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Athens and the Heart of Greece, April 23, 2018 trip report

I just returned from Rick Steves’ Athens and the Heart of Greece tour. I was kind of unsure how to approach a trip report for this trip, as the itinerary is listed on the website for anyone who is interested. So I decided to just talk about some categories of things and some of the things that weren’t covered in the itinerary. Hopefully this way people can skip to the parts they are interested in.

Overall impressions: I had been a little less enthusiastic about this trip (not to say that I wasn't interested) than others, as I tend to be more excited about renaissance art/architecture/history than ancient ruins. But nevertheless, my husband is really interested in ancient ruins and history, and I always felt it was someplace I should see, so we signed up. I was totally, completely blown away by how much I loved this tour. A lot of people have said this was their favorite tour, and I absolutely see why. The people, the food, the landscape, the culture - all of it was amazing and fascinating and wonderful. Perhaps I had such a great experience partially because I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about how much I would love it. Absolutely spectacular trip.

Hotels: As with all of our previous tour hotels, the hotels were clean, comfortable and centrally located. We had a few that were really standouts. We were asked if we were willing to make a bit of a hike in Kardamyli where the group had to be separated into 2 hotels, and we were rewarded with rooms with spectacular views of the town and the sea. We enjoyed picnic dinners there just relaxing on our balcony watching the sunsets, and it ended up being my favorite town because of it. The hotel was called Hotel Vardia, for anyone interested. The hotel in Nafplio, Pension Marianna, stood out because it was owned by a family and all of them were so kind, generous and proud of their work. They had a wonderful terrace with lovely views over the town and sea, so it was another gorgeous place to relax. In Athens, Hotel Hera was a little fancier than many of the RS hotels we have stayed in, with an excellent location just steps away from restaurants and the entrance to the Acropolis hill and museum. We lucked out with a room with a view of the Acropolis. Many of the hotels had very small showers and hard beds, as is common in Europe, but almost all of the rooms were much larger than other European hotels we have stayed in. The breakfasts at each place were out of this world with tons of fresh fruit, veggies, spinach and cheese pies, pastries, breads, meat, cheese and the most important thing: fresh yogurt with honey. We loved all of our breakfasts in Greece.

Food: While I like Greek food in the States, nothing prepared me for just how wonderful the food in Greece would be. This tour had the best food of any, so far. There seemed to be a lot more group meals included than our other tours. All of the included meals had a main that you could choose from 3-5 options, with 2 exceptions for lunch places where we were served fresh fish. However, even if fish is not your favorite, meals always came with so many other things that no one would go hungry. Most meals were served with fresh bread. tzatziki sauce, Greek salads with huge slabs of feta cheese, and then sometimes other starters like soups, spanakopita, sausage, meatballs, and on and on. Every single meal we ate was incredible, and most of them better than any of the meals we have had on other tours (not to say that those were bad, as we have always thought the food was at least good). For wine drinkers, wine was only included on the first and last meals, but you could usually buy a carafe for 3 euros.

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Tour group: We had 25 people in our group. We were the youngest, in our mid thirties. There was one couple and a group of 2 friends who were traveling together who were in their mid-fifties. The rest of the group was mid-sixties and up, with a fairly large representation of couples who appeared to be in their 70’s. This was probably the oldest average age of any tour we have taken so far, but also one of the most energetic. There was only 1 solo traveler. Everyone was American, although one member was originally from Brazil and one from India. We got along spectacularly. There were 3 different sets of 2 couples each traveling together, and they all made an effort to mingle with everyone else. Without being asked, everyone sat with different people at different meals. Everyone was pleasant, intelligent, respectful and inquisitive. Everyone was always early. This group probably got the closest of any group I’ve been on yet, and there were a few teary eyes at our goodbye dinner.

Tour guide: Our guide was David Willett. He was raised in England, lives in Australia and guides in Greece. He authored a Lonely Planet Greece guidebook and helped write the RS Guide. He was originally contacted by RS and asked to help come up with a tour itinerary because of his work with Lonely Planet. He was then asked to guide and he said no way, as he had heard nothing but bad things about American tour groups. But a friend convinced him that RS groups are different and he agreed to try, and now he loves it and has been doing it for 17 years. He also leads the Best of England tours. He is funny, helpful, and extremely knowledgable. He is very organized, remembered everyones names on the first day, and generally encouraged a happy tour. We feel very lucky to have had him, he is a wonderful guide.

Bus time: Our bus driver was kind and very skilled, as is standard on RS tours. The roads on this trip were the most winding of any tour yet, so something to consider if you are prone to motion sickness. There was a lot more bus time at the beginning of the tour than others, but it balanced out with less in the end.

Included surprises: Some of our favorite things were things David arranged that weren't listed in the itinerary. In Athens he organized a food tasting were we had balsamic vinegar, olive oil, honey, preserves, olives, bread, and a variety of toppings for the bread like Greek bruschetta. It was delicious and informative, and we returned to the shop at the end of our trip to shop for gifts for family who watched our dogs while we traveled. They kindly wrapped everything in bubble wrap and then we layered it in clothes in packing cubes and checked it, and everything made it just fine. We also had a cooking lesson in Monemvasia where we learned to make baklava, moussaka, tzatziki and chickpea patties, which were later cooked and served as a part of our buffet dinner. We had a dinner with folk dancing and live music, where almost everyone tried their hand at dancing and we had a blast. We also had a wine and ouzo tasting. The day we were set to visit Mystras was May Day, so our plans had to be changed. Instead, the day before we visited a tiny town of 42 people called Kastania and looked at their Byzantine churches. On May Day we visited a church in a monastery that follows a different calander, so it was open on May Day. For dinner our bus driver cooked a barbecue dinner for us. It all more than made up for the change of plans.

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Highlights and surprises of the tour: 1) How wonderful the food was. 2) How mountainous the landscape was - I love the mountains! 3) How friendly our group was. 4) How few tourists there were. Outside of Athens, there were very few tourists, and almost no American tourists. I don't know if this is because we visited earlier in the year, or if it is because we visited smaller towns, but it was so nice to experience less crowded areas and get to know the locals better. I felt like I got a much better feel of the culture this way. Some of the ancient sights were still crowded, but not unbearably so. 5) How many small towns were included. This might be a lowlight for some, as there is not a ton of things to "do" in many of the towns we stayed, but they were perfect places to just "be," which was what we were looking for. Usually the tours have more of a mix of larger cities and small towns, but on this tour Athens was the only city of considerable size. We really liked that for a change. 6) Our local guides were all unbelievably funny, intelligent and passionate. They obviously love what they do. On other tours we always had 1 or 2 that we didn't love, but on this tour all of them were great. I thought it was really neat that the guides all knew each other, so they would refer to each other, mention things that we would see with another guide that related to what they were talking to, etc.

Lowlights of the tour: 1) It was much hotter this time of year than it was supposed to be. We selected the April 23rd departure, as the average temperature in the areas we were to visit is 70 at that time of year. This has been an unusually hot year, and instead it was mid to upper 80’s and even 90 sometimes. This made the strenuous walks a little less enjoyable, but certainly nothing like a summer departure would experience. I am just a wimp about heat (funny, for a Florida girl.). 2) There were fewer wildflowers than I had been hoping for. Now, I feel a bit ridiculous saying this, as there were still plenty. But when I saw photos of the same places we had traveled at this time last year, their were fields and fields of them. We saw quite a few, but just a bit more sporadic. Also, this would normally be the prime time for the Judas (or Red Bud) trees in Olympia to bloom, which is supposed to be a spectacular sight. Unfortunately due to the unexpected heat, they peaked about 2 weeks before we arrived. 3) I am not sure if I can really say this is a lowlight, as I was prepared for it, but this tour is much, much more strenuous than any others I have taken. There is a lot of walking, a lot of optional hikes that are beautiful that we did, a lot of slippery slate and marble, a lot of cobble stones. Everything was manageable, but for someone who is mobility challenged, this is certainly something to consider. 4) I got information overload on this tour a bit faster than other tours. The ancient sights are fascinating, but after a while all the different temples, theaters, bits of pottery, etc. blended together. Each ancient sight we visited was accompanied by a very modern, well displayed and well organized museum, but after a while they all looked the same to me. Luckily the local guides were sure to point out the most important pieces and tell us why they were important, so hopefully I can remember bits. I imagine this would be a highlight for someone passionate about ancient history.

Hopefully this is helpful to someone. All in all, this was a spectacular trip that made me fall unexpectedly in love with the Greek culture, people and cuisine. The small towns are gorgeous, the ancient history is humbling, and the Greek people are so warm. We are absolutely thrilled that we took this trip.

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1712 posts

Wow, what a great report!!! We have not taken an RS tour yet, but are considering one for next year, either Greece or Sicily.

How to choose? I think Greece maybe, because we are not getting any younger (in our 50's) and yheah, that strenuous bit! I like to keep in decent shape, but my husband is somewhat sedentary. I am anxiously awaiting the release of the RS tour schedule for next year. We plan to sign up and go in the cooler months as we are heat wimps too! :)

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2426 posts

Great report! Yes, after 7 RS tours Greece still our favorite. One I would consider doing again except in my heart of hearts I know it could not possibly be as great as the first time, and there is a lot elsewhere we need to see before we can’t. We will probably visits Sicily in 2019, maybe combined with a city tour (Rome?).

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853 posts

Hubby and I have taken 7 RS tours and I have my eye on this one for #8. Glad to get your great report!

I already realized that before I take this one I'll have to do some extra walking and getting in shape.
Glad you had a great time with the tour and tour mates.

Thanks for the report.

Mimi

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1794 posts

Tamara,
Thanks for a comprehensive report! You may recall I followed you in Amsterdam by a couple days...we visited Keukenhof on 4/24, after you did.

I'm planning to sign up for the 2019 Greece tour and wanted to go in mid-April. I live in Atlanta but the heat is so depleting when traveling I try to avoid warm places if I can. You mention how warm it was, I'm wondering if I should try to go the last week of March. Your thoughts?

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Thanks Tamara, yours is a great report, and brought back many memories of my own RS Greece Tour in June 2017. Different guide, different driver, different hotel in Athens, but the same itinerary and very similar experiences. I also loved the mix of various small towns in the itinerary, I love them too. Our group had 7 participants under 40. One thing that I also appreciated was the high quality of English speaking of most Greek people, not just those who deal with foreign visitors every day. Yes, it is a strenuous itinerary, with lots of steps everywhere, and oh, that slick marble on the Acropolis. I have 2 tours coming up this month and next, and I also had plans to get into shape, but oh darn, I forgot.

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369 posts

Thanks for a great trip report! I'm going on this tour in mid-September and this review has made me anticipate it so much more! I know that there won't be any flowers in September but I was thinking I'd want to go when the water was warmer for swimming:) Can't wait for all that wonderful food and the small towns. Like you, I'm not that super-excited about all the ancient history, but I'm thinking that after I'm in each place and have great guides explaining it, maybe I'll better appreciate it. Glad you had such a great time. And for the previous posters thinking about Sicily- go! it is a fantastic tour!

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1712 posts

I have a question.........Tamara mentions rooms with views. Is this just happenstance and did all the tour members receive the same kind of room?? I ask because I wonder when you book, can you request a room with a view?
Also, I know RS says most places do not have AC..........did you have AC in your hotels? I can't sleep at night if it is too hot!!!

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Diveloonie - I don't think you can go wrong with either trip. I have heard Sicily is wonderful too. However, I have seen so many people say that Greece was their favorite of all their tours, so we picked that first. I'd love to do Sicily eventually! As for your question above views - you can't request a good view when you book your tour. In my experience, the guides try to rotate rooms as fairly as possible. You might get the smaller room without a view at one hotel, but have a wonderful view at the next. On our tour we stayed at a couple of hotels where most rooms had views. We got lucky with good views in Athens and Kardamyli, but then in Nafplio we had a tiny room with no view, and so on. Most hotels with nice views have terraces or balconies with views for public spaces or for breakfast, so you will get to see the view no matter what. As for AC, all of our hotel rooms had AC on this tour, which was wonderful.

Alan - I understand what you mean. I have heard Sicily is very much like Greece in landscape and how the tour is focused more on small places and culture rather than huge sights, so hopefully you will love that one too!

Judy - so glad to hear about your Keukenhoff visit! I don't want to steer you wrong about weather, but our guide said this is year was very unusual for the heat at this time. If heat is the most important thing, then late March or early April may be safer, but he said usually this end of April tour is not hot like this.

Larry - so funny about forgetting to get in shape! I had plans to get in shape and then ended up with a back injury a month before we left, so I had to dial back my exercise plans. Luckily that healed before we left, but man was I out of shape! :)

Thanks for all your encouragement. For anyone considering this tour, I don't think you will regret it!

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Thanks for the awesome report! I'm signed up for this tour in October 2018 and am really looking forward to it. I don't have super high expectations for Greece, but after reading so many positive reviews and Google Mapping the itinerary, I'm getting really excited. I'm a bit of a hiking junkie, so I'm really looking forward to Monemvasia and Hydra.

I'm also planning Sicily 2019 with a fellow RS tour member. :)

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"For dinner our bus driver cooked a barbecue dinner for us. It all more than made up for the change of plans."

Oh my word! That is wonderful and kind of a testimony to how the Bus Drivers are considered part of the tour group. I only want to know if he had carried his own grill in the bus luggage compartment, hahaha!

I'm so happy to read your tour report. It sounds like the 2 of you had such a wonderful time. I discovered on the GAS tour that I much prefer the smaller towns and villages over big cities (except Paris. And London, lol!)

Long ago and far away when I lived in Hillsborough County there used to be a huge Greek food festival in the winter - put on, I think by the big Greek orthodox church in Tampa. If that is still going on you'll have to look it up next year!

Thanks for taking the time to post!

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Tamara, thank you so much for this fantastic report. We are leaving for this trip soon. It will be our first RS tour and our first trip to Greece! We have a few different hotels and Ionna is our trip leader. Did you climb the 999 steps to the church in Napflio? Did you hike to the old town in Monemvasia? Did you hike in Hydra? If you did, would you describe the hikes, please. We are in our mid 60's but walk 3-8 miles everyday, so are hoping to do some extra hiking! Since the weather seems a bit warmer than usual, are shorts appropriate? Thank again for adding to our excitement! Linda

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We climbed the 999 steps - the climb up is a cardio workout but worth it - earned my Gyro and adult beverage! You can take a cab to the top if you like. Walking down the steps was more difficult and scary. Hard on the back and knees and missing some of the railings . Only about 5 of us took the steps up and down. Most of the rest did not go up there or took the cab. The views are amazing. Highly recommend.

Greece was our 5th tour - and while I was excited to go - I did not expect to love it as much as I did. It was absolutely fantastic - might be my favorite tour yet... BTW - David was our guide as well - he is fantastic and knows so much about the plants and trees in the region.

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We did all those and then some. You won’t want for hiking. In most places just look up, and there you go. On Hydra we hiked around to a beach sort of on the other side. There was a delightful but pricey seaside restaurant where we enjoyed fortifying for the hike back.

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i went on the greece trip in 2011...i was put on the "black list" because our queen english speaking guide from egypt said to report at "ten of eight" for dinner...i am 6'4" at the back of the crowd of 24 and i heard ten after eight...i am american, i do not speak the queen's english...many people said i was the best in the group...yet RS tours denies me because of what?????? they talk to me like a bad kid in school...i'm 61!!!!...good luck???

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Wonderful report Tamara! Much like you I was unsure of a tour of Greece and it was to be my first Rick Steves tour. However, off I went and it was fabulous. We had David, too, and not sure how any other RS guide could top him. He will be my gold standard for my future tours, one done 2016 and Paris in September of this year. Our bus driver was amazing as well, Georges. After a couple of days when no one else wanted to sit in the front I got to enjoy watching the turning road disappear underneath the front of the bus.
With David having so much experience in Greece, it was like he was the mayor of the guides, knowing someone, or many someones, in every city. There were some differences in the hotels you mentioned but my favorite was the same one you stayed at in Nafplio. The view was amazing of the town and the harbor.
Our group had a similiar composition as yours, I was one of two solos, there were a few couples and an 80 year old dad with his fortysomething sons. And he kept up with all of the hiking. All of us got along. It was my first experience of the buddy system, a good way to keep track of us all and way to meet people in the group.
The seafood, tzatziki, and honey, figs, and yogurt were my favorite things. David pulled some figs off the trees for us to eat. When I got home I tried for a long time to find yogurt as good as in Greece.
I think Hydra was most likely my favorite. After all the antiquities it was pleasant to sit by the harbor. One of our group spent an entire day sitting there enjoying the sight and the ouzo. When the rest of us returned from the beach you referred to, we all went to visit "Steve," tag line for having an ouzo at the harbor.
All in all it far exceeded my expectations of a tour of Greece.

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882 posts

Tamara, we just got back from the GAS tour which you and David helped us with so much! So thanks! Glad you liked the Greece tour, that was our first RS tour and we had David as well and loved it!!

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1173 posts

Great trip report. Thanks for writing it. I have been on 16 RS tours and traveled to Europe on my own and with other tour companies. I have never been to Greece but it will be a tour I will take! I remember my first job out of college when a co worker said you must go to Greece. I never did but now is the time. Sounds like a beautiful country and remarkable tour!

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I am a solo lady traveler on the Oct 8, 2018. Very excited specially after reading your great report. In my other two RS tours I was lucky that there were other solos. Is there any solo traveler reading this post and interested in continuing for another week visiting Turkey? I want to take advantage since they are neighbors. Also I would like to hear from anyone who has been there, which are the most recommended highlights besides Istambul. Planing to spend 4-6 days there on my own if nobody in the group wants to join me. Am I been too brave? I would really appreciate your advise.

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1091 posts

Great report, Tamara. My husband and I traveled to Greece on our own a number of years ago and loved it as well. I loved the food too which is saying a lot because I am a picky eater. For those who are considering doing the 999 steps to the fortress above Nafplio, please take into consideration your physical condition and the heat. My husband and I drove to the top. While we were at the top, we ended up rescuing a older lady who collapsed from heat exhaustion after making the climb.

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1007 posts

We ar considering this tour for spring 2019. Do you think it would be a good idea to spend more time in Athens? We are also conidering a March departure to avoid the heat.

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14241 posts

Bob - I very much recommend spending more time in Athens. I took this tour last year around the same dates as Tamara and it wasn't as hot, but by the 2nd week, the temps were definitely in the mid-80s, maybe even a little more on one of our strenuous days, and the heat killed off most of the spring blossoms. Another forum member - Wray - took the tour about a month before me and while she had a little rain, the temps were mostly 60's-70's and she said there were lots of wildflowers.

Athens - in recent years, Athens has been spruced up a lot I'm told. I very much enjoyed several days on my own before the tour. I would have preferred those days after the tour - once I was familiar with Athens - but the hotel rates jumped by about 50% from April to May, so . . . It is easy to get around most of the sights on foot and the metro is new, modern and easy to use. The tour only goes to the Acropolis (enough time) and the Acropolis museum - a longish tour and then a little free time for the top floor with the Parthenon marbles - a few originals in bad shape and lots of obvious copies of the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, on the first full day of the tour. The schedule had us touring the Archaeology Museum the next morning before driving to Delphi, but that was changed so we left Athens after breakfast. That gave us ample time to tour part of Delphi and then free time to explore the rest of the site before dinner - or walk around the town, or whatever. I think Delphi would have been too rushed if we'd gone to the museum in Athens first. Instead, we went to the Archaeology Museum on our last full day in Athens, after docking in Piraeus from Hydra. Either way, you'll only have about 2 hours with a guide and it's simply not enough if you are at all interested the ancient Greek artifacts or history. It's a great museum that deserves a second visit. I spend hours there on one of my pre-tour days and was very happy to return, though I mostly wandered on my own and saw a lot that I skipped on my first visit. We couldn't linger at the museum because the bus was waiting to take us and our luggage back to the hotel.

Things I highly recommend: the Ancient Agora, Rick's City Walk, changing of the guard at Syntagma Square on Sunday morning. I went to other places too, nothing was a disappointment. I look forward to going back.

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I'm also signed up on the Oct 8th trip and was wondering if anyone here knows how the weather might be like during that time?