If Greece isn’t in your travel future, I suggest you earmark a place for it now. And, ideally that you go in what the travel industry calls the “shoulder season” – May, early June, September, October to avoid the crowds. Besides the iconic sights that are a “must” on any traveler’s bucket list like the Acropolis, the new Acropolis museum and the Athens Archaeological Museum, there are still hundreds of authentic, picturesque villages; delicious farm to table food; over 6000 islands to explore; warm hospitality wherever you go; dramatic scenery and crystal clear water; and it’s all so reasonably priced. Here are Greek, Athens travel and Crete travel surprises, revelations and curious observations I thought you’d enjoy reading about (even if you’ve been there before), with images of course that tell even more of the story. If, after this, you’re dreaming about Greece, check out the blogpost on Wednesday about a special one night only “Taste of the Aegean”.
First the prices. Think a good selection of modern, well equipped and located Airbnbs or hotels for under $100 US a night in the shoulder season; delicious farm to table meals with house wine for $40 US; and cheap car rental. (Note though that Mykonos and Santorini are an exception and prices are much higher). If you want to go luxury in Athens, it’s hard to top the historic Grand Bretagne Hotel in Athens, part of the Luxury Collection, where a comparable room in the center of Paris or Rome would easily set you back double the cost .In this blogpost I’ve chosen not to describe many of the tourist sights – you can find that in any guidebook or travel article.
A selection of as many as 8 different cheese pies for breakfast, cheese topping or mixed in salads, a Greek version of “bruschetta” with rusk bread; flaming cheese appetizer; pasta with cheese; various mains with cheese and creamy dessert cheese – the Greeks eat lots of cheese. In fact, the per capita consumption is said to be 25 kilos (55 pounds) a year. Cheese is such a rich part of Greece’s history that the ancient Greeks even designated a god to this wonderful food, Aristeus. This son of Apollo and Cyrene was sent by the gods to give the Greeks the gift of cheese-making.
Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress who came to fame in the film “ Never on Sunday” in the role of a prostitute who attempted to organize her fellow prostitutes was an advocate for social change. She later became the first Female Minister of Culture and Sports of the national government. She is enshrined in a marble statute in Athens.
Another interesting fact – in Greece, herbs can only be gathered by certified professionals. They have their work cut out for them in Crete where there are over 3000 different herbs and spices. Intel from the owner of Vassiliki’s Herb Broidery , a wonderful shop specializing in herbs and teas: always look for the expiration date on herbs as after a year or two some lose their potency. Same for loose teas. One of the most popular souvenirs are packaged herbs.
The most famous olive oil in Greece comes from Crete and with good reason. After having it, I’m hooked and ordered a tin on Amazon. If you do, be sure to get the one that’s cold extracted, D.O.P.(protected destination of origin) which ensures it’s locally grown and packaged, and extra virgin. Store it out of the sunlight. Speaking of olive oil, if you lived in a home in Crete, you would most likely have your own olive grove. It’s customary for everyone who lives in a house to have one. Then you take your olives to one of the 700 mills on the island to make the oil. Everything is used in the olive: the branches for cooking; juice for oil; and the pits also for fuel.
Traditional Cretan hospitality calls for serving fruits and/or sweets and a white distilled liquor considered a digestif called Tsikoudia at the end of the meal (in mainland Greece it’s called tsipouro). Similar to the Turkish raki, it contains 25% to 32% alcohol by volume.In a visit to I.F.Peroulakis, a leading raki distillery we learned that it’s made from the skins of the grapes called mash, a byproduct of wine making. A variation is mixed with lemon rind, rosemary or honey (and at one place we had it infused with pomegranate juice) It’s said to have medicinal qualities. Whatever restaurant you go to you’ll be treated to anything from seasonal fruits to loukamades – Greek honey donuts– and yogurt at the end of the meal (no need to order dessert).
Crete is arguably the most fought over of all of the Greek territories. It has been invaded by Arabs, Genovese, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Germans. You can see the remainders of the Venetian and Ottoman Turkish empires throughout the island.
If you go…..I used local Greek tour operator, Kim Kim, who covers all of Greece, who will handle everything from lodging and car rental to day trips. They’ve been written up everywhere from the BBC to the New York Times and do a very good job at a very good price whether you want a tour for two or to be part of a small group. They also have a network of trusted local partners which brings more insider information. Plus, they work within your budget.
Tips on Athens Travel:
People told us to only spend 3 days in Athens. Wrong. We were there five days and wish we had spent more time. Besides the Archaeological and Acropolis Museums, put the Cycladic Museum on your list. In addition to the art, the detailing of the everyday life of Athenians in the Classical age is well done, and gives a helpful perspective.
Have drinks and dinner at the rooftop restaurant of the Grand Bretagne with its drop dead view of The Acropolis at night (see video below). Good spa too. Next door the King George sister hotel also features a rooftop restaurant whose kitchen is at the hands of a young chef doing great things with a modern take on Greek cuisine.
Find standout items of fashion and design, all made in Greece, at True Story in Plaka, the old town — from jewelry and ceramics to organic scarves.
and handbags by Kooreloo that are sure to get stares.
Tips on Crete Travel:
If you go, plan on at least a week (we spent two weeks) to visit Heraklion site of the Minoan culture with its Palace of Knossos and the Archeological museum considered to be one of the top three in Greece; Chania, with its well preserved Venetian harbor and fortifications and happening street life; some of the many dozens of “Blue Flag” beaches (beaches that meet world criteria of water quality, environmental management, safety and more), many with white sand, chairs and umbrellas for rent, and all with pristine waters and seaside tavernas; and Elounda on the easternmost part of the island. Speaking of Chania, I have never ever seen more restaurants in any place. Curiously enough, in the side streets, tables and chairs are set up around 5 pm. and serve dinner until the wee hours and by morning, all all along with garbage are totally gone, and the streets revert totally to pedestrians.
In Heraklion, Crete, don’t miss the Cretan Food Tour and Vintage Routes Crete. The owner, Giorgios, is very knowledgeable and totally charming. And of course take a tour to learn about the highly advanced Minoan civilization.
In Chania the tour to go on is GS Tours’ Day Trip to Cretan Villages where you visit a bakery, raki distillery, cheese factory, with interesting nuggets of culture and history along the way, ending up with lunch. And if you go, do not miss Tu Antikristo that makes what is arguably the best roast lamb anywhere, that’s marinated for four hours and then made as you’ll see in the video.
End your trip in luxury at the Blue Palace Hotel, named one of the top resorts in Europe by Travel + Leisure, on the easternmost part of Crete in Elounda. The water at the beach club is divine, and then there’s the waterside Blue Door Greek Taverna with its game changing lamb chops cooked over olive wood and served with roast potatoes with thyme from their garden. The hotel is part of the Luxury Collection. If you want to splurge, get a room with a private pool where you can enjoy the spectacular sunsets.
To get to Crete, fly from Athens to Heraklion, the capital. You can also combine a trip there with a visit to Mykonos and Santorini, flying or taking a ferry. For my blogpost on Mykonos, click here.
To see more images of Greece and Crete travel, check out my instagram.
If you’d like tips on places we stayed, post your question on Ask Karen or comment below.