Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

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Part two of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View of the Athens Parliament from Syntagma Square

Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise …

Soon after collecting our bags at Athens International Airport, the Friendly Planet group was met by our tour guide, Heather. First a word about our multilingual travel lifeline.

Heather had come to the country about three years earlier for a job as a guide with another company. She moved to Athens not speaking a word of Greek, but had a month before starting her job to acclimate herself to the city and begin learning the language.

Two days after her arrival she got a phone call from her soon-to-be boss. “Think you could start tomorrow?” She agreed. And after just a week on a tour bus with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English, she was conversational in Greek.

Not surprising, our first conversation with Heather was a vocabulary lesson. On the ride into the city we learned kalimera (pronounced ka-lee-MEra, meaning good morning), yasass (pronounced YA-sass, the polite way to say hello to someone you don’t know), and efharisto (pronounced ef-ka-ree-STO, meaning thank you).

During that drive, Heather also told us an important thing to know about the streets of Athens: Traffic is heavy and the “rules” of the road are seen as more of a suggestion. For the most part, they’re ignored. She strongly suggested that we look both ways (a few times) before crossing the street. 🙂

Athens’ heavy traffic can be attributed to its dense population. The city lies in a valley, with Mount Aegaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Penteli to the northeast, and Mount Hymettus to the east. Over 3 million people live in the Athens urban area, which is about seven times the square mileage of Manhattan.

But unlike the Big Apple, a building height restriction put in place to protect views of the Parthenon means there are no buildings over 12-stories high (except for a handful of exceptions). That means the city is packed with residential and commercial buildings, and Greeks traveling from the outskirts of town to the city center.

Life in the Plaka

After driving from the airport into the heart of downtown Athens, we arrived at our centrally located hotel, the Titania. The afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings. We were walking distance from some of the most beautiful neo-classical style buildings in the city, including Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we watched the changing of the guard; the Academy of Athens; and the Vallianios National Library.

Having wandered through Syntagma Square (or Constitution Square), we found ourselves in Plaka, the historical neighborhood of Greece that wraps around the base of the Acropolis. The tangled web of narrow streets here are lined with beautiful old homes, street vendors, shops, and cafes.

It was just a few quick hours wandering the Athens streets (we’d be back in a few days) before we headed back to the Titania to resist a nap, meet with our tour group to discuss cruise embarquement procedure, and finalize the list of shore excursions we would take at each of the islands we would visit.

Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant. Sure we were thousands of miles from home, but we managed to find ourselves at a place called The Olive Garden. Not the chain you find in the U.S. No endless soup, salad, and breadsticks here. Just incredible views of the Acropolis. 🙂 We went easy on the wine, because it was a 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning when we’d head to Piraeus, the port of the Athens where our cruise ship, the Aquamarine, was anchored.

But more on that in my next post. Plus: Lifeboat dry runs, sunset picture #1 of 3,000, and how to confuse a pirate.

The wondrous Greek Isles: Heraklion and Santorini

If three days of sailing throughout the Mediterranean just isn’t enough to take in all the wonders of Greece, there’s also an Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise. The itinerary for the two vacations are almost identical, but on the four-day cruise, the M/V Aquamarine also docks at the most popular of all the Greek Isles, Santorini, as well as a stop at Heraklion, Crete.
Two Friendly Planeteers enjoying the breathtaking views of Santorini.
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On the four-day journey, after a day in Rhodes, travelers will enjoy a trip to Heraklion. Just five kilometers from the Heraklion city center lie the ruins of Knossos — the capital of Minoan Crete and today the island’s major tourist attraction — which travelers can visit on an optional shore excursion.
Other points of interest here include Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum — one of the finest in the Mediterannean — which houses exquisite findings from Knossos and other Minoan ruins, numerous Venetian fortresses, and fountains and loggias scattered throughout the city.
At the Historical Museum of Crete, Byzantine and folklore collections are on display. The island’s open air market is a must-see, where colorful and boisterous crowds buy, sell, and trade everything from goats and sheep to enormous cauldrons of freshly churned yogurt.
The next port of call is Santorini. This striking island, with breathtaking panoramas and rugged landscapes, is actually a volcanic crater slightly immersed in the sea. The island is famous for its whitewashed houses, narrow streets, open-air cafes, and glittering boutiques which cling to steep cliffs, accessible by foot, cable car, or mule. Like Mykonos, it is not only Santorini’s physical beauty that makes it one of Europe’s most popular destinations, but its dynamic nightlife as well.
The island of Santorini was formed by one of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet, which destroyed the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island. The Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption) occurred approximately 3,600 years ago at the height of the ancient Minoan civilization.
Vacationers can enjoy an optional tour of Santorini that takes them up along the Caldera (volcanic crater). They can also drive uphill along the rocky sides of the Caldera and pass through many traditional villages to Oia, a village that brims with many fine examples of Cycladic architecture. At the end of the day, passengers return to the ship for a final evening at sea before returning to Athens.

The wondrous Greek Isles: Mykonos, Rhodes, and Patmos

On the third day of our Athens and Greek Isles cruise, vacationers head to Piraeus, a large coastal city just 10 km from the center of Athens, where they’ll board the M/V Aquamarine. Travelers can pass their time enjoying the sun, warm sea breezes, pool, and shipboard facilities while they sail to Mykonos.
The island of Mykonos is famed for its cosmopolitan character and energetic nightlife (some say it’s the best in Europe), as much as it is for its labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, basket-laden donkeys, and cascading geraniums. Chic crowds flock to the island’s trendy restaurants, discos, and clubs each night, and vacationers sit seaside, sipping ouzo and watching the sunset while listening to traditional Greek music.
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The next day takes travelers to Rhodes, the stunning “Island of Roses.” Historically, Rhodes was famous throughout the world for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the heart of the island’s biggest city, also named Rhodes, is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, a fascinating web of Byzantine, Turkish, and Latin ruins. There’s no wonder why it’s been declared one of the few World Heritage Sites. Its mighty fortifications provide the finest surviving examples of defensive architecture of the time.
Lindos, with its dazzlingly white houses clustered beneath a soaring castle-capped acropolis, is Rhodes’ most picturesque village and most important Doric settlement because of its natural harbor and vantage point built 125 meters above sea level. Here, travelers can explore on their own, or take advantage of Friendly Planet Travel’s optional shore excursions.
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The following morning, the M/V Aquamarine docks in Kusadasi, Turkey. Just 10 km from the port of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephessos, where travelers will find an archaeological site that ranks among the wonders of the world. The day’s optional tours include the the Great Theatre of Ephessos, which had a capacity of 25,000 people, and the Library of Celsus, dating from 135 A.D.
Vacationers will then sail to Patmos, Greece. The Aquamarine docks at Skala harbor, a lively atmosphere with whitewashed houses, flowered courtyards, tavernas, and shops. The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. An optional tour takes you to the cave where St. John lived and the nearby Monastery, built on one of the island’s highest points, housing priceless icons and manuscripts in its Treasury.
From there, it’s back to Athens for a final few days in the Paris of the Mediterranean.

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