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On May 2nd we flew down to Athens on Easyjet having left our car at Gatwick airport. The flight was cheap but uneventful. We had pre-booked all our hotels and ferries and our first stop was the Avra Hotel at Rafina which was cheap, cheerful and provided a free shuttle from the airport.
Rafina is a little port from where several ferry companies sail to the Cyclades group of islands and is much closer to Athens International Airport than the main Port of Piraeus.
We had an early sailing booked with Golden Star Ferries but the port is only 5 minutes walk from the hotel. We collected our tickets from the port agent, boarded "Superferry II" and sailed off into the sunrise to the island of Andros.
During the voyage of a little over two hours we were engaged in conversation by Stavros who said he was a maths teacher who was unable to obtain employment and was on his way to Mykonos to work as a barman during the tourist season. He was, like many Greeks we met, very critical of his government and the EU. He thought that Greece should have left the Eurozone when the economy first crashed and not saddled the nation with more debt and economic hardship.
Part of the reason we were again in Greece was to try and help their economy in a small way by spending our pension for their benefit.
On arrival at the main port of Gavrio we were met on the quay with our hire car which we had pre booked with "escapeinandros", an automatic Chevrolet Metiz, for the silly price of €20 per day. Our hotel was in Andros town on the other side of the island, about 35km distant. We drove down the coast following in the wake of "Superferry II" which was continuing South to Tinos.
Georgios welcomed us at the Anemomiloi Andros and showed us to our room which, apart from the bathroom size, was luxurious and was about €60 a night plus breakfast. The star attraction was Georgios himself, a young man with a degree in Psychology who was part of the family who owned the property. The hotel was new and only completed a year ago.
Andros is the second largest of the Cyclades and is very verdant with lots of well watered valleys. It is also a place where rich Greek ship owners have settled for years and who want to keep it quiet and relatively tourist free so the only real touristy place on the island is Batsi, close to the ferry port. We went there one day and it was deserted, it being so early in the tourist season.
Georgios sat us down and gave us his recommendations where to go and where to eat. We followed his advice and were never disappointed but when we didn't we were.
The town was about an easy 10 minute walk from the hotel and is built on a narrow promontory. We walked down to the end past huge old 19th century houses to Riva Square where there is a statue donated by Russia of a sailor gazing seaward, then back to "Ta Skalakia" taverna, which comes from the Greek "skáles" or "stairs" where we sat at tables on the steps outside and enjoyed some proper home made cooking.
After a huge breakfast which Georgios kept adding to we set off for a waterfall, a short walk up the valley from Apikia. The temperature was in the mid 20's°C and much too hot for serious walking although Andros is an island which is trying to attract serious walkers and is one of the few to have marked many footpaths.
We drove on up the mountainside from Apikia and the road crosses the Kouvária ridge at 700m looking down on the North coast before plunging down into a verdant valley then back across to the South coast at Batsi. That evening we ignored Georgios and went down market to a little taverna called Madouris beside the sea which came recommended by the Rough Guide and Trip Advisor. We were their only customers and I had a plate of tasteless grilled prawns which I struggled to peel. Sue had the local sausage which she fed to the cats!
We drove up to Stenies one day which is a pretty village high up above Andros town and built on a very steep slope. It was very hot work so we retreated down to the beach to the little Yalta taverna for a refreshing Greek lager. Georgios recommended this for eating but we didn't get round to it.
On our final day we drove South up to Paleókastro where there was a ruined Venetian castle. The Venetians conquered Andros in 1207 and remained in charge until the Turks took over in 1566.
We drove to the base of the mountain and climbed up steep steps which eventually deteriorated into a rough path until we reached the top at just under 600m altitude where there was once a substantial settlement. As we wandered through the ruins we heard someone cough and discovered a German couple we had met the first night at the Ta Skalakia restaurant who had walked up from the main road where we had turned off.
They were regular visitors to Andros and recommended a restaurant down in Kórthi on the coast called Allegria right beside the harbour.
We decided we would have a late lunch at Allegria and after descending to our car we drove to another of Georgios recommendations which was a monastery on the side of a mountain high above Andros Town called Monastery Panachrantou. Georgios had told us that one of the monks spoke English and they made no charge to visit.
It was indeed very beautiful and we were met by a monk who spoke no English but opened to church for us to see the ornate decorations. He then ushered us into what seemed to be their living quarters and to sit down at a big dining table.
Some other monks seemed to be preparing a meal and then the monk who spoke English asked us if we would mind moving to some other seats away from the table.
Sue had decided they were preparing a meal for us and explained that we didn't want lunch. "Oh no", said the monk. "We are preparing lunch for the Bishop who is visiting today from Syros!"
We then gave our thanks for their hospitality and left somewhat embarrassed and mystified. The next day Georgios father and brother laughed and said that was a typical Greek experience!
Down at Kórthi we found the little taverna Allegria right next to the harbour but they had no fresh fish so we ordered calamari which was good. While we were eating the trawler arrived with a fresh catch so we just missed out.
The next morning we checked out early and drove back to Gavrio to catch "Superferry II" to Tinos.
Tinos was another Venetian stronghold but resisted the Turks until 1715. Because of this much longer rule, the Roman Catholic population endured and almost half the island remains of that faith.
When the Turks took over they met very little resistance and never really understood why it took them so much longer to conquer Tinos!
At the start of the Greek war of independence a local nun was visited by the Virgin Mary and guided to a spot where she found an icon with miraculous healing powers. This event served to underscore the links between the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Nationalism and a huge shrine was erected on the site of the discovery called Panayia Evangelistica where twice a year thousands of pilgrims come to witness the icon being carried down to the harbour.
Between these big religious events the Greek faithful travel down at weekends and many crawl on their knees from the harbour about a mile uphill to the shrine. The locals have thoughtfully lain a carpet down and provided knee pads but it is still a penance. The local bars seem to do ok along the way. We saw the same sort of shenanigans at Fatima in Portugal years ago.
Anyway, as we arrived on a Saturday the place was full of pilgrims and all the bars and restaurants were doing a roaring trade which was a shock after the quiet of Andros.
Nicos from the Guest house Agnantio collected us from the ferry in his minibus. We had a really nice room with a balcony looking over the harbour but once again a very small shower room. Considering the average size of many Greeks they must struggle in these places, however the price was only €37 a night including breakfast so we could not complain! Religious tourism bumps up the price of a hire car though and we had to pay €45 a day for an automatic Nissan Micra!
We decided to head for them thar hills to avoid the crowds and drove up to Falatados. Here we saw a big sign to a stone circle which we followed but failed to find. Signs are always a problem in Greece, first because there are so few of them and second because they are often in this Acrylic [sic Cyrillic] alphabet which is completely unintelligible to us Brits. Not only that but the dreaded Google maps we use for finding where we are these days also use these Acrylics!
We drove along the road until it became unsurfaced then retreated to the pretty little village of Volax, built amongst a forest of queer shape rocks.
The mountain of Exóburgo (570m) is a huge lump of rock which dominates this part of the island but we headed down the valley to the sea at Kolimbithra which we found deserted and so continued to Panormos. This is a proper Greek harbour which used to serve the adjacent Marble quarries but is now a little fishing harbour surrounded by fish taverna's. Here we found To_Limanaki taverna and, lo and behold, they had fresh fish which was served us for a pittance as was the very acceptable house white wine and the huge salad we could not finish and chips of course. Greek potatoes still taste of something unlike the tasteless ones we get at home.
This was one of the best meals we had in Greece and one of the cheapest, so good in fact that we drove back for a second helping later but they did not have any fish that day and the sausage and pancetta pasta fed me and the village cats! Note the cats above who would not leave me alone!
Back in Tinos town we found Yo4U frozen yoghurt, a young entrepreneur start-up who is doing the biz. I loved it smothered in his black cherry coulis, then just around the corner is the Symposium restaurant where Evangelia served us. She had an engineering degree from Athens University but chooses the Tinos lifestyle. The conversation naturally turned to the current political and economic situation in Greece. She asked us if we knew that Democracy was a Greek word and then said that the people had voted "No" to the EU by a large margin and the government had ignored the people and voted Yes! This was Greek democracy?
Our exploration of the island continued with a visit to Livada down a hair raisingly steep and windey road to a beach and a few houses looking across to Mykonos. Back over the mountain we came to Tarambados which is famous for its dovecotes. These can be seen all over the island and in some places people have turned them into houses to live in or built new houses with external decorations to make them look like dovecotes.
The Tinians call them pigeon houses and the birds were farmed for meat but, more importantly, the droppings were used for fertilizer.
At Tarambados there are several well preserved examples across the valley with doves flying in and out and the land was still being farmed so the old methods of agriculture may still survive.
Pyrgos was the prettiest village we found on Tinos. Its existence is due to the marble quarries nearby and has a marble sculpture museum. The village has made good use of this local commodity and even has a marble bus shelter!
Tinos has a history of producing many artists and most of them seemed to have lived in Pyrgos. The Artists Museum contains examples of their works of sculpture.
The prettiest place in the village was the square which is shaded by a huge Plane tree and surrounded by taverna's. At one side is a marble fountain dedicated to the Greek revolution of 1821. The place was deserted apart from us and we sat and enjoyed an ice cream in the shade.
"Superferry II" arrived on time as usual to take us to Mykonos which is only just over half an hours steam. There seems to be two ferry companies competing on this route and the Fastferries ship arrives about 20 minutes before the Gold Star ship. These are big ships to maneuver in these small harbours especially when another ship is berthed stern first on the same quay. They come in at speed and swing around 180 degrees with pin point accuracy.
As a marine engineer I am aware that even the latest electronic control systems can fail and it is impossible to design a failsafe system. It is only a matter of time before one of these ferries ends up aground or in collision.
Our hotel on Mykonos was the Ilio Maris which was over twice the cost of the equivalent on Andros but then so is everything. Mykonos is reckoned to be the most expensive island in the Cyclades, even more so than Santorini. The hotel provided a shuttle bus to meet the ferry at extra cost. The traffic was nose to tail and the hotel was full. Cruise ships came and went and sometimes disgorge as many as 15,000 tourists, all eager to give the local shops and taverna's their cash.
The Ilio Maris overlooks Mykonos town and its line of windmills above the old harbour. In the evening many tourists throng to a place below the Windmills called Little Venice to watch the sunset.
If they have more money than sense they might have a cocktail at one of the many taverna's lining the shore and even enjoy some fresh fish. We were told that in Athens the most expensive fish averages €45 per kg whereas Little Venice averages €145!
I was not inclined to hire a car with the volume of traffic on the roads so we confined ourselves to the town which is mostly traffic free. It was a steep busy road with no pavement down to the town from the hotel, dodging the scooters, motorbikes, quad bikes and cars mostly driven by raving idjits. For that reason we spent a lot of our time lazing around the pool and drinking Metaxa 7 star brandy in the evenings at the pool bar which were affordable.
Mykonos is only 2km from the island of Delos and its population dates back to 3000 BC. Delos was reckoned to be the birthplace of the Greek god Apollo and by the 1st century BC was a thriving port hub at the geographic centre of the Cyclades with a population of perhaps 25,000. Mykons was the son of Apollo which was how Mykonos was named.
It is said that the town was built with a maze of narrow alleyways to confuse raiding pirates and it certainly can confuse tourists.
We admired the sunset framed behind the church of Paraportiani which is actually four chapels merged into one.
Anchored offshore was the super yacht Ocean Victory flying the red duster. I looked her up and she was built in 2014 by Fincantieri in Italy for Russian billionaire steel magnate Viktor Rashnikov who is worth more than $7 billion. She is the 10th biggest yacht in the world.
While dining one evening in the garden of the Kounelas Fish Taverna, we were in conversation with a couple of Brits who had a holiday home on the neighbouring island of Syros. At a nearby table were a couple of homosexual men and Mykonos is the reputed "gay" capital of the Mediterranean. When they both left to choose their fish for dinner our new found Brit friend made some remark about them going off to the toilet together which brought a severe reprimand from his wife.
I have always appreciated those who call a spade a spade so we immediately hit it off. Being long term regular visitors to the region we quizzed them on what we should see. Like us they had a low opinion of rip-off Mykonos and told us that Syros was the complete opposite and worthy of a visit. Our schedule would not allow that on this occasion but when we told them we did not plan a visit to Delos either which looked to be just a pile of old stones they were horrified and said we should go so we did.
Ferries run from the old port three or four times a day and it takes about half an hour and €20 to get there. Once landed the normal entry charge to the archeological site is €12 but, due to our great age and EU membership it was only €6 for us. Oh dear perhaps we should not have voted for Brexit!
The first village was built on the summit of the small hill of Kynthos around 2500 BCE. This BCE term means "Before Common Era" as opposed to BC which means "Before Christ". In reality the two abbreviations mean the same date except that some bible scholars think that Christ was probably born in 4 or 6 BCE. The year 1 AD (Anno Domini or "in first year of our Lord") is also 1 CE (Common Era). I am glad to have cleared that up and can now revert to BC and AD which we all understand.
The Mycenaeans arrived about 1500 BC and from the 9th century BC the Hellenes arrived and began to worship Apollo, their god of light, harmony and balance, together with his sister Artemis, the moon goddess.
In 167 BC Delos was declared a free port where merchants, bankers and ship owners from all over the world settled and built luxurious houses. It was considered the commercial capital of the Mediterranean, indeed the greatest commercial capital in the world but suffered when Mithridates, the King of Pontus attacked and looted it twice in 88 BC. Then later in 66 BC the pirates finished it off and it was gradually abandoned.
Delos today is more than a pile of old stones and in the residential theatre district there are substantial remains of buildings still standing complete with mosaic floors and sculptures. The means of collecting, distributing and storing rain water can be seen and the theatre itself could accommodate some 5,000 spectators.
People from the island of Naxos were responsible for the sculptures of Lions, the originals can be seen in the museum and replicas have been placed where they were originally.
We found the wild flowers on the island particularly lovely, especially the poppies and the strange tall spikey lemon coloured flowers. There is even a little café next to the museum and we were pleased we did not miss this island.
Our next voyage was with our old friends from our last Greek trip, Blue Star Lines and we boarded "Blue Star Delos" one afternoon for the six hour voyage to Piraeus. We chose this route as we were staying in the centre of Athens for three nights and it was much closer and easier to get there from Piraeus than from Rafina.
We found ourselves a nice table by a window and enjoyed a baguette and a cold beer with very few other passengers as we left Mykonos.
Being a Sunday the ship filled up with pilgrims returning to Athens at Tinos and was quite crowded after we had stopped at Syros where I went out on deck and took photographs. It certainly looks to be an interesting place to visit in the future.
We arrived in Piraeus on time at about 7pm and looked for signs to the Metro of which there were none of course but I knew vaguely where it was and we just followed the crowds in that direction. You just buy a single ticket for €1.40 which allows you to travel anywhere for 90 minutes. You must validate the ticket before you board the train otherwise you can be fined heavily. This is the terminus so there is only one train in one direction you can get on but Sue fretted until she had convinced herself we were going towards our station of Monastiraki.
Our hotel was the Attalos situated in Athenas Street a few minutes walk from the metro and all the most important monuments including the Acropolis. It was after 8pm when we went out to find something to eat but just around the corner from the hotel is the district of Psiri which is full of taverna's and is where the Greeks eat. We came to the Grill House Aischylou (also known as Grill House Psiri) which had a little group of guitar, balalaika and singer outside under a canopy of vines where we ate well in addition to being entertained. After Mykonos we were happy to be paying sensible prices. My plate of grilled prawns were big, fat and juicy preceded with chips and a tomato caprese salad. A house white half litre carafe for €4 was very acceptable thank you then back to the roof bar of the Attalos Hotel for a Metaxa brandy with a romantic view of the Acropolis, perfick!
The hotel provided breakfast as an extra but a review suggested that breakfast in the cafe next door was better so we took that advice and were not disappointed. They are the bakery Veniti which opens at 6.30am and where we had large glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, light fluffy bacon omelettes, newly baked bread and cappuccino coffee to die for every day. Then it was off to the top of the Acropolis as the temperature rose to 28°C.
At the ticket office I asked for two half price seniors tickets for all the monuments and was asked for proof of age. I was able to show my driving licence but Sue did not have any identification with her so had to pay the full price of €35. A bit mean we thought. The price in my guide book which was two years old was €12 so it seems the EU troika have told the Greeks to fleece the tourists, especially the "rich" pensioners, to help their finances!
The Acropolis dates from the 4th century BC and boasts several ancient buildings, the largest being the Parthenon. Now it is in the process of being repaired and reconstructed so is covered with gib cranes and other heavy lifting machinery. Heaven knows when they will have the money to complete this work but I hope some of our much increased entrance fee will go towards it.
The original temple, built for worship of the virgin goddess Athena, was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC which was replaced by the Parthenon. In the 6th century AD is was converted to a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Ottomans used it as a mosque in the 15th. In 1697 the Venetians bombarded it and blew up stored ammunition which partially destroyed it then between 1800-1803 the Earl of Elgin nicked most of the remaining sculptures which are now in the British Museum and which the Greek government want back.
Although the Parthenon is very grand and impressive, for me the most beautiful is the Porch of the Caryatids opposite the Parthenon, the entrance to the Erechtheion which was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. The porch columns consist of six draped "maidens" and dates from 421-417 BC. Those on site are replicas while five of the originals are in the Acroplis museum and the other in the British Museum nicked by Lord Elgin. We went to the Acropolis Museum but the €12 ticket which is now €35 which used to let you in to everything is no longer valid and they wanted more money so we didn't bother.
There are fine views of Athens as you would expect from an Acropolis which means literally the highest point, especially in the direction of Likavitos which is actually higher and can be reached by cable car.
We climbed down from the Acropolis and walked around the North side with a fine view of the Temple of Hephaestus in the Roman Agora, then wandered back through the Plaka district, full of pretty old streets and taverna's where tourist come to get ripped off and where we managed to pay €14 for two small beers!
The National Garden was closed by police order so we trotted along to Singdagma to watch the Greek soldiers in traditional dress doing their little dance in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier (see photo at the top of this page). While enjoying a refreshing ale we noticed a lot of posters on lamp posts advertising something on 17th May which was the day we were due to fly home. Our waitress did not know exactly what was going to happen except that there would be strikes and a demonstration, presumably why the police had closed the garden.
We continued down to Athens cathedral then on through the flea market to the Ancient Agora and a close up look at the impressive and largely complete Temple of Hephaestus. The Stoa of Attalos was rebuilt and now houses a museum but by now we were completely templed out so returned to our hotel for a lie down.
Our final full day in Athens, or so we thought, began with a visit to Hadrians Library who as we know was fond of leaving large constructions around the Roman Empire. We have a wall of his which we might have to rebuild if the Scots decide to leave the UK!
Here we met up with Herman the German and his wife/daughter/mistress/friend, take your pick, Birgetta. Herman brought up the subject of Brexit and said that in Germany they could not understand why we wanted to leave the EU so I gave him a few reasons. A local travel agent told me later that the Germans are also annoyed because most Greeks are not angry with them and the Germans are unable to understand why!
Herman suggested we continue together to the Roman Agora which was built in the 1st century BC to transfer the commercial centre of the city from the Ancient Agora. The only complete building left was the Horologian of Kyrrhestos or "Tower of the Winds" which was built by the astronomer Andronikos who was a Macedonian. It used to have a bronze weather-vane on the top which indicated the wind direction. It is constructed entirely of marble with carvings of the different named winds and the rays of sun-dials inscribed around the sides. Inside there used to be a water clock operated by water running down from the Acropolis.
I told our German friends the story of the Elgin marbles and how the Greek government had been trying to persuade the Brits to return them for years. I suggested that this might be introduced by us in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations; give us a good trade deal and we will give the Greeks back their marbles!
Here we waved goodbye to Herman the German and Birgetta and hiked back around the Acropolis to The Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Very little remains of this building but the huge Corinthian columns give you some idea of what it must have looked like in its heyday. It was begun around 520 BC by Zeus sons, Hippias and Hipparchos but it was not completed until dear old Hadrian came along in the 2nd century AD, around 638 years after it had begun.
There is a great view of the Acropolis from here and one of the columns which collapsed in 1852 from a fierce wind. Some wind to knock a column over that size.
The next day we awoke to an SMS message from Easyjet saying that due to a strike by air traffic controllers our London flight had been cancelled and to check their web site for solutions. The solution was no flight the next day, fully booked the day after but they could get us on a night flight the day after that or we could apply for a refund. We went on-line and found seats on the only direct flight by Aegean Airlines the next day but to Heathrow and our car was at Gatwick, otherwise it was three more nights in Athens so we cancelled Easyjet and booked Aegean.
The lovely weather which we had enjoyed this far had changed. It was pouring with rain and 18°C as we booked into another nearby hotel as the Attalos was full. We sat in our room for most of the day listening to the loudspeakers of the demonstration outside and remembered the last time we were in Athens in 1974 when the Turks invaded Cyprus and Greece almost went to war. We were in our car then and had lots of adventures trying to get out of Greece as the army advanced towards the Turkish border.
Everything was working again the next day so we caught the airport metro from Monastiraki station for which they only charged us €5 each so the EU troika have not yet discovered that bargain. We enjoyed the Aegean flight home as there was more space in economy and we were served drinks and a full hot meal which made a nice change from Easyjet. We actually arrived back on the ground at Heathrow 35 minutes ahead of schedule and then sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes as there was no vacant stand to disembark. We managed to get to the Central Bus Station in good time to avoid a wait of over two hours if we had missed the 22.00 hrs coach where National Express charged us Ł50 to get to Gatwick. They then took you on a tour of all the Heathrow terminals for no good reason as they had nobody booked at any of them so took one hour 20 minutes for a journey which could have taken half the time.
The coach had WiFi so I managed to get us a room at Gatwick Hilton and our car was booked with Easyjet parking who met us on arrival. Back to Cheltenham the next morning we began the long process of reclaiming some of the expense of the delay on our travel insurance but we still have to swallow the Ł50 excess per person. Had to put the heating on when we arrived back, as we say 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out'.