Greece: Why Bother With The Islands?

Just got back from an amazing week in Greece last night, so here's my travel report! This was a budget trip, as per usual. Unlike our epic Balkan trip last year, we decided we needed more relaxation, so we decided to see a bit of Thessaloniki, the city we were flying in and out of, and to spend the rest of the time on the beaches of the Aegean on the Pelion Mountain penninsula. This turned out to maybe not be the least stressful option, as getting to Pelion requires a truly hair-rising drive up and down the very large mountain on roads that are not maybe up to Western standards (I say this as someone who loves driving CA Highway 1, and who spent hours and hours driving little roads over the Rockies in Colorado this summer - I'm not easily intimidated) plus just the general stress of car rental - will get to that later. However we both agree that it's worth it, but we'll make some changes next time.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We got a very cheap flight from Baden-Baden to Thessaloniki via RyanAir, and this was the first time I'd ever experienced any problems with RyanAir. The issues were basically my fault: I printed out our boarding passes the previous night, but when I was on the bus to the airport I realized I had my husband's going and return passes, but not my own. At the airport we raced to find an internet cafe, and we did so, but realized quickly thereafter that you cannot print your boarding passes several hours before the flight. So yup, we had to suck up that 70 euro boarding pass reprint fee. I felt like such an idiot. What happened I didn't realize that I was printing the return boarding pass as well, so when I had two boarding passes in my hand I assumed they were our outward passes and we'd have to print the return passes from Greece, but I didn't double check. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Still, it turned a 30 euro flight into a 100 euro flight, which is still not exactly a fortune, but it hurt (my pride, mostly). Then my bag was slightly overweight - but my husband's was slightly under. I chucked out a few toiletries and put some stuff in my husband's bag and we were allowed to board. It was very stressful though - this after just the hassle of getting to the Baden Airpark from Stuttgart, which requires two trains and a bus. Not the best start. Once we touched down in Thessaloniki we had a little difficulty finding an ATM - leading me to wonder why we didn't just travel with a lot of cash to begin with, since Greece is on the Euro anyway. Also dumb. We found one after 20 minutes (hint: it's in the departure area hidden between two security lines!) and had no issue boarding the bus downtown or figuring out where to get off, thanks to my smartphone and having data in Greece.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We managed to find our hotel OK, after a slight mix up with check-in we were in our room at the Hotel Atlantis, which is in a beautiful old building on a main drag in Thessaloniki. It was 50 euro a night, and the rooms are very small with added-in bathrooms that take up space, but they rooms were nicely decorated and beautifully restored, with helpful personnel, at a great price. We set out to explore the city, which was a little difficult as we don't read Greek so navigation made things tricky ("I think we need to go down the street that starts with a weird "O"). Thessaloniki is not, on the whole, attractive, but it has many small attractive surprises within the heat and bustle and noise and grime. It reminded me a bit of a cross between Split, Croatia and Marsielle, France. One thing that amazed me was that the Greeks have cafe/bar culture down - admist many things that remind you that Greece is a poor country in an economic crisis you'd find beautiful, calm, stylish cafes that were oasises of calm and beauty in the chaotic city. We were also amazed at how many Roman/Byzantine/Ottoman ruins just litter the city, everywhere you turn there's an archaeological miracle to be seen. We'd had it in our heads to try to see a museum, but we were afraid we'd missed opening hours and spent the evening just wandering instead. We had a great dinner at an Ouzo-restaurant of small plates like salted anchovies (to die for!), fried zuchinni balls, fried stuffed peppers, ouzo of course, and some cheap half liter wine (not so great). We ate a ton, and as a sign of things to come, were so sleepy after the huge meal and the booze that we ended up collapsing in our hotel at 9:30 p.m., the earliest I'd been asleep in probably years.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

In the morning we grabbed coffee and pastry at Starbucks (Maybe lame, but it was right across from the hotel and we have pretty specific (re: American) tastes when it comes to coffee) and then headed to the Roman Agora (Forum) ruins. Only discovered in the 1970s, they were pretty cool. We had been planning on taking the bus to Pelion that afternoon, but without a way to access bus schedules on my phone, and knowing that the bus from Thessaloniki to Volos wasn't cheap, we decided to rent a car...our first time doing so in Europe. The hotel arranged an attractive price for us, just slightly more than it would have been if I'd booked weeks in advance, and the car was delievered to us. We realized however that my husband had left his U.S. licsense at home, and while he had a military license that allows us to drive in Germany, it wasn't technically going to be legal for the car rental agency to take it, and meanwhile, I can't drive a manual. We shared this with the car rental agency who at first told us they couldn't rent us the car. Then it was, "Well, let me make a phone call..." and suddenly it was fine. I wasn't particularly surprised - rules in Greece seem easily bent if money is on the line. However, my husband as a rule hates renting cars anyway, because he's convinced that rental car agencies are shady and that the worst will happen and blah blah blah. The agency having me as the driver of the car did not help matters. But we made it out of Thessaloniki fine, and despite some confusion getting gas (we got off on an exit that didn't have a re-entry ramp, so we had to drive a few miles on back roads until we found one..) we got to Volos without a hitch - the beauty of smartphones, again, as I was navigating entirely using Google Maps on my phone.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

However, once we got to Volos things were a little more difficult. We paid for the rental in cash, so we needed to get more before going to Pelion, aware that the village were staying in probably didn't have an ATM. (It didn't.) We also wanted to buy groceries for our studio. Found a Carrefour market without much difficulty, but finding an ATM proved harder, as we were on a ring road and wanted to avoid driving in the city center. Google maps took us up into a suburb in the hills where there was no ATM at the designated locations but there were incredibly narrow and twisty little roads that were difficult to navigate. We eventually parked the car and looked on foot once we found an area that looked more commercial. All told we probably sunk at least an hour into that adventure, but cash in hand, we were ready to go. To be honest the road from Volos over Mt. Pelion to Damouchari was OK most of the way. Very steep, lots of hairpins and curves, and breathtaking views, but the road was a decent size and in good condition. The problem came when we descended the mountain into the neighboring seaside resort village of Agios Ioannis. The road between Agios and Damouchari is only a "road" in the loosest sense, wide enough for one car, but with many steep hairpin curves, and very confusing to follow our route. More than once we stalled trying to get up one of those curvy hills while figuring out which way to go, and by the time Google Maps proclaimed we were at our destination, the area was reeking of burnt clutch and we found ourselves at a sort-of parking lot in what was supposedly Damouchari with no idea where our hotel was. Husband was stressed out after the grueling drive so we went down a narrow "mule path" into the village to find our hotel.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Luckily the hotel was easy to find, because Damouchari is tiny. Evie, our lovely hostess, sent a worker from the taverna to show us how to get our car into town to get our luggage, but after the last drive my husband was NOT driving the car down or up any more ridiculously steep semi-roads, and they just carried them down the mule path instead. We'd arrived! Damouchari is picture-perfect (so much so that a good bit of filming from "Mama Mia!" took place there). It consists of a harbor, a rocky outcropping with a ruined Ventian fortress, and a pebbly beach on the other side, with a handful of guesthouses, two mini-marts, a cafe, and only one open restaurant (there appears that there are maybe two more restaurants during high season). Everything is lush olive groves, pine and plane forest, flowers, and the clearest water you've ever seen in the most amazing shades of green and blue. I'd agonized on our hotel choice but settled on the Hotel Damouchari, which provided us with a large studio with kitchenette and private bathroom, as well as a balcony with sea views, in a lovely setting with shaded lawn areas, an impressive hotel bar that replicates a ship, and funky nautical bric-a-brac all over the grounds that is somehow charming and mostly tasteful. There's even a lovely pool, though we found it colder than the ocean. Evie, who basically runs the place, is a gem. 50 euro a night, at least in low season. I'd stay there in a heartbeat again. Everything about the place screamed character. And the place attracts characters too -more about them in a bit. Apostelos, who owns the hotel and runs the taverna across the "street", invited my husband for a drink, but we got slightly lost figuring out which tavern was his, as the Cafe Victoria is next door and everything on the harbor seems to run together via a confusing mess of stone steps.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We ended up having our first taste of retsina (greek white wine that has pine resin in it - there's some history behind that) which was strange but refreshing and we quickly developed a taste for it. We then spent the evening poking around Damouchari's beach and admiring the intensity of the mule path to Tsgakarada, which we swore we'd hike before the trip was up. As night fell we headed to the taverna for dinner. Chris has prawns and mussels, and I had pork slouvaki, both were amazing, and we had plenty of cheap white wine to wash it down, admiring that the water was so clear we could see the bottom of the harbor even at night. After eating, we ended up talking to Franz, an Austrian who lives in L.A. who says he's an important author and screenwriter who "did" Pirates of the Caribbean and Roots and his current book, a Holocaust novel, will be published this winter by Random House and has already been optioned by Spielberg to be a film. I have no way of verifying this information, as I didn't get his last name, but he certainly had money, as he bragged about his houses in Hawaii, Beverley Hills, etc. Supposedly he stays in Damouchari for months at a time to write, and Evie said that was true. He had a boat in the harbor as well. He shared many bottles of a wine he'd specially brought over with us and a lovely young German-Greek man named Evangelios who works in Cologne as a TV writer, and the local policeman, who spoke neither German nor English. Drunken conversation flowed in all 3 languages and at one point we were all watching the moon rise over the Ventian fortress while singing along to Queen. Other details of the night remain fuzzy, but it was a strange and lovely introduction to Damouchari.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Continuing! The next day I awoke early, mercifully not hungover as Franz had promised, and hiked the hills around the village a bit, before buying eggs at Cafe Victoria's minimart - run by a nice but somewhat pushy guy who was always trying to upsell me on cheese - and cooked breakfast in our studio. Chris was in no mood to navigate the roads over to the more magnificent beaches in his car, so we decided to hike. We found an area that had amazing "natural" swimming pools with ladders from the rocks into the water, but we didn't have aqua socks and the route looked treacherous, so we continued up a crazy hill, and then found a path down to the beautiful beach we'd seen from the hill above Damouchari. This beach is named Papa Nero, and it's quite simply one of the loveliest I've seen. There is sand, but the closer you get to the water, the more pebbly it gets (which is fine - sand beaches are overrated if you ask me). There appeared to be tourist infrastructure but on closer inspection, the tavernas had closed and there were no shops, although a couple small hotels appeared to have guests. We swam then walked down the beach to the bridge that connected Papa Nero with the beach at Agios Ioannis. Agios, which we almost stayed in, has many affordable hotels and many restaurants and at least 7 nearly identical "supermarkets" that are all just tiny shops of beach gear and basic food provisions. This was our "big city" but still lacked and ATM. The water at this beach was still nice, but the beach itself is shallow due to a sea wall that separates the main drag from the water, and it wasn't as scenic as Papa Nero or Damouchari. It's only a 5 minute drive between the two villages, but the walk took us a little over 30 minutes and includes a significant steep hill I came to dread.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Aside from the hiking between beaches we just bummed around and swam all day, returning to Damouchari in the late afternoon to shower and get dressed for dinner. We decided to have a drink in the hotel's atmospheric bar, and met an older couple from North Ireland. After a couple drinks they invited us to dine with them, and they expressed their love for all things American, which was similar to our conversation with Evangelios and Franz the previous night. No anti-American bias here! (It may be telling that our companions all had a couple decades on us, though...) At this point the days start to run together. I make breakfast, sometimes have a morning swim before my husband wakes up at the Damouchari beach, we either chill on the local beach or hike to Papa Nero and swim there. One day we went as far as the beach past Agios Ioannis, called Plaka, which may have been even more beautiful than Papa Nero. We have dinner every night at Apostelos' taverna, where the food quality sadly did vary a bit, leading us to have an early dinner in Agios one night and hike back to our village in the dark. We did try the mule path to Tsgkarada, but after getting at least 700 meters above the beach on the incredibly steep, rocky, and worn "path" I was worried about my ability to navigate my way down on foot if we continued, so we turned around and hiked the much more manageable path around the rocky outcropping where the Venetian fort was located. Every restaurant we ate at in Agios was quite good and slightly cheaper than our local taverna. We had lots of fish, egg roe salad (creamy and delicious, not at all fishy), stuffed eggplant, fried zucchini, lamb rolled around cheese...let's just say it was good we were doing all this hiking around!

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Our routine changed slightly the next day - we decided to brave the roads and take the car to the mountainside villiage of Tsgkarada, which is only 3km via the mule path but about 10 km via the road. On the way we experienced the desolately beautiful square of tiny Moursei. Tsgkarada istself is jsut lovely, with fall colors just starting on the mountain, and a picture perfect main square with Europe's largest plane tree - something to behold. Also Tsgkarada had an ATM which was sorely needed, but it was broken, so we couldn't have lunch in town. We drove instead to Agios D-something which is the villiage above Agios Ioannis, where the ATM did work. We drove down and had lunch in Agios, and drove back to Damouchari. Strangely, the parking area in our village was packed and people wearing nice clothes were walking around. Something was up. Surely enough, we could see quite a party happening at the "closed" taverna across the harbor from "our" taverna. The party started at 1700 with a live band playing only Greek music. Before dinner we sat on a paddle boat in the harbor, drinking retsina and watching the crowd of at least 100 dance the night away at the party, when suddenly fireworks went off! It was absolutely magical. At dinner at our taverna, a greek couple told us that the party was for a baptism. At this point it was 22:00 and still going strong - the couple, from Thessalonki, were annoyed, as they'd escaped the city for peace and quiet and obviously none was happening, but I loved seeing the festivities and watching the circle dancing, and sometimes single guys would break off and do an "airplane" dance while everyone knelt and clapped in front of them. Not a show for tourists, just a real village celebration.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We were pretty heartbroken on our last morning. We didn't have time to linger, as our car rental was due back in Thessaloniki at 13:00. We began the steep ascent up the mountain and it was rigourous but fine driving until we began our descent on the other side. The main road (34A) we'd come up in a larger village was blocked off for a motor race (?!?) and we had to take an alternate road down, which was far narrower. It still wasn't a problem until we hit the last village, which was having a market of some kind and was extremely crowded and the roads only large enough for one car to pass at a time on extremely steep and sharp curves. We managed to get our car around a steep turn with the help of the police (my husband was sweating so much at this point) and began what I can only describe as the most terrifying 10 km of my life. Suffice it to say, we will never take that road ever again. We survived and the rest of the drive back was uneventful. Our car rental agency (Posideon) didn't mind that we were late and only glanced at the car to make sure we hadn't dented it, not noticing the scratches from brushing up against trees, I guess. We practically skipped away once the car was returned. Back in Thessaloniki, things were less confusing as we'd learned to read the alphabet a lot better at this point. We walked the LOOOONG distance to the Byzantine museum, which was open until 20:00, which allowed us to grab a much needed late lunch at the nice museum restaurant before enjoying the excellent exhibits. After that we searched in vain for an internet cafe that didn't exist, but ended up at a specialty beer bar with belgian, german, and czech beers. My husband had one that was 28% alcohol, which may have set the mood for the night.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We walked back to the white tower area, stopping for a beverage in a beautifully lit biergarten in a park, and perused the touristy area around the white tower where vendors were selling freshly grilled, beautiful looking corn on the cob (something I miss like crazy in Germany - despite growing corn here, cobbed corn is not really a thing, and when you can find it, it's not good), and managed to sneak onto one of the booze cruise ships just to use the bathroom. They're apparently free 30 minute rides around the harbor if you buy a drink, but the harbor in Thessaloniki is not particularly scenic so we opted out. We continued to search for an Internet cafe to print my boarding pass,and finally found one. Then we grabbed dinner in the pretty but touristy Ladaika district, although the food, as per usual for Greece for us, was very affordable and tasty. We fought off sleepiness after dinner yet again to make it back to one of the many trendy bar streets, which at 23:00 was packed despite it being a Sunday night. To my delight we found another speciality beer bar, this time focusing on truly international beer, meaning I found a Flying Dog IPA and my husband an Anchor Steam Humming Pale Ale. Manna to beer nerds who live in Southern Germany. We took two regular Anchor Steam beers to go and drank them at the port, feet dangling over the water, listening to blaring Greek dance music from a nearby club, which may be the most awful music I've ever heard. On our way back we stopped in for one more ouzo at a friendly Lesbian bar in Ladaika and crashed hard at our hotel.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

The next morning wasn't fun, as I had to try to find a post office to mail a few things back to Germany to escape fears of being over our weight limit on our return flight. We finally took care of and managed to see the Rotunda as well (formerly a temple to Zeus, then an Orthodox church). Then it was time for the most crowded hour long bus ride of my life back to the airport (hint: get on the bus at the train station or earlier, poor people were actually refused further down the line as there was simply no room for them) and got on our flight without an issue. 2 hours later, we were in Germany, although it was still 3 connections to get back home. Takeaways: Greece is phenomenal. Pelion is one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen in my life. It was like a combination of coastal Northern California and coastal Croatia. Driving there requires cajones, but I feel confident we'd be fine with an automatic transmission. Low season was definitely quiet and there's not a lot to "do" but that suited us just fine. Everyone we interacted with was warm, friendly, and helpful, which is not always the case when traveling in Europe. Thessaloniki was not relaxing, but if you are a history nut and/or a cafe/bar fan, it has a lot to offer as well as being a cheap place for intra-European flights. I appreciated that everywhere we went, if you order a drink you get food of some kind: potato chips in Thessalonki up to serious plates of cheese, olives, bread, etc with Ouzo in Pelion. Greeks believe in eating while you drink, which enables you to drink all day, which is apparently what many Greeks do. But we never saw anyone visibly drunk except for our fellow tourists. This was simply the best beach vacation I've had in Europe and recommend it heartily to anyone seeking a unique trip somewhat off the beaten path.

Posted by Linda
Seattle, WA, USA
432 posts

Sarah, once again, a very enjoyable report. Thanks for giving us the scoop. Linda

Posted by Charlene
Centennial, CO, US
911 posts

Sarah ... Please don't write off Greek islands quite yet. They can give you most of these same wonderful experiences plus unique moments of their own, and can be even easier to get to from Germany, as there are direct flights to many islands, such as Santorini (touristy but beautiful and worth a few days before hopping off to Milos or Folegandros) and Lesvos (one of my favorites ... the airport is Mytilene, lots of great places to stay on the island). You do make the Pelion sound very appealing, except for the hair-raising drives! Have you figured out a way you could have gotten there without them? The Pelion has been on our list for a while, but I've never figured out the logistics. Thanks for writing this.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

We were discussing this with the Irish couple - the husband, who is the driver, is terrified of heights so he hates the drive more than we did. As far as we can tell, the only way to get to Peilon without driving is to a) take the bus from Volos, which apparently takes forever and goes on the same treacherous roads (and you still want a car once you get there, for the most part, unless you're in really good shape and love hiking) or to take a ferry to one of the nearby islands and hire a private boat to take you to Pelion. Neither is more practical than a car. Honestly if we'd had an automatic transmission and hadn't been forced to take the "back" road for the last stretch back to Volos it wouldn't have been too bad. Half our troubles was being in a low powered economy manual. Even regular visitors to the area laughed hysterically at the idea of driving it in a manual, even though they're generally standard for Europe. I would be fine driving it myself if I'd had an automatic.