Sunday, 16 September 2018

FAMILY REVIEW: Athens, Greece


Flying into Greece was a sight to behold! We were lucky enough to fly in as the sun was setting behind us. The pictures don't do it justice!

Firstly, let's talk about the flight from Pisa to Athens. I could put this in the airline review (which I probably will anyway) but I wanna say it here too...

Guys, we were in Business Class! Yep. For the first (and probably last) time. But it was for a budget airline (Aegean Airlines) and all we got was.... way more leg room. Not stretched out on a bed kind of leg room but still a substantial amount extra. No extra comforts on the seats though, no special meals, not even any entertainment. But wait, we were able to close the tiny curtain behind us to separate us from the peasants in economy class... which was being kept open by the flight attendants anyway... so really, all we got was leg room! And we made the most of that extra leg room and stretched ourselves out like we were royalty!!

Onto our arrival into Athens...

We did not get a Greece stamp in our passport when we arrived. And the longest part of the entire experience through the Athens airport was waiting for our luggage. It was the breeziest airport we have exited from so far which says a lot because there have been some pretty breezy ones already!

When we picked up our luggage and expected to go through some sort of security, we were led to the exit which had two options:

Arriving from a flight from an EU country 
or 
Arriving from a flight from a non-EU country.

Since we flew in from Italy - an EU country - we went through that line.

... it led us directly out... to the arrivals area. No one checked anything. We got no stamp.

If I had known this would happen, I would have totally gone through the other line anyway... just for the stamp!

Alas, it was too late, we were out and we had to look for someone holding a sign with our name on it! Yes, a legit person holding a sign that wasn't a family member of friend pretending to make us feel important!

Through our accommodation, our host was able to book a taxi driver to pick us up from the airport and take us to our accommodation with a set price and with the key to our accommodation. Yeah, when we heard the taxi driver would have our key, we too were puzzled because I wouldn't trust a taxi driver with the key to my house. But Greeks must do it differently because the driver was there with our sign making us feel important (even after our flight was delayed); he took us to our accommodation directly and we only paid the agreed price; he gave us the key and called our accommodation host from his phone so more instructions could be given to us and he gave us tips on how to avoid getting scammed by other taxi drivers and told us that even though it's safe to walk around at night, still be cautious.

Different than what we're used to? Of course. Did we survive? Yes, clearly.

We could have caught a train directly from the airport to 5 minute walk from our accommodation but the train tickets specifically to and from the airport were €10 each which would total €30 for us. A taxi was only €35 total to take us from door to door without lugging our bags on and off the train.

I think we made the wiser choice!

ACCOMMODATION & NEIGHBOURHOOD

You will find that in Athens the accommodation is mainly apartment buildings and they all look basically the same. If you learn of the recent Greek history, you'll find that these apartment buildings were built out of necessity when there was a shortage of homes after a crisis within the country - and they were built by the people themselves.

Our accommodation was in one of these apartment buildings (and one with a lift!!!). We chose this accommodation purely because it was not in the centre of the the city and it was close to the metro line. We were extremely happy with our choice of neighbourhood. We felt safe at all hours of the day and night. There was everything we needed around us - supermarkets, every type of food you can think of and so close to the metro line.

If you are planning to stay in Athens and not in a hotel, we recommend staying in a friendly suburb like the area around the Panormou Metro station. It was bustling all the time, it didn't have people trying to scam us, the Panormou station could connect you to every other metro line around the city and did I mention the food? Every type of food was either in the area or close by.

EXPLORING ATHENS

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Athens has 3 main Metro lines, a bus system and a tram system (that we know of). They also have train lines that will take you out of Athens.


We only used their Metro lines... and they were amazing!

You need to purchase your tickets via the ticketing machines at every station. Some have card payments while some do not. We learned that if a ticketing machine didn't have a sign that said something that included "P.O.S", it did not take card. But if they didn't have that sign, you could also tell whether it could take card by whether the pin pad you would put your pin number into was flashing red or green. If it was flashing red, it could not take card, if it was flashing green, it could. If it could take card, it could take paywave. All machines give the option in English.


The cheapest ticket for one off trips are 90 minute tickets in the Athens area which can be used as many times within the 90 minutes. They do not have separate children prices - we are all charged equally. One 90 minute ticket costs €1.40.

If you're in Athens for a short time, there are concession tickets of 10 rides. These are cheaper (around €1.10 per ride) and you can continue to add to your concessions if you run out via the ticketing machine. Once you validate your tickets in their entries to the platforms, you find your platform (and most have escalators for the lazy). All their signs are in both Greek and English too.

As long as you know the final destination point of your Metro line in the direction you want to go, you can find your line fairly easy. For example, we lived on a line that went directly to the airport as its final destination so as long as we went on the airport line to go home, we were fine.

There are 3 lines: Red, Green and Blue. Some intersect so you can transfer to another line but every train has a map that will not only show the final destinations of each line but the newer trains show you exactly where you are and which stops are to follow. Each platform will have matching colours on the signs for their lines to make things easier as well. All trains will say during transit which stop is coming up next in both Greek and English.

If you have good navigational skills, you should be fine. By the end of it Hadrian knew which platforms we needed to go on next and he's the guy that has no sense of direction!

MONASTIRAKI SQUARE

One of our first stops was Monastiraki where there is a flea market shopping area.

We liked the shopping flea market and the big variety it gives (it's not an outdoor market, more like actual shops within a combined area that they consider a market) but it wasn't as much of a market as you would expect. Cheaper? Yes.. but not by much. We only bought a t-shirt for Hadrian that day and it was a touristy one with a picture of the Parthenon on it. We window shopped for the rest as we didn't need anything and don't have the room to take anything.

Be mindful that for some reason in this market, some souvenir shops sell large wooden men's "bits" or key rings or statues with big men's "bits" on them. Not only did we have to mind where we were looking 😲😲 but we also had to mind where Hadrian was looking 👀! We don't know why it was like that there as we came across other souvenir shops throughout all of Athens not obsessed with men's "bits". But here in Monastraki, it wasn't just one souvenir shop, I counted at least 5.

Also be mindful that the square around the Monastraki markets and metro station is not upkept and walking around the neighbourhood, you will see trash on the street, right next to a high end make up shop that have homeless people sleeping around the corner from it while also having a lot of graffiti around. It shouldn't stop you from exploring the markets though.


This is also where someone attempted to scam us again by giving us "free" wristbands. Beware! Keep close to each other and say no thank you to anyone offering anything free and just buy from legit shops (even if it's one of the ones that sell statues of men's bits!).

OMONIA SQUARE

We went here as a recommendation to try a certain dessert place. We had to catch two train lines to get here! The dessert was absolutely worth it (even though a couple of weeks later we found out the same dessert place was literally 5 minutes walk away from our apartment building...........).

Just like Monastiraki square, know it is not the most upkept area with homeless mixed with some people trying to scam you as well as graffiti everywhere. Don't let it stop you from exploring the area - as there are things to offer there - but just be aware of the realities of it.

SYNTAGMA SQUARE

The both times we came here, we did not stay here long and *confession* we only went here because it was the closest place that had a KFC and we were craving it... badly.

We literally went there both times, ate then returned home - all within our 90 minute metro ticket time which meant we could use the same train ticket home!

Fatties, yes.

The bit of the square we did see as we rushed towards the KFC was well looked after. It had a different feel to both the Monastiraki and Omonia Squares. Our sense of caution was not as high and had we had more time, we would have explored it more as we knew there were good shopping places there - but then again, we avoid all shopping anyway.

ENTERING THE ACROPOLIS

We saved this one for when we had a full day to explore it. In the end, it took half a day to do it all and return home - well, half a day starting at 6am.

Leaving home at 6:30am meant we arrived at the Acropoli Metro station at about 7:00am with a walk of about 15 minutes to get to the entrance to the Acropolis. When we arrived, it was quiet and empty with only a few people walking their dogs. Nathan took this time to take some drone footage of the area before anyone would be in his shot or before the local police came. Was it worth it? Absolutely.



This area is very nice but can get full of tourists quickly. It is very well kept and clean. We did not see any graffiti here nor did we see much rubbish anywhere. The restaurants around the area also looked very appealing with a price tag to match.


Changing focus, I need to make mention of the ticketing system for the Acropolis. It needs a good shake up - for reals.  You have four options to go and see the Acropolis (well, that I know of):

Option 1: Directly from an Acropolis Ticketing Office

Wait in line at one of the ticketing offices outside the Acropolis. There are two. One at the main entrance and one at the south entrance where you can enter at the bottom of the hill and walk more to reach the main Acropolis area.

Both offices open at 8am. The lines start to form at about 7:30am and they form fast. We were at the main entrance office early enough to be very close to the front of the line but then when it opened, they said there was a delay and that tickets weren't available until 9am. Guys, the line was already crazy long and growing... imagine waiting an extra hour to get a ticket.

The south entrance ticketing office was a 5-10 minute walk away and doesn't seem as busy as the main entrance ticketing office but it's still busy.

When the main ticketing office said they were delayed, they gave us tourists an option... wait for the extra hour or risk it and go down to the south entrance ticketing office and get the tickets from there and hope that they aren't delayed, that their line is not long and therefore you hopefully beat the delay from the main entrance ticketing office. Nathan went for this option and went to the other ticketing office.

In the end he made it back before 9am but the original line he was in had moved before 9am which means we could have stayed in that line in the end.  At the time, we shrugged off our misfortunes and moved forward but this is a warning for you if you are in our position - don't wait in the frickin line! Just don't. Choose one of the other options below instead.

If you buy a ticket just for the Acropolis, they cost €20 per adult with children being free (not sure the specified age).

Option 2: Through Special Tickets

There are Special Tickets that combine a number of sites around Athens within the one ticket that you are able to use within 5 days. If you buy Special Tickets, it costs €30 per adult and free for children. These are much better value for money.

You can buy these Special Tickets from any of the other sites covered in the ticket and that means you don't need to wait in that long frickin line outside the Acropolis. You buy it from any of the other included sites within the ticket (which will have little to no line) so when you choose to go to the Acropolis, you just go straight to the entrance without waiting to buy a ticket at their ticketing offices!

We didn't think we could fit all of the various museums in within the 5 days we had. But again, when hindsight kicks in, for an extra €10 per adult, it may have been worth it to buy it from somewhere else, have our ticket to the Acropolis already included in it just so we can enter the Acropolis when it opened and before the truck loads of tourists arrive!

Personally, I think this is the best option and if we ever do this again, we will do it this way.

Option 3: Through a guided tour offered while waiting in line at the two ticketing offices

While Nathan waited in line at the other ticketing office, there were official looking people walking down the line offering an already purchased ticket (so you didn't have to wait any longer) and a personal tour with them for an extra €10 (€30 in total). We considered this but with Nathan close to the front of the line, we passed on it. Plus, we were a tiny bit skeptical of anyone offering things too good to be true... in this case, we found out there was for nothing to worry about because they were legit.

There are pros and cons going with guided tours... you can learn so much history from their guides that you wouldn't know otherwise but you also cannot go at your own pace. Weighing it up though, if I were to choose a guided tour, I would have chosen this one as it was a small group of people (about 5 max) which would have meant more one on one time rather than a larger group (we saw some as large as 20 per group).

Option 4: Through a guided tour offered through various websites

There are a lot out there and we looked into some but they were a lot more than what we would have spent on a ticket, special ticket or smaller guided tour. Yes, we would - of course - learn things we wouldn't have otherwise but we would have been within a larger group.

I'm sure we could have found a smaller group if we tried but again, I wanted to go at my own pace and once getting inside the Acropolis, I don't know if I could have gone by anyone's pace but my own.

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My recommendation for those who are like me and do want to go at their own pace is Option 2. €10 extra with no waiting in line at the Acropolis ticketing office and some bonus sites? Worth it. Especially if you have time to fit it all in then this is ideal.

I do not recommend waiting in line for the tickets. No matter how early you get there. It's not worth it, at all. If you like guided tours but a more intimate setting and can't find one online for a reasonable price, go with the smaller guided tours offered in line. If you do find a guided tour online that fits your needs, get it! There were some very well organised tour groups we saw - some with iPad minis for each group member with even a shade around it to see it while in the sun!

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Their ticketing system needs to be better though. Firstly, being able to sell them online directly - I mean, their scanners to enter the Acropolis are updated enough to read QR codes so why not allow tickets to be bought directly online and used via mobile? I don't understand it.

It feels like their "delay" is actually on purpose to crowd control the amount of people entering the Acropolis at once. But if they sold the tickets directly online but within certain time sessions, it would space the amount of people just as much as it would with them "delaying" the ticket selling at their offices.
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THE ACROPOLIS

The Acropolis is the hill area that has the Parthenon and other temples on. Yes, it's a hill so you do have to walk up it. There is a wheelchair access though... for those in wheelchairs, not those who are lazy.

Once you get to the main entrance, you've walked half way up the hill. If you enter from the south entrance though, then you have to walk up from that entrance to the top.

There are a lot of stairs and they are made of marble so wear grippy shoes. They are slippery. But because there's so many people around you, the slow pace of walking behind them gives you plenty of time to catch your breath.


Guys, not gonna lie.. it's crazy busy. You cannot move sometimes. Everyone is in your face. You may lose it (like Hadrian nearly did). If we can recommend anything, go during off peak times - NOT in summer months between May and July. It is not only crazy busy, but just crazy hot. Once you're through the main entrance (once getting up the hill), there is very little to no shade. We were able to get a little shade from the shadow of the Parthenon or we were able to get shade from the umbrellas we brought with us but that's it. There aren't many trees and too many people trying to get under them. Moral of the story is be prepared!
The walk up has several photo opportunities where the views of Athens are breathtaking. If you stop, make sure you get off the walking track so you don't disrupt the flow.


Once you get to the top, you pass through the large marble ruins into the main Acropolis area and you remember why you came. The ancient Greeks knew how to build!


You can stretch a little more. It's still crowded so you may never get a spot that is free of people to take some pics but can at least find somewhere to stop and breathe and enjoy the history.


Worth it? Absolutely. But again, choose the right ticketing option and try and avoid peak summer months!

But... there is a toilet outside the Acropolis before you enter and it is the worst toilet I've been to so far on our trip! Free but no toilet seat and no flushing of toilet paper - just a basket full of used toilet paper next to you. So.so.gross. Knew we would find that in Europe but doesn't make it any easier. Even worse with the amount of tourists that go through the Acropolis. If you can, hold it in until you die.

HADRIAN'S LIBRARY


This is one of the sites included in the Special Tickets. It's the only other site in those special tickets we went to and it was one of the last things we did.

Hadrian's Library is right next to the Monastraki Metro station and without the special ticket, it costs €4 per adult and free for children.

It is the rest of the what is left of Emperor Hadrian's Library he had built in Athens. Back in its day it held a lot of scrolls. There are no scrolls there today but it's interesting that this big site was a library!

HADRIAN'S ARCH (Gate)

Not far from the Acropolis Metro station once you pass the restaurants. A free site as it's just on the side of the road.

An interesting arch Emperor Hadrian built when he was influencing Athens. One side introducing the Greek City, the other welcoming you into the Hadrian's City. I'm sure researching it will bring more information but it was interesting for us to learn these little things!

NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

There are so many museums in Athens that it's difficult to choose which one you want to visit.

We visited this one because there was an exhibition on Emperor Hadrian (popular guy around here) and so we made the trek out there.

This is in between two Metro stations - Victoria and Omonia - it's up to you which one to go to as the walk to the museum is the same.

Entry into the museum is €10 per adult and children are free (not sure the age limit).

There was more than one exhibition going on at the museum at the time so we were able to learn more than we had planned! The museum was busier than I thought it would be but it wasn't majorly busy that you couldn't move without people in your face. You also have to check in any backpacks for security reasons. This service is free. You can also get guided tours - not sure if they are free or paid.

The exhibition on Hadrian was also interesting for us, obviously, and we were able to learn more about him than we had known before.


EXPLORING AEGINA ISLAND

There are many Greek islands (over 500) and as much as we wanted to go the picturesque Mykonos and Santorini, we decided we'd leave it out of the budget.  So we chose the closest island to Athens instead. It was cheap and fast to get there so we were able to explore it within a day.



We ferried across to Aegina Island which takes just over an hour.

Ferry prices vary depending on which specific ferry company you choose. You can either book it online or there are chances to buy it directly from the ferry places at the port. If you book it online - like we did - you have to find the right ferry company shopfront to get the tickets printed. A little difficult when in an unfamiliar area and it's all in Greek but not impossible. We used two different ferry companies for the trip there and back.

Both ferries had cafes inside them and both had open areas and closed - with air con.

We only stayed in Aegina for about 2 hours. We knew it wouldn't be a long trip and we knew we wouldn't be able to explore much so we went straight from the port to the closest beach area we could. We were dying for a dip in the ocean and some relief from the heat!

We found a safe little area where locals were swimming and had a nice long cool off in the not-cold-but-not-hot Mediterranean Sea water! Walked around the little water front food places and tourist area then returned to mainland Greece.

If you are time and money short, I recommend a quick trip to Aegina! It has a lot to offer even just for a day.



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We LOVED our time in Athens! The food, the people, the place, the history... and the food!

We will return one day Greece... we loved you that much!

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FINAL REVIEWS

H: Greece was very nice! The food was delicious and the public transport was very close to where we stayed. But it was very hot there, and the sun was out pretty much all day. You had to close the blinds every night to get to sleep. And plus we had to buy a fan to keep cool in the other room because there were none. But other than that it was amazing!!!

N: After 3 months in Italy, Athens was a nice change culturally, linguistically and most definitely culinarily (that's a word right?). From the moment we arrived we felt the hospitality amongst the locals. I loved our taxi driver so much that I decided to call him directly for our other taxiing needs. Giros (pronounced yiros) and souvlaki and all the other delicious foods are available nearly 24/7 - and yes we did take advantage of it with more than the occasional twilight snack (meal). Hello extra KGs! Also, if you're into ancient history then this is the place for you. You can see sites and relics that trace back to some of the earliest records of European civilization, architecture and philosophy. Then finally, I'd recommend heading off the mainland to get a taste of island sun, sand and the warm Aegean seas. Greece certainly has everything that will appeal to all sensibilities. The only thing is... watch your pockets.

T: After some issues in the little Tuscan town we stayed in, I'm so glad Athens was as great as it was! We had it a little rough in Tuscany and needed to breathe some new life into us. Athens did that for me. I also think we put on all the weight we may have lost in Italy with our home cooking and walking around a lot. The food in Athens was so good. We also may have blown our budget on the food but it was so worth it! Besides food, the people were friendly and helpful. And even with very little to no Greek, we were able to get by and locals were accepting of us! The history is amazing, the people we did interact with were always friendly and can I mention the food again? Because it was delicious - not just Greek food but any other food made there was amazing. Transportation was easy and we didn't need a car. Can't wait until we return - because we will return!


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