Greece June 1997
Greece - June 1997
One of the things I enjoy about the rec.travel.europe newsgroup is when people take the time to post where they went on holiday, what they did, the places they stayed and how they did it. I've not done this before so if you're not interested in my trip to Greece, thanks for reading this far. The picture on the right is
Jerry, Kathryn, Chris and I in front of the Parthenon in Athens
. It was very hot and sunny.
I'm 53, reasonably fit (?), work at a desk most of the day and Christine is younger, very fit. We've been married 25 years. One daughter who just got her University degree in French and History. We've made about 22 trips to Europe in the past 14 years. We are not rich, we just look for very low fares and normally travel in the off season. I mention this to show that we are "seasoned" travelers but still have minor problems during our trips, as you will see. You have to adjust and make the best of it. I think Rick Steves said that. We travel using his philosophy. I use his "Back Door Bag" with the shoulder straps and Christine uses a cheap soft bag, carry on size, with a frame, pull up handle and wheels. It's about 9"x 21"x 14" with the wheels on the 14" side. She had one with the wheels on the 9" side but it tipped over too much. We each also carry a small daypack. We check the big bags and carry on the day packs.
First, some of the pre-planning financial arrangements because a lot of the questions people seem to ask is how much did it cost and how did you make the arrangements.
We had two round trip tickets on British Airways, Chicago-London-Athens and return. We also had separate round trip tickets on Olympic Airways to get to Crete, Athens-Iraklion (Crete) and return. We had prebooked a car through Hertz for the entire time in Greece and Crete. We spurged and got a "D" class car with manual transmission, 4-doors, air-conditioning and unlimited mileage. We were to meet another couple in Athens later and continue our trip together, hence the larger car. I didn't want A/C originally but was out-voted. Thank God that the majority rules! It was very hot! The car price for Greece was $387 for 9 days (it would have been $295 without A/C), guaranteed in dollars, no pre-pay, included 18% VAT and 6% airport tax. $43 per day. I did not have to give Hertz a credit card number and they confirmed the reservation in writing a few days later. I asked if I could pre-pay and it would have been $10 more- you figure it out! I made the reservation in April and did make one change a few days later which they again confirmed in writing. We had originally intended to pick up the car at the airport and drop the car off in Piraeus, that would have cost $4.44 more for a drop off charge. The only extra charge we paid was an extra driver charge of $1.85 per day. I used a Gold Visa card for the collision damage waver insurance and was not given any hassle at the airports. The cars were new, about 3-4000 miles on the odometer. We got the same weekly rate in Crete, $259.00 for five (5) days, about $52 per day. The weekly rate was cheaper than the daily rate.
We purchased our transatlantic tickets through a consolidator, no mileage credits. No, I will not recommend a consolidator. The price you pay for transatlantic tickets depends on when and from who you buy them, if you're happy, the price was right. We were very happy. The Olympic flights were purchased through a travel agent, $75 for each flight, $301 total for the four flights each. The Olympic inter-island flight charges seem to be pretty standard, I know of no discounts.
We made no advance hotel arrangements because we were not quite sure how long we would stay at any location. It's hard to find hotels to answer your Fax when you're only inquiring about one day.
Christine and I left Chicago on British Airways on June 9. The trip started out great, we were upgraded to Club class and got a good night's sleep. Those seats are fantastic. We had 1 hour 40 minute layover at Heathrow and saw the Concorde take off, very impressive. I also watched as they loaded the luggage, at least I saw mine loaded. As we learned later, Christine's did not make the flight to Athens. They were both checked in together, properly tagged for Athens and marked "SHORT" which means there is a short time between flights and they should be expedited.
We arrived in Athens on June 10, at 5:30 PM pretty tired. We had planned to get the car and spend the night in Porto Germeno, 45 miles northwest of Athens on the east side of the Gulf of Corinth , through the mountains and west to the coast. We would never have found the way in dark. The roads are poorly marked in Greece. There are also many, many other signs, most in the Cyrillic script and navigation is difficult. Many times the roads were marked differently on our maps. We had to file a lost baggage form with Olympic Airways (they handle it for British Airways). Of course we didn't have a hotel room so we couldn't tell them where to send the bag. They were able to locate it immediately in London and said it would be on the next flight the next morning at 4:00 am. They would deliver it to our hotel by 7:00 am. Yeah, sure! We went to the hotel desk at the airport and got a room in Glyfada, 24,000 drachmas, about $90. The room had a shower, A/C and was right over the airport flight path. We picked up the car because any change in our schedule would invalidate our rate. They gave us directions and we found the hotel without too much trouble. When we got to the hotel I realized that I had lost our return airline tickets and the Crete tickets. This responsibility is normally Christine's and this is the first time on any trip that I carried them. It will also be the last time. We re-traced our path back to the airport only to find them on the car floor. Talk about getting religion, there is a God. Christine promptly relieved me of this responsibility and demoted me back to driver and luggage handler. By this time I was dripping wet (with sweat) and needed a shower. Back at the hotel, the desk clerk called Olympic Airways for us and gave them the hotel name and address so they could deliver Christine's bag. We could not have done it without him.
After the stress of the almost lost tickets, I was wide awake so we drove into Athens and had dinner at our favorite restaurant in the Plaka area. We had found it on a previous trip only to be pleasantly surprised to see it on the Rick Steves series on Athens. The name is Sissifos and they have continuous music. Four people constantly change costumes and dance, getting the diners involved. Very friendly place, good food and not expensive for the Plaka. We had Greek salads, and two entrees with wine. About $25. One thing I like about Greece is that you can go to any taverna and sit down just for a drink, even if you only have a small bottle of water. They don't charge the cover charge (for bread) unless you eat. If they bring over the bread, sometimes called the service because there are napkins and cutlery in the basket, just say no thanks and they will take it away. The cover is usually 100-200 drachmas per person. You can usually ask for more bread without an additional charge. It's much harder to just sit down for a drink in Italy, they don't want your business unless you are eating except at bars. The tavernas always seem happy to have you sit down and usually don't even offer a menu unless you ask. You can just have a salad or just one person can eat. Several times we saw our friends sitting at a taverna with a drink and stopped to talk to them.
Here we are with Jerry and Kathryn at a Taverna in Naplio.
On each occasion we were invited by the waiter to sit down even when we said we were not going to have anything. I talked to several waiters and owners about this and found out that the tavernas are very competitive and it is very important to keep the tables filled and the place looking busy. People see the tables filled and stop in, ignoring neighboring tavernas with fewer or no people. We started watching and this was true. A taverna could be packed one night and the taverna right next to it would be empty. The next night it might be reversed. We were never turned away from a taverna when we asked if we could just have a drink of water or coffee.
Paying.....We watched our bills and never felt overcharged. Just pay the bill and leave a few coins from the change. It is not expected to leave a tip although we did on occasion. If we stayed in a city for several nights we frequently did not leave more than a few coins and we were always welcomed back like old friends. Food....ask what the specials are and they will invite you into the kitchen to see. I saw so many kitchens I felt like a cook. Even when we weren't eating and we asked what they had that was special, they would invite you back to the kitchen. We discovered octopus salad (Octopus in vinegar and wine or oil) at about 600-1200 drachmas; enough for two. Grilled octopus was also great, about the same price. Frequently we would have one Greek salad and share at 500-1000 Drachmas, one octopus salad at about 1000 drachmas and two entrees such as pastitso, dolmades, meat balls, stuffed tomatoes, etc. for around 1500 each. Wine by the carafe was about 1000-2000 drachmas ($4-8) - very good. Wine by the bottle like Lac des Roche was 2000 Drachmas ($8) - excellent white wine. Never felt pressured to buy expensive wine. Fish was more expensive, ask to see the fish, pick one out, ask them how much it weighs so you know how much it will cost. I got great sea bass, rock fish, etc. for 3-4000 drachmas ($12-16) but I usually shared it with Christine. Squid (kalamaria) was cheap. Get the fish only if it's grilled, not fried. Spaghetti was very good. Price for a meal seemed to average about $16-20 a couple including wine, higher in Athens.
Got back to the hotel the first night without any trouble but the A/C was off. Found out later that hotels frequently turn off the A/C at the front desk when you leave. All we had to do was call the desk and ask them to turn it back on. Unfortunately, we didn't learn this until a few days later so our room was hot but we so tired that we slept anyway. The telephone rang at 8:00 am. Christine's luggage had arrived and they wanted to know if they could leave it with the clerk. They apologized for being an hour late. We had breakfast which was included with the room and left.
June 11...We took an unscheduled scenic drive through Athens. It took us two hours to get out of town! I've driven in most of the big cities in Europe but this was impossible. I was told that the taxi drivers don't want signs because they wouldn't be able to take the tourists for a long ride. This is probably not true but some do try and take you for a ride. We got off the National Road in Elefsina and stopped in Porto Germeno. Nice town, several tavernas on the sea, nice beach, one hotel inland and several apartments for rent at about $30 per night. We stopped along the road and bought some bananas, five for 1000 drachmas, five for $4, so much for the world travelers!
We decided to stop on our way back and we proceeded north to Meteora. It took us about 5 hours to drive to Kalambaka. Fantastic scenery with the high peaks in the distance. We drove 3 km north to the town of Kastraki where we picked a place on the main road and got a room at the back without a view of the pinnacles of smooth rocks with the monasteries built on top. We thought the room at the back would be quiet. It didn't work as we were kept awake for a good part of the night by dogs barking in the neighborhood. It was like a wave, a dog would start barking far away and a few more dogs would bark closer to the hotel and then a few more on the other side as the barking moved past us. Well we finally got to sleep with the help of earplugs (always carry those spongy earplugs that you roll in your fingers, place in the ear and then they expand to close out the noise.) Later, there was a rooster next door that was begging for the ax. There were also some pigs. The hotel was the Sydney and the owner was from the area but had spent much of his life in Australia. The man and his wife could not have been nicer. He drew a map of the Monasteries that were open that we should see in the morning and then we should take a rest as they were closed from 1-3 PM. In the afternoon we drove the car to
but didn't stop in any. In the morning we walked to four of them, very hot, carry water. There are concession stands at several of the
where you can purchase drinks very reasonably. The walk up the stairs and the walk up to where the stairs start is hard but well worth it. The monasteries have ropes to pull up the things they need, they used to pull up people and they would replace the ropes when they broke.
Here I am
and here is
the pulley and rope.
We hit a lot of tavernas both nights, they were cheap and good. We walked 3 km into Kalambaka one night and they close the main street about 10 PM. All the people in the town just walk up and down the street, stopping in shops, eating, drinking, it was fun. We found that most towns are like this. Get a seat at a taverna and just watch the people walking and the children playing. I couldn't believe all those people were missing Jay Leno and David Letterman. Two nights and one whole day is enough to see the monasteries in Meteora. It cost 400 drachmas to visit each monastery, less than 2 dollars.
June 11-12...After two nights of little sleep, we drove back towards Athens and stopped in Porto Germeno (June 13), found an apartment for $30 and went swimming. Very nice beach. There's also a free castle (4th Century BC) that's worth seeing. Very well preserved but I wouldn't want to near it if the ground shook. The owner of the "Rooms to Let" spoke no English and stopped by our room at about 7:00 PM as we were getting ready to go out. He handed my what looked like a night light and a small packet. I easily played dumb and he proceeded to show me how to open the packet, put it in the electrical device and plug it in. I know now that it is designed to make the mosquitoes mad. We had an excellent evening visiting several tavernas for drinks, food and then coffee. We found a "homeless" puppy that looked hungry so we went to the only store in town and bought him some dogfood. He repaid us by annoying a local guard dog and the two of them barked all night. It didn't matter as we were busy killing the mosquitoes we had made mad. We left very early. While in Porto Germeno, we wanted to call home so we had to buying a phonecard. It cost 1500 drachmas, about $6 for the smallest card (100 units) and it only took 1 unit to call AT&T Direct. We did use it later and it turned out to be handy to have. You need this card for every phone I saw except one in the airport near the British Airways Gate 3, east terminal.
June 14...We were very surprised to find that it was very easy to drive into Athens it was the Saturday morning before the long weekend on the Transfiguration Holiday and everyone else was leaving Athens. The roads were bumper to bumper on the National Road leading out of the city. I had checked a few guidebooks and none of them mentioned this holiday. We made it to Syntagma Square, found the hotel where our friends were staying, and proceeded to drive to Corinth with all the other people from Athens. I am now very good with a clutch in first gear. We got off the National Road at a sign that said Information-Corinth. Coincidentally, the canal was next to the information booth. We proceeded south to Epidaurus, a remarkable theater in the middle of nowhere that seats 14,000. It's open and the acoustics are fantastic. A whisper in the center can be heard at the top. Well worth seeing for $6. The theater is still used although some of the stairs are treacherous.
30 km to the west is Nafplio. We had trouble finding a room because of the holiday weekend and we only wanted to stay one night. Had we asked for a room for two nights we would have had better luck. We drove out of the old town area (about 1 km) and found a room for two with A/C for 11,800 Drachmas ($43), no breakfast, at the Hotel Elena. There was a nice park between the hotel and the old town area. There are many hotels in the old town area but it is noisy at night! The park was also fun, there were tavernas and fountains, a few gypsies, and many locals strolled this area at night. Overlooking the town is a very big castle 900 steps up. Right at the start of the steps in the park near our hotel was a taverna with water falls, very cool and shady. I think the water was pumped. I highly recommend Nafplio, the park and the old town area. Here are three photos of Nafplio,
filled with tavernas,
from a taverna on the seafront. Many fine tavernas in the old town area and on the seafront. Very friendly people, nice shopping, beautiful sunsets at the seaside. Our friends, and several people we met, told us the best place to stay was the Hotel Byron so we went there to check it out. Nice old rooms on the hill overlooking the town and harbor, showers and rooms with fans for 15-16,000 drachmas per night ($55-60). We planned on spending two or three nights somewhere else on the Peloponnese so we booked a room for the fourth night.
After one night in Nafplio we drove to Monemvassia, a long drive along the coast. We stopped in the mountain town of Kosmas. Nice square, cool and many tavernas. This would have made a nice overnight stop. The drive was very good. I tried to call the Malvasia Hotel, got some Greek woman who spoke no English but was nice enough to give me the correct phone number. Of course this took time, about 20 units from my card. No one answered the number at the hotel because they were full, we found out later. Called several other hotels in the old town on Monemvassia but they were all full. We were unable to get a room on the island part of Monemvassia where the old town section is because of the holiday but had no trouble getting a room on the beach for one night for $30. I think the old town is nice to see but very overrated and expensive just for a drink. Allow several hours and leave. We stopped at a taverna that had octopus hanging everywhere. After awhile, a old couple came out and started a fire. I asked the waiter, who was their son, what they were doing and he said they just came to grill the octopus. The place was crowded and we got the second one grilled, it was very tasty and only cost 1200 drachmas. We asked for a bowl of olives to drink with the wine and another waiter came over to see how we liked them as they were from his family's farm. Had a great meal at another taverna.
June 16...The next morning we started north back to spend three days in Nafplio instead of one. We used the calling card to call the Hotel Byron and reserve the rooms for three nights instead of the one we had previously booked. We drove south to the Diros Caves. These are underground caves, you tour them in small boats for 3500 drachmas. Well worth the trip but it lengthened a three hour drive back to Nafplio into a seven hour drive. On the way we
stopped and looked at terra cotta pots
Christine negotiated a price
and we carried pots home for our garden.
June 16...Back in Nafplio, we stayed at the Hotel Byron. We had no fan in our room and had to walk up about six flights of stairs to our room on the top floor. Nice views but hot! We also heard every taverna's music until about 4 am. Then at 7 am someone started a jackhammer. So much for ambiance. They did have shower curtains. A word about showers. Most hotels don't have shower curtains, they just have a shower base and a hand shower hose that sometimes attaches to a hook on the walk. Water goes everywhere and there is a second drain on the floor. Try not to get the toilet paper wet. A note about toilet paper, don't put it in the toilet, put it in the closed container next to the toilet.
June 17...We went for an early morning walk, stopped at the Hotel Elena in Nafplio and got a room with A/C and TV (CNN) for two nights for 11,800 per night. I needed a good nights sleep and it was a short walk to the old town area. Our friends stayed at the Hotel Byron. I believe that you should make a change if you don't like where you're at. If you're traveling with someone, you don't have to stay in the same hotel. They were happy, we were happier! One day we drove about 7 km south to a very nice beach (with tavernas). One day we went to Mycenae (1600-1200 B.C.) and then went to the beach. All three nights we met a seaside taverna for a couple of bottles of Lac des Roche for $8 a bottle, some peanuts and a sunset. Then we went to eat and then we split up. Christine and I went to the park and sat a taverna with some coffee and watched the people. About coffee, order Nescafe and make sure you tell them if you want it hot. Most of the locals drink it cold. Another thing, if you want vegetables with your meal, order some. They're not that expensive (200-300 drachmas) but few entrees come with them.
After three days (June 16-17-18) we went back to Athens airport on Thursday, June 19. There are two terminals and I had to drop everyone off at the west terminal, drive the car to the east terminal to drop it off and then take a local bus back to the west terminal, harder than it sounds. We also drove through Athens for an hour trying to find the airport. I learned how to take the local bus, buy a ticket, get on the bus and stamp the ticket in the machine. You must have a ticket. We were an hour late in boarding the plane and that was okay because once on the plane we sat without air conditioning for an hour and it was 104 F.
June 19...Arriving in Iraklion, we got the car and proceeded to Rethymno on the north coast of Crete. Fantastic old town area, hundreds of tavernas, jewelry stores and some Turkish mosque towers. Many small streets, things everywhere. I wanted to stay in a nice place so we tried the
near the castle. It had A/C, a swimming pool, a very nice court yard and they only wanted 16,000 drachmas per night for a suite, we had two nice balconies per room overlooking the pool and breakfast for two for $59.26 a night and they took charge cards. The staff was excellent and we had a great time. The price for these rooms was supposed to be 22,000 but they gave us a deal and we took it for three nights, two rooms. I think the rooms overlooking the streets might have been noisy but with A/C you close the shutters and the windows. Something about A/C, they set it high in Greece, about 24 degrees C. With a little smarts and a Swiss army knife you can change the fan setting and temperature. For example, at the Hotel Elena in Nafplio the control was attached to the wall with two screws. Remove the two screws and you could change the temp and fan speed. At the
Hotel Fortezza in Rethymno
they gave me a remote control for the A/C which had an On/Off button and an display that indicated 24 degrees C. There was a small door taped shut which when opened, had buttons to change the temp and fan speed. Made my stay so much better.
Jewelry stores, I had a ball. Don't go for the first, second or third price. We bought some jewelry and I'm sure they made money on us but here's the way I see it. We saw some earrings we liked, 18K sapphires. The first price at three different stores was about $765+ but the special "Greek" price they would give us was $500+. Then they ask what you want to pay, you say much less, don't quote a price unless it's very low. To make a long story short, we were able to get the price down to $260-270-280 at three stores for the same earrings and the starting price was always around $765. They would rather take dollars in cash, travelers checks in dollars or Greek drachmas (all the same) rather than charge cards and will generally ask you how you want to pay. They are very upfront with the fact they want more for charge card purchases, about 3-4%. They will size a ring in an hour or less. They will give you a written statement of the size of the stones and the quality of the gold. (14-18-22K). They will also be very happy to sell you an item for $765 or the special Greek price of $560 or for $260 if you bargain. I personally saw Americans buying at the top price without even bargaining and then at the special Greek price without bargaining. I'm sure someone with more experience and better skills than me could have gotten lower prices for everything we bought. Of course, the best price is the one you are happy with and the jewelry is fantastic. One more example, Christine found an 18K gold necklace, about 60 cm long for $300 but they would give us the special Greek price of $220. I said we couldn't afford it and they made a phone call to the boss to see if they could sell it for just the material not the labor ?? They are very big on phoning up someone to check on the current lowest price. Of course they speak Greek so they may just be calling Mom. They came back with another special deal..."only good at this moment" of $130, dollars or drachmas and they were using a good rate from the conversion (270 drachmas to the dollar) same rate I got on my ATM withdrawals. I offered $100 and they countered with $108. We were stalemated. I took out $100 cash in dollars and told them about Jerry Macquire "show me the money", I said, "and here it is, my offer of $100 is only good for one minute." I started to pick up the money to go, they took it and gave us the necklace. I'm sure they made a good profit on it but we were happy.
June 20...Just explored Rythmno. It's a great town with
tavernas and a Turkish influence. Well worth a 2-3 night stop when in Crete.
June 21...We took a day trip to
another nice town with an old town section, visited an allied war cemetery at Souda Bay, very well maintained and a German war cemetery, also well maintained. There must have been some heavy fighting here during W.W.II before the US got involved. I've made up my mind to read up on this. Chania has a nice seafront, some nice stores, a great indoor fish market with restaurants that will cook your selections, nice tavernas and plenty of places to stay.
Both Rethymno and Chania have Turkish and Venetian influence in the architectural styles. Small, narrow, winding streets, designed to thwart pirates. Bet after all the tavernas I mentioned, you didn't think I'd notice anything else.
One thing we missed. In Rethymno, after we ate, we walked by the Venetian Harbor, Many more tavernas with display cases of food. I have to go back. We did too. June 22-23...Next we went to Matala on the south coast of Crete. Nice beaches, great tavernas. Found a room for 5,000 drachmas ($20) per night per room for two. One room was nice but the room facing the central square was noisy. It was called Fantastic Rooms and the couple that ran it could not have been nicer. They were constantly giving us watermelon, fresh apricots which they picked but I could also pick from my balcony. There was a stick with a hook on the balcony to help you. They had plums and limes, nice place but choose a room in the front, not the back, away from the central square. Walked south over the hill to the red beach where people swim nude, only a few people make the trek, it's forty minutes and hard and in the hot sun. Bring enough water for both ways. Drove north to Komos beach and Kalamaki beach (tavernas), both very nice. The
umbrellas on the beach
can be rented for about $2-4 per day or some are free as long as you buy a drink at the taverna, even water. Water cost about 80-100 drachmas per liter at small store or 200 drachmas at a taverna. If you buy a bottle at a taverna, feel free to take what's left with you when you leave.
I highly recommend the
Lions Cafe in Matala,
known as "The last bar before Africa". Reasonable,
and a great restaurant downstairs (same view). Very friendly staff. We had Octopus and a fantastic grilled rock fish for 3,300 drachmas. The man who runs the bar is
He seems to know everyone in town. Nice pleasant place. I told Ioannis that I would put his name on the Internet. Here we
all are at the Lions Bar
and here is Ioannis,
Ioannis and his cousin Georgio
(who also has a bar in town), and another picture of
Ioannis with the bar dress code.
Here is a picture of
Christine and myself
at the Lions Bar. Another
picture at the Lions Bar with the beach in the background.
another sunset from the Lions Bar.
After three nights in Rethymno and two in Matala, we drove back to the Iraklion airport on June 24 where our flight was canceled. Luckily, Christine saw the monitor change and sent me up to the desk where I promptly said "kali-spe-ra" to the lady. Learn how to hello, good morning, thank you and you're welcome, boy does it help! She smiled, (many people laugh the first time they see me) and gave me two seats on the next flight in first class! I said "F Harry Stowe" which is "thank you". We finally got to Athens about four hours late (found out later there was a mechanics strike on Olympic Airways). We again went to the Hotel Reservations Desk and got two rooms near the airport for $100 each, we had an 8 AM flight and traffic in Athens is bad in the morning. We took a taxi to the hotel; unfortunately, the hotel had never heard of us and had no rooms. I had stayed in the area (Glyfada) and knew there were plenty of hotels in the area and just walled down the street, found one block away for $44, A/C and shower. Not great but we slept sound. The original hotel was very nice, I turned on the charm, said it was not their fault but could they please give me a statement from the manager saying they had no rooms as I had already paid at the airport by credit card. The manager wrote a statement on the back of the hotel voucher in English. I called the Hotel Reservations desk from the new hotel and asked them to credit the charge. They didn't know how unless they had the credit card so they sent a bus for us. Big mistake as it cost us over an hour. With the hotel statement I could have fought the charge with VISA. By the time we went downtown to the Plaka area it was 10 PM and we were all tired and cross. We had dinner and came back about midnight. The flights home were uneventful but long; 21 hours from the time we left the hotel in Greece until we got home.
We had a great time, with some minor setbacks. Considering we had no advance reservations for lodging (because we did not know exactly where we were going it was a good trip. If there are any comments or questions, let me know.
As an addendum, here are two pictures from a previous trip to Santorini,
and a picture
from the cliffs looking into the sea.
John Vittoe June 27, 1997
PS...While we were in Rethymno, Crete, we noticed that there was a ferry that left every night for Pireaus (Athens) at about 7:30 PM. It arrived in Pireaus at 5:30 AM the next morning. There was also a second ferry that left Pireaus at 7:30 PM and arrived in Rethymno, Crete at 5:30 AM. These two made connections to Crete very easy.