Archives for June 2017

Athens, Greece: It’s Not Just A Stop Over City

Judging by the number of people reaching out to me for tips and recommendations, it appears that you all are going to Greece this summer and, honestly, lucky you! Greece is one of my favorite countries, and not just because my family lives there and I go there a lot. Greece truly has something for everyone- history, sites, culture, food, wine, beaches, city, countryside, islands, landscapes, mountains, hiking. The food is delicious. The people are so hospitable. The country is just breathtaking. I can go on and on. And, now is a GREAT time to go. The flights have never been cheaper. The Euro is reasonably low. It is one of the safest countries you can visit. And, let’s be honest, Greece needs your tourist dollars.

Naturally, when people ask me for tips on Greece, I always ask for their itinerary. Without fail, I get the same response- “We are only spending a day or so in Athens to see the Acropolis before going to the islands.” Big mistake! Athens is not a stopover city. You know, like one of those cities you just fly into before you move on to the main attraction. Athens is an attraction, and not just for the Acropolis.  Athens is a world class city. There are so many things to see in Athens: amazing food, GREAT shopping, awesome nightlife, but, most importantly, it serves as the best base to really see mainland Greece (which is SO worth your time). Seriously. Greece is more than just Santorini and Mykonos (or as Greeks like to call it, Greece for beginners).

I am going to show you some of my favorite parts of Athens right here in this post. And then, in a separate post, I am going to show you all these neat little places you can easily visit as a day trip from Athens. Ready?  Let’s go!

The Acropolis and The Parthenon

I think the obvious must-see is the Parthenon, which is located on the Acropolis of Athens. See what I did there? I subtly explained to you that the structure is the Parthenon and the hill upon which it sits is the Acropolis. If you can, I highly recommend waking up early and getting to the Acropolis first thing in the morning, before the rush of cruise ship people and the buses of tourists. Another great option would be to go about an hour before it closes. The visiting hours, entrance fees, and general information on how to get to the Acropolis can be found here. If you go early in the morning, you can pretty much have the place to yourself with relatively few people. By 10:00-10:30 a.m., it’s like a zoo.

On your way up the Acropolis, you will see this ancient amphitheater, the Herod Atticus Odeon, which is itself an antiquity.  The cool thing about it is that they still hold summer concerts and performances at the amphitheater! Once you are at the top of the Acropolis, you enter from here to see the Parthenon: And now, for the main attraction: The Parthenon! Don’t forget to spend some time visiting some of the other temples on the Acropolis. By the way, on your way out, don’t just pass by this olive tree without stopping to admire it. It is the oldest olive tree on the Acropolis! Also, here is a list of the best places from which to photograph the Acropolis. Here are some interesting facts about the Acropolis, and some motivation to wake up early on a Sunday to visit it.

The Acropolis Museum (And Other Museums of Interest)

Your next stop should be to the new(ish) Acropolis Museum.  Seriously, don’t miss the museum. It is the best museum in Athens, and my personal favorite. If you are into museums, the other one worth visiting (and which also stays open later in the evening) is the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. If art is your thing, then you will want to visit the Benaki Museum. For the largest collection of Byzantine Art, visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum. For the best collection of Cycladic art in the world, visit the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Anyway, back to the Acropolis Museum. The exploration starts with the walk in.  The floor is excavated to reveal antiquities before you even enter the museum.

Once you enter, you will find a light, airy, and very well laid out museum dedicated to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

The most interesting (yet infuriating) part of this museum is the space that is dedicated to the Parthenon Marbles, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles, named after the man who stole them from Greece and sold them to the British Museum. If you want to see the marbles that used to line the Parthenon, you will have to go to London. But if you want to see where they belong, well, that would be here:This sculpture is my favorite in the museum. It is a replica of what used to sit atop the entrance to the Parthenon (the darker pieces are original).

One of the greatest features of this museum, is that you can see the Parthenon from the top floor and can even stop for a break at a rooftop snack bar that faces the Acropolis.

Anafiotika and Plaka

I am about to let you in on a little secret of Athens. At the foot of the Acropolis, on the back side, sits a little community called Anafiotika. It is part of the Plaka neighborhood, and the houses were built  to mimic those on the island of Anafi, whose people came to Athens as construction workers to refurbish King Otto’s Palace during the era of Otto of Greece. Here is what is amazing about it: it still exists; it is pretty well-preserved; people still live there; and it is EMPTY.  As in tourist free! You can actually climb up the Acropolis from here or you can visit after you go to the Parthenon and make your way to Plaka – an ancient, yet still thriving, neighborhood of Athens (a.k.a the “Neighborhood of the Gods”), for a lovely lunch at a fantastic Greek taverna.

As you exit Anafiotika and continue on to Plaka, you will encounter some beautiful street art. A few minutes later, you will be at the beautiful Plaka, where you will have your pick of excellent taverns for lunch.

Ancient Agora and Monastiraki

From Plaka, you can walk through the ruins of the Ancient Agora as you make your way to Monastiraki, which is a large open air flea market and a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts. 

Syntagma Square (And a Side Note About Shopping!)

As you exit Monastiraki, you will find yourself across from Syntagma Square, or Constitutional Square, where every hour on the hour you can watch the ceremony of the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. While this happens everyday, the official ceremony using the official costumes happens on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The guards are part of the Evzones, a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades, who guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Hellenic Parliament and the Presidential Mansion.

The job of the Tsoliades is very tough. They are there every day, rain or shine, wearing extremely heavy costumes and shoes, even in the summer. Every soldier stands guard for about an hour, for a total of three times in a 48 hour period. For the hour they are on guard, they have to stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard. They are now protected by Greek police thanks to ignorant tourists who used to come up to take pictures with them and sometimes torture them by hitting them, attempting to knock them over, or lifting up the skirt of their uniform, which is worn because of its historic meaning. Unfortunately, because of this, you can no longer stand next to them as they stand guard for photos, but you can stand below them. By the way and in case you are interested, you can now tour the inside of the Greek parliament building.

From here, you can visit the beautiful Hotel Grand Bretagne and grab a drink on their roof-top bar with views of the Acropolis.  If you are in the mood to do some shopping, head to the nearby Ermou Street, Athens’s main shopping street (with a great selection of shoe stores!) and Psiri. Also, if you are looking for the famous Pantelis Melissinos, the poet Sandal Maker, you will find him near Syntagma Square, in the beginning streets of Psiri. If you want to buy his custom-made sandals, get ready to wait in line to get into the tiny shop. Don’t worry; its worth it.  You choose a style and then they custom fit them to your feet.  It is cash only, and the sandals cost about 50 Euro per pair, but they are excellent quality and very comfy. We used to buy these sandals all the time crowd free, but after appearing in some travel books and on some travel shows, the tiny shop has become very busy. If Pantelis is there, he will even autograph your pair!

If high end shopping is on your list then DO NOT miss the trendy upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki and the coastal Glyfada. Here you will find luxury boutiques (including Greek designers), shoe emporiums, and haute couture shops.

Mount Lycabettus

If you are looking for the best panoramic view of the city (and best city sunset), look no further than Lycabettus. It is the highest point of the city.  You can walk up, take a funicular from Kolonaki, or drive up. However you get there, just go.  The views are impressive, especially at night. 

The Panathenaic Stadium and The Temple of Olympian Zeus

A short walk from Syntagma Square and within walking distance of each other, both the Panathenaic Stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus are worth a visit. The Panathenaic Stadium is where the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, and it is the only stadium in the whole world built entirely of marble. In addition to thew new Olympic stadium, the Panathenaic Stadium was also used in the 2004 Olympic games, which were held in Athens.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest temples in the ancient world. Today only 16 columns survive.

Beaches

You read that right. Beaches.  Athens has beaches, and pretty good ones, too. To be clear, they do not compare to the beaches of the Greek islands (I mean just look at what is in store for you in Crete!), but they are pretty good for city beaches, and Athens has the longest coastline of any European capital. So, here is a list of the top five!

This is just a sampling of what Athens has to offer and of what you miss when you ignore this gem of a city. We haven’t even touched on the world class dining and the incredible nightlife of this city, which truly never sleeps. Not to mention all the great day trip options from Athens. I have been coming to Athens for over 30 years now, and I STILL make new discoveries about this city every single time. So please, do me a small favor, and make some time in your itinerary to scratch the surface of this magnificent city. Trust me, you will not regret it!

Καλώς ήρθατε στην Αθήνα (kah-los  ear-tha-te  steen  Athena) or Welcome to Athens!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matala, Crete: Today Is Life. Tomorrow Never Comes.

This summer in Crete, Chad and I found a place where tomorrow never comes.  A place where everyone seemingly lives in the moment of today. And, we are officially obsessed. If you find yourself in Crete this year (and we highly recommend that you do in fact go to Crete, like now), put Matala on your itinerary. Trust us, you will not regret it!

My dad lives in Crete, so Chad and I find ourselves there pretty regularly, i.e., once a year.  Every time we go to Crete, we make it a point to visit parts of the island that we have never seen before. The options are virtually limitless. This year, we planned a day-trip from Chania to Matala, which is located in the prefecture of Heraklion.

If you don’t already know, Crete is the largest of Greece’s islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Crete is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi. Crete was also the home to the ancient Minoan civilization.

There are two ways to reach Crete: you can fly in from Athens or other European cities or you can take a ferry from Athens and certain other Greek islands, like Santorini.  If you choose the ferry option (I suggest the upgraded cabin seats if you go with this option), you will port in Heraklion.  Matala is located about an hour away from both the airport and ferry port in Heraklion.  However, we prefer the flight option. The flight is the easiest option as it is only 30 minutes from Athens with multiple regularly scheduled flights that are not very expensive on Aegean Airlines. You can fly into either Chania or Heraklion.  We usually fly into Chania because this is the closest city to where my family lives, which is in Anopoli, Sfakia.

We rented a car for the day from the city center of Chania. The daily rate was about 65 Euros with unlimited miles and a turn in time of 10:00 p.m. If you prefer to use the pretty reliable public bus system that runs throughout Crete, called the KTEL, you can find the schedules and prices here. The drive from Chania to Matala is about two hours, mostly on highway, and it is very scenic. Our first stop was to the Archaeological site of PhaistosTo reach Phaistos, follow the signs along the highway, which direct you up a pretty easy mountain road.  If you use your iPhone navigation, you will be directed to leave your car and walk.  Ignore those directions.  The road is paved all the way up to the site, and it is in great condition.  When you reach the site, there is a parking lot on the left, and the entrance is a short 3 minute walk on a paved road to the right. It costs 8 Euro per person to visit the site.  Once inside, there are clean restrooms located inside a snack bar that also doubles as a small souvenir shop. Also, there is free Wi-Fi! More information on visiting the site can be found here, including hours of operation. The site is certainly not as big, well preserved, or as popular as the Palace of Knossos, but it is also WAY less crowded (you almost have the whole place to yourself), and it is pretty interesting and well worth a visit. We were able to visit the entire site in a little over an hour. 

Phaistos, like the Palace of Knossos, was a Minoan palace and the place where the Phaistos disc (which is now on display in the archaeological museum of Heraklion) was discovered. Phaistos was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. If you are coming from Heraklion, I suggest you stop at the museum first and then make your way to Phaistos.

We were pretty hungry after our visit, so we decided to drive over to Matala for a sea-side lunch and swim. The drive from Phaistos to Matala beach is about 15 to 20 minutes.Matala is small beach community that now caters mainly to tourists. The beach is just breathtaking, with a large cliff to the right of the ocean. Matala was originally the port of Phaistos in the Minoan period. In the Neolithic Age, artificial caves were carved into the cliff by the Romans and were used as tombs. In the 60s, Matala was a fishing village that became the home of several hippies who lived inside the old tombs in the cliff.  The most notable of Matala’s hippie residents was Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song Carey while living in Matala. Joni came to Matala breaking up with Graham Nash.  Other notable hippies who inhabited Matala’s caves include Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Cat Stevens. Matala gained international attention in the 60s after Life Magazine published a story about it. Today, Matala still has a very distinct boho hippie vibe, although it is more commercial than it once was. And, the “new hippies” of Matala still inhabit a more remote set of caves not far away from the ones on the beach.

You’ll know when you have arrived in Matala because you will be greeted by this beautiful tree which sits in the center of the non-pedestrian part of the village.There is a large parking lot that has direct access to the beach, and it only costs 2 Euro to park there all day. The lot has beautiful street art on the buildings.From the lot, it is just a short walk onto the beach, which, in late May, was not that crowded. You can walk a path to get to the cliff and actually climb up the cliff and visit the now empty tombs. The cost for the all-day ticket is 2 Euro per person. It’s kind of wild to think that you are visiting both a grave site and the former “homes” of some of the world’s most notable musicians. Apparently, there are additional tombs that have not yet been excavated.

Once in the water, you can actually swim into the caves of the cliff. The water is clear and cool, and there is a small reef not far from the shore, so bring your snorkel. On the opposite side of the beach, away from all the crowds, sits a sea wall with welcome greeting: “Welcome to Matala George.  Today is life. Tomorrow never comes.” Some say that this is a greeting to George Harrison of The Beatles.  It is unknown if George ever made it to Matala to see the greeting. Others say that George was a well-known hippie who lived in Matala.  If you are interested, I came across this post which is about Matala’s last known hippie (from the 1960s). But, one thing is for sure, this is more than just a greeting; this is a motto for life in Matala. Everyone there is seemingly living in the moment of today. It is refreshing. Matala has several sea-side taverns with a view of the beach or you may opt to walk into town where you will find several taverns, bars, and shops. We ate at Taverna Sirtaki, which was great and had an awesome view.  After lunch, we walked around town where I got a great pair of handmade sandals and some fantastic handmade jewelry from the shops in Matala. As you walk around the town, you will notice drawings on the street.  These are allegedly made by a hippie named Frankie who, like many of the part-time nomadic hippie residents, spends the summers in Matala.

We left late in the afternoon to make our way back to Chania, but we decided that on our next trip, we will come back to Matala and spend the night. Apparently, at night, when the sun goes down, the hippies appear in their VW vans and set up makeshift shops to sell their handmade jewelry for 2 Euros and smoke weed. Everyone hangs out at an open-air bar called Hakuna Matala where the drinks are cheap and served with watermelon slices.

If you are planning to visit Matala in June you should know that every year there is a huge music festival that takes place during the second or third week of June called Matala Beach Festival. During this festival, approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people descend upon the beach of Matala (where the actual festival takes place) to camp and enjoy the live music. Vendors also overtake the streets of the town. I am certain that this element brings a completely different vibe to the otherwise laid back town of Matala.

On our way back to Chania, we made an hour detour to visit the beach of Triopetra. The beach was breathtaking and empty, but the road to get there was terrifying, which is probably why it is not a touristy spot.  If you are not comfortable driving on very narrow, extremely elevated, winding, two-way mountain roads with no guardrails, I suggest that you skip this place. On the other hand, the beach, named for the three (trio) rock (petra) formation, is popular among yogis who come here for yoga retreats and believe the place to be very spiritual.

These next two images are borrowed from the internet to give you an idea of what the beach looks like.

Matala is a place that sort of stays with you. I think part of the reason is that it seems so out of place in Crete. The ethos of Matala almost reminded me of Tulum. Since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about the Matala motto. It seems like a good reminder to live in the moment. After all, isn’t life really just a series of todays?

If you make it to Matala this year or have been before, please send me an email or leave a comment and let me know if you are/were as enchanted by it as we were. It has truly become our favorite place in Crete, and we cannot wait to get back!