It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Wonder why I would open a travel blog with a Dickensian quote? At the face of it, and in a rather daft manner it could be because I am going to retell a ‘tale of two cities’ – Athens and Santorini, however a more congruous line of thought would be the experience that I have had there. And with that, I take you along with me to the land of one of the oldest civilizations known to man and some of the greatest thinkers since our existence.
8th Aug – 15th Aug
Bangalore – Doha – Athens with Qatar Airways with a 9 hour stopover in Doha
Athens – Doha – Bangalore with Qatar Airways with a 13 hour stopover in Doha
Santorini – Athens – Santorini with Aegean Airlines
Radisson Blu Park hotel in Athens
Villa Anita in Imerovigli, Santorini (booked through AirBnB)
Day 1: Athens
Day 2: Napflio, Mycenae, Epidaurus
Day 3: Athens and onward to Santorini
Day 4 – 5: Santorini
Day 6: Santorini and return journey
Being a travel freak, I had started planning for this trip almost 4 months back and most tickets and hotels were booked 3 months before the trip. July – August is the peak tourist season for Greece and hence it is absolutely necessary to get your bookings done much in advance to lock in cheaper prices. If you intend to book the ferry ride to or from Santorini you should book it much in advance (read 3 – 4 months) during the high season.I had dilly dallied this decision and ended up not getting any seats on the high speed ferry (the reason behind the dilly dallying was that the fastest of the ferries takes 4+ hours and at about the same price a flight takes 45 mins).
The best area to stay in Athens would be near the Syntagma square. Avoid the Omonia square area as has been highlighted in multiple posts due to a high concentration of (illegal?) immigrants. In Santorini, most people book their stays in Oia, however I found Imerovigli to be much convenient than Oia and offers similar views of the caldera and the sea. You will get hotels on the west coast of Santorini offering caldera and sunset views, book into one of those to get the best out of your stay there.
Travelling from India, Qatar Airways is the best airline to travel with both in terms for comfort and economy. Although our layover was long there is another option with a much shorter layover (2 hrs). You can book that in advance. We utilised our long layover on the onward journey to do a free city tour of Doha. On our way back, we had booked into the Airport hotel in the Doha airport to catch up on some lost sleep. More on Doha airport and the city tour here.
The Trip – Athens
We landed at the Athens airport at 7.30 pm local time and took a cab to our hotel. There is a flat rate of EUR 38 (night time EUR 50) to the city centre (ride time of 30 – 40 mins) so if you have booked yourself in a city centre hotel (90% of the hotels are in the city centre) then you should be covered. To check the City Centre periphery click here. Please note that you will never get the EUR 2 change back from the cab driver and it is with all cab drivers in Athens, no one gives back change. So ideally, just don’t bother.
So the next day morning, after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we started towards the main attraction of Athens, the Acropolis (Akropoli) and the associated architectures. We decided to take the metro from Victoria to Akropoli, changing lines at Omonia. The alternate route is a direct line from Victoria to Monastiraki and then a 10 min walk to the gates of Acropolis. As with most places in Europe, tickets are available only from the vending machines and the vending machines take only coins. So got some change for our 50 EUR notes and bought two day passes at EUR 4.5 each. These are valid for 24 hours across all modes of public transport (bus, tram and metro) except airport transfers. Finally got down at the Akropoli station and realised that my wallet was missing from my bag! Yes you read it right, my entire goddamn wallet (which had all my credit/debit cards, forex card, DL and cash) was no longer with me. I started feeling weak in the legs when i realised that that which I had feared the most had just happened, I had been pick pocketed in a foreign land with all my cash and means of getting cash gone. Before I could even come to my senses, I called the credit card helpline to block all my cards (thankfully by a sudden dash of chance hubby had gotten me to activate my International roaming while we were on our way to the Bengaluru airport). So now we were standing in front of the gates of the Acropolis, robbed of cash and card and identity (although that’s an exaggeration as I still had my passport safe in my hotel room). So, what next? Whilst I am still coping with a surge of emotions, my husband and the eternal travel companion blessed with a head as cool as a cucumber, said “Shall we anyways just go see the Acropolis, since we are here already” (he had 200 EURs on him and his Debit and Credit card). But finally we abandoned the quest for Akropoli witnessing a huge line for the ticket counter. So we went back to our hotel and I made calls to Visa to get an Emergency Cash disbursal against the balance on my Forex card. Now here is a small tip for my fellow passengers should a similar fate befell them (God forbid) – always carry the Card kit which has the card number and other emergency numbers, if the card is issued by an Indian bank (HDFC, Axis etc) call the Visa helpline to register the request for cash disbursal (mine was from HDFC), be prepared to survive atleast a day without that money as despite several followups from me and Visa, HDFC took 24+ hrs to approval the disbursal, and finally look for a Western Union nearby as Visa transfers their money through WU outlets. Anyways, amidst all this activity we visited the National Archaeological Museum which was a short walk from the hotel and spent a good 2.5 hours there, traversing Greek history starting from the Palaeolithic Era.I would highly recommend any traveller to spend a good amount of time here, possibly towards the start of the journey as it gives a comprehensive glimpse into the Greek culture and way of living, which will help you appreciate everything else that you will see during this incredulous Greek trip.
So with a tumultuous start to our trip, we decided to abandon the trip to Mycenae and started the next day on exploring Athens. A small tip here: We got down at Monastiraki metro station and started with Hadrian’s Library with no queue for tickets (EUR 30 for 7 sites valid for 5 days). You could start here as well and then walk your way up towards Acropolis passing the Roman and Ancient Agora on your way. On our way back we came down the south slope of Acropolis to near the Akropoli station and then walked our way down to Monastiraki square for drinks and shopping. The next day we sauntered around Syntagma square to see the Greek Parliament, the National Gardens and a few other sites in the vicinity.
And with that, we started on our onward journey to Santorini, ofcourse not before I had horded on some amazing Greek beauty products from the house of Korres. It is an absolute must if you like natural skin care and makeup products and although these products are available in the US and Europe, they are much cheaper in Greece.
The Trip – Santorini
Santorini is a small island on the Aegean sea with a delicate sewerage system and no access to drinking water. Well quite a let down of an introduction for those visualising the white and blue domed locations. Fear not, because the sewerage system and the lack of drinking water in no way mars the beauty of this wonderful wonderful place. Make sure that you book yourself into a caldera-sunset view hotel else you will have to scamper around making restaurant reservations during sunset – we were simply nibbling on fries and sipping our own wine from the verandah.
So while at Santorini, it is best to hire a quad bike and go around the island (cars are also available but with right hand drive and narrow winding roads you may not be too comfortable). But we took their local bus service and travelled the entire island (the weather was too hot for a quad bike and we weren’t comfortable with a car). Their buses are quite cheap, convenient and comfortable with the main bus station being in Fira and connects all places of interest. Ticket prices range from EUR 1.4 to 2.4 for a one way journey. Apart from all the beach hopping (Black beach of Perissa, Red Beach of Akrotiri) and walking down the whitewashed alleyways, it is a must to visit the Akrotiri Archaeological site, which has been dubbed as the Bronze Age Pompeii. This place doesn’t attract too many tourists, as its not part of the glitzy facade, but your lessons in Greek history wont be complete unless you visit this site. Tip here: If you have a valid non-EU student ID card do carry it to get a 50% discount on the ticket price (Actual price EUR 12).
Shopping in Greece
The high seasons (July to Aug) is a shoppers paradise in Greece as almost every shop is running a discount to attract tourists. Some must shop items, apart from the touristy souvenirs are
- Greek sandals (all leather sandals at great bargains)
- Korres products (there will be loads of offers on these products)
- Branded cosmetics from Hondos Centre (I bought MAC lipsticks at exactly half the price that I get in India)
- And almost anything else that you fancy from Hondos Centres as they run upto 50% discounts on most items
But do remember that the Greeks love their time off, so stores close early and especially in Santorini they are closed on Sundays.
- Don’t carry too much cash when you are in Athens mainly because of the pickpockets that do the rounds near the tourist places. I have heard horror stories of bag snatchers as well and most targets are Asians
- Be extra careful of your belongings in metros
- Greek food comes in huge servings and is meant to be shared. So you may not need to order one dish per person (unless of course you have a very healthy appetite)
- Definitely definitely try the Ouzo
- The Greeks are extremely helpful and welcoming people. So if you need something for a more comfortable stay, just ask your hotel. They would be sure to oblige
- Most restaurants and shops accept International Credit cards and you can use your Indian Debit card to withdraw cash from almost any ATM (provided your issuer is Visa or Mastercard)
So enjoy your Greek trip and make sure you come back with a tan to show off !! Till then, Antio (as the Greeks say).