Category Archives: Greece

Things to do in Greece; attractions in Greece and the best places to visit in Greece.

Alexandroupolis, North-Eastern Greece by the Turkish Border

Alexandroupolis is a Greek city close to the North-Eastern Turkish border. The city is a remnant of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire and started life as a fishing village. Old Turkish houses can still be seen amongst newer buildings in the newer part of the city.

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A modern port caters for large cruise and commercial ships. The attached marina is developed in such a way that it forms an important part of the city’s trendy cafe culture and nightlife scene.

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A large, centrally posistioned lighthouse, is a prominent landmark of Alexandroupolis.

Alexandroupolis6Alexandroupolis city and lighthouse

There is quality and interesting shopping within the city proper and traditional as well as modern restaurants do a brisk trade, mainly with the locals. At some restaurants, an eating mode that’s emerging in popularity is the ‘lathokola (or lathoharto)’ plate-free style, where the food, usually chips, kebabs, suvlakis etc are brought to the table together, on a piece of strong greaseproof paper (lathoharto) and placed on the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into. It’s a real success, as it encourages socializing even more. It also makes local sense, as it follows from the Greek style of salad eating, which is usually brought in a large soup plate that everyone tucks into with their forks.

The nearby Evros river delta is a very important biodiversity area, with sizeable flocks of permanently resident and migratory birds such as duck, cormorant, goose, flamingo, swan, pelican and several types of reed warbler. The birds visit to take advantage of the rich sources of food such as fish, grains and insects.

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The Evros River Delta near Alexandroupolis

On a recent visit to Greece, I was invited by my cousin George to spend sometime visiting the Evros river delta, an extensive semi-wild area which forms the border between Greece and Turkey in the North of Greece.

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Evros river delta where it joins the northern Aegean sea

George lives with his wife Eleni and young daughter Artemis by Alexandroupolis and has access to a 10-bed fully equipped riverside ‘hut’ which he shares with three pals, all dedicated to countryside pursuits like nature watching, fishing and hunting.

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Wild horses at rough ground by the the Evros river delta

I visited at the start of November and it was unusually mild for the time of year. George took us in his 4-wheel drive Suzuki out of Alexandroupolis heading East, and about 15 miles later turned onto an unmade road. A few miles down he entered a military/conservation/unprotected zone system, denoted by massive man-made land uplifts forming a series of cirular unmade roads snaking through protected and unprotected bird habitats. Some areas were enclosed (salt lakes), while others were mixed river/north Aegean sea domains, all rich in reeds and many types of bird life.

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Flock of cormorants taking off in front of our boat

The area is a real maze of waterways, separated by great sheaths of reeds. Huge flocks of swans, peewees, flamingoes, pelicans, cormorants, various species of duck and many other bird types, including herons, egrets and reed warblers were in rich abundance. We also spotted a couple of wild horses. We tried fishing from his home-made river delta/sea boat, but only caught a couple of small bass.

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Morning view from George’s hut towards the riverside and small church

We spent the night in the cabin cooking rough-cut chips and home-made wild boar sausages over a gas stove, also eating various types of local cheeses and salads, while drinking locally produced red wine and chipouro (a kind of strong ouzo, sometimes an aniseed drink) and recounting stories from our shared youth. Sleep came pretty easily, we turned the generator off and enjoyed the light of a lantern consisting a wick in the centre of a round piece of cork floating over a glassful of water and olive oil. Breakfast was George’s friends’ home produced honey over rough-cut wholemal bread with strong Greek coffee.

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Home-made Evros river delta boats

This type of excursion is not readily available commercially, however my cousin said that several other hut owners organise such events for gun shell/fishing hook-and-bait money.

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My smiling cousin George by his boat

Needless to say we eventually had to get back to civilisation, when his accommodating wife kindly let us use the shower facilities in exchange for our poor catch. Still, the sightings and experience were pretty unique, at least in my experience.

Ithaki Restaurant by Syntagma Square, Athens

During a recent visit to Greece, I gave our 26 year old sons a whistle-stop tour of central Athens. We started late in the morning  and visited Monastiraki, the Acropolis and various other locations such as Hadrian’s Arch and the Zappion building. By the time we got to Syntagma Square we felt like a decent meal and we opted for going Greek.

A short walk from the Square and down Mitropoleos St, we came upon the Ithaki restaurant, which seemed to be in a relatively decent spot, central but relatively quiet, and served a variety of Greek-style meals.

We ordered a large mixed tomato/cucumber/feta cheese Greek salad as a starter to share, which we ate during the time it took to prepare our main meals.

One of our sons ordered Giaurtlu, which consists meat with Greek yoghurt cooked in a rich cumin/tomato sauce.

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Giaurtlu

My other son plumped for Exohiko, lamb-stuffed Phyllo pastry with extra virgin olive oil, oregano, fresh thyme, onions and garlic.

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Exohiko

I went for the staple Greek meal Moussaka, consisting of layered potatoes, eggplant (aubergine) and spiced minced-meat, all topped with creamy bechamel sauce.

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Moussaka

The food was freshly cooked and regularly tasty, the portions adequate, but we felt the experience was slightly expensive as everything, including bread which is usually included free at Greek restaurants, was charged for. The meal, which cost 42 Euro (around £36), was probably quite good value by comparison with the competition and also considering the central location, so we gave the restaurant an overall rating of 7/10.

Ithaki Restaurant AthensKeep It Real Travel Review – No Fluff

Wooden Cafe at Lake Kerkini in Greece

We went to the ‘Xilino’ (Wooden) cafe for coffees with panoramic views over lake Kerkini, when visiting the area near Serrai in the North of Greece during Autumn 2013.

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“Wooden” cafe entrance

The lake is visited by a variety of migratory birds including pelicans. It’s also a favourite for local fishermen and a place to visit for a family meal during a public holiday and/or celebration.

The Wooden cafe can be found at Lithotopos, the South end of Lake Kerkini at the junction with the river Strimon; it’s approximately an 1h 20min drive from Thessaloniki heading East towards Serrai. About 10 miles before you reach Serrai, there’s a road to the left (i.e. heading North) towards Lithotopos, Cheimarros and Kerkini, just before the new major bridge crossing the River Strimon (which Kerkini lake feeds). This exit is also before the road towards the pretty village of Strimonikon, which is about 500m to your right. Once on the way to Lake Kerkini, you simply drive for about 10 miles until you reach the head of the lake and the Wooden cafe at Lithotopos; a pretty promontory and various tourist attractions are also in front of you.

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 Lake view from the cafe

A scenic, semi-circular drive can also be had around the lake, either taking the road to the right or left; leave about 1 hour 30 minutes for getting back to this same point. This drive is particularly pleasant and colourful during Autumn.

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Review of the Stanley Hotel in Athens

I booked a triple room at the Stanley Hotel in Athens through booking.com, for a visit to Athens with our twin sons in late October 2013. It cost 80 Euro (€) (about £67) for one night including breakfast.

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 Stanley hotel entrance

The hotel was chosen for its location, both central to Athens’ major tourist attractions like the Acropolis and its Museum, the Flea Market (at Monastiraki), Omonia and Syntagma Squares, the Zappion Building and Hadrian’s Arch.

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Triple room at the Stanley Hotel

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Stanley hotel bathroom

The hotel was very easily accessible directly from Athens airport via the most excellent Metro system, with a single change at Syntagma Square. At the station, the hotel’s entrance was at the side street behind the Metro exit (Odysseo’s St), meaning we did not have to cross any roads with our luggage.

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Stanley hotel statue by lift

We were initially given a room on the fifth floor, however upon inspection we requested an alternative as the 3rd bed was a made-up double settee, too short for any of us, but possibly quite adequate for a younger person. The new room on the 3rd floor was adequate, clean, quiet, with ample towels and complimentary toiletries. A free-to-use safe and a small fridge were also provided. There was a nice balcony with views of Athens and the hills.

A few minutes after we entered our room, a knock on the door announced the arrival of a complimentary tray with wine and fresh fruit, presumably as a good will gesture/apology for the initial mix-up. It was a wonderful welcome to Athens and set our mood for the evening outing and the next day’s Athens sightseeing.

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Stanley hotel breakfast room and breakfast

The next morning’s buffert breakfast, described as ‘American’ was in a large, sunny room on the 1st floor with views of Karaiskaki Square. The breakfast was excellent, both in quality and quantity, and included fresh fruit, bread, croissants and pastries as well as cooked items. Breakfast was available 7-10.30am.

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Stanley Hotel rooftop pool, cafe and view of city and Athens hills

As we had a late check-in the previous night, planned to tour Athens for the day and then catch an overnight train to Thessaloniki, and since we did not have to leave the room until 12.00, we decided to spend sometime at the hotel’s roof terrace. This provided exceptional views of Athens and its surrounding hills, as well as a reasonably sized swimming pool by a characterful bar with comfortable seating (roof terrace only available after 10am).

The hotel kept our luggage until 10.30pm free of charge, when we collected it after our day’s touring of Athens, in order to take the Metro for 1 stop to the central Larissa train station for our overnight train journey to Thessaloniki.

Overall, we felt that we had a great stay and that the Stanley hotel was excellent value for money. It is described as 4 star, which in many respects it is. Although the rooms are not more than 3 star and rather dated, the level of service, the breakfast and the location are hard to beat.

Click here to check availability and prices for the Stanley Hotel Athens.

Review of Stanley Hotel AthensKeep It Real Travel Review – No Fluff

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Greek Train Travel: A Cheap and Nasty Experience

I recently had the opportunity to test the Greek national train operating company Trainose. My sons and I were traveling from the capital Athens to Thessaloniki overnight, then changing trains for getting to Serres in the north-east where my parents live.

I booked my tickets online through the Trainose website’s route finder which is in Greek but can be translated into English by clicking an icon (top left). The tickets were pretty cheap, around £25 each. We were able to pay online and then print out tickets at home. We had booked well in advance as I had a pretty nasty experience in the past, when I saw several people standing during the overnight journey, possibly due to double-booked seats.

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Trainose website

When we got to the main train station Larissa in Central Athens, which was accessible via the excellent Athens Metro, we received our first nasty surprise: our tickets did not match the list at the platform’s entry point, where a regular member of staff was checking them while being overseen by a private security guard (which seemed pretty incongruous). However, our tickets were checked at the office and pronounced valid – although both the train number (500) and seat numbers did not officially exist.

We got on the train with some trepidation and 30 min post-departure I had to tell the same story to the ticket inspector – just as well I spoke Greek – who took the veracity of my words for granted saying ‘well, if they said so at the station I guess it’s OK, but I cannot guarantee your overnight seats’.

So, I was concerned that history would repat itself, we’d find ouselves standing and did not sleep a wink. I did see people standing as well as sleeping on the floor between carriages, but we were left unmolested. The train stopped at many stations and the lights were on/off all the time during the night.

When we got to Thessaloniki (on time) the train was split in half and we were told that the rear half would depart for Serres in an hour. It was unclear which new carriage was which, there were no rail workers in uniform to ask and someone apparently acting officially informed me that the train supervisor would turn up 5 min before the train departed to re-verify our tickets. The lights then went out and people were boarding in the dark.

Five minutes before departure said person did arrive, was in uniform and sent us to a carriage at the front of the train saying we could take any seat we wanted. However, once the train got going, a group of about 20 scouts came over and demanded that we quit our seats, showing us their tickets which they’d purchased just prior to departure.

At that stage I was not prepared to move, my sons were asleep after the awful overnight journey, and I nearly had a punch-up with the scout master. Fortunately the train supervisor appeared at the nick of time and somehow persuaded the scouts to leave us in peace. We arrived at our destination on time, feeling rather knackered. The two trains had taken a combined time of 10 hours to travel about 360 miles.

None the wiser by my experience, a couple of days later I booked a return train ticket from Serres to Alexandroupolis to visit my cousin near the North-East border with Turkey.

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Train ticket and the Greek countryside en route to Alexandroupolis

The return journey cost about £13 and were both during the day. There is a lovely scenic stretch of about 50 miles between Drama and Komotini, sometimes running parallel to the river Nestos (which rises in the Bulgarian Rila Mountains and flows into the Greek Aegean Sea), which can only be appeciated via train travel. These journeys were uneventful and the trains half-empty, however there were smokers onboard that clearly defied the smoking ban and the guard did nothing to deter them. As an aside, the smoking ban cannot be very effective in Greece, as at a restaurant we visited in Alexandroupolis there were quite a few customers, as well as one of the owners, smoking indoors.

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Smoker on train to Alexandroupolis

The Greek railway system’s pretty run down, probably due to the country’s economic situation, and currently in the process of being privatised. In the future we can probably expect slightly higher standards for much higher prices.

A Walk through the Historic Part of Central Athens, Greece

I was in Athens during late November 2012, on my way back from visiting my parents near Thessaloniki and Serres in the North of Greece. The overnight train was pretty cheap and relatively clean and quiet. I arrived at Athens Larissa central station at 5am and had several hours to kill before my evening flight back to Edinburgh. I waited at the station till daylight (around 7.30am) before walking to the centre, but I wouldn’t recommend their toilets. There were a lot of smokers on the platform, but none in the waiting room.

Zappeion, Athens, Greece

The walk from the station to the very central Omonia (harmony) Square took about 30min through a pretty built-up area. But, as it was Sunday morning, the traffic was quite light. The square is surrounded by a mixture of old, preserved buildings and a few modern ones, some of which are hotels. The traffic can be quite dense, but it’s a great central point to other parts of Athens. I opted to head in the direction of Monastiraki for its famous flea market, which also leads to the ancient centre of Athens and to Acropolis.

Greek Central Bank (Ethniki Trapeza tis Elladas)

The walk to the flea market took me past the civic centre (Thimarhion), opposite which is a newly excavated antiquities area from the 3/4th century AD and some of the most beautiful old buidings in Athens, currently occupied by the central bank.

Accumulation

The flea market itself is a chaotic, colourful experience and you can buy almost anything, from tradtitional furniture and clothes to rare records and cigarette lighters. It can get quite busy, so watch out for pickpockets.

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25 Fun Places to Visit in Greece

Here are our travel tips for what to do in Greek places excluding the capital, as we’ve already written about things to do in Athens on Europe a la Carte.

Delphi

Delphi features a modern town, as well as the ruins site of the Oracle of Delphi in Greek mythology.  Marcus has painted a wonderful picture of the ruins in his post. The new part of the town is home to the Delphi Archaeological Museum. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology and architecture, do not miss this museum.

what to do Greece

Delphi by Marcus Cederstrom

Skopelos

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist ya
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed ya”

Nope, I am not an ABBA fan. I’m just not into the 70s pop (or the fashion), but to my surprise, I fell in love with the 2008 movie Mamma Mia, an extremely entertaining musical featuring ABBA songs. Of course, my love for the movie had a lot to do with the starring actors Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, as well as the gorgeous locations where the movie was shot, on the islands Skopelos and Skiathos (which is also on our list).

Skopelos Bay by Yorick_R
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Seven Things to do in Athens

Many people visit Athens briefly on the way to a Greek island cruise, but the Greek capital itself has plenty of attractions to keep you entertained for much longer. Athens is featured in our best cities to visit in Europe post. Here are a few of the most popular things to do in Athens:

The Acropolis

Probably the most well-known sight of Athens, you really can’t leave without visiting the Acropolis and the other famous buildings it includes, such as the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena. Just a couple of years ago they opened the long-awaited Acropolis Museum nearby, in a modern but somehow suitable building, and combining the two gives you a better understanding of the importance of these ruins.

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Parthenon at the Acropolis by Tilemahos Efthimidais

National Archaeological Museum

I’m pretty sure most people go to Athens expecting to see a few ancient things, so what better place to check out than the National Archaeological Museum? It’s a world-standard museum featuring Greek artifacts ranging from the prehistoric era through to late antiquity.

The Ancient Agora

Yes, more very old stuff, the Ancient Agora is a collection of of ruins of buildings from ancient times and includes Temple of Hephaestus which they say is one of the best examples of an ancient Greek temple. The Agora was, long long ago, the heart of Athens and these days it’s a particularly pleasant outing because there’s plenty of greenery scattered throughout the ruins.

The Ancient Agora by scottpartee

Syntagma Square

Right in the middle of Athens, the Syntagma Square might already be quite familiar to you from the TV news when protests take place in Greece; it’s home to the Greek parliament house as well as the occasional protest, and you can watch a changing of the guard outside parliament every hour. One nice bonus at Syntagma Square is that there is high-speed free wireless internet access for everyone there!

Parliament building by wallyg

The Plaka

Speaking of squares, you can’t miss the Plaka either. Close to the Acropolis, the Plaka area is the historical part of Athens with narrow winding streets and plenty of old buildings, and heaps of atmosphere. This is a great place to go for a meal or a drink, especially at a typical Greek taverna.


Oldest bar in the Plaka by Rich Holeton

Lycabettus Hill

You can reach the top of Lycabettus Hill, the highest part of the city of Athens, either by funicular railway or taking an interesting, rambling walk. The views over Athens and to the Parthenon – complete with the sea in the background – are definitely photo-worthy.

View from Lycabettus Hill by tet_sy

Panathinaiko Stadium

Think of Athens and you can’t help but think of the Olympics, and Panathinaiko Stadium is a big part of where it all began. It’s built entirely of white marble and is really an impressive sight, and still gets used to day – but sometimes for events that the 1896 Olympians certainly wouldn’t have imagined like Metallica concerts!

Panathinaiko Stadium by nrares

Where to Stay in Athens

Cick here to find cheapest prices at hotels in Athens on the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

Ceramic pipes in the Ephalinos Tunnel

Where to stay and what to do in Vathi, Samos

Vathi is the capital of the Greek island of Samos, just 1 ½ hour ferry ride from the Turkish coastal town of Kusadasi. Samos is one of my favorite Greek islands to be visited either as a day trip from Turkey or on its own.

If you wish to stay over night in order to explore more of the island’s many historical site like the Heraion, Pythagorion, the Ephalinos tunnel or the Potami waterfalls, a good choice is the – aptly named – Hotel Samos.

Ceramic pipes in the Ephalinos Tunnel

For one it’s easy to find and perfectly located just across the road from the ferry terminal. At Euros 50 per night for a single room including breakfast and free WiFi, it’s reasonably priced and offers great value for money. The rooms are spacious and the bathroom’s standard is close to 5 stars with goodie basket, (working) hairdryer and good water pressure. The hotel has a lovely roof top swimming pool and bar where you can have a variety of freshly squeezed fruit juices or any other drinks you fancy as well as snacks.

Hotel Samos in Vathi

There is a restaurant downstairs, indoors as well as on the terrace. The Greek salad is particularly appetizing and you can sit and watch the waterfront and the world go by. Everybody at reception is very friendly and helpful and will assist you with insider tips and excursions.

Greek salad in the restaurant at the Hotel Samos

If you have only time to visit Vathi, walk along the waterfront towards Lion Square, passing b many, many cafes, restaurants and shops. These shops are mostly selling souvenirs and beach items, therefore, turn left on Lion Square, walk straight up, then turn right and you find a narrow street lined with some of the best boutiques I have ever seen, offering chic fashion at very low prices as well as really nice tiles, ceramic, paintings, sofa throws etc. In short, souvenirs of the better kind which also make nice gifts.

Vathi's waterfront at sunset

Follow the same road to the end, turn left and you come to the Archaeological Museum. It consists of two buildings opposite each other and you start on the left. This museum is an  ‘ohhhh’ experience and the treasures inside are quite unexpected. Enormous korus statues from the holy road of the Heraion loom in the semi darkness and never fail to impress by their sheer size and nearly immaculate state.

Statue on Vathi's archaeological museum

Cross over to the other building and enjoy more exhibits reflecting Samos’ long history.

Opposite is a great example of an orthodox church with icons outside and fabulous chandeliers inside. Samos is also famous for wine and you shouldn’t fail  to visit the wine museum although you may want to take a taxi  because it’s about 4 miles out of town.

A good, and much cheaper way, to get around the island is the use of local buses. Continue to walk straight along the waterfront and you will see a few white and green buses parked. That’s the central bus station. You buy your ticket in the café, sit down and have a drink and wait until the waiter tells you that your bus has arrived and leads to  it.  The buses take the ‘scenic route’ which means that you get an island tour for all of Euros 3 before reaching your destination. You need time because the schedules are  somewhat flexible but you also get to enjoy conversations with the locals. There are buses to all major towns of the island, but learn to read the names in Greek.