Part 6: Greece
11 days traveling around the incredible country of Greece.
After the rough roads and crazy driving in Italy driving in Greece was a breeze. If we hadn’t experienced Italian driving first though maybe we would think a little differently. Everybody drives a bit like they are a motorbike, so keeping as far right as possible allowing for other cars to overtake in the same lane. It is not uncommon to have 4 cars next to each other on a 2 lane road, 2 driving on the shoulder of the road and the other 2 overtaking. People actually on motorbikes drive even crazier, and only a small percentage wear helmets. The roads are pretty easy though, and Greece is absolutely stunning to drive through.
An extra note, if you set google maps to ‘avoid tolls’ for some reason in Greece most of the time this will not work. The tolled roads are also not labeled so you don’t know you are on a toll road until you come up to a toll station, and by that point it’s too late to do anything. If the road looks new-ish you will probably have to pay for it at some point, but the tolls we had to unexpectedly were not too expensive, so that’s a good thing!
To be honest every place we went in Greece was a highlight for different reasons. It is a country with beautiful scenery, interesting historical monuments and great vibes from friendly people everywhere you go. However here are a few spots that we think were extraordinary…
- The whole of the Peloponnese is a stunning region, but the southern area is absolutely gorgeous, especially down towards Porto Kagio. The views from the mountains and around the coast are breathtaking, and the villages all have a unique character.
- One of the most well known of the Greek Islands for it’s whitewashed villages perched up on the cliff faces surrounding the caldera of an active volcano. It is a truly unique island (just beware if you are on a budget, be prepared with everything you need before you go, but don’t miss it).
The Meteora Monestaries
- Perched up on the top of unique rock columns are several ancient monasteries. The landscape is beautifully unique and the way that the monasteries have been constructed is something to admire.
- We have seen many ruins throughout Greece and this area was definitely one of our favorites. The ruins are amazingly preserved, and the area is not packed full of tourists. Somehow the area is not currently a UNESCO world heritage site, but rumor is it will soon be one (and then maybe tourism will increase).
- The Acropolis has got to be one of the most well known areas of Greece with it’s most famous ruin the Parthenon. Although it is quite packed with people it is worth sharing it. The several viewpoints around it also give a great perspective, especially from the Minument of Philopappos.
Vikos Gorge & Vikos-Aoös National Park
- Absolutely stunning area in northern Greece. Vikos Gorge is the deepest canyon in the world in proportion to its width so as you can imagine consists of very steep cliffs on either side, a stunning view from top or bottom. Throughout Vikos-Aoös National park there are many beautiful hikes through grand mountain ranges with several historical ruins and monasteries spotted throughout. It is no wonder this national park is a UNESCO Geopark.
- Another beautiful area most well known for its oracle at the Temple of Apollo, however the landscape of the surrounding area is what makes it truly incredible.
- A small village located on a tiny peninsula with ruins atop a huge rocky outcrop. The village itself is beautiful, and the view from the ruins is stunning.
- Surrounded by crystal clear water on every side the Methoni Castle is a beautiful sight to be seen. There is also a really nice beach just next door!
Waterfalls of the Peloponnese
- In the more central areas of the Peloponnese there are some beautiful waterfalls. Two that we walked to were the Neda Waterfalls and the Polylimnio Waterfall.
Day 43: Brindisi → Italy → Ancient Olympia
After 16 hours on an overnight ferry we finally arrived in Greece! The ferry company we travelled on was called Grimaldi Lines, the ferry company with an average rating of 1/10 on trustpilot.com (don’t even know how that is possible with over 150 reviews). I honestly don’t know what people were expecting, the ferry was great. No it’s not a cruise ship, but it was exactly what you’d expect for a journey like this. I think potentially some people like to complain about little things, over-exaggerating them to sound horrific. We thought it was great anyway, would recommend. The views coming into Patras were beautiful too.
As soon as we arrived we hit the road south to Ancient Olympia, the sight of the very first Olympic games in the 8th century BC. The games were held on this sight until the 4th century AD when it was abandoned for one and a half millennia. As it turns out you can see basically everything from the road and save 12€ each, not a bad saving for low-budget travellers!
It was then off to a beach campsite to regroup before exploring this beautiful new country. And a little swim was in order too, the water is so much warmer here!
Day 44: Ancient Olympia → Voidokilia Beach → Methoni Castle → Kalamata
While all of our clothes were drying of all of the trees surrounding out tent we headed of for a little hike nearby to the Neda Waterfalls. It was to a beautiful waterfall hidden in the forest falling into a turquoise river in the valley. It was beautiful. The heat was already pretty powerful though and it wasn’t even midday yet.
We got on the road and headed south to Voidokilia beach. This area is really amazing. The beach is perfect sand sheltered from the wind by the surrounding cliff faces. I think probably one of the nicest beaches I have ever been to, and with only a few others here with us.
In Modon we found the Methoni castle placed on the edge of the ocean. We wandered over to the castle gate to find it closed at 3pm, which was pretty gutting… so we wandered around the castle to get a view from the outside, but it turns out on the other side there is another ‘entrance’ that was open so we were still able to explore. That were pretty cool ruins, and the castle at the other side surrounded by turquoise water is quite photogenic.
Another little hike to another little waterfall followed the castle. This waterfall was called Polylimnio Waterfall.
In Kalamata we had our first Greek dinner at Kentrikon Restaurant. The restaurant was clearly a local spot and had a live local band (and on a Wednesday night, pretty great). It was good but I still can’t put my finger on traditional Greek cuisine. Obviously there is the classic Greek Salad and Tzatziki but I’m not sure what there other classics are, but I guess over the next few days we will find out!
Day 45: Kalamata → Messene → Gythio
Our day began with a trip to Ancient Messene. Human presence in this area dates back to several thousand years BC, but the town was an organised settlement from the 8th or 9th century BC. Several wars after this period caused a lot of destruction, but in 369 BC the town became independent and began to flourish. Despite this towns ancient history it is increadibly well preserved. The stadium and theatres look like they are next to new in comparison to the others we have seen, and Greek writing can still be seen engraved in the stones. All of this and there were barely any tourists exploring. From what we have read a lot of people have had this as their top spot in Greece, and we can see why.
We drove south down towards the peninsula towards Porto Kagio. The views from the road here are amazing. The little Greek coastal villages with stone buildings, crystal clear water, rolling green mountains and only a few inhabitants felt very much off the beaten track. It doesn’t seem like anyone ventures down here and it is potentially the most beautiful area we have seen yet.
One village we stopped at was Gerolimenas. A beautiful little village hidden by the cliffs. A tranquil retreat town well worth the stop.
We continued driving around the peninsula and the views continued to get more and more stunning. It’s amazing how there is all this beautiful land here and noone here to see it. Well and truely off the beaten track. Hidden in the hillside are several old fortified towns, partly ruins with a few homes spotted throughout.
After the stunning drive we stopped at a local restaurant for another classic Greek meal. I think I know why I can’t put a finger on Greek cuisine, I think it’s because a lot of it feels like homely food from New Zealand. Thinking about the things we have had so far; zuchinni fritters, sausage with bread and hot chips, mini cheese pies, pitas, BBQ stuffed pepper and Moussaka which is very similar to a cottage pie. It’s all similar stuff to classic stuff I would have in New Zealand. It’s bizarre because the countries are so far from connected both historically and geografically. Even the landscape in the area we are in feels very much like home, very strange but we are living it.
Day 46: Gythio → Monemvasia → Nafplio
We woke from our little room in the country to sunrise coming over the hills and across the ocean.
As we drove along the coast we found an old shipwreck on the beach, the Dimitrios Shipwreck. There are rumours that the ship was smuggling cigarettes and deliberately wrecked to dump its illegal cargo rather than sailing to the port to be found by authorities. However in reality it was probably just abandoned by the owner.
We continued driving along the coast then through the mainland to Menemvasia. Here on a tiny little peninsula there is a large rocky outcrop connected to the mainland by a tiny stretch of land 200m long. On top of this there are ruins from an old medieval fortress.
In the little village of Monemvasia at the base of the cliff there are beautiful small streets, classic Greek architecture as well as a few rooftop bars. In the insane heat of today we thought it only appropriate to stop for a drink with a beautiful view over the village.
Our next drive was stunning between Geraki and Kosmas. Over the mountains we drove surrounded by red cliffs and views over the valley. It was incredible.
We stopped in Nafplio for the night and had another homely Greek meal. Apparently this place has amazing shopping, but we will find out tomorrow!
Day 47: Nafplio → Sunken City of Epidauros → Corinth Canal → Athens
One thing I have missed about New Zealand is the cafes. They don’t seem to exist in the European countries we have been to with their equivalent being a bakery (which just isn’t quite the same). But another similarity between Greece and New Zealand is the cafes culture. Everywhere you go you can find several cafes with many people just chatting together over a coffee. This morning the cafe we went to literally had a cabinet with pies and filled rolls as well as a few sweet treats, oh so kiwi. Feeling very at home here.
After our morning coffee we wandered around the streets of Nafplio. People were definitely right about the shopping here. Dozens of shops with beautiful clothing, beachware, bags, shoes and everything else all beautifully put together, and relatively inexpensive too. It was so good I even made my first non-travel related purchase here (and I don’t like spending money so that’s saying something).
Just a little further along the coast was a little beach with a beach-side bar, perfect spot for a sunny day. The water here is so warm to swim too!
On the way to Athens a quick stop at the Corinth Canal was a must. It is pretty incredible at 6.4km long, 21m wide and with a water depth of just 8m. The idea of building a canal here had been around since the 7th century BC but the first actual attempt wasn’t until 67AD. They managed to dig about 700m of the canal but the completion was not feasible. The current canal wasn’t put together until the ate 1800s, therefore taking over 2.5 thousand years from the first proposal of the canal to its completion. Pretty massive feat.
We stayed at an AirBnB close to the city centre and our host was so lovely. We spent the evening talking over a glass of wine about many things including our countries and the similarities between them (she had already felt there were cultural similarities with previous travellers from NZ as well as from Scotland and Ireland). AirBnB is so great, you really get an insider perspective into the country and culture through meeting the locals (it’s generally the cheapest option too which is a bonus).
Day 48: Athens
After a big farewell to our AirBnB host we walked into town, first climbing up to the Mt. Lycabettus Lookout lookout to get a view over the city. It really is massive, a sea of white buildings everywhere you look. It is really impressive to see from the top of this pointed hill in the centre of it all.
The Acropolis is the must-see thing in the city. Perched up on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the city are several ruins including the Parthenon, the most famous of them all. It is incredible that the Parthenon dates back to the 5th century BC and some of the other smaller structures are even older. The Parthenon was built as a tribute to the Goddess Athena but over the years has been converted into a Christian Church and an Islamic Mosque at different times over the years. We have seen a lot of ruins in Greece so were tossing up weather to pay the expensive entry fee to see some more, but I’m glad we did, definitely think it is something you need to see if you’re here, and although there were a lot of tourists it was not overrun with them while we were there.
After exploring the ruins we explored the old streets at the base of the Acropolis. It is a beautiful area with a lot of cool shops and restaurants. These streets around Anafiotika were pretty packed with tourists but on the other side there is a little park which was much more relaxed. There is also another viewpoint here that gives a perfect view over the Acropolis at the Minument of Philopappos.
In the evening we caught up with a couple of friends doing Contiki over the south of Europe. After a beer with the crew we headed off close to the port for a night in the car. With a few spendy nights in Santorini coming up we are going to need to find more ways to stretch the budget. When there’s a will there’s a way!
Day 49: Athens → Santorini
Not sure why but that was the worst sleep of the trip so far. We have spent other nights in the car and they have been great, but for some reason last night was a no go. But maybe that’ll make Santorini even more of a luxury. At least we managed to have a bit of a nap on the ferry.
Coming into Santorini it was far from what I expected. Somehow in my head I had pictured a luxury tropical island with beautiful beaches and areas of forest, so I guess much like the other islands I have been to. But this was definitely something different. Instead of beaches you have steep cliffs of volcanic rock. As for the trees, there are next to none over the whole island, instead there just miles of rocks and sand with a few grasses sticking between them. However despite the burnt and baron landscape somehow farmers have still managed to get some things to grow. It is definitely unlike anything I have seen before, but I guess I have never been on the top of an underwater volcano before, or any volcano for that matter.
We had booked to stay in Perissa on the outer side of the island/volcano. It was a random choice (based mainly on cost) but it turns out this is the best spot for us on the island. It is the only area with a beach, it is less crowded with people and everything is that little bit more affordable (and in my opinion better). We found this amazing place by the beach, Tranquilo, for lunch/dinner where nearly everything is vegetarian or vegan, everything is made from local and ethical ingredients, everything is delicious and they also have amazing cocktails. I think this will be our base for the next few days.
Before catching an early night we tested out the pool for the first time. This place sure feels like something off a movie or out of a travel magazine. Amazing day after a tough night.
Day 50: Santorini
Today our plan was to explore the whole island from the south to the north and back again figuring if we have one massive day exploring we can have a full day of relaxing tomorrow. It made for a pretty massive day!
We started by bussing to Akrotiri and having a little hike around the area. The little white house’s on the hillside and the blue comes cathedrals are just like what we have seen before in the classic stock pictures of the Greek Islands. It’s hard to believe we are seeing it all first hand.
We continued our hike down the east side of the island to Red Beach, a small beach covered in red volcanic rock and surrounded by steep red cliffs. The stone is red because of its high iron content and is quite a unique sight.
It turns out hitchhiking is very easy here. Literally as soon as we put our thumbs out a nice person would stop and take us to our next stop (It wasn’t quite the same for the northern half of the island, but the southern part was great!).
Off we went to Venetsanos Winery for some wine tasting. The views from all of the wineries on the hill are spectacular, this one is no different with stunning views over the caldera. It really is a luxury destination here everywhere you go. The unusual volcanic soil here does give the grapes quite a unique flavour, in my opinion working better to produce great whites over reds. Their most famous wine though is the sweet Vinsanto where white grapes are dried in the sun after harvesting to add sweetness and give the wine a deep reddish brown colour.
It was then of to the islands centre and capital, Fira. It feels like every step we take the views become more and more stunning and the hillside houses more and more beautiful. Incredible.
We began the hike to Oia but in the heat of the hottest part of the day it was not the most enjoyable walk, so we escaped to the safety of an air conditioned bus. The heat here is insane, no idea how people survive in summer.
Oia is an incredibly beautiful place. The whitewashed houses contrasted with the dark cliff faces and deep blue of ocean and sky is unbelievable. It feels like only a place you see on photos, not in real life. It also was surprisingly not too busy, but when you look at the costs of things you can see it’s not a place to stay too long unless money is not only not a restriction, but also not a thought. A small glass of orange juice will set you back 8.50€ (NZ$15) or just a single espresso will cost you 3.5€ (NZ$6, it makes the expensive ski resort we worked in seen cheap at only 1.50€), don’t even ask about the cost of anything substantial. But I guess that’s something else that makes the place more spectacular and unique, it’s a once in a lifetime thing.
As the sun began to get low on the horizon we began the hike back to Fira. It is definitely a must do if in Santorini, the hike is 2.5/3 hours and the views are incredible. In the evening the heat is also much more bearable and you can see the sun gradually set on the horizon.
As we arrived in Imerovigli the sun was just beginning to set, so we got a couple of local beers from the supermarket and found the perfect spot to watch sunset. I think it must have been the best spot with the only other people there being professional photographers taking some spectacular wedding photos. It was something from a fairytale.
We sat astonished as the sun set in the distance. It is hard to believe what we are experiencing…
We waited till the last moment before beginning a sprint to catch the bus back to our side of the island (I still stand by my statement that is the best place to stay despite the amazing things we have seen today). Making a couple of stops to capture the little houses lit up on the cliff side.
Day 51: Santorini
Today we lay by the water. By the pool, by the beach, sometimes in a bar, sometimes in a beach chair. Insanely relaxed. Therefore there is nothing to blog about apart from saying that I’m feeling pretty astonished about the fact that we are here. What we are experiencing is something I didn’t think was possible, and despite it being a reality for 51 days so far I still feel like I am living in a dream. Seeing every corner of the world on a budget is possible, and somehow is also far more satisfying. I feel like I am living, not just taking a holiday to escape life. And somehow now every dream is starting to feel more in reach than ever before, not just with travel but with everything. Anything is possible, you just have to give it a shot. Now here’s a photo of the swimming pool…
Day 52: Santorini → Rafina
Early start this morning to catch a Santorini sunrise before we head out on the ferry to go back to the mainland. The black sand contrasted with the blue of the ocean and the red of the sunrise is stunning to see. It has been an amazing few days here on the island (despite every day costing at least double our budget, definitely not the place for long-term budget travelers, but I’m sure we can cut back over the next few days), and what a beautiful ending.
The ferry took us through several other islands on our way back and I have to say I think Santorini was a good choice. There were several islands we were tossing up going to, and the high tourism aspect nearly put us off Santorini, but it did not seem over touristy at all in comparison to what we thought. The other islands look stunning, but the fact that in Santorini you live atop a volcano creates a true uniqueness. I’m sure all of the other islands have some other unique traits as well though that can’t be seen from just a pass-by in a ferry.
After nearly 9 hours on the ferry stopping at nearly every island on the way for pick-ups and drop-offs we checked into an AirBnB for the night close to the port. I find it crazy how affordable, convinient and great quality our AirBnB’s have been. Pretty much everything we have booked has been cheaper (or at least the same price) as a campsite, and yet you get a nice bed, often breakfast, all the necessities you need for a night and great insider info into the area you are staying. Everybody should use it I reckon (not even getting paid to say this).
Day 53: Rafina → Delphi → Kalabaka
We spent the day boosting through central Greece with our first stop in Delphi. The road around this area is incredible with large cliff faces and mountain ranges all around you. There is also a ski resort here in winter which I can imagine being a great spot to come to.
Delphi is an area famous for it’s Temple of Apollo where an oracle, in an intoxicated state, would act as a medium to the God Apollo and speak prophecies on his behalf. There is a charge to enter the temple and surrounding ruins, and given we have seen so many ruins s far it was not a priority for us, however there is the Athena Pronaia Temple just across the road that you can access for free. What makes the ruins here more stunning are the views of the surrounding area. It is a beautiful spot.
After a picnic lunch we headed north again to the monasteries of Meteora. An incredible spot. Several monasteries have been built right on the top of steep cliff faces that long ago would have only been accessible by long staircases etched in the cliffs. The whole landscape is incredible to see and the monasteries add to it’s beauty.
With the sun beginning to hide itself behind the mountains we found another AirBnB for the night with great views over the Meteora mountains. We have some more exploring of this area to do tomorrow, and perhaps some hikes up the cliff sides too!
Day 54: Kalabaka → Ioannina → Monodendri → Konitsa
This morning started with a bit of ‘monasterial exploration’. A group of travellers that were staying at the same spot as us had been to all of the monasteries the previous day and had said that the best to see inside was the The Monastery of Great Meteoron. This is also the biggest but it seems a lot of people who come here do a tour of all of the monasteries so it didn’t seem to be the most crowded. Entry was inexpensive at 3€ each (each monastery costs the same and some of the smaller ones only give access to certain areas so this was definitely a good choice I reckon) and the area was quite beautiful with stunning views. I was refused entry into the church in the first instance and told to go back to the entrance and put a skirt on. Long pants are not enough for women here, but for men pants are fine (bit of an issue with the gender inequality here, but what can you do, at least they provided the skirts). It was a beautiful place for sure.
Next we headed off to Ioannina, the capital of the region of Epirus. We indulged in our last Greek meal before having a wander by the lake. A quick stop was all we needed here before travelling to our last stop in Greece before Albania.
We drove to the beautiful little town of Mondendri, the start of the Vikos Gorge hike. Unfortunately we were not able to do the full hike given that it is 6 hours each way and we arrived late afternoon. But instead we did a walk past the Convent of Agia Paraskevi through a little track etched in the cliffs. The danger factor on this walk is pretty high with narrow paths and massive drops, after all Vikos Gorge is the deepest canyon in the world in relation to its width so the cliffs are pretty steep.
Driving around this area is truly stunning.
Our last stop was in Konitsa, a little town in the hills with a stunningly unique old stone bridge. Our accommodation for the night is pretty authentic… But Elric had the best Mocha he has had in Europe so far at Apallo Cafe, so a great end to an amazing trip in a stunning country. Can’t wait to come back!