The Road Less Travelled: A Driving Trip Through The Cradle Of Civilization ‒ Greece
Greece is often touted as the cradle of civilization and a visit here lends credence. Having dined on the Danforth in Toronto, ON, for many years, we were very keen to explore Greece and see the history. Our trip was five weeks and we love driving, especially on the less traveled back roads, so keep that in mind if planning a trip based on ours.
To start, we always buy very good road maps, with the Michelin ones being our favourites, to plan a logical route with comfortable driving times and distances. The website www.rome2rio.com will also allow you to see routes, travel times, distances, and costs by car, train, bus, and even toll charges. We also strongly recommend renting smaller cars as the back roads and especially the parking spaces are very narrow.
I have not included lengthy descriptions of the archeological sites as they are very comprehensibly described in many printed and on-line sources. Our personal favourites are the ‘Eyewitness Guides.’
Arriving just before the bewitching hour, we stayed at the Sofitel Athens Airport Hotel, which like all Sofitels we have visited was very good. In fact, we stayed there two more times as we transited through Athens. The next morning we took a taxi to the Grande Bretagne, centrally located in the beating heart of Athens. A stately classical building, it claims to have rooms with views of the Acropolis, but be warned they are only from the tiny balconies. The rooftop dining area, where you also have breakfast, does have perfect views, however.
Of course. the highlight of any trip to Athens is the Acropolis and, as spectacular as it is from below, it is even more so at the top. The walk up does involve many steps, but the view changes as you climb. As you would expect there are crowds everywhere, in particular the bus groups who manage to spoil any photo op. Depending on your level of interest, you should allocate at least two hours for the walk up. In Athens, there is no shortage of archeological ruins, museums, and historical churches to keep you occupied, and there are many shopping areas.
Colours Of The Parthenon
Athens, like any large city, has lots of restaurants, but the one you should absolutely not miss is Dionysos Zonar’s. Reservations are desirable to get a good table with a perfect view of the Acropolis. Go a half hour before sunset and watch the colours of the Parthenon change as the sun sets and then as the lights come on after dark. The menu is extensive and the food and service excellent.
Other good choices are in the bustling Plaka area where lunch, dinner, or even an afternoon drink and snacks at a sidewalk cafe will have you whiling away a few pleasant hours people watching. Don’t miss a stop at Brettos, reputedly the oldest distillery in Greece. The walls are lined with an enormous and colorful collection of bottles of traditional Ouzo in varying strengths and every imaginable flavor. The servers encourage you to sample and it’s impossible to leave without purchasing a few.
This is a good time to mention one of our concerns which was Greek wines as we usually (okay, always) have wine with dinner when we are traveling. We’ve had very limited experience with Greek wines. In fact, the only one we knew was Retsina which, to avoid nasty eMails from Greek Canadians, is not to our liking, so a very pleasant surprise was just how good Greek wines were. We drank primarily whites as it was hot pretty well everywhere and we were eating lots of seafood. We tried the local varieties where possible and particularly liked the Assyrtikos from Santorini, even when they were blended with other varieties, often Sauvignon Blanc.
Having exhausted Athens after a few days, we took a short half-hour taxi ride to the port town of Piraeus where we boarded a supposed high speed ferry to Santorini, which with stops still took 5½ hours. Take a flight instead.
“Santorini has a reputation as one of the playgrounds of the rich and famous, and you are quite likely to see luxurious yachts anchored offshore.“
We stayed at the Katikies in Oia, a delightful resort property whose white buildings cascade down the hillside almost to the sparkling blue sea in the collapsed volcanic caldera below. We had booked a suite built right into the cliff face at the very bottom with an idyllic view and total privacy. Oia is a very busy tourist town and on the days when cruise ships discharge their multitudes it can be frustrating, especially if you go to the southern point to watch the sun sink slowly into the sea. The restaurants and shops on the path through town all do a thriving trade so make dinner reservations to ensure a table.
There are some nice hiking trails on the island offering great views and a chance to work off some of the previous night’s calories, but relaxing by the pool seems to be the most popular choice. Katikies has a particularly nice pool with views of the sea and in fact meals are served at tables overlooking the pool.
We made the smart choice of flying back to Athens to connect with a flight to the island of Rhodes. Here we stayed at one of the most memorable places of all our very extensive travels. Our taxi driver took us through a narrow archway through the massive stone walls onto a narrow cobblestone alley to the Kokkini Porto Rossa. Dating back to 1350 when it was a knight’s residence, it has been lovingly restored and converted into a wonderful small, boutique hotel with just six suites. We took the largest, the Katina Suite, on the second floor looking over the enclosed patio where breakfast is served. The hotel is owned and operated by the husband and wife couple of Nikos and Angela, who I guarantee will welcome and treat you like beloved family your whole stay. Angela makes a different, multi-course, gourmet breakfast each morning featuring typical Greek dishes, but with modern twists. Everything is so perfect that you may not want to leave except for what Nikos has pre-arranged. When you book, he asks what your interests are and pre-programs a GPS enabled tablet with sightseeing recommendations with both walking and driving routes. We’ve never seen anything like it and other properties should take note.
We had a rental car for two days and explored a good part of the island. Well worth stops are the hill town of Lindos where Acropolis ruins sit at the top and Kamiros to see the remains of a 2,000-year-old city.
Rhodes is both the name of the island and principal town. The narrow cobblestone alleys, as well as the many squares, bustle as yet again cruise ships disgorge hordes of day visitors, yet somehow it does not seem as hectic as in Santorini. Shops selling everything from clothing to souvenirs abound, but once you tire of this, grab a seat at a cafe with an Aperol Spritz and cold beer to people watch.
Nikos made dinner reservations for us one night at Nireas, where Theo, the owner, welcomed us as old friends and seated us at a table on the small, secluded square. Dinner was delicious, fresh grilled sea bass, but do also try the appetizer of ‘white bait.’ Another dinner at Marco Polo was also wonderful.
We flew back to Athens where we picked up a zippy little Alfa Romeo and headed off to Sounio to see the Temple of Poseidon. From there, we drove to the must-see 6.4 kilometre long Corinth Canal with its 90 metre almost vertical walls hewn out of solid rock. That night we stayed at the boutique 3Sixty Hotel in Nafplio in a nice room with a tiny balcony overlooking the busy street in front. Lining the waterfont is a busy pedestrian way with lots of tourist trap restaurants and bars, but instead explore the many narrow back alleys where you will find more authentic cuisine and friendlier service. We enjoyed one called Aiolos where we started with our usual tzaziki with pita followed by a whole grilled catch of the day and washed down with a crisp local Assyrtiko, reminiscent of a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. A nice day trip from Nafplio is to the sixth century ruins at Epidaurus with its massive 12,000 seat Amphitheatre.
Leaving Nafplio we drove on a wonderful scenic road through coastal mountains to the ferry dock to Hydra. Just a half hour ride away, Hydra is well worth a few days if only to watch the antics of the many catamarans jockeying for a berth in the small, overcrowded harbor. We stayed at the Hydrea Hotel in a wonderful suite with a balcony overlooking the harbor. The waterfront is lined with outdoor bars and restaurants, but, like many places, the more authentic restaurants are to be found in the back alleys. Very large mega yachts also dock stern-to at the breakwater and it’s entertaining to watch them. If you can, snag a waterfront table for lunch or dinner at Omilos, arguably the finest dining on the island.
Scenic Winding Roads
Back on the mainland, we drove on more of those wonderful scenic winding roads to Monemvasia, an island connected by a causeway. We were exceptionally fortunate to find a close parking spot as seemingly every person in Greece had driven here for the day. Passing through the castle gate, a massive stone portico that had a double right-angle path, we found the Moni Emvasis Hotel close by. Here we had the Moni Emvasis Suite with a decent size sitting area, bedroom, and good size bathroom with a huge shower stall, and a nice terrace overlooking the sea. The small historic town has a labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with shops and restaurants. Our first night’s dinner was at Matoula where we had a cliffside table overlooking the sea. Do make a reservation as it gets very busy and go just before sunset.
Their taramasalata appetizer was one of the best we’ve had.
There are castle ruins a steep walk from the town with fabulous sunset views. Our own favourite was a circuitous path down to the rocky seafront where a ladder allows you to swim in the refreshing waters – a great way to start the day before a hearty breakfast on the patio at the hotel. Try the home-made Bugatsa – a Greek version of a cheese Danish. We had our second dinner on this patio and it was delicious. This boutique hotel is staffed with young people who welcome and treat you like family and are eager to find out where you hail from.
Sadly leaving Monemvasia, we drove, stopping at the ruins at Mystras and on to Kalamata through the hairpin roads of the Langada Pass where we stayed at the Pharae Palace, a misnomer if ever there was one. We only stayed in Kalamata to break up a long drive so you can safely miss it. The next day, we drove on passing through the massive circular structure composed of huge stones, the original entry to ancient Messene, well worth a few hours. We stayed at the Europa Hotel in a corner suite overlooking the garden and pool. Close by is the must see site of archeological Olympia.
Top Floor Suite
Patras was our next stop where we had the whole top floor suite at the mediocre Maison Greque. Once again our stay here was simply to break up the drive as there really is nothing to see. Happy to leave early the next morning, we drove to the mountain town of Delphi where we again had the top floor suite at the Fedriades Hotel. It’s just a few minutes’ drive to the archeological site with the Athena Temple, theater, Temple of Apollo, Treasury, and Stadium. The entire site is built on the side of a mountain so a lot of steep uphill walking and steps. Massive rocky peaks surround adding to the experience. We had dinner at Epikouros, across the street from the hotel – ask for a table by the window overlooking the valley and do try the ragout of wild boar.
“Meteora is a must see with its spectacular mountain-top monasteries, although the accommodations leave a lot to be desired.”
We booked the top suite at the Tsikeli Hotel, the best of a bad lot. The real advantage to staying overnight is that you can get an early start to visit the monasteries before the massed hordes on tour busses arrive. At one time, there were 24 of these monasteries built on seemingly unscalable mountain peaks, but now only six survive. We had a pleasant dinner at Taverna Gardenia Plakias. After you’ve seen the monasteries, it’s well worth the 15-minute drive to go up to the aptly named Eagles Nest for lunch or a drink sitting on the patio in the sun. The view from the top of the world here is breathtaking and you can see all the way to the rock spires at Meteora.
Our next overnight was at Zagori where we stayed at the Aristi, a National Geographic Unique Lodge. This mountain resort consists of several stone houses that contain four units with a central reception and dining area. The views are spectacular and the surrounding roads a driver’s dream. Don’t miss the breathtaking views at Vikos Gorge after which you can have an afternoon libation in the cute village of Vikos.
From Zagori, we continued on to the coastal city of Thessaloniki, where at the Hotel Daios, we had a large and beautiful suite with floor to ceiling glass sliding doors and a large wraparound balcony offering views of the sea right beneath us. Thessaloniki is a large and busy city, but everything is within walking distance so once the hotel valet has taken your car, you will not need it. We had dinner the first night in the Ladidika neighbourhood with its cheek-by-jowl restaurants and bars all doing a roaring trade. On our second night, we walked in pouring rain to the Grada Nuevo restaurant, supposedly the best in the city. Although certainly trendy and frequented by the self-admiring Yorkville types, the food and especially the service were exceptionally disappointing. This was our last town before driving back to Athens.
I apologize to those reading this, but certainly not for what I’m about to say. Greece really needs to jump from the 18th century to even the 20th, let alone the 21st when it comes to toilets. At many of the small hotels we stayed in, they had signs instructing you to put soiled toilet paper in the small garbage cans and not in the toilet. This is just plain gross as well as being unsanitary and outright disgusting. Frankly we did not obey the instructions and have no remorse whatsoever for doing so.
Showers are another European, not just Greek quirk. Most are in bathtubs with a glass screen that covers perhaps a third of the tub, and some don’t even have that. It’s impossible to shower without splashing water everywhere. Surely a full length glass screen would pay for itself quickly with less time for housekeeping to wipe up entire bathrooms.
OK, that’s the only griping out of the way. Mainland Greece truly is one of the less travelled destinations and even after five weeks we were sad to leave but will be back.
Peter Volny & Linda Goddard are inveterate travelers and adventure seekers with almost 160 countries to date. Their next driving trip is to Corsica and Sardinia.