Want to take a Thanksgiving break that won’t break the budget? Head for Greece (just don’t order the fish…).
Greece’s thriving tourist trade is highly seasonal — three-quarters of visitors go between May and September — and there is a downside to visiting outside this period: you miss out on the main program of cultural events in the capital, plus the “party islands” virtually shut down. But there are compensations: accommodation and transportation can be dirt cheap, there’s an undeniable charm to exploring Athens’ atmospheric ancient sites without hoards of tourists to break the spell, and it’s not out of the question to find yourself turning a corner on an island coastal path and discovering a hidden beach that’s all your own.
Luckily, I’d saved enough days of holiday from work to be able to spend a whole week in the country, which I divided equally between Athens and the island of Tinos. But if you only have a long Thanksgiving weekend, the decision of whether to visit the famous city or the now equally renowned islands could be a tough one. Here’s how they compare . . .
First things first: food. Greeks love eating with a passion and it shows. However, this may be lost on you in Athens if you fall into the trap of stopping at the modern restaurant-bars on Apostolou Parlou near the Acropolis. Don’t settle for an overpriced burger or club sandwich. Keep heading down to the bottom of the pedestrian strip, then turn right onto Adrianou on the south side of the Ancient Agora. Here there’s taverna after taverna staffed by waiters with as much local flavor and character as the dishes they serve. Meat dishes are varied and luxurious, including rooster, veal and lamb, and this is one place vegetarians won’t go hungry, with delicious stuffed peppers and vine leaves, zucchini pie, “giant beans” (one of my favorites) and of course the classic Greek salad.
As you’d expect, island cuisine is all about seafood. The surprising part is the price. When a fellow tourist told me the going rate was around €70 per kilo, I assumed she’d got her figures wrong. But sure enough, a few hours later I was tucking into the most expensive (though sadly not the most impressive) fish I’ve ever tasted. Metaxy Mas, in the pretty Plateia Palladas alley to the west of the harbor, came recommended by locals. The staff didn’t speak much English, but when we asked about the fish we were led back to the kitchen where the chef proudly displayed the day’s choices. The red snapper we opted for was okay, but I was still left confused as to why it cost so much — particularly as, with no sign of fishing boats or even a fish market anywhere on the island, there was no evidence of it being any more fresh than anywhere else.
Much better value was the platter of “fisherman’s pasta” we ordered at Taverna Zeukz, on a side street off the main street. Portions were generous to say the least, and I’ve never come across such huge and flavorful mussels. It was just a shame we were the only people there to enjoy the feast.
Athens also has an obvious head start when it comes to sightseeing. The Acropolis is so iconic it’s easy to feel like you’ve already been there, but my first glimpse of the “sacred rock” was hardly a let down. It looks amazing lit up at night, especially when viewed from the Pnyx or one of the other nearby hills. And in daylight you can spend hours wandering around the majestic ruins for just €12, which includes admission to the city’s other major historical sites, including the Ancient and Roman Agoras, and the ancient graveyard, a pleasant place to spend a quiet hour or two watching the social interactions of the resident colony of tortoises.
“Old stuff” aside, I’d recommend visiting Syntagma Square. As parliament buildings go, Athens’ dull sand-colored block is something of a disappointment, but hang around to see the changing of the guard, which happens hourly, and you’re in for a spectacle. Let’s just say I never knew legs could go that high. Those boys should be ballerinas.
Tinos, located in the center of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea and about halfway between Greece’s mainland and Turkey, is best known for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria, one of the most revered shrines in Greece. It draws a steady flow of pilgrims all year round, and many crawl on their hands and knees all the way up the long hill from the port to the church. In fact, the throng of people lining up to enter the shrine, all clutching bundles of candles several feet tall, left a greater impression on me than the marble building itself.
Other than the church, the best way to view the island is to hire a car, or — if you’re feeling daring — a motorbike from one of the many rental places in the town. It’s great fun winding around the coastal roads, or heading inland to explore the rugged hills, populated with old castles, churches, dovecoats, windmills and some of the prettiest villages in Greece. Volax, a small village on Tinos just a short distance from the port, is a tiny maze of attractive cottages built into the hillside and each other, while the village of Pirgos — which is almost entirely pedestrianized — is just the right size to allow yourself to be lost amongst the blue and white houses whose simple appeal is timeless.
Last but not least on my list of reasons to visit Greece: the people. Whether you opt for a city break or island retreat, it’s the friendliness and good humor of the locals that will really make your holiday — and visiting outside peak season means you’ll have even more opportunity to meet and get to know them. So what are you waiting for?
Nice article. Its great to get the insider tips for off-the-beaten-track locations that are so often right under our noses when visiting unknown far away places. Keep 'em coming.
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