If the journey of Odysseus back to his home after the victorious Trojan War was anything to go by, a journey to the Island nation was to be full of life. We spent 18 days in the Island Nation, full of whitewashed homes, spectacularly blue skies, azure clear waters, and unbelievable history. It was nothing short of an Odyssey. There are innumerable reasons why you should visit Greece and even more as to why you should do it slowly. Here’s an attempt to convince you why.
1) Athens is not your typical European capital city – it is MORE
Athens was our entry and exit point to Greece owing to which we spent a good chunk of our time here. We were expecting nothing more than a cleaner and less populated version of Mumbai. All the stories of Athens being unsafe only enhanced our apprehension. We’re happy to report that none of those stories are true.
We arrived quite late into Athens on our first day and took a taxi (probably the only time we took a cab on our entire trip) to get to our apartment. We were sure of being charged at least 20 Euros, for we had no clue of the address or distances. As we stepped out of the cab, we were 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 we know that we would be in for many more surprises.
History runs through the veins of Athens, a city as culturally astounding as Rome is. Every time we walked by the housing colonies or passed a metro station, we ran into glass domes with placards that read stuff like ‘Graveyard from 8th Century BC’.
That’s how absorbed in history this place is. From every part of the city, we could see the magnificent Acropolis perched on top of the hill and we 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 we’d want from a big city.
2) Each part of Greece is like a country in itself
Crete, the large island, floating on the southernmost 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 we arrived at the coast of Heraklion, which is where most ferries arrive, we felt like we were 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 us craving for more. And when we 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 – we were mesmerised. If we could ever get back there, we’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.
3) Your go-to destination for healthy, delicious food
As we walked past a 60-year-old fish taverna right on the harbor in Milos, an old man walked towards us, tucked a small menu into Divya’s hand, and gleefully invited us over with a big smile. We half expected him to sit us down and stock our table with all the mouthwatering and hearty meals that the Greeks are so famous for. Instead, he directed us to a room that had a showcase of a variety of fresh fish – all the fresh catches of the day.
Divya pointed to a fish and he quickly ushered us to a table and disappeared into the kitchen. The red mullet that came back was grilled to a perfection, of a kind we’d never seen before. But, along with it came some salads. And then, a plate of fava beans paste, a bowl of olives, bottle of ouzo (local alcohol), and more salad. As much as our taste buds wanted more, our stomach was too full to take a bite more (though Divya did take a crack at the bones!). And just before we decided to call it a meal, he topped us with a lemon cake and another speciality Greek drink. Take a guess at what all we paid for – Well, 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 seafood oriented, the mainland cooks up some delicious meat dishes like the lamb grilled in a pit, chicken baked in the oven, and veal welled up with some wine sauce. While my carnivorous nature (Divya is a bit more open to vegetarian food than am) 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 we did not leave the table before we were full and satisfied every time without emptying my wallet. We even scored a free bottle of homemade wine, once!
4) Best time to travel to Greece
Greece is a country battling with a few thousand billion dollar loans and heavy unemployment, at the moment. With the possibility of Greek exit from the Euro continuing to loom large, prices have dropped tremendously. Some of the hotels that sold at 50 Euros a night during the offseason 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 we were on a very tight budget (as always!), having a gyros (Greek variety of a shawarma, just twice as filling) once every day for a couple of euros helped us cut down on my costs tremendously. Not to mention, it is the one dish we 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.
5) Mainland Greece is no lesser than its more popular isles
As we were deciding on the places to visit and going bonkers over choosing the islands to visit, we were turning a blind eye to a side of Greece that had me excited about this country at the first place – the mainland. We ended up spending only one-third of my time in the mainland and we’re still cursing ourselves for it. Sparta – the land of King Leonidas & 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.
Luckily, we did manage to take a trip up to Delphi in Central Greece – a journey we 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 we trekked all the way up to the stadium (while admiring the incredible stamina the Greeks would have had to build one so high up!), we could just picture the Oracle dancing here as great kings stood by to hear her prophecies. Thank Oracle we made the right choice of destination!
6) Who doesn’t want a summer full of incredible beaches!
Almost every alternate day in Greece we 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 we 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. At Elafonissi, the sky is so clear that you can spot aircrafts 35000 feet up in the sky, while the water is so shallow and clear that you feel like you’re in a grand swimming pool. Add to it the pink sands and the incredible drive to get here, you wouldn’t question twice as to why it is often rated the best beach on the planet.
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.
While Mykonos and Santorini are world-popular tourist destinations that shot Greece to the top of people’s bucket list, there is a different Greece – one that extends beyond just stunning sunsets – that I decided to explore. It didn’t disappoint, not one bit. Skipping the popular Mykonos, Choosing not to stay in Oia, Heading to Crete instead of Rhodes were just some of the decisions we took and that’s what took us beyond the wall to a Greece that is more stunning than you could imagine.
A year later, as we sit back and run through the memories, it dawns on us that we 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.