the places we stayed in to be able to give good pointers in case anyone is tempted to go visit.

The trip started and ended in Athens with a couple days on the island of Crete. We focused mostly on the historic side of Greece and less (or actually not at all) on the beach vacation aspect. The trip was split in three parts. First, explore Athens on foot. Second, fly to Crete and drive around the island. Third, drive a loop through the Peloponnese to visit Greece’s most famous historic locations. The idea was to have a couple days to recover from the jet lag while enjoying the sights before embarking on driving. I wanted to especially avoid driving through the heart of Athens. That was a good decision because the ancient Greeks definitely did not have cars in mind when they laid out the historic center of Athens.

Act I: Athens

We arrived in the evening after an under 2 hrs plane change in London Heathrow. I do recall that they packed us in the last row of a 747 and had to do a mad dash through the airport to make our connection. But that was soon forgotten once we settled in our hotel in downtown. Overall we stayed 3 days (4 nights). I chose the Central Hotel within walking distance of the Acropolis. It was good to be able to walk everywhere and not have to bother with taxis or a car. To that end I highly discourage anyone from renting a car to drive through Athens. The hotel has a beautiful view of the Acropolis which we were soon to visit. But first order of the first day, and I remember this well, I had to go buy a pullover as it was quite chilly and did not bring any warm clothes.

We did visit the National Archeological Museum on our first day. It was interesting but felt a bit neglected and old-fashioned compared to the newer and much shinier Acropolis Museum. It is still worth a visit. On the second day we did spend a lot of time on top of the Acropolis to take in the views and visit the southern side of the Acropolis, including the Acropolis Museum and the Temple of Zeus. The museum is beautiful and does show the history better than the Archeological museum. The temple of Zeus has not much left but is in a nice park which sees more locals than tourists. Day 3 was dedicated to the northern side, including Hadrian’s library and the Ancient Agora. The latter was the main market in ancient Athens. Today it has some remarkable buildings and long winding paths away from the crowds. Make sure to climb up the Aeropagus hill on the south. It does offer great views. There is not much left of Hadrian’s library, but it is nearby. The 3 days in Athens came to an end sooner than expected and we packed back out to the airport to fly to Crete were we would spend the next couple days.

Act II: Crete

The flight to Heraklion was quick and we soon were in possession of a rental car and on our way around the island of Crete. On Crete we noticed even more so than in Athens that we were definitely ahead of the season. At most places we were the only tourists around. Even at the main attractions. Another noticeable difference from Athens was the complete lack of respect for any street signs. Do as the locals do and I found myself quite comfortably navigating the streets.

The first stop was the local aquarium, CRETAquarium. Being a diver I always visit aquariums and this one was rather nice. Besides, it was on the way to Agios Nikolaos on the eastern side of the island. There we stayed at the Mirabella Apartments a bit outside of town. We stayed for two nights as I did not want to miss the opportunity to go giving in Crete, but more on that later. The first day we did drive a bit inland to visit the Dhiktean Caves (orange marker), the birthplace of Zeus. It lies on the Lasíthi Plateau which by themselves make for a nice drive. The caves are not very big, yet quite beautiful. Take a picnic as the view from the visitor center is gorgeous. As I mentioned, I love diving and definitely wanted to look at what the underwater world had to offer. However, this being outside the tourist season, no shop was open for normal business. Stefanos, the owner of Pelagos Dive Center, was so kind as to make an exception. The water was cold at this time of the year, but nothing a couple layer of wetsuits could not fix. I admit that I was hoping for some ruins or so, but instead it was mostly some relics from WWII. Still, a dive is a dive and this was an enjoyable one.

After the dive we continued on south towards the small town of Matala. The town lies at the end of a gorge with a small beach. Given the size of the tourist market I would assume that this place is anything but serene during high season. Luckily for us this was not high season and we were the only tourists in town. The only open hotel (Sunshine Matala) we could find was still having some renovations to prepare for the summer, but they rented us a nice room rather cheaply. Crete had two more historic sites I wanted to see. The Minoan palace of Phaestos (green marker) nearby was the first one. It is less visited and also less reconstructed than the better known palace of Knossos. But that made it more interesting to visit as well.

After the visit we continued our loop around Crete towards the city of Réthymnon on the northern shores. The city has a beautifully preserved city center with Venetian and Turkish architecture and is toped by the old fortress. We stayed near the center in the cozy Sohora Boutique Hotel and spend the rest of the day exploring the city on foot. The following day we closed the loop and ended back in Heraklion. The famous palace of Knossos is just a short drive from the city and was the main attraction for the day. The site has been partially reconstructed which is a bit controversial, but aides in understanding the grandeur of this old Minoan city. Being off-season was once again to our advantage as there were only a handful of other people around. The place is large and full of beautiful frescos and wall-paintings. Heraklion itself is a rather industrial city that we did not spend much time exploring. We stayed the night there as our flight back to Athens was early morning next day.

Act III: Peloponnese

Perhaps the most famous places in Greece outside Athens are Olympia and Delphi which were next on our agenda. For this we booked another rental car at the airport. Fortunately the airport is a bit outside of Athens and thus I did not have to navigate the city itself. But before we headed north, we drove south the see the temple of Poseidon near Sounion (orange marker). The temple sits on top a tall bluff overseeing Poseidon’s kingdom. It is one of the better preserved temples and offer stunning views of the Aegean Seas. We then retreated our steps and, after a somewhat circuitous path thanks to our GPS, crossed the Corinth Canal. The GPS seemed to not yet incorporate all the road improvements made for the Olympics and took us on several occasions through the scenic route. We did not mind too much as scenery was what we were after. As such we came across several small villages, some of which were abandoned and picturesque.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit ancient Corinth as we needed to drive a bit further to Náfplio. The city offers a good number of hotels and was close to next day’s attraction. We stayed at the Park Hotel at the entrance to the city center. The hotel was also within eyesight of the Palamídhi Fortress I wanted to see. The fortress sits on top of a steep hill and is expansive. There are two ways to get there, a steep, long set of steps and a road. The steps allow for magnificent views of the old city and so I chose that route much to the misgivings of my significant other. I am still surprised she did not throw me off the cliff once we made it up on top and she saw the signs for the parking lot. The views from the fortress made up for the hard work of walking up the steps. Fortunately for us Náfplio had a good number of restaurants open and so we ended the day with a nice dinner.

The following day was dedicated to visiting the ancient site of Mycenae (Mykínes), seat of the well known king Agamemnon. History has it that Agamemnon lead the Greek expiation against Troy. The entrance to the city is marked by the Lions Gate one has to walk through. The site is not very large, but is well worth a visit. Nearby is the beehive shaped tomb of king Agamemnon. After a couple of hours to take in the sights we were off to the next stop, Olympia.

Olympia was the first of the two most famous stops. On both we decided to stay in a local hotel to get to the site before the day trip busses from Athens get in. It was a good plan that allowed us to have the the sites almost entirely to ourselves for an hour or two in the mornings. The village of Olympia is small and we stayed in the Hotel Pelops on the outskirts of town. After a good breakfast we made it early to the ancient site of the Olympic Games. The Temple of Hera is still the site at which the Olympic Flame is lighted for the games. At this time of the year all the trees were in full blossom which added to the magnificence of the location. We spend quite a bit of time walking the grounds and ended the with a visit of the nearby museum. The site is beautiful.

Early in the afternoon we then continued on to our last stop of the trip to visit Delphi. Once again we stayed at a local hotel (Hotel Leto) to beat the crowds in the morning. Olympia was impressive but did little to prepare us for the setting of Delphi. Delphi is located on a up hillside and offers views of the valley below from every spot. It is also much better preserved (or restored) than any of the other sites we have been to. It is well worth to spend a bit of time to hike up to the stadium and beyond.

At long last it was time to make our way back to Athens to return home. We did one last stop along the way to visit the impressive Byzantine Monastery of Ósios Loukás. It is remarkably well preserved and houses some of the best murals of the time. It is only a short drive from Delphi and should not be forgotten. We made it back to the airport hotel in good time and decided to go back to observe the sunset at the Temple of Poseidon which was said to be beautiful. It most certainly did not disappoint and was a fitting end to this remarkable trip through ancient history.

Epilogue

We spend two weeks in Greece to take in the beauty and history this country has to offer. While I did not dwell on it, we certainly made good of the phenomenal Greek cuisine as well. Of note is the  restaurant Bokos in Agios Nikolaos. Since we were the only guests, they would usually just ask their chef (mother) what was fresh of the sea and serve us that. I am still salivating over the red wine marinated grilled octopus. Two weeks is about the minimum one should take. I think we could have easily filled a third week to visit some other important historic sites. And of course there are all the small islands to relax which we completely passed by on this trip.

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