Tuesday, November 17, 2009

First Stop - Athens, Greece

On the trip to Greece, the first stop was Athens. We had already decided that we were going to take the Metro Train from the airport to our hotel. We knew from our research that a cab from the airport would be 25-35 Euros and the Metro train was only 6 Euros. We had mapped this out before hand and it seemed like a simple process. Get off the plane, find the Metro Station, purchase tickets, get tickets validated (we read this was very important as Metro officials randomly check tickets for validation and you could get fined 65 Euro!), get on the train to Syntagma Square (which is where our hotel reservation was) and walk to the hotel. The hotel we had booked was "within walking distance" to the Metro Station as well as the Acropolis. Easy enough, right?

We got off the plane and got right through customs. We exchanged some money into Euros. We inquired at a help desk about the location of the Metro and headed in that direction. We found the ticket booth and purchased our tickets. It was here that we realized just how hard it would be to communicate. After some lengthy discussion/interpretation, the ticket seller said to go downstairs to the train (but neglected to tell us where/how to validate our tickets. Would there be a turnstile to go through that validated tickets? Do we look for a person validating tickets? Is that something they do on the train?) We headed down the stairs with our luggage and soon realized that we had already passed by the validation station. It turned out to be just a simple machine at the top of the stairs that you pass your ticket through to get a date stamp. We would have missed it if we were not specifically looking for it. OK, check. Now… which train to board? There were a few different signs with names on them, and some color coded maps, but nothing was making sense, based on the area map we had been studying. Well, the train was leaving so it was time to just get on a hope for the best! We placed our luggage into some racks and we were lucky enough to find seats. Trust me you want a seat because it is a long ride and very crowded. Standing room only! Even luckier, we met an American (Chicago) who was seated near us. He was in Greece for business and had been a few times before so he could confirm that we were on the right train. Whew! He was also getting of at Syntagma Square so we were able to follow his lead off the train and up the stairs. Oh wow, so crowded! Getting off the train was crazy. Everyone seemed to get off at the same stop, moving, but not going anywhere very fast. Did I mention that we have luggage? Picture three Americans with rolling luggage caught up in a moving crowd, trudging up stairs, and not quite sure where to go. Thankfully our handsome American friend was nice enough to wait for us and lead us out. Once we were out in the sunshine, he said good luck and good-bye. Left alone, we realized we had no idea how to get to the hotel. The hotel directions said “follow the road past Syntagma Square and it will lead you to Dioneias Street”. Wait a minute; we just got dropped of in the middle of a square. Which road? Which direction? We tried to ask several people if they had heard of the Cypria Hotel. No one in the square, no one at the close-by hotels, not even the foreboding policeman knew this place! We rolled our luggage around a couple of blocks sneaking through busy traffic and ducking around all the people, stopping to look at street signs that were not there, and consult our map. It was at this point I felt like we were on The Amazing Race. Exhausted from a 24 hour flight, in a different country with a different language, can’t make heads or tails of the map, and crazy-busy streets and sidewalks! Sigh, so close yet so far. Finally, we just camped on the street corner for a minute to catch our breath and really look around. We noticed some other hotel names and found them on the map, then were able to see that the street names change slightly from map to reality, and we were on our way. Whew!

So, after we checked in to our tiny room (just big enough to fit 4 toddler sized beds) and freshened up a little in our tiny bathroom, we headed down the tiny elevator (it could fit two of us at a time) and out to find some Greek food! By this time we were pretty much starving having not had any food for hours. It was about lunch time so we walked around the neighborhood and found a cute outdoor restaurant where we ordered Gyros and Greek beer. Yamas! That is “cheers” in Greek!

Next on the agenda: the Acropolis. Now some people take a tram to the top of the Acropolis, but not us! No, we walked up the entire cliff to get there! This was partly due to being directionally-challenged, partly due to ignorance. We didn’t intend to walk up the entire way, but that is what ended up happening. Oh well, we got more exercise than we wanted on vacation, but the end result was amazing. We saw the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of Olympiad Zeus, Athena Nike, Hadrian’s Arch, and the Temple of Poseidon. Some of the Acropolis was under renovation at the time so we had to look past the scaffolding to see the ancient beauty. But it was amazing to see the centuries old marble columns and statues and wonder at how they built it all without heavy machinery. Being at the top of the Acropolis was also a fantastic view of Athens. Wow. I did not expect it to be such a large city! Tall white buildings, crammed together, as far as the eye could see. You don’t see houses, you don’t see lots, you don’t see vegetation aside from a few parks and/or historical preserved areas. You also don’t see tall skyscrapers, just white buildings that look very similar, all seemingly to be no more than 10 stories tall. This explains the maddening traffic and busy streets below. Population: 10,722,816 (July 2008 EST.) Compare that to Seattle with a population of 598,541 (also 2008 data as researched by Google!) I wish I would have taken a picture of traffic. Greek drivers are crazy. The busy streets are about 8 lanes across. Everyone either drives a VERY small car, or some sort of delivery or passenger van. Regardless of the type of vehicle, everything is made by BMW! There are millions of scooters on the streets as well. Scooters are apparently able to drive in-between the car lanes so they constantly weave in and out of different lanes all racing for pole position at the lights. The sides of streets are lined with hundreds of pedestrians either walking or waiting for busses. The bus stops are surrounded by hoards of people. I’ve only seen this kind of crowd in Seattle – after a Seahawks game and all the fans funnel through the parking lot heading to the train or bus tunnel.

Next stop: Paros!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Greece, baby!

Well, I finally did it! I went on my first European vacation! Greece has always been at the top of my list of places to go. So when a couple of my girlfriends said they were doing it, I happily jumped on board. They had already booked their flights, so the time frame was set and I was able to book seats on the their flights. Whew, that is one big decision already made!

In the weeks before the trip we had a couple planning meetings to discuss the itinerary and strategize over things we wanted to do and see. Usually a planning sessions involved getting some Greek take-out from a local Seattle spot, or going to a Greek restaurant to get some "atmosphere". One of the restaurants we loved was Taki's Mad Greek in Ballard (15th and 85th). Such a fun place! We went on a Saturday night and so there was dancing, singing and a belly dancer! http://www.takismadgreek.com/ We even met the owner, Kiki, who gave us a lot of good info and lots of (free) wine! Kiki's husband Taki is the main chef there, and one of the entertainers too. It's a real family place!

In the planning sessions we basically decided which islands we wanted to visit, how many days to stay on each, and what means of transportation to use to get there. We had heard from friends and travel books that you didn't necessarily need to book any reservations on the islands. Hotel representatives would actually meet the ferries with brochures to sway you to stay at their places. Being a Professional Organizer this concept was a little hard for me to grasp. Go to Europe and not have reservations... what?! But "winging it" allows you full freedom to choose accommodations on-the-fly and negotiate rates with hotels to get rock bottom deals. So each of us 4 girls decided to pick one destination on the itinerary and research it more on our own. This way, at least one person in the group had an idea of the best areas to stay, what rates were considered "normal" and what kind of amenities we would require. (We did pre-book a hotel in Athens for our first night as we didn't want to get off the plane after 24 hours of travel and not have any idea of where we were going to stay. This proved to be a great idea because Athens is such a large city and soooo busy! It was literally like an episode of the "Amazing Race" trying to get out of the airport and into the city to find our hotel! I'll tell you more about that in a later post….)

It was true! When we would arrive on each island, we would be bombarded by hotel reps waving their brochures in our faces and shouting out their amenities. We asked questions about where they were located, how far from "town", and we negotiated some pretty great rates. Then they would put us into a van a take us to our accommodations. We definitely learned to ask more specific questions as the trip went on, and our accommodations got better and better with each stop! What an amazing trip! Our travel itinerary - and my final costs are below (not including food, drink, shopping, etc.). I will talk about each destination in a later post!

Day 1: Leave Seattle on a 6:15AM flight to NY. Leave NY on a 3:50PM flight to Athens.
Day 2: Arrive Athens at 8:55AM. (Greece is 10 hours ahead of Seattle). $1350 round trip airfare. Take Metro Train to Syntagma Square. 6 Euros ($9). Athens Cypria Hotel. 4 bed hotel room $215 (0r $53.75 each). Visit Acropolis 12 Euros ($18).
Day 3: Ferry to Mykonos. Blue Star Ferries @ 8AM. 21 Euro ($30).
Day 4: Mykonos Town. Studio Eleni. 15 Euro each x 2 nights ($45). http://www.studioeleni.com/
Day 5: Ferry to Paros. GA Ferries @ 10AM. 19 Euro ($25).
Day 6: Naoussa, Paros. Captain Dounas Hotel. 15 Euro each x 2 nights ($45). http://www.dounas.com/
Day 7: Ferry to Santorini. Blue Star Ferries @ 11:55AM. 19 Euro ($25).
Day 8: Fira Town, Santorini. Hotel Golden Star. 25 Euro each x 3 nights ($112). http://www.hotelgoldenstar.gr/
Day 9: Fira Town, Santorini. Car rental 1 day. (Can’t remember how much we paid?)
Day 10: Fly to Athens. Aegean Air @ 12:15) 79 Euro ($106). Athens Cypria Hotel. 4 bed hotel room $215 (0r $53.75 each). Visit NEW Acropolis Museum 1 Euro ($1.50).
Day 11: Cab to Athens airport 35 Euro ($52). Leave Athens on 11AM flight to NY. Leave NY on 5:10PM flight to Seattle. Arrive Seattle at 9PM…. or more likely 11PM due to flight delays getting out of NY!

Flight: $1350.00
Travel Transfers: $250.00
Hotels: $310.00
Total expenses: $1910.00

More about the trip to come! Check back!