10 Days in Greece (Islands and Athens)

“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” – Aristotle

Greece – the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and the home of vibrant tales of gods, heroes, and Olympians. As a kid, the Greek myths fascinated me, a fascination bolstered by Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson series. I remember dreaming of going to Greece and seeing the Parthenon. I even wrote a paper on the Parthenon’s optical illusions in high school. Later, the PBS show the Durrells in Corfu, a tale about a British family who relocates to Corfu, introduced me to a lesser known, but no less beautiful island. Consequently, after I worked hard for four years at college and graduated  Summa Cum Laude, my family and I, plus a few of my friends who also graduated, decided to travel to Greece as a celebration!

So where did we go? At first, we thought about the standard choices – Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens. Then, we considered Crete. But, in the end, flight logistics led us to choose Corfu, Aegina, Corinth, and Athens. Since my friends and I wanted some girl time by ourselves, we decided to split up mid-vacation, with my friends and I going to Aegina and everyone else going to Corinth. Many times family vacations result in tension and family disputes because everyone has things they really want to do, but remember, you don’t all have to do the same things! Keeping a flexible mindset will help ensure people get to do what they really want and that the vacation is actually relaxing.

Stop 1: Corfu

Long plane rides are no fun, especially when you have a connecting flight plus another flight to an island. In order to get the majority of flying out of the way at the beginning, we decided to do all three flights back to back, ending in Corfu. So our first real sight of Greece was the small Corfu airport.

Transportation: Corfu is a moderate-sized island — larger than Mykonos and Santorini, but smaller than Crete. Consequently, renting a car or a scooter will be helpful to navigate the island. A public bus also runs in a loop around the island, but it is not particularly quick.

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Source: greekisland.co.uk

History: Corfu is classified as an Ionic Island and, in Greek, is called Kerkyra (a derivation of the nymph Corcyra). The island has an interesting history in that many different groups of people have inhabited it over the years. First up were the Phaecians, who occupied the island in the 12th century BC. In his work The Odyssey, Homer wrote about the Phaecian ruler, Alkinoos, and his daughter helping Odysseus on his journey to Ithica. Greeks first came onto the scene in 775 BC, when Dorians from Eretria settled on the island. Next, the Corinthians attacked the island (threatened by the Dorians naval power)… then the Corfiots joined with Athenian Confederation in the Peloponnesian war…then pirates took the island…then Romans took the island…then Goths raided the island (562 AD) while it was under Byzantine rule… then in 1267 the Sicilians conquered it…then the Venetians bought the island…etc. Needless to say, Corfu has changed hands many times, resulting in an amalgamation of cultures. To read a more in-depth history about the island, click here

Where we stayed: Because we were a rather large party, 7 people, we rented an entire villa. Villa Alexandros (available on Airbnb) sits in the small town of Nisaki. The coastal, north-eastern town is half an hour from both Old Corfu and the airport and offers a quiet, relaxing setting for travelers. A cafe/small grocery store and several tavernas were within walking distance as well.

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View from the top of Villa Alexandros

What to do: The first day, we recovered from jet lag, lounging on the gorgeous rooftop with an amazing view looking out over the sea. As we sat on the roof admiring Corfu’s glimmering coast, the mild May breeze and warming sunlight refreshed us.

The second day, we explored Old Corfu town, which boasts many little shops and winding cobblestone streets. The architecture highlights the influence of the different European conquerors that took the island. Near Old Corfu, tourists can visit both an old and new Venetian fort. We chose to visit the old fort in which a musical conservatory resides. In addition to gorgeous views, the old fort offers access to the water and a yacht club (if you go through a little tunnel just past the conservatory). I would highly recommend visiting the old town at night, as many people come out after work to enjoy the cooler temperatures and shop.

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Old Corfu Town European architecture

On the third day, we all went on a hike. Georgia and George, our tour guides, picked us up and drove us inland.  While we drove, Georgia enthusiastically explained about the

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Wildflowers in my hair on the hike

island’s culture and economy. We started our hike near the Monastery Of Pantokrator and preceded to do a 9k exploration, wandering through beautiful wildflowers and capturing stunning views of Corfu’s coast and even distant Albania. On our way back to Nisaki, we stopped in Old Perithia, one of Corfu’s oldest towns located on the northern end of the island. 

We also ventured down to a beach nearby to cool off. The was so clear you could see straight to the bottom. Unlike the typical beaches in the USA, the beach was very pebbly and a bit painful for the feet. Since it was May, the water was chilly, but definitely still swimmable, especially if you went for a hike or walk prior.

If you’re interested in a bicycle tour or hike, check out Georgia and George’s website here

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Arch in Old Perithia

What to eat: Two nights we ate at a local taverna called Roumeli which served traditional Greek food. It’s located in Nisaki and was within walking distance from our villa. The owner was extremely hospitable and proudly listed his fresh seafood specials each night we were there. Once a week, Rumeli’s also hosts Greek dancers. In Old Corfu, there are many different options, from gyro stands to sit-down restaurants. To enjoy some hot Loukoumades (sweet fried dough balls), stop by Stazei Meli. This little place offers traditional Loukoumades, unique sweet Loukoumades, and even savory Loukoumades! The last restaurant we ate at was in Old Perithia. A unique dish for that area is rooster in a cinnamon tomato sauce.

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Roadside taverna in Nisaki
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Loukoumades with white chocolate sauce and crushed biscuits!

Stop 2: Aegina

After flying into Athens from Corfu, our group split up. My friends and I headed for Aegina, which sits just off the coast of Greece near the Piraeus Port. To get there, you can take a bus or train from Athens airport and then take a ferry to Aegina. There is no airport on the island because it is so small, and many people do day trips to Aegina. The island offers beautiful beaches (sandy beaches not just pebbly ones) and many little shops and restaurants. The buildings are mostly one to two stories and many have colorful stucco walls with flowers cascading down the sides. Also, for people who love interesting doors (like me), just wander down the streets and you will see doors of all different shapes, sizes, and colors.

 

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Boats docked at the Aegina Port

What to do: When you first get off the ferry, you will no doubt be plied with samples of pistachios, pistachio butter, pistachio brittle, etc. The island is known for its pistachios! So if you have a nut allergy (like my friend) it is worth learning the word for allergy in Greek!

After exploring the town the first night, my friends and I decided to visit both the Temple of Aphaia and the beach the next day. To get to the there, we hopped on a bus near the port that dropped us off at the temple (you must pay to visit). The temple, showcasing the less ornate Doric architecture style, served as a place of worship for the goddess Aphaia worshipped mainly by Corfiots. Aphaia identified with many the qualities of the more popular goddesses Athena and Artemis. After snapping some nice shots at the temple, we headed down to the beach, approximately a 15-minute walk, mostly downhill.

After the hot trek down from the temple, the first thing we did was hit the Barracuda Beach Bar for some cold strawberry daiquiris. The breezy bar sits right along the water, so you can grab a drink, go down a few steps, and sit down on the hot sand. Unless you bring your own chair, you will likely have to rent one. Two long beach chairs and one umbrella cost us 8 euros and we stayed all day. It was a glorious day of swimming, sunning, and reading! In short, the perfect vacation day.

On our final day on Aegina, we went souvenir shopping. We stopped at local art and food stalls as well as a few tourist-trap shops. For a great snack or gift, stop by Mourtzis (Μούρτζης Παραδοσιακά Γλυκά) located at P. Irioti 57, Egina 180 10, Greece. The shop has a mouth-watering selection of dried fruits, nuts, pistachio snacks, as well as alcohol. Notably, the store offered many unsweetened dried fruits, including cherries, blackberries, and raspberries, for people who don’t like additional sugar on fruit. I decided to purchase some dried blackberries and raspberries, as well as some Greek mead.

Note: Because the island is so small, I would recommend either a day trip or a two-day stay. Also, be sure to go out at night and watch the sunset over the glistening blue water.

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Stop 2: Corinth

What to do: For those with an interest in theology, visiting ancient Corinth is an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the apostles. In AD 51-52, Paul spoke to the Corinthians and chronicled his experiences in I Corinthians and II Corinthians. If you like Grecian temples, Corinth has the Temple of Apollo, constructed in the Doric style. Other attractions include the Corinth Canal, Corinth Archaeological Museum, and the Acrocorinth. Out of the places my family visited, they enjoyed the Acrocorinth the most because of its stunning views and seasonal wildflowers.

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What to eat: Corinth offers numerous local tavernas with traditional fare. In particular, my family liked the taverna called Tassos located in the town center of ancient Corinth. Another good restaurant was Faros in Lechaio, located right along the coast, which features delicious fresh seafood. The owner displays his fish, which varies from day to day, in draws allowing customers to choose what looks good. Other food options include purchasing freshly baked bread, seasonal fruit, and deli meats from the market. There were also a number of coffee and cookie shops as well.

Stop 3: Athens

After the beauty of Corfu and Aegina, Athens was a bit of a shock. I think in a way, my expectations were simply too high for a city that has suffered severe economic hurdles. While the city possesses beautiful aspects, the overwhelming impression for me was of a struggling city without the resources needed to become the renowned place it once was. This is not to say that culture and a passion for learning are not present; rather, it is simply overshadowed by the dirt, weeds, and layers of graffiti throughout the city.

 

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Hadrian’s Arch

What to see: Despite my overall impression of the Athens, there were still many interesting things to do and see. Obviously, the acropolis was a must see, although the swarming crowds took a little of the enjoyment away. Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s Arch, and the National Gardens are just a few of the other places we visited. If you have members of your party who aren’t thrilled about walking all over the city, try Citysightseeing bus tours. Yes, you will look like a tourist, but the hop-on-hop-off buses provide free wifi and offer historical facts (in many different languages) as you pass by the different monuments. The buses circle around every 15 minutes, allowing for both quick photo ops or longer explorations.

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Back view of the Parthenon. Source: Jessica Bowen

If museums are your thing, visit the Benaki Museum (which is free on Thursdays), the National Archeological Museum, and the Goulandris Natural History Museum. For a less traditional museum experience, stop by the Museum of Illusions. You can also witness the changing of the guard outside the Presidential Mansion at 11am during week days. Lastly, the Zappeion is a beautiful specimen of architecture, both inside out outside. It sits on the outer boundaries of the National Gardens and hosts ceremonies and meetings throughout the year.

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Changing of the guard at Constitution Square in front of the Greek Parliament building
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Inside the Zappeion Source: William Santulli

Lastly, if you happened to be in the Plaka at night, you might get to see some street artists in action. I ended up purchases a beautiful spray-painted landscape. If you hang around for at least five minutes, you will likely see a painting created from start to finish in front of your eyes. As I mentioned before, there was a lot of graffiti throughout the city and not all of it was profane or an eyesore (see the pics below), but the street artists were a great example of how local graffiti artists can use their talent without damaging the cities appearance.

 

 

What to eat: For me, my overall food experience in Greece was difficult, as I currently have dietary restrictions for health reasons. If you are gluten-free and vegan, Athens offers more options, compared to the smaller places on the islands. Vegan restaurants include Veganaki (traditional food with GF options), Avocado, and Mama Tierra. Other places that have some vegan options are Mama Roux, which is conveniently on the way to the Plaka.

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Source: Dominique Trotte

If you don’t have dietary restrictions, Athens has some great food options. One of the

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Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts

places recommended by a native is Falafellas, a cute little falafel joint popular with the locals. For sit-down restaurants, my recommendation would be to read reviews on trip-advisor. The Plaka has a ton of options, but not all of them are great. Like most big cities, there are some gems and a lot of over-priced mediocre restaurants. Overall, my family enjoyed the smaller family-run Tavernas on Corfu and in Corinth. For something sweet, and if you want a truly authentic dessert, stop by Stani, a little shop selling traditional Greek yogurt with honey, yogurt desserts, and galaktoboureko.

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Going to Greece?

Movies to Watch

It never hurts to learn a bit about the culture of your vacation destination. While movies aren’t always the most accurate in terms of facts or culture, they are still a great way to bond with your fellow travelers! Below are just a few movies, TV shows, and documentaries related to Greece.

  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding (1 & 2)
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (1 & 2)
  • Mama Mia
  • Secrets of the Parthenon (PBS Nova Season 35 Episode 3)
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (although the book is WAY better!)
  • Hercules (Disney)
  • The Quest for the Gods (History Channel Documentary)
  • The Durrells in Corfu (PBS)

What you need to know before Traveling to Greece

  • Scan a copy of your passport and print it out so you don’t have to carry your passport with you everywhere
  • Get travel insurance (medical and flight)
  • The Greek sewage system can’t handle toilet paper (yes, really! look it up)
  • It’s suggested that you drink bottled water on the islands
  • Don’t bring a ton of cash; rather, use an ATM at a bank to get Euros
  • If going to Corfu, an international drivers license will be helpful for car/scooter rentals

Comment on our airline service: for this trip, we took SAS Airlines. Overall, the experience was about a 7 out of 10. The economy seats did offer decent leg room and the staff was attentive. However, the food was not very good. If you have dietary restrictions, the options are not great. Plus if you order a special meal, be aware that you cannot upgrade your seats at the gate.

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