Meteora and Thessaloniki 5 days itinerary

This is a long overdue post but here is a recap of our Greece holiday over the late May bank holiday weekend.
 
“If we only have 1 euro left in our pocket, we rather go out and spend it with friends than stay at home and feel sorry for ourselves”. This was the motto of one guy we met during our five day stay. And this was seemingly apparent as we walked around the streets of Thessaloniki and Kalambaka. Restaurants and bars were filled to the brim every day and night. Shops were closed for 3 out of 5 days we were there. It makes you wonder, how do the locals make money?
 
Day 1 – Flying from London to Thessaloniki
 

We arrived at Thessaloniki late in the evening and crashed at Hotel Atlantis. It was a small and basic room but it was 15 minutes walk from the train station where we would take the train to Kalambaka early the next morning. We were surprised that a number of cafes and restaurants were still open at 11pm. We couldn’t resist and bought a ‘pastry with cheese’. It was disappointing that the pastry was literally 200 grams of feta cheese wrapped in several layers of filo pastry.

 
Tip: All the websites we looked at say to take bus 78 from Thessaloniki airport to town. Bus 78 didn’t exist! Take bus X1 during daytime and N1 during nighttime.
 
Day 2 – Travelling from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka
 
Our impressions of filo pastry were redeemed when we bought a leek filo pastry pie for breakfast from the train station.
 

 
The train journey takes about 3 hours but there was no direct train from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka. We had to change at Paleofornos station which felt like a deserted station in the middle of nowhere. The train guard doubles up as a mechanic as we saw him running across the track with some tools to connect the train carts. All signs were in Greek and the departure boards were not working. As we talked to a local later, we learned that train stations were running out of cash, perhaps that’s why they don’t bother turning on the departure boards to save money. Luckily, most locals were very friendly and proactively asked us if we needed help when we looked slightly lost or were simply consulting a map.
 
Paleofornos train station where we interchanged for a train to Kalambaka.
We arrived at Monastiri Guest House where our room had an amazing view of Meteora. The owner was very friendly and even gave us a ride into town even though it was only 10 minutes’ walk away. We didn’t utilise the outdoor swimming pool but it looked very relaxing.
 
Lunch was at Meteora Restaurant where we had an excellent spinach, strawberry and sesame seed salad. It was so tasty that we later tried to recreate it at home.
 
We joined a sunset tour in the afternoon where we checked out St Stephen’s Monastery.
 
Dinner was at Yamas Taverna where we had typical Greek food such as calamari, stuffed peppers and chicken souvlaki.
 
Day 3 – Hiking in Meteora (means ‘floating in air’)
 

This was the one thing we absolutely wanted to do prior to visiting Meteora and it was definitely the highlight of this trip. As the weather forecast predicted rain, we were very lucky that it was actually sunny on the morning of the hike. The hike lasted for around 4.5 hours on gentle terrain. Apparently every rock has its own name based on their shape or physical characteristics. The Great Meteoron Monastery was very impressive especially when we learned that it took 100 years to build and 7 years just to bring the materials up to the mountain. We saw many caves; the story goes that hermits who lived in caves had to rely on locals for help as their muscles atrophied over time.

In the afternoon, we took a bus back to Thessaloniki which lasted approximately 2.5 hours. Dinner was at Frutti di Mare where we had the most delicious shrimp wrapped and fried in potatoes. Portions were generous and they gave us some very strong liquor after our meal free of charge.

Thessaloniki accommodation: Grey Studios. Great place with a simple Scandi decor. The owners seem to be interior designers.

 

Day 4 – Walking around Thessaloniki city

Woke up at 11am! We had breakfast at Estrella, a cafe with dishes like 64 degrees eggs and vibes that make you think you could be in Shoreditch, London.

There was not many ‘must see’ sights in Thessaloniki so we simply walked around town, ate ice cream, and walked along the seafront where we watched the sunset. For dinner, we tried Crete food for the first time at a restaurant called Charoupi. The taste was similar to Mediterranean style. Portions were large and we had the dessert on the house again. In general, we find that desserts are always complementary and service charge is not included in the bill.

It was quite relaxing to walk along the promenade in Thessaloniki and watch the sunset.
We walked up to Ano Poli, Thessaloniki’s old town. Great views!

Day 5 – Thessaloniki

This day happened to be Whit Monday, a public holiday so nearly all shops were closed. Our favourite discovery of the day was a tahini cannoli from Ergon, a cafe/deli/shop. We loved it so much that we brought some back for the office. It was only a few months later that we discovered, to our delight, that there is actually an Ergon in London!

Shortly after we took this photo, somebody dropped the remaining half of this baklava on the ground before the other had a chance to try it!
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Santorini, more than a honeymoon destination

We were lured to Santorini by the beautiful photos of white washed houses on cliffs that you see in travel magazines and postcards. So even though it was a 7 hour ferry ride away from Athens, we went.

 

Formed after a devastating earthquake 3,500 years ago, Santorini is a croissant shaped island with the largest caldera in the world. Akrotiri lies in the south, the capital Fira lies in the middle, and the famous Oia lies on the northern tip. Santorini is an exporter of volcanic soil, china clay and pistachio nuts.

Check out all the houses and hotels overlooking the water, what a view!

Check out all the houses and hotels overlooking the water, what a view!

On our first evening, we checked out Fira, a village with irregular architecture because of the lack of planning regulations after the earthquake in 1956. We walked around cobbled alleyways filled with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery and frozen yogurt. We taste tested Vin Santo, a dessert wine unique to Santorini. There were plenty of jewellery made from volcanic lava and coral. For dinner, we headed to Pirouni in Firostefani, a village 15 minutes walk from Fira. We had a lovely (private) table overlooking the caldera so that we could see the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun dips behind the volcano. On the menu were the famous tomato balls and fava (split pea).

Colourful alleyways in Fira.

Colourful alleyways in Fira.

Fava, one of the famous dishes in Santorini. Tastes like hummus but made with yellow split peas instead.

Fava, one of the famous dishes in Santorini. Tastes like hummus but made with yellow split peas instead.

Our sunset dinner in Pirouni. Amazing view!

Our sunset dinner in Pirouni. Amazing view!

We woke up bright and early the next day to a wonderful breakfast spread which we took on the terrace. We were staying in a beautiful boutique hotel, the Markezinis Suites which used to be home to the Greek prime minister in the 1900’s. I think we had the master bedroom too! The ceilings were hand painted and the toiletries smelled of oilve.

 

We then hiked 10km from Fira to Oia. It was the perfect activity on a warm and sunny day, even though we weren’t so well equipped with our loafers and flat soled sneakers. We were rewarded with stunning views of the white washed villages and the caldera as the route follows the cliff or the ridge most of the time. Along the way, we could see many new hotels being developed. No doubt that the island would be increasingly popular in a few years’ time and we’re glad to be visiting now rather than later! I wonder if there might be a cable car running from Akrotiri to Oia one day. After a gruelling 10km which earned me some sunburnt skin, we reached the famous village of Oia which features white houses, smooth marbled walkways and dome shaped roofs.

Dome shaped buildings along the hiking trail from Fira to Oia.

Dome shaped buildings along the hiking trail from Fira to Oia.

White and blue are dominant colours of the architecture.

White and blue are dominant colours of the architecture.

360 degrees view of the caldera atop the highest point on the hiking trail from Fira to Oia. It was very windy!

360 degrees view of the caldera atop the highest point on the hiking trail from Fira to Oia. It was very windy!

The village of Oia was finally in sight after a long hike.

The village of Oia was finally in sight after a long hike.

We also enjoyed a photography safari which to our luck, turned out to be a private tour. For 6 hours, we had the renowned photographer Tryfon, whose works have been used for Bvlgari ads, giving us tips on lighting, framing and style. We went to the non-touristy parts of Santorini where there was literally no one. We could shoot as many photos as we like, testing again and again until we had the perfect postcard shot. We heard stories about how the island used to be, before it became commercialised. It was only back in 1980 when the population was 500 and the inhabitants were struggling economically. How the population shot up 10 folds in two generations is a mystery to us. Perhaps the good weather, delicious food and very relaxing lifestyle encourages reproduction. According to Tryfon, the sunset in Oia which is frequently promoted as the most beautiful sunset in the world is a myth. He took us to his favourite spot on the island, Pyrgos, where we could watch the sunset with a view of the entire island, from Akrotiri to the volcano to Oia. Pyrgos itself was a village which exhibits the influence of the Venetians’ colonization, as illustrated by the colourful buildings using okra, cream blue and coral pink.
Akrotiri Santorini
Akrotiri Greece
Pyrgos Santorini
Pygros Santorini
Pygros Santorini
It was an enjoyable and informative tour in which we learned lots. At the very least, we now know how to operate the manual function on our cameras! Watch out for more professional photos in our future blog posts.

 

A bonus from the tour was the restaurant recommendation. We had our last dinner at Casa Atla, a small cosy restaurant inside a cave. We ate the most scrumptious fresh crab salad, fried cheese and squid, paired with some raki and white wine. The whole squid turned out to be too stressful for our digestive system.

Casa Atla, the lovely restaurant where we had our last dinner. Roughly €35 for two, with wine.

Casa Atla, the lovely restaurant where we had our last dinner. Roughly €35 for two, with wine.

There were so many couples taking wedding photos in Santorini and I could absolutely see why it’s a honeymoon destination. In April, we could already see many tour groups and you know this is a definite sign that a place is too touristy and commercialised. Can’t imagine how crowded the alleyways will be when summer arrives!

 

The more authentic side of Santorini lies in the less popular areas and I’m so glad we got to experience them now instead of in ten years’ time.

 

A holiday in Athens and…Gatwick Airport

It was 2.20am when we started our journey. On arrival at Blackfriars we are greeted by the exclaimed notice. “Train to three bridges cancelled”. “Crew not available”. That’s strange we thought. Did somebody not come into work? We resigned to wait for the next train which arrived half an hour after. All was well until we were booted off at the nearest station. The train ahead had broken down and had left the passengers the majority of which were travellers, stranded! In Sharon’s words, “Unbelievable”.

A taxi ride in desperation led to no avail.  With luggage in each hand, the frantic race to the gate looked like a challenge from Takeshi’s castle. It was safe to say that Takeshi got the better of us (as well as many others) and we missed our flight. I had always thought that the UK’s rail service was fairly consistent, but delays of two hours really did change my perception. So..given 8 hours in an airport, what can one do? We sat down at a cafe and ordered some well needed nourishment. It was at this point that Sharon brought out a whole wad of notes and proceeded to revise equality law. That was certainly taking a productive approach to the situation.

Eventually we arrived in Athens. Whilst we were unable to visit Hydra anymore, that did leave us with two days to explore the city. Athens was a city today that lived around the ancient ruins – many of which had stood tall since 500BC. There was a sense that the Greeks were proud of their rich history – as evident by original artefacts found from the ruins of Parthenon in the metro station itself!

Walking around Athens was at times a death trap. The roads seemed to be perpetually busy and navigation was difficult. Street names were in Greek and/or the names of roads differed from maps provided to us! It took us half an hour to find a bakery for breakfast but our hard efforts were soon rewarded with warm baked goods.

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Later we climbed the Acropolis which imbued us with stories of the many civilisations which battled here and subsequently used it as a place of importance. A great sense of grandness indeed.

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A walk  to Mt. Lycabettus through somewhat more dingy suburbs – remnants of veg and fruit littered all across the street. Onto the top of the hill was an excellent vista showing panoramic views of the city. We stayed till sunset.

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The best of all vistas offering an unobstructed frame of the city was Filapappos Hill. We were amazed to share our own private view without disturbance. Feeling a great sense of luck and appreciation, we proceeded to head back for dinner. We stumbled across the hill of Pyna on our descend and we then realised why our previous spot was private –  the stone cliff, supposedly used for gatherings of free speech and democratic congregations, was far superior! How amateur!

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The old town of Athens, Plaka offered quaint streets and steep alleyways housing restaurants in every possible corner of space. Open spaces and squares littered with candlelit tables. Among the restaurants were several cafes serving traditional Greek coffee – the beans first mashed, before being boiled. Greek coffee had a reputation for being quite strong and bitter, but after drinking the thick bean residue that gets poured in, we had an entirely different perspective. Later we were told that this was NOT to be consumed and were made to look quite foolish!

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At the end of the main shopping street, Ermou is a flea market in Monastiraki. Here a bustling scene of traders boasting their wares and locals in establishments enjoying live music could be found.

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Finally..

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The oh-so-sweet strawberries which turned out to be more bitter than expected. Thanks, Sharon

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dinner at Oineas – really friendly and more unintended liquor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The orange which was perilously obtained as a gift from the heart – and later rejected

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last dinner in Athens