Sunday, 28 June 2015

Slow, Solo Travels Through The Greek Islands

If the journey of Odysseus back to his home after the victorious Trojan War was anything to go by, a journey to present day Greece is for sure going to be full of life. Attracted by a rich history and azure landscapes, Vikas, an engineer and entrepreneur shares a page from his Travel Diaries here as he undertook a three-week journey ferrying through the islands of Greece, climbing the mountains of central lands, and swimming in the blue of the Aegean Sea. If not an Odyssey itself, it sure is an account of unexplored Greece that you must read.

Where it All Began

Greece is an island nation in Europe, full of white washed homes, spectacularly blue skies, azure clear waters and a quiet life. There are four key Island groups I considered: The Ionian, closer to the Italian Coast, Cyclades, near the mainland, Dodecanese, closer to the Turkish Coast, and Crete, just above Africa.

Most travel sites and guidebooks pointed me to the two most popular Isles - Santorini, which has become a poster boy for the country through it's blue doomed churches, infinity pools extending on to the turquoise sea, and sunsets that are post card worthy from every angle and Mykonos - the obvious second favourite thanks to it's beautiful Venice like feel and vibrant party atmosphere. 

"While I knew that adding Santorini and Mykonos to my itinerary wouldn’t disappoint too much, I had read of a different Greece – one that extends beyond just stunning sunsets – that I decided to explore.  It didn’t disappoint, not one bit." 

Some of the most stunning beaches in Greece belong to the Ionian Islands – Corfu, Zakynthos, and Kefallonia. It will be ideal to add one of these to your itineraries as everything from the food habits to the houses and beaches are different. However, you need flights to get here from Athens. If you are constrained by budget, the islands of Milos and Folegandros will appeal to those looking for quieter islands that are just as beautiful.

A little research on sites like helped me get a grip on ferry timings, costs, and distances that made planning a lot easier. Milos, an island about a two-hour ride away on a super-fast ferry from Athens, is easily my favourite; away from the maddening crowd, full of gorgeous crystal beaches, the bluest of skies, and full of silence. As I drove through the countryside of Milos, I could even hear the buzzing of bees. When was the last time you heard that?
Athens is one awesome capital city!
Athens was my entry and exit point to Greece owing to which I spent a good chunk of my time here. I was expecting nothing more than a cleaner and less populated version of Mumbai. All the stories of Athens being unsafe only enhanced my apprehension. I am happy to report that none of those stories are true. 

I arrived quite late into Athens on my first day and took a taxi to get to my apartment. I was sure of being charged at least 20 Euros, for I had no clue of the address or distances. As I stepped out of the cab, I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a 4 Euro bill with a big, “Welcome to Greece. Hope you enjoy your time here!” from the driver. Little did I know that I would be in for many more surprises.
History runs through the veins of Athens, a city as culturally astounding as Rome is. As I took a walk by the housing colonies or walked past a metro station, I ran into glass domes with placard that read stuff like ‘Graveyard from 8th Century BC’.
 That’s how absorbed in history this place is. From every part of the city, I could see the magnificent Acropolis perched on top of the hill and I couldn’t help but feel the gods still watching over Athens. 

Add to that, there are fantastic restaurants, a thriving nightlife, stunning architecture, unpolluted air – Athens is everything I’d want from a big city.

Each part of Greece is like a country in itself
Crete, the large island, floating on the southern most part of Greece above North Africa is a stunning island that is in complete contrast with the rest of the country. From the very first moment I arrived at the coast of Heraklio, which is where most ferries arrive, I felt like I was teleported back in history, to a different world – one with a Byzantine, Ottoman, German, and Jewish past. 

From the bewildering ruins of Knossos to the Old Venetian harbour in Chania; Crete left me craving for more. And when I got back to present day Crete, be it the colour of the Cretan Sea, the style of food, the colours of the houses, or even the olive oil – wow; I was mesmerised. You have to see it to believe it.  

#TravelTip“If I could ever get back there, I’d rent a car and drive down the coastal roads through the mountains with the sea on one side like a painting and nothing but goats and silence for company. Don’t forget to take the coastal drive from the town of Hania (that can serve as an ideal base to explore the island) towards the southern beach of Elafonissi, one among the most stunning I’ve ever taken a dip in.”  

Your go to destination for Healthy, Delicious food
As I walked past a 60-year-old fish taverna right on the harbor in Milos, an old man walked towards me, tucked a small menu into my hand, and gleefully invited me over with a big smile. I half expected him to sit me down and stock my table with all the mouth watering and hearty meals that the Greek are so famous for. Instead, he directed me to a room that had a showcase of a variety of fresh fish - all the fresh catches of the day. 

I pointed to a fish and he quickly ushered me to a table and disappeared into the kitchen. The red mullet that came back to me was grilled to a perfection, of a kind I’ve never seen before. But, along with it came some salads. And then, a plate of fava beans paste, bowl of olives, bottle of ouzo (local alcohol), and more salad. As much as my taste buds wanted more, my stomach was too full to take a bite more. But just then a plate of lemon cake along with a special Greek drink sat on my plate. I just had to sit back for a bit and have it all! And ask me what I payed for? Just the fish!

Eating out in Greece is such a happy exercise, both for meat lovers and the vegetarians. Almost all of the food is cooked in olive oil that is locally produced and served with salads as sides. While the isles are primarily sea food oriented, the mainland cooks up some delicious meat dishes like the lamb grilled in pit, chicken baked in the oven, and veal welled up with some wine sauce. While my carnivorous nature meant I stuck to meat and fish more often than not, their stuffed tomatoes and eggplants are to die for.

The Greeks are very large hearted and made sure I did not leave the table before I was full and satisfied every time without emptying my wallet. I once even scored a free bottle of homemade wine!
Eat Here
Here are a list of restaurants that I feel travelers should eat in, one in each location:

Athens Scholarhio in Plaka has a fixed menu and they bring all the dishes to the table and lets you choose from them. Since the choice is yours, it is hard to go wrong. Of course the location adds to it.

Delphi Taverna Vakhos located on the most northern side of the town has spectacular views down into Amalfi and the stunning valley. Their lamb dishes are worth every penny.

Milos - The Hunter located right in front of the port might not be as popular as its neighbours on either side but their large hearted service and fresh fish leaves you wanting more.

Santorini - If you are headed to the Red Beach, you will go past Taverna Glaros, a nice family run place with excellent sea food. Their stuffed squid is popular all over the island!

Chania - In the cobbled quite alleys of the old town lies a quaint old restaurant called Portes. They have excellent Cretan delicacies cooked to perfection in locally produced olive oil. Choose anything from their specials menu.

Other than them, make sure you have a Gyros from just about anywhere in Greece barring Crete. The best one in Athens is near the square around Monastiraki tube station. Round up your meals with a frozen Greek yoghurt with toppings of your choice from chill box! The chain runs throughout the country. 

Best time to Travel to Greece
Greece is a country battling with a few thousand billion dollar loans and heavy unemployment. With the possibility of Greek exit from the Euro looming large, prices have dropped tremendously. Some of the hotels that sold at 50 Euros a night during the off season now charge not more than 30 Euros. 

Expect to pay about 8 Euros for a dish in the mainland and about 12 Euros for the same in isles. Fish is a tad bit costly but if squids and octopus work for you, then you are in luck. Since I was on a very tight budget, having a gyros (Greek variety of a shawarma, just twice as filling) once everyday for a couple of euros helped me cut down on my costs tremendously. Not to mention, it is the one dish I miss the most now!
“Tourism is the only lifeline of Greeks and most youngsters who are out of jobs have converted their apartments into airbnb listings. I scored an airbnb apartment with a gorgeous view in a relatively expensive island like Santorini for just 24 Euros a night.”
Mainland Greece versus Greek Isles
As I was deciding on the places to visit and going bonkers over choosing the islands to visit, I was turning a blind eye to a side of Greece that had me excited about this country at the first place – the mainland. I ended up spending only one-third of my time in mainland and I’m still cursing myself for it. Sparta - the land of King Leonidas and his 300, Meteora – the monasteries perched on top of magical rocks, Nafplio – the capital of Greece once upon a time, Olympia – where the Olympics began, Delphi – where the oracles were. We’re talking of a land whose history stretches so far back in time that even our history textbooks give it a miss.

I did manage to take a trip up to Delphi in Central Greece - a journey I almost axed in favour of Mykonos. Delphi, perched on top of the mountains, is surrounded by crystal shining mountains on all sides and is the site of some of the most powerful history of the Greek Civilization. They say it is the Centre of the Earth and everyone prominent including the Great Alexander did visit this place. As I trekked all the way up to the stadium (while admiring the incredible stamina the Greeks would have had to build one so high up!), I could just picture the Oracle dancing here as great kings stood by to hear her prophecies.

Island Hopping Across Greece
Almost every alternate day in Greece I spent beach hopping and getting tanned beyond recognition. Every beach, both within an island and on different islands, has its own uniqueness. While almost all of the beaches I experienced are beautiful, Elafonissi in the south of Crete and Sarakiniko in Milos are two beaches whose natural beauty is beyond what any writer or photographer could possibly capture. The sky here is so clear that you can spot aircrafts 35000 feet up in the sky, while the water here is so shallow and clear that I felt I’m in a grand swimming pool.

On the other hand, Sarakiniko beach with its rocky formations is small and can accommodate a few fifty people at best. Yet, the feeling of taking a dip here is truly magical just for the beauty that surrounds it. Beach hopping here in Greece is like being in a different country every time.
Now back from a three week long trip to Greece, as I sit back and run through the memories, it dawns on me that I have never seen a sky as blue or water as shiny, had a meal as fresh or seen history as astounding, or met people as welcoming. The time that I spent in this beautiful land, I couldn’t be any happier that I spent as much time as I did here.

About the Author
Vikas Plakkot spends his time teaching children in a government school, advocating for education for the girl and getting children to play. As co-founder of Just For Kicks, he is on a mission to get children from all strata of the society to start playing.

His desire to keep moving has taken him travelling to 8 countries across various continents. Vikas likes to call himself a frog who made his way out of the boiling waters.

  To know what he means by ‘boiling waters’ or to connect with him further about his travels get in touch with him on twitter @thesixthking

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