My mum and l like going on holiday together; we try to do it once per year. It all started when I was eleven and we went to Lefkada and fell in love with Greece. We’ve visited many other islands since but never really spent much time in continental Greece, never saw the capital. So, this is exactly what we decided to do this year: Athens.
We only booked it all about a month before going and decided to do a combination of self-exploring and organized trips. Neither of us had the balls to drive in and around Athens. Our flight was from Venice’s Marco Polo. We booked a fairly cheap hotel in Voula, a neighbourhood which is a 45-minute bus ride away from the centre of Athens. We also booked two organized trips through Booking.
Voula and some first impressions
We got to Voula pretty late but very easily: the bus drives from the airport all night. We explored the «town» a bit. It really didn’t make a good impression, to say the least. The hotel was just next to a very busy road, the pavement needed to be fixed and there seemed to be absolutely nothing around except hotels. The hotels were very diverse: from huge fancy ones to very small family hotels like ours (called Parthenis Riviera Hotel), abandoned properties and new constructions. It was all pretty empty (perhaps because it was the middle of September already).
In the morning, the British guy who worked in the hotel told us to buy bus tickets in one of the kiosks. They didn’t have any, so we tried the machine at the tram station. It wouldn’t let us buy new tickets, so we (and a Russian lady who joined us) ended up begging the garbage man for help. He, bless him, gave us some old tickets he found on the floor so we could top up. I helped the Russian lady (who didn’t speak English) do it. We ended up using the old paper tickets the whole week.
Day one: Athens
Once this was sorted, we went to Athens which was a completely different story. We went straight to the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. After that, we saw Agora, the gathering place of ancient Greeks. Both monuments form part of the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the city of Athens. The good news is that you can enter all of its parts for free if you’re a student in the EU.
Then we met our own local guide: my ex-flatmate from Erasmus. Together, we walked past the Panathenaic Stadium, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Parliament (you can watch the Changing of the Guard every hour), the botanical gardens, the national library and the university. The next best thing after the ancient monuments were the cute streets full of small shops with art, jewellery and clothes, as well as old taverns and modern bars. I honestly didn’t expect the centre of Athens to be so beautiful and so similar to the small towns of some of the islands I’ve been to.
Cafes, bars and fast food
We stopped in three cool places for drinks, food and coffee. The first one was a rooftop bar called Anglais Athens with amazing views of the city. We had lunch in a fast food place called Falafel House which does amazing falafels. Then we had our afternoon/early evening coffee in the Little Kook a.k.a. the weirdest, creepiest and most interesting café I’ve ever been to. It basically looks like a fairy-tale, like something straight out of Mary Poppins, from the outside and from the inside. The girls’ bathroom is scary, and the coffee is very strong. I ordered a coffee frappe without milk, drank it at 6 pm and didn’t sleep all night.
The first day was brilliant, Athens was so beautiful and meeting my friend after two years, talking like no time has passed at all (because Erasmus is forever) made me not expect the rest of the week to be nearly as great. But it was; Greece is just magical.
Day two: Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio and Epidaurus
We spent our second day on an organized trip which I booked online. It started in the centre, and we travelled on a comfy bus. Our guide was local and was supposed to be speaking English. He ended up speaking half in English and half in French because there were exactly two guests from France. I still don’t know whether he was bragging or trying to get a tip. Probably both.
Our first stop was the Corinth Canal which they opened for ships in 1893. It connects the Aegean with the Ionian Sea. It’s 6.4 kilometres long and only 21.4 metres wide at its base which makes it impassable for most modern ships. Today, it has little economic importance and is mainly a tourist attraction (and a great place for bungee jumping if you’re into that; I’m not). People tie tissues and plastic bags on the fence at the bridge and I still haven’t figured out what’s it all about (maybe it has something to do with the bungee jumping).
The second spot of the day was Mycenae, an archaeological site which used to be one of the centres of Greek civilization between 1100 and 1600 BC. There isn’t much left of the city; the most interesting things to see were the tombs and the majestic entrance.
We had lunch in a pretty coastal town called Nafplio, surrounded by beautiful blue water with the castle Palamidi on an island right next to the town. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit it which is the bad side of organized trips. After a Greek salad (my mum ate the feta), we walked around the pretty little streets of the town which reminded me of Croatia.
Our last stop was the most epic theatre I’ve ever seen in my life: Epidaurus. It originates from the 4th century BC and is absolutely huge: it can hold up to 14,000 people. They still do performances in it as it has amazing acoustics.
Day three: Agistri
On our third day, my mum and I were on our own again and decided to take a ferry to the island Agistri, recommended to me by my Greek friend. We barely made it to the port in time because our bus didn’t come and we then took another one which made an unexpected detour. All ferries depart from the town Piraeus which is basically attached to Athens.
I booked a speedboat instead of a ferry (not intentionally), and it was a very windy day, so the one-hour ride to the island was interesting, to say the least. Agistri has many beautiful beaches, but we decided to take a bus to Aponisos, a stunning gulf. They’ll charge you five euros to enter the beach part, but you’ll get an umbrella, a chair and a drink. It was absolutely worth it, despite the wind! They have many animals in the small village, though, and many aren’t living in the best of conditions.
Some more problems with transport
They cancelled our ride back because of bad weather, so we had to buy new tickets and go back by ferry. Most ferries stop on the Island Aegina which is between Agistri and Piraeus; it looks pretty, and I hope I can visit it someday. Once in the port, we figured out that we couldn’t get our money back because I booked the tickets online and had to speak to the company through which I did it. After my mum gave me a lecture on how I shouldn’t purchase anything online, I sent them an email. (Later on, I also sent them the actual tickets and they’ve already returned the money.)
A few words about Piraeus: it’s a ghetto, don’t go there at night. We didn’t know that, and I made my mum walk to Lidl because I wanted soy yoghurt (they didn’t have any). We saw lots of high people lying on the pavement, homeless kids, homeless old people, a huge amount of trash and everything in between.
Day four: Meteora
Our fourth day was another organized trip and also another hectic travel from Voula to Athens, this time to the train station. We spent more than four hours on the train to get to Meteora, the magical place of mountains, monasteries and stories of crazy monks. It was long but absolutely worth it. Some of the monks used to live in holes in the rocky mountains of this area, not moving, barely eating, basically living in their own shit, waiting for their legs to stop working and for, well, death. Suffering for the original sin, thinking that this was the only way to get to the true and beautiful life: to heaven.
There are also lots of proper beautiful monasteries here, some built on tops of mountains. They are extremely strict about the clothing: the shoulders and knees of both men and women must be covered, hats are forbidden and women must not wear trousers but skirts/dresses. I got yelled at for not obeying the latter.
Day five: the Temple of Poseidon, Vouliagmeni and Athens again
On our last full day, we visited the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion which is just an hour’s drive from Voula. The drive is beautiful as you can observe the coast between Voula and Sounion (both to the south of Athens). It was windy as hell again, but the temple was stunning (and free for me as an EU student again). It dates back to the fourth century BC, to the Golden Age of Athens, and is perched above the sea at a height of 60 metres. It’s a very popular place for watching the sunset. We swam just below the temple and then got on the bus again to go to Vouliagmeni (near Voula). There’s a huge beach in this area, but there’s an entrance fee, so we walked until the organized part ended and swam in the free part of the beach.
Athens at night
We returned to Athens on our last evening to walk around its gorgeous streets again. We each bought a piece of jewellery and had dinner in a traditional tavern. I took the waiter’s advice and had gemista, baked pepper and tomato filled with rice and some other stuff (accidentally vegan) with baked potatoes. We shared this and a Greek salad and then had some ice cream. Then we spent more than an hour trying to find a way to get home because our bus wouldn’t come and the tram didn’t work (but it said it in Greek, so we needed a while to figure it out).
On our last morning, I had time for a long run on the coast. I noticed that Voula isn’t that bad after all, not once you have the sea by your side. I ran all the way to Vouliagmeni, but to a different beach than the one we visited the day before. It was stunning!
Three things that surprised me
- Athens changes a lot as you’re walking from street to street. One minute you’re in a beautiful street with gorgeous houses and lots of people and the next moment you’re in some dark place with people lying on the pavement.
- Don’t count on buses. They might not come. They might be late or early. The tram might not work. The most reliable thing is the metro. Otherwise, Athens has the underground, trains, buses, trams and trolleybuses.
- Another thing that surprised me was that you could buy eight (!) different kinds of plant milk in the most random street kiosk in Voula, while fancy bars like the two mentioned above didn’t have any.
Some advice and final thoughts
My best advice for fellow plant-based eaters is to go for the local stuff. Gemista, Greek salad without feta, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and koulouri, a ring of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, are all great. Koulouri is supposedly an ancient type of bread which used to be served to the slaves and later sold as street food in the Byzantine Empire. You can find it on the streets and stations all around Athens. It’s delicious! Otherwise, I always had fruit with me for snacks, ate porridge for breakfast in the hotel room and hummus with veggies for dinner and in sandwiches on trips.
I expected Athens and all the other spots we visited to not amaze me quite as much as the islands did. What could be better than places like Kefalonia and Zakynthos? I was wrong. They are very different; Athens is the capital city after all. But it’s fantastic, just like the other places are.