Practical Greece

Practical Greece December, 2010 Two weeks; February, 2011 One week

(Mark and Vicki are in month 17 of their RV trip through Europe. Their website is )

We had no trouble crossing from Turkey into Greece through the Ipsala border station. We spent the night before in a large parking lot behind a gas station just before the turn off to Ipsala. This allowed us to get an early start as it was December 2 and we were flying out of Athens for the States on December 13. It was first day we could go back into the Schengen area. However, one of the things we soon discovered was how little there was to see in Greece and how desolate the countryside was between the border and Thessaloniki. We had crossed the border with very little diesel as it is much cheaper in Greece at about 1.35 E a liter. But there are few as stations along this stretch so don’t cross without enough to get at least 50 miles. This part of the road is excellent and there are several large rest areas where you could probably spend the night. However, officially it is illegal to camp outside of official sites in Greece.

We spent the night at one of only two large rest areas between Thessaloniki and Larissa. GPS N39 48 54 E22 30 23. South of Thessaloniki to Larissa it is all toll road and very expensive at $28 for 100 miles and some of it only 2 lane! However, the map shows no alternatives through this stretch. We only stopped to take pictures of Mt. Olympus though there was one nice castle we passed at Platamonas but no where to stop to even take a picture.

South of Larissa we got off the toll road headed for Thermopylae and Delphi. Road was just fine even with two stretches of mountains to climb. There were some rest areas in the hills after Neo Monastri where it might be possible to spend the night. Also at Thermopylae there was a large field type parking area just beyond the monument where two campers were parked and even had wash on their line Our Tom Tom didn’t have the new exit for Thermopylae so we missed it and had to drive 10 miles to get off the new toll road to go back and pay over $10 in tolls. An expensive mistake especially when we were not following one of our rules—follow the signs instead of the GPS as the locals know best!

The road to Delphi is quite pretty and Delphi itself is worth the trip just for its location. Be sure to have good weather when you are there. Wild camping is impossible there. We stayed at Camping Apollon, open year round, and 1 1/2k from town, 2 ½ k from ruins. Cost was 17.50 euro with CSI discount, no electric .The town is really quite pretty if touristy, though many stores close for lunch until 4:30 or don’t open in the morning at all during off season. The ruins open at 7:30 am and museum at 8:30. If you get there by 10am off season you should be able to find a parking place. Parking is very limited. We saw only 2 other people at the ruins. The tour buses start arriving at about 11 from Athens. The museum is quite nice but the museum shop was closed for off season.

The next town beyond Delphi is Arachova, which is also a ski resort. It was quite lively and very crowded with cars and pedestrians on a Saturday where Delphi had been pretty deserted. The road through town is very narrow and we passed 11 tour buses coming through from Athens. To avoid this try to get to the town before 11 am or after 1 pm or so. Just beyond the town was a large car park and 3-5 miles later a spot where the old road was that might be possible for wild camping in the off season.

We were in a hurry because we wanted to get to the Evoiko Sea Center, near Chalkouti, where we were going to store our camper. We checked it out, and it was fine. Just 100 euro for two months and we could spend the night before and night after our flight in our camper for no charge. They even have toilets, showers, and electric. The bus stop to Athens is a few blocks away with service from 5 am. The owner’s son, Dennis, spoke excellent English.

We then drove the 1 hour or so ( 5 euro toll) to Camping Athens. It is in a super convenient location with a bus stop across the street. The bus connects to the Metro or you can take one all the way to the Port if you are going to the islands. A bit pricey though, no discounts and 25 euro a night plus 4 euro more for electric—which we never get. It did have free wifi and a self service laundromat next door with a dryer! 10 euro per load—again, expensive.

Sundays from November till March are free at the Acropolis which saves about $35 a couple. We had an early dinner at the Thanis on souvalaki row in Monasteri. Wonderful, wonderful and so much to eat we took half home. We had a gorgeously clear day with highs in the lower 70s. Weather right now is running warmer than usual so we are very happy.

Monday we set out for the National Archeology Museum but when we got there it was closed due to a one day selective strike. So we then went to 3 travel agents for information about going to the islands. We had wanted to go to Santorini but we found out the ruins are actually closed and have been for several years. Then we decided to see Delos as Rick Steves recommended it second to the Acropolis as a must see Greek site in Europe 101. To get to Delos you have to go to Mykonos by ferry first as Delos is a UNESCO protected site with no one living on it. We were worried that we might have to stay two nights as the travel agents weren’t sure if the boat from Delos got back before the ferry left, so we decided not to buy a package but arrange it ourselves. This proved much cheaper and super simple.

We caught the 5:15 am bus to the port arriving by 6 am—we could have slept another hour! We bought the tickets right at the ferry office. In the off season you can just buy the cheapest ticket and still be assured of an airplane type seat. Tickets were 31 euro each way. Arriving in Mykonos we caught the bus from the new port to the old port and stopped in at the museum and found out that in the winter the Delos trip was only on Fridays and Sundays and sometimes didn’t go at all and today was Tuesday! So much for that idea. We toured the fine museum and walked the two blocks to town. Much of the town was closed but we had emailed the Carbonika Hotel and had a fine room with a terrace (but no view of the ocean) for 50 euro.

Mykonos is a beautiful town and we got lost several times in its lanes and alleys. We had another terrific dinner at Maduris on the habor and took home a doggy box to our room’s mini fridge. We decided it was too iffy to spend three nights and took the ferry back the next day. Arriving in Athens we learned that there was a 1 day transportation strike and so instead of the 1 euro bus ride had a 10 euro cab ride to the campground. Luckily, we had an honest cabbie as he got on the expressway—it could have cost a lot more had he gone through town. By the way, the cheapest package the travel agents had was one night at 130 euro per person. We spent 87 euro per person and none of the agents knew that the boat didn’t go to Delos everyday. If you do decide to go to Delos, we learned that they always time the boat to get back in plenty of time for everyone to catch the ferry to Athens on the same day.

Thursday, time to go back to the Museum. We had waited until after lunch and arrived just after 1 to discover that I had misread the guidebook—the museum didn’t close at 5, it closed at 15:00--3 pm. Friday we got an early start and were at the museum at 9 am. It was wonderful except that the vase section and the museum gift shop were closed! If both were open, you would need 4 hours with a break in the cafe.

The winter finally caught up with us. At 2pm (nice late check out allowed) when we left Camping Athens (in pretty heavy traffic) it was 68. At 4 pm when we arrived at the Marina it was 45 with heavy winds from the north. Low for the night was forecast at about 34. Yuk. Next day we packed for our return to the States.

It is a good thing we got to the marina early as the weather turned very bad. Five inches of snow fell in Athens and even more over the hills between the marina and the airport. The winds were so bad from this storm, that we later learned they uncovered a statue buried in the sand on the coast of Israel two thousand years ago. The marina manager, Dennis, was worried about the bus and so drove us to the neighboring town to catch the train into Athens, where we transferred to the airport train. No problems except for a lot of steps for the luggage and me with my arm in a sling. However, the kindness of strangers principle held good and we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We were lucky in that the next day was a nationwide strike and the airport was closed. The constant strikes makes touring Athens difficult and expensive. Be sure to calculate extra time and money into your plans.

Practical Greece Part 2 February 15-21, 2011

We arrived safe and sound back in Athens via Munich. As usual, absolutely no customs in Munich or Athens and had a whole row of seats each on the Newark to Munich flight. Unfortunately, 1 bag got left behind in Munich. The Lufthansa man said he would put on bus to Chalkouti next am. Due to ANOTHER one day city transportation strike we had to pay 40 euro for a taxi to the regional bus stop and then 5 euro each for about 2 hr ride to Chalkouti. We missed the stop which is just one stop beyond town. The kindly bus driver called the marina and the owner’s wife picked us up, which saved us the walk with our luggage. Our camper was fine and the engine started right up after two months. Next morning Dennis helped us in communicating with Lufthansa and his mom went to the nearby town to the bus station to pick up the bag for us. We finally got underway about 3pm and drove to Marathon. Unfortunately, our Tom Tom was not working because I didn't realize I couldn't switch between US and Europe but needed to re-download. Will do this before leaving US next time! We spent the night at the parking lot at the Tumulus of the Athenian soldiers just south of Marathon. By the way, the coldest temperature our thermometer recorded between December 11 and February 15 was 28. The current weather is partly sunny with lows in the mid 40s and highs in the low 60s.

Everything in Greece is fairly close together so after visiting the Tumulus we took the toll-road around Athens but got off at Elefsina to save money. Then continued the very scenic drive down the east coast to Epidavros. We arrived around 5 pm but decided to tour the next day. We spent the night in the parking lot without problems. N 37 35 48 E 23 04 29. Tom was now working since we stopped at a bar in Megara to reload the Europe maps. In the afternoon we drove to Nafplio, which is a lovely town. Go straight in towards the center where there is lots of free parking at the port. We did the Rick Steves walking tour and I bought some amber worry beads. After agreeing to a price, the woman actually charged me 6 euro less. I hadn’t tried bargaining and I think she was embarrassed at overcharging me. We soon learned that bargaining was as important in Greece as in Turkey. Mark also bought a couple of items at another store with a “sale” of 20%. We still had time to stop at Tiryns (closes at 3) before arriving at Mycenae about 4:30 (also closed at 3.) The upper parking lot had a no camping sign so we stayed at the smaller lower lot at the Treasury of Atreus. N 37 43 38 E 22 45 17.

We spent a couple of hours at Mycenae before heading back to the toll-road south towards Tripoli. The toll was a reasonable $8, unlike the tolls around Athens and further north. The road from Tripoli to Olympia is very scenic and even though it shows on the map as a major road, about 20 miles of it is single width. We passed through one gorgeous town that was completely vertical. Our lateral crossing was marked by amazing twists and turns, but at least traffic was light and there were mirrors at the blind corners. There were a couple of interesting looking shops selling handcrafted wooden items but no where to park. The mountains were full of snow after last night’s rainstorm and in places it came down to the road, which was clear and dry in the afternoon. You should certainly check the weather before crossing these mountains as chains are required when there is snow on the road.

Arriving in Archaia Olympia most stores were closed as it was after 3, and we were told only the Olympia museum and park would be open on Sunday. Parking is right between the town and the ancient area. Though the lot was pretty empty, there was a sign with a tent and a trailer with lines through them. We have seen this sign several places and it is unclear to us if motor-homes are included. We had decided to go to a campground when a police car drove though the parking lot. He didn’t speak much English but when we asked if there was any place we could park overnight, he said we could stay right there. We get the feeling that, like Spain, most places don’t care much in the off season where you park for the night. N 37 38 39 E 21 37 35. It turns out that this was a very noisy place to park on a Saturday night! The next day we spent about 4 hrs going through Olympia and the excellent museum. Olympia is very impressive with a remarkable atmosphere and free on Sunday’s in the three winter months.

You may have noticed that we are not visiting the lower part of the Peloponnese at all. After watching the Rick Steve’s video and reading the guidebook, we decided we would rather spend more time in Italy. The Mani peninsula sounded somewhat interesting but I imagine the roads are very narrow. After having done the coast of Turkey and Spain, I just don’t need the terror of anymore narrow, winding, mountainous coast roads without a really big payoff.

We headed north for the port of Patra. We did not make advance reservations even though we could have saved some money, because we wanted to be sure of good weather for the 15 ½ hr crossing and we also weren’t sure when we wanted to cross. It was easy to buy tickets at the port for the daily 6 pm boat. We paid 288 euro, which was probably too much. The agent kept asking how long we were—7m, and if we were sure. It turns out if we had been 6m there was a 45% discount. Apparently most people just say 6m regardless, and there was no one checking lengths anywhere. We also bought airplane type seats as we didn’t want to sit in the lounge all night. Again it turns out they only check tickets for those seats right at the start—about 8 people had tickets. As the night progressed the room filled up with those who hadn’t bothered to buy tickets. Most people just occupied a whole row of 3 seats so they could lie down. A few even had air mattresses and set up beds on the floor. It was not really quieter than the lounge with all the snoring and the TV blaring until after midnight. Mark finally moved to a couch in the lounge as only 3 people were sleeping there. Be sure to come prepared with ear plugs, eye shades, pillow, blanket, drinks and food. You are not allowed to go back to your vehicle. In the warmer months you can stay in your camper on deck, but not in the winter.

By the way, Patra was a very seedy looking town. Even inside the port security, a man trying to evade the police crawled under our camper while we were in it. It would not be a good idea to try to wild camp around there. Overall we had a good time in Greece, but watch out for strikes. Even on the ferry we found out from a school group that there had been another half day general strike in Athens that week and they had had only 20 minutes at the museum before it had closed. Good luck.