Thursday, May 22, 2008

Greece and Greek Hospitality

We've spent a wonderful and frustrating two weeks in Greece. We entered into Thessaloniki via train from Bulgaria. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is a college town that the locals call hip and trendy. There are tonnes of clothing shops and bars that students venture to by 2pm. It's nicely located on the Aegean Sea but there are no beaches and not much to do except drink ice-coffees and beer.

Tim and Daneille (Nicole's friends from University of Waterloo) met up with us at our moldy hotel and we were immediately thrilled to have travel companions. We walked and talked and discussed where we wanted to go for our 10 days of travelling together.

We took no delay in leaving Thessaloniki the following morning to head to Mt Olympos. We usually book accommodation ahead of time, but with our daring and thrill seeking friends...

...we risked it and just decided to arrive in Litohoro with no plans. As it turns out, our plan to not plan both back fired and became very successful. We found out on arrival that the new Litohoro train station is approximately 7km from town, nothing surrounds it and there are no buses or taxis awaiting arrivals. Tim called the hotel we were hoping to stay at and rescue us from the train station, but it was full. We knew of a campsite on the water that we assumed would be much closer to the train station than the town, so we chanced it by walking. We walked and walked until we finally got through on the phone to the owner of the campsite. He picked us up off the side of the road and greeted us with a great big smile. 1 point for Greek hospitality.
The campsite was awesome. We got a small A-frame cottage for the 4 of us for a measly 40 Euros a night. We settled in, freshened-up and got a taxi into Litohoro at the base of Mt Olympos. Daneille was in desperate need of some sunglasses so we browsed the shops. Unfortunetely, just Daneille's luck, a pair of glasses broke and hit the floor leaving the glasses arm still in her hand (not at all Daneille's fault). The shop owner emerged and ordered that she pay for the glasses she broke. We tried to explain that they must have already been broken and that we did nothing but the shop owner insisted that we were lying. In the end Tim announced we were not paying for the glasses but we would be happy to buy a different pair. The shop owner refused and we left. -1 point for Greek hospitality.

We tried to shake off our shopping experience by enjoying greek salads and souvlaki for lunch and then hiking a short distance up the valley towards Mt Olympos. The main trail was on top of an aqueduct coming down from the mountain. The path followed a beautiful valley with cliffs and rock outcropping making for some nice photos.After, we enjoyed a nice sunset over the Aegean Sea from the pebble beach beside our camp ground.

We took a local train from the old and tiny train stop near the campsite to make our way over to Kalambaka. Again, we called a hotel from the Lonely Planet and a very friendly man was able to pick us up to Kastraski at the base of Meteora. He only had one room available but was able to provide another room in the hotel across the street. 1 more point for Greek hospitality.

On arrival we thought about exploring the surrounding hills but a storm appeared to be rolling in and after a short visit to a local market for some snacks it starting pouring. We found refuge at a cute covered patio bar and ordered tea and played some bridge. Our teas arrived with no saucers and our tea bags and spoons still in the mugs. We weren't sure where to put our tea bags and spoons but decided the best solution was to lick our spoons dry, squeeze out our tea bags and neatly place our tea bags in our spoons on the table. Later, the waiter came by and yelled at us in Greek for messing up his table cloth (which we didn't). We're sure he swore at us. Negative another point for Greek hospitality.

The morning was chilly and wet, but the rain had let up. It was perfect for hiking up between the beautiful cliffs and pinnacles to the monasteries of Meteora. The breathtaking area made for awesome views from the top of the cliffs.The trail that we took brought us right up to the main monastery where we spent most of our tour. Jason forgot to bring his zip-on legs to his shorts so we were worried about getting in. But as it turns out, Nicole was the one who had to put a wrap around her pants and Jason's shorts happened to be long enough (just below the knee) to get in. Nicole didn't feel that was very fair. :) The main monastery contained three museums containing artifacts including scripture books dating back to the 12th century! It's hard to grasp how old that really is considering the writings are on paper. We carried on to a second smaller monastery then enjoyed a picnic lunch on one of the large rock outcroppings. We followed the road back down along the cliffs. Spectacular. We really enjoyed our time in Meteora.
We wanted an early train to Athens but it being a Monday morning, we were only able to get standing room. Luckily, when we stopped to switch trains, we asked when our connecting train was to depart, the man at the booth gave us a few scattered reserved seats at no extra charge! Another point for Greek hospitality. We arrived in Athens, took the subway to the port at Piraeus and attempted to find a ferry that would take us to Mykonos. Unfortunately, being the low season, there were no evening ferries to Mykonos. We managed to get a ferry to Syros instead and booked the short hop to Mykonos for the following morning.

On arrival in Syros, we were greeted by several hotel owners and chose to follow the most trustworthy-looking to his hotel. It turns out that he had an awesome 2-bedroom apartment for us to use for a reasonable price. We enjoyed our one night and got up early to tour Syros before catching our ferry. The town rose out of the water so it was a tiring walk up and down stairs exploring the town. Most of the steps and streets were made of marble and Nicole enjoyed posing beside some of the more colourful walls.

We arrived in Mykonos in the early afternoon and again worked our magic with the many hotel hustlers at the ferry docks. The hotel that won our business was brilliant white with blue accents and a beautiful pool, very greek. A room with a kitchen was also a good selling point. We stayed for 2 nights and really experienced Mykonos. After settling in and enjoying some Coronas at the pool we walked the twisted, tiny pedestrian streets that make Mykonos so famous. The streets were made to confuse pirates now they only confuse drunken tourists. It's a good thing the buildings are so beautiful because the true feeling of the city is one of a huge outdoor shopping centre.

The next day the four of us rented scooters and formed our own two bike scooter gang. Our bike was on empty when we got it (-1 point for greek hospitality) and it took us a little time to locate a gas station. Once filled we started our excursion. We toured the beaches and ended up spending a few hours at Super Paradise Beach. Nicole and Daneille enjoyed the many nude gay men sunning themselves. That must be why the beach is called Super Paradise! Tim snorkeled and almost froze to death while Jason scootered to the nearest market to pick up beer and lunch. It was a good day. In the evening we hit the town again, seeing the picturesque Paraportiani Church and enjoying very expensive fruit cocktails in little Venice overlooking old windmills. Even better than the cocktails were the much less expensive but addicting Gyros for dinner.

In the morning we had enough time for one more scooter ride around the northern point of the island before leaving on our ferry to Santorini. As our ferry approached Santorini our breaths were taken away. It is by far the most spectacular Greek island. Santorini and its surrounding islands were formed by an ancient volcano. The crater flooded 3600 years ago creating the natural harbour that is there today. The ferry docks are at the base of the crater's caldera while the main town of Fira sits at the highest point on the cliffs. You'll have to see our pictures to see what we mean. We enjoyed a nice walk along the cliffs and had dinner watching the sunset.

We ran some errands in the morning and spent the afternoon hiking along the caldera from Fira to Oia at the northern tip of the island. There were several sections of the path that were hard to walk on due to the volcanic rubble. There were great views all the way though. We waited much too long for a bus back to Fira but finished the day cooking up a stir fry with Tim and Daneille and watching Family Guy on the computer.

We decided to rent a scooter for two days and started our island tour by visiting the Red Sand Beach and the lighthouse at the southern tip of the island. After lunch we spent a while looking for the White Sand Beach and ended up on a long bumpy dirt road. It was certainly an experience on the scooters. Nicole wasn't very happy about it. We returned to the resort for the better part of the afternoon to relax by the pool. We walked into town again before sunset and enjoyed some gyros for dinner. Being Saturday night, we felt the need to have a beer at a bar so we visited an American/Irish pub, had a very expensive Corona and returned to our hotel for bed.

Up early to ride to Parissa, a black sand beach, the next day. We hiked up, out of the town, to the ancient ruins of Thira which were pretty unimpressive but the view over the rest of the island was nice. We then returned to the hotel and joined up with Tim and Daneille on an excursion to the dormant volcano at the center of the harbour. A nice sailboat took us to the docks to hike the many craters from past eruptions (the most recent being 1950). It then took us to hot springs that emptied into the Sea. We were able to jump off the boat into the Aegean Sea and swim into the hot springs. Quite cool, despite Nicole's blond hairs turning red! :) We had a pasta dinner back at the room and then went out again to walk around a rock outcropping off the coast from Fira. We visited a chapel on the far side as the sun was setting and raced to Oia to try and catch the sun set but we didn't make it in time. Oh well. We enjoyed a drink at a restaurant with a view in the twilight then scootered back to the hotel. A very long last day in Santorini.

Jason spent a couple of hours on the internet while Nicole went shopping in town with Daneille (don't worry, Nicole didn't buy anything) then we caught the afternoon ferry back to Athens, saying farewell to Tim and Daneille. It was a long 8 hour ferry that arrived just before midnight, too late to take the subway to our hostel. We happened to find an honest taxi that took us straight to our hostel for a reasonable rate.

We visited the Ancient Agora ruins and its beautifully restored Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. Then we walked to the Roman Agora and carried on up to the Acropolis. As we expected, everything was covered with scaffolding for ongoing restoration. The main gate and the Parthenon were still quite impressive and it was interesting to see parts of the restoration process. Walking down from the Acropolis, we went past the Theatre of Dionysus and on to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple ruins were quite impressive with huge pillars, despite only having a corner remaining. We enjoyed a nice lunch on the pedestrian street below the Acropolis and strolled back to our hostel and then took a train to Corinth in the late afternoon.

On arrival in Corinth, we found that the train station was pretty new and in a completely different location from what we were expecting as per our guide book. After stubbornly walking around a bit, we asked at the train station and they told us a local bus would take us into town. We waited for an hour with no bus arriving so we decided to walk the half hour into town with our big heavy bags (negative one for Greek hospitality). After some searching we found a hotel for the rate we wanted.

The next day, Corinth continued to stay on our bad side. We had wanted to take a bus to Sparta so that we could visit the archeological site of Mystras. At one bus station, we were sent to the town's other bus station. For an hour, there was no one at that bus station. We decided to attempt renting a car, but the Hertz had a 3-day minimum and the local car rental place was sold out. When someone finally showed up at the other bus station, she didn't even know how to get to Sparta by bus and sent us back to the other bus station! Grrr! Negative a million for Greek hospitality! Instead, we walked around the town, enjoyed some lunch, surfed the internet, took a nap, and watched a movie on the computer. A wasted day :(

This morning we decided to at least take a bus to the local Ancient Corinth ruins. The Temple of Apollo was nice and the Acrocorinth mountain rising out of the town with a fortress on top was beautifully lit up in the morning light. After, we caught the train on to Patras. We arrived in the mid afternoon, put our bags in lockers and walked around the port city. We climbed the hill up to the castle to find that it was closed and then enjoyed a nice dinner by the port. We should be able to board our 11:59pm ferry to Venice soon and although we're not looking forward to the 30 hour ferry, we are looking forward to getting to Venice and Slovenia.

All in all, we enjoyed our time in Greece, despite several trying incidents. Overall, the bad outweighed the good in terms of Greek hospitality, but if if you stick to the islands and train travel by mainland, it's a pretty nice country. Meteora and Santorini were easily our favourite locations.

Pics: Thessaloniki | Mt Olympos | Meteora | Syros | Mykonos | Santorini | Athens | Corinth | Patras


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