Greece has been in the news lately– severe economic crisis, riots, increasingly devastating austerity measures, riots, a potential Grexit from the euro and the European Union, riots, and finally, the UK and other countries beginning to issue travel advisories on Greece.
For many, it has become the black sheep of Europe, a place to avoid, deserving of our sympathy, but not our help. Several weeks ago, Helenophiles across the world banded together to try to [relieve?] Greece’s debt crisis themselves by pledging 1.34 million euros but falling short of the 1.6 billion needed.
Ok so, perhaps trying to collect 1.6 billion euros is a little optimistic… So, how else can you support Greece? Visit!
Greece’s biggest assets are its gorgeous landscape, its delectable food, it’s vibrant culture, and it’s extraordinary history. How can you resist? With the crisis, hotel prices have dropped, venues are less crowded, and for the most part, for tourists, life proceeds as normal. Having lived in Athens during the beginning of the depression when protests, riots and strikes were a weekly affair, I can tell you that intermittent transportation strikes and riots localized in Parliament square are not a great inconvenience. However, for those who would rather avoid the hassle, head out of town. Go to the less hectic but very beautiful hidden gems of Greece and you won’t ever want to leave.
Hydra is one of the Saronic Islands. It is incredibly close to Athens, and thus is a perfect trip for travellers with a tight schedule looking for an island vacation. The ferry ride is less than an hour from the port of Piraeus and while it isn’t one of the major tourist spots for non-greeks it is a hotspot for Greeks, and does get busy in the summer time.
Hydra is uniquely beautiful. The greatest part? It’s a walking island! No cars are allowed on the island and movement around this small island is restricted to walking, donkey, or water-taxi. We did spot trash-collecting trucks while we were there, which is, I suppose, a necessary exception to the rule.
What to do:
There are two important places to be while in Hydra: Cafés and beaches!
The main town of Hydra is virtually covered in little cafeneia, tavernas and restaurants. Sit, have a coffee, relax, people-watch and, enjoy! The waterfront is lined with great options but if you’re looking for something quieter wander through the whitewashed alleyways of the lower town and you’ll find some great spots in shady squares under the olive trees.
In the summer, when the weather is nice, beaches are essential. In the main town, you can go swimming right off the rocks. The water is nice, but can be crowded. Catch a water taxi to any of half-a-dozen beaches and enjoy! The taxis are cheap and run frequently. You can walk to some of them from the town, or from beach to beach if you’re up to it. The closest are about a 20-minute walk away and the scenery is lovely!
Where to eat:
Every meal on Hydra was wonderful. For anything other than coffee, drinks or snacks, avoid the café’s and restaurants on the waterfront where the boats dock; they will be more touristy and overpriced. Wander the streets leading away from the water and you will find many restaurants to choose from.
To Paradosiakon is located off of Tompazi Street and was one of our favorites. It offers lots of different mezze dishes. When you’re vacationing on the island you have to try the seafood caught fresh daily. They have so many options. Squid, octopus, and cuttlefish (calamari) are not just for the adventurous eater—they are delicious. I had never heard of octopus-balls (pureed, seasoned, breaded, and fried) before but was happily surprised with the outcome! A delicious option for those squeamish about their food having tentacles and suckers.
Where to stay:
The main port town of Hydra is filled with hotels, bed and breakfasts and room rentals. There are many price options available. Generally, I would recommend any little inn that’s tucked back into the honey-comb streets of the village rather than the waterfront properties. They are quick walks to the water, but will offer you the opportunity to enjoy the quiet sleepy Greek village feel. Worried about lugging your suitcases up narrow streets and stairs? Don’t worry, most hotels offer donkey valet service right from the ferry point!
We stayed at Hotel Mistral and LOVED it. I cannot say enough wonderful things about the hotel. It was clean and well decorated and very accessible to the shops and restaurants of the waterfront. The best part, hands down, was the breakfasts. Breakfast is included in the costs and are heavenly 4-course wonders prepared daily by the chef. You don’t get any options to choose from but you’re served so much food that everyone will find more than enough to love. When I originally read the reviews for this place we were amused by the excitement of every reviewer over the breakfast, but when we arrived and tasted it for ourselves, we had to agree!
Nafplio is easily one of the most beautiful and picturesque towns in Greece. It is on the mainland, and only two hours from Athens. Nafplio was the first capital of modern Greece. Narrow winding streets, large piazzas, and sunsets over the bay lend a strong Venetian feel to this charming city.
There are busses that leave from the Athens Kiffisou Bus station, but with reduced long-distance bus services, renting a car and driving would be my advice. There are so many wonderful things to see in the surrounding country-side that a car is an essential part of your vacation plans!
What to do:
Nafplio is a coastal town and right off the water is a small fortress called Bourtzi sitting on an equally small island. Boats will take you to the island for a closer look. Above the town is the grand and imposing Palamidi Fortress. The best way to enjoy the castle is to climb the 999 marble steps leading to the top. If climbing 999 steps isn’t for you, you can drive around to the top entrance.
In addition, the town is a wonderful place to get lost and window shop. The streets are winding and narrow and filled with little stores selling jewelry, olive wood products, sweets, and worry beads. Called komboloi, these worry beads are a traditional part of Greek culture. You will see them being tossed and worked over by men (and women) at café’s, bars, and even walking down the street. Everybody has a set. The Komboloi Museum is both a museum and a shop with truly incredible pieces– worth a peak!
Anyone who visits Nafplio needs to take daytrips out to some of the most incredible archaeological sites in Greece. Only a half-hour from Nafplio, Mycenae is the kingdom attributed to Agamemnon (think back to the Trojan war!) It is an astounding site which includes a palace, tombs and some of the most incredible gold and bronze artifacts. Wander the ruins and then head over to the museum to see what Schliemann and later archaeologists recovered from the excavations.
Nemea is also a short drive from Nafplio. This ancient site held athletic games much like the Olympic Games from the 6-2 centuries BC. You can still wander through the remains of the partially constructed temple, the ancient stadium, and a modern museum.
Where to Eat:
The only place in the city that is absolutely 100% required to all visitors of Nafplio is Antica Gelateria di Roma. Easily the best gelato place you’ll get out of Italy. It’s so good some would argue that it could be a contender for the big Numero Uno (or ena, as the Greeks would say). Try the grappa flavor, its like a rich velvety dark chocolatey boozy dream sent from heaven.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of hotels of varying prices and quality in Nafplio. Hotel Amphitryon is beautiful, clean, spacious and located on a quiet street near the water. Balconies overlooking incredible sea views and a hot breakfast buffet sweeten the deal.
3. Syros (Hermoupolis)
Syros and it’s main city, Hermoupolis, functions as the capital of the Cycladic Islands. It is truly a hidden gem, not often visited by foreigners. A major merchant port, Hermoupolis has fantastic restaurants and plenty of shopping without the crowds and kitschy tourist traps of tourist favorites like Santorini and Mykonos. Syros is an easy trip from Athens by plane or by ferry from Piraeus. For the island hopper, ferry connections to the more popular islands Mykonos and Paros run daily.
What to do:
Hermoupolis is filled with shops, restaurants, and cafés and it would be easy to spend your days wandering the city like a native– window shopping, having a coffee, and chatting with the locals. Loukoumia, or Turkish Delights, are a local specialty sold all along the main waterfront. Stop in for a taste, or twenty (there are dozens of flavors after all), and pick up a couple of souvenirs. For sightseers, beautiful churches, the Archaeological Museum, and the Apollon Opera House (modeled after La Scala Opera house in Milan) offer beautiful art, architecture and local history. Don’t miss the El Greco icon in the Church of the Assumption.
For breathtaking views of quintessential Cycladic island life visit Ano Syros. The hike up and back from main town is tiresome and free public transit is available and recommended for all but the most athletic. Once in the tiny walking-only village, meander through tiny streets that twist and turn leading more often to where you started than somewhere new. Getting lost is part of the fun, and who cares when you’re surrounded by white-washed houses stacked on top of each other with little garden courtyards overlooking vista views of the whole island.
Where to eat:
During my 4-day stay in Syros every meal seemed to be better than the last. An easy stroll from the main drag is the tiny Kiparissou Street lined with tavernas, each outdoing the next. Be sure to try the mussels in a mustard-caper sauce, or the tomato-fritters. Growing up in a Greek-American house and spending much of my young adult life in Greece, I was surprised to find that the cuisine we had in Syros was exceptional and somewhat unique in flavors. “Them’s fightin’ words,” I know, particularly since Greece is a vibrant culinary quilt with unique flavor profiles and specialty dishes everywhere you turn. But the meals from Syros still stick in my mind as some of the best.
Where to stay:
There are plenty of villas and rooms to let in Hermoupolis but the best place to stay is the Hotel Hermes. Right on the water at the edge of town, the hotel has plenty of modern, clean rooms with balconies overlooking the water. Help yourselves to the breakfast buffet, traditional although not particularly creative, or head out into the honeycomb streets and find yourself some Bougatsa (crème-filled pastries) and a frappé. Ahh!