Monday, July 28, 2008

Travel in Greece - Money saving tips

My travel in Greece is one of my best overseas trip so far and here are some money saving tips based on my experience there.

1. Get your essentials (like bottled water, juices and snacks) from the local mini or supermarket chain, if you can find one nearby. Prices are generally cheaper than those sold in the omnipresent kiosks, especially items on offer. This is true not only in Greece but in other countries as well.

2. If you're visiting the Acropolis, keep the ticket since the same ticket (it has 6 tear-away stubs) can be used for Agora, Roman Forum, Kerameikos, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Theatre of Dionysus and Hadrian's Library. In fact, if you're visiting any of the above places before Acropolis, you can purchase the Acropolis ticket there and use it for the other places. Not sure how long it is valid, some say 3 days some say more but since the ticket is not date stamped, you can always try your luck.

3. Buy the 24 hours transport ticket for 3 euros that can be used in the Metro, tram and buses in Athens or the 0.8 euro ticket valid for 90 minutes depending on how many times you want to use the public transport. If you stay longer in Athens, there is a weekly ticket for 10 euros. You need to validate the ticket the first time you use it when it is time-stamped. However, all the tickets are not valid for travel to the airport by metro that costs 6 euros.

4. It may be cheaper to buy the local tours back home rather than in Athens as your local travel agent may get better prices. You can compare the prices from the websites of the tour operators. If you have to buy it from Athens, get the tours from the tour operator office directly and ask for discount, they do give discounts if you get more than one tours. It is more convenient to buy it from your hotel but they normally do not give discounts since they live on the commissions. The tourist industry is highly organised in Greece and it appears that Athens is divided into zones and hotels located in a zone is served by a particular tour operator so you need to know your hotel location to see which tour operator is assigned so that you can buy your tour from the right operator for ease of pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.

5. Ask for upgrade of your room whether in the hotel or in the cruise ship. Your request may be granted especially if there are vacancies during off-season.

6. Most taverns in the tourist areas offer set lunches or dinners that are good value for money, if you do not mind the limited choice of items. But if you care to venture outside the tourist areas, prices will generally be lower as well.

7. Get fresh fruits from the local market, if there is one near you. It is cheaper and fresher than those elsewhere.

8. If you intend to shop at Hard Rock Cafe in Athens, get the map of Athens at the airport during arrival; there's a 10% discount coupon with the HRC ad.

9. Do not expose your valuables, wallet, etc in public. Pickpockets are plenty in Athens as in all major cities. This will not only same you money (those in the wallet) but also all the hassle of lost credit cards and other documents.

10. For a quick and cheap bite, there are many street vendors selling pretzels, doughnuts and other pastries all over Athens. If you are lucky, there will be free drinks for sampling as well by major sponsors.

So that's all folks from my travel in Greece. If you want to know more about any item mentioned in my posts, I will be happy to answer any queries. I'll leave you with more images of Greece, less touristic ones. Maybe I'll talk about my travel in Spain in my next series of posts.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, July 21, 2008

Athens, Greece - Home Sweet Home

Today is my last day in Athens. After a very leisurely breakfast, we went to the Central Market down the road and saw a gruesome display of animal parts. And Greeks must be nuts about nuts, there's plenty on view and pretty costly too. Since our flight out of Athens was in the afternoon, we had time to walk the shops around Omonia. While at one of the Zara shops, I had an interesting conversation with the security guard there. He proudly informed me that he would be getting married on Monday to an American girl and will be having two days off. All the while, he was watching shoppers that were moving in and out of the store with his searching eyes.
After this last minute shopping, we went back to the hotel to wait for our taxi that was to take us to the airport. It came before the appointed time and with a heavy heart, we left the Baby Grand that was our second home in Greece and headed for the airport. As usual, there was the final shopping at the duty free shops in the airport. The flight out of Athens was uneventful. Our transit was at Bahrain and there we met up with our two lady friends who went to Cyprus and the ladies exchange stories. From there we headed back to Home Sweet Home.

Below are the list of the 10 best and worst during my travel in Greece, in my opinion.
1. Best island to visit - Santorini
2. Best historical site - Delphi
3. Best food eaten - roast lamb in Mycenae
4. Best fruit buy - cherries at 1.8 euro/kg (here I saw it selling at RM50/kg!!) and strawberry at 1 euro/kg
5. Best pistachio - Oia in Santorini, not in Aegina.
6. Most exciting experience - close encounter with pickpockets
7. Most regretted - unable to watch the sunset in Santorini
8. Most dislike - soaring temperature at 40 C
9. Most friendly Greek met - George, the old gentleman in Athens
10. Most unfriendly Greek met - tour guide to Mycenae

Ronald Kwok

Friday, July 18, 2008

Agora, Kerameikos, Athens

Today we did Athens on our own and at our own pace. We took the Metro for the first time and since we were told a few days earlier by an American lady that her handbag was picked in a metro station, we were apprehensive while riding the metro. We opted to buy a 24hr ticket that can be used on all the trams, buses and metro for 3 euros.

Our first stop was the Kerameikos, classical Athens cemetery of ancient tombs with many fine decorations.

From here we walked to the Agora, or the ancient marketplace where Socrates argued and St.Paul preached.

Next stop was the Roman Forum where the famous Tower of the Winds is. This area is much smaller and was less crowded than the Agora as you can see most of the structures from outside for free.

From here we walked to Plaka to look for lunch. We were looking for the famous tavern Bakaliarakia and had great difficulty finding it since it was at a basement. Alas, when we finally found it, it was closed and would open only in the evening. So we had lunch in the restaurant just opposite Bakaliarakia.
We then made our way to Hard Rock Cafe,near Syntagma. Remember to get the map of Athens from the airport where you can use the Hard Rock ad to get a 10% discount. While on the way there, we met one very nice Greek gentleman who offered his table and chairs for us to enjoy our ice-cream and ice-blended drink. He owns a souvenir shop and was enjoying his own ice coffee when he saw us. (Athens was in a heat wave of 40 degrees C.) He was very warm and genuine and did not ask us to look at his shop and try to sell us his stuff.

After getting some T-shirts as souvenir from Hard Rock Cafe, we took the metro back to our hotel for a rest. We ventured out again in the early evening, this time to the flea market near Monastraki. From here we walked along the shopping street of Ermou. While my wife did her window shopping from shop to shop, I did the rounds of churches nearby. This included the Mitropoli (unfortunately under scaffolding for renovation), the Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Kapnikarea.

We then took a stroll along one of the pedestrian-only streets back to our hotel and joined many of the Athenians in enjoying an ice-cream cone at Kpinos on the way. Dinner was at Athinaikon and since this was our last night in Athens, we had a glass of wine each that cost 1.5 euros, the same as a glass of coke. This time the place was packed as it was dinner time for the Greeks. After dinner, it was time to pack for our trip home.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, July 14, 2008

Saronic Isles - Aegina, Hydra, Poros - Greece

Today we parted ways with our two lady friends. They would be flying to Cyprus today while my wife and I continued our stay in Athens. We had booked the one day cruise to the Saronic Isles of Poros, Hydra and Aegina that would leave from Piraeus so the coach had to pick us from the hotel at 7am. Since the breakfast at the hotel only starts at 7am, we could not have our breakfast there. When I informed the hotel about this last night, the receptionist told me that they could pack my breakfast for me before I leave for Piraeus. True enough, 2 packed breakfast bags were waiting for us in the morning. This contained sandwich, cake, bun, fruits, and a bottle each of orange juice and mineral water. That's great service.

The cruise ship left Piraeus at 8am and headed for the first stop at the island of Poros. This is a typical holiday island with plenty of souvenir shops and seafood restaurant at the harbour all within easy to reach distance.

The next stop was at Hydra. This is visually the most attractive among the 3 Saronic islands on this cruise as the harbour is horseshoe shaped with buildings all around. There are the usual souvenir shops and many tempting seafood restaurants. There are also no motor vehicles on the island (bar some small refuse collection vans) so it is great for pedestrians and the main form of transport are the sad looking donkeys.

The last stop is the island of Aegina. This is the largest of the three islands in the cruise. We opted for the bus tour round the island (the other option is for the visit to the Temple of Aphaia, one of the best preserved temples among the islands) to get a panoramic view. The tour included a sampling of the local sea food and ouzo, the Greek spirit drink consumed everywhere. I did not like it since it tasted like gripe water, I suppose it needed to be an acquired taste.
Aegina is most famous for its pistachio that is reputed to be the best quality in Greece. (However, I found the pistachio samples given out in Oia, Santorini tasted better but it was more expensive there.) So if you are a pistachio lover, this island is a must on your list. There are pistachio tress everywhere and there are so many varieties of pistachio on sale in the many stalls in town. The other major attraction in Aegina is the monastery of Agios Nektarios.

We sailed back to Pireaus and boarded the coach back to Athens. As there was a street demonstration (a common occurrence, I was told) this evening, the coach could not drop us at the hotel. In fact, many of the passengers had to drop off at a certain square and a guide walked with us to somewhere near our hotels and we made our way back.

We had dinner at Goody's, a sort of McDonald. Since there was a large group of US students probably on a field trip, the service was slow and a bit chaotic. However, the food was good. A plate of bolognese spaghetti smothered with an incredible amount of Parmesan cheese, beefburger with generous fillings of greens plus coke came to less than 10 euros. Well, the Greeks really love their cheese.

Ronald Kwok

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Meteora, Greece

I noticed an unusual arrangement with regards to luggage here in Greece, I wonder if it is a common practice so others may comment on this. They ask you to leave your luggage outside your room on the day you check out and they move it to the coach for you. It happened in this hotel (Divani) in Kalambaka and also when we were on the cruise where we left the luggage outside the room and they moved it to the baggage claim area. I felt a bit uneasy at first but then I realised it happens all the time in the baggage claim for air flights where the baggage is left unattended while they are been claimed.

After checking that our luggage is in our coach, we went off to the monasteries "in the air". There are actually a system of roads up the mountains at the back of Kalambaka but you do need to climb quite a number of steps to reach the top. We visited 2 monasteries and the view was great from up there. It is quite remarkable how these monasteries were built hundred of years ago.

We were back in Athens in the early evening and there was time for more shopping after getting our essentials at a supermarket, Champion, near the hotel. You can get 1.5 liter mineral water for 0.3 euros compared to 1 euro from the kiosks all around town. We went looking for the departmental store, Lambropoulos, that is near Omonia but we could not find it. The only big departmental in the location shown in the map is Notos Galleries so we went in. Inside we found photos of store showing Lambropoulos and only then that we realised that it has changed name to Notos Galleries.

After visiting other stores, including Zara, where prices are the cheapest among all the branded stores (according to my wife), we made our way back to the hotel. Here I had a close encounter with pickpockets. Two decently dressed ladies were in front of me and they manoeuvred to block my way. I instinctively put my arm across my shirt front pocket where my wallet was and walked my way through. The whole thing happened so fast and it was a close call. There were probably other accomplices nearby ready to run with my wallet once it is picked from my pocket. The moral of the story is - never expose your valuables in public.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, July 7, 2008

Delphi, Kalambaka, Greece

After 3 days at sea and visit to 4 Greek islands, we got back to the mainland this morning. The cruise has been great and the organisation generally good except for the disembarkation this morning. There was a queue all eager to get out and it was moving rather slowly. That was because some passengers had not settled their bills earlier (as was advised) and that led to some delays in the checkout. I took some early morning shots of the Piraeus harbour that was very tranquil before the rush of activities later in the morning.

There were several taxis waiting to pick up their passengers to join other coach tours or send them back to their hotels in Athens. We were picked up in one taxi and dropped off at the coach tour terminal in Athens and waited for our 2-day tour coach to Delphi and Meteora. On the way to Delphi, we passed through the picturesque village of Arachova which looked just like a postcard. Below are some views of Arachova.

After a short ride on the mountainous road, we arrived at the ancient site of Delphi and it is breath-taking amidst the mountain setting. In Greek legend, Delphi is the centre of the earth and there is a stone (egg shaped in the photo below) that marked the spot. I marvelled at how those temples and monuments can be constructed at such a location, thousand of years ago without modern machinery.

From Delphi we switched to another bus to join another group (that was on a 4-day tour) to continue our journey to Kalambaka, the town where tourists stay before setting off to Meteora. (The tours in Greece and highly organised and they switch buses to maximised their loading.) We had lunch at a roadside restaurant that is famous for its roast pork. It was good but a bit tough. Just before Kalambaka, we visited a workshop where the gold-framed icons are hand-painted and where the overall process is explained and demonstrated. This was also a big souvenir shop. Anyway, I was more interested in the free drinks and Greek "sweets" samples that were given out.
After checking into the hotel at Kalambaka, we had time to walk around the town before we had our buffet dinner at the hotel. From the town we had a good view of the Meteora rocks and I wondered how are we going to the monasteries sitting at the top?

We found out the next day.

Ronald Kwok