Europe

Dubrovnik

Continued from Split + Hvar

Our bus to Dubrovnik was at 9.15, so breakfast went exactly like the previous day. The hotel folks dropped us off at the bus station in their little electric car. As we boarded the bus, we heard an elderly man complain about having to pay 7 kunas for storing the luggage in the compartment. His co-traveler, presumably his wife, replied, “Ha! Wait till you reach Dubrovnik”. It is true though, the prices kept increasing as we moved south. Not a coincidence that the places became more touristy too.

The internet had advised me to sit on the right side of the bus. The view was fantastic, especially the Makarska stretch, but the mountains on the left were fantastic too! However, the journey took almost 6 hours instead of the 4 that it was supposed to. The attitude of the driver and conductor indicated that this was always the case. The bus stopped for their lunch and we had a pastry to stop the grumbling – ours and the stomachs.

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Split & Hvar

Continued from Zadar

The Boutique Hostel Forum folks had arranged for a cab to drop us at the bus station. Now is a good time to note that toilets in bus stations are pay and use, carry change – usually 3 kunas. The trip to Split took us close to 3.5 hours. The only irritation was that since the luggage compartment was full, the bags had to be kept inside the bus. Thankfully, there were enough vacant seats so it didn’t bother us much. The tourism quotient at Split was markedly higher. Our stay was at Diocletian Palace Experience, and they had said they could pick us up from the bus station if we called them once we had reached. Unfortunately, the only pay phone we could find wasn’t working, but the hotel was only a 10 minute walk away, so we decided to do just that. We were a couple of hours early for a check in (3 PM) but they obliged. Another place without an elevator, but we were on the first floor. In the room, we saw brochures with tours of all kinds, including food and wine tours. We wondered whether we should have planned the next day in a different way.

Our lunch plan was at Bajamonti, a short walk away. Must say that Google Maps is a boon! Rose wine, risotto and veal with a view of the promenade. Life was good. :)

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Zadar

Continued from Zagreb & Plitvice Lakes

We reached Zadar in just over a couple of hours. Our stay in Zadar was to be at the Boutique Hostel Forum, and they had told us not to pay more than 6 euros from the bus station to the city gates. We ended up paying slightly more, and despite some reasonably good directions, lost our way a bit before a ‘duh’ moment of realisation that Google Maps could help even when offline. The hostel is right next to the forum, and its only drawback is that there is no elevator. But even given that we were on the third floor, that was only a one time problem at check in. This, I must say, was a completely cool outfit – superb branding – especially the booklet that comes with the key, the most optimal use of space I have seen, and very helpful staff. Most importantly, we got the view we had requested – sea facing. The beds were on a raised platform, and you could have a fantastic view lying down!

We rested a bit before walking to the Sea Organ to catch the sunset that Alfred Hitchcock described as the most beautiful one in the world. The Sea Organ itself is quite a contraption – it exists below the steps you can sit on to watch the sunset, and plays ‘keys’ according to the rise and fall of waves. Surreal experience. The sun played a bit of hide and seek before quickly appearing in full glory just before its set. Have I seen better? Probably – Boracay and Oia immediately come to mind, but the overall experience thanks to the unique Sea Organ is something you shouldn’t miss. Right next to it, there’s also something called Greetings to the Sun, but that required more darkness to fall, and we were too hungry to wait!

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Zagreb & Plitvice Lakes

Continued from Prague

When we landed at the Franjo Tuđman Airport in Zagreb, it turned out that our driver, arranged for a price by the hotel, was equally worried. Apparently, the last time he had waited for the last flight and it had been delayed, the passengers he was scheduled to pick up weren’t on the flight! In half an hour, we were dropped off a few steps from Hotel Dubrovnik, which was practically on the Ban Jelačić Square, the central square of Zagreb. And what a pretty one it was, visible from our hotel window. A good time to note that the hotel staff was really helpful.

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Praha

Prague was an afterthought. After we had decided on Croatia as this year’s ‘big’ vacation, and realised the intricacies of non-Schengen visas, we needed a nearby place in Europe to land, and the proximity along with the huge number of microbreweries made it the favourite. After starting at an insanely early time (3 AM), sleeping through the uncomfortable Lufthansa flight and sleepwalking through Frankfurt’s cold airport (and staff, except two – one who pointed us to a faster way to go through immigration and the other, who gave us a spot in the line) we landed at the Vaclav Havel airport. We’d arranged a shared pick up by Prague Airport Transfers, and were met by an extremely jovial guy who kept up a steady flow of information – facts and opinion -throughout the trip as he dropped off two sets of passengers before us. Every alternate sentence was closed with a “like this”. We were dropped last and that meant an hour for the trip.

Our stay was at Iron Gate, very close to the Old Town Square. In its dim lit but stylish lobby with medieval style decor elements, we exchanged euros to korunas. (we had read that the airport rates were not so great and the hotel rates were close to what our driver had said was a good rate for the day) We also learned that the check out was 12 PM, which meant we would have about 6 hours to kill the next day before we left Prague – 2 of them was nap time! Our room was compact and neat, and after a quick refresh, we stepped out for lunch.

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A Greek odyssey – Days 8,9

Continued from Day 123456, 7

Day 8 – Athens

We were brought back to our standard vacation practice with a thud – the half day city trip began at 7.30! Breakfast was a rush (in any case, just about the level of our previous stay) and we were delayed by 5 minutes! After a round of collecting people from various hotels and then changing buses, the tour began in right earnest. The first visit was to the Panathenaic Stadium, which apparently has its legacy linked to that of the full marathon. The story goes that a soldier ran non-stop from Marathon to Athens to convey the Greek victory over the Persians. He collapsed and died soon as he delivered the ‘we have won’ message. This distance is what makes up a full marathon now – just over 42 km (!) – and it was included when the modern Olympics began in 1896.

We saw many more interesting things around Athens – accompanied by a bilingual commentary (English and French) by our guide – the temple to Zeus with its Hadrian’s arch, (and the magnificent columns) a statue of Lord Byron who died in Greece, Heinrich Schliemann’s house which is now a numismatic museum, the Parliament which was once a palace, and the change of guard that happens there. Apparently the best looking soldiers are chosen for this job and it’s a matter of privilege to them to chosen as a guard here. We also saw the constitution square, the oldest university, an ancient library, an academy for philosophers, the first parliament building (now a museum) Some interesting anecdotes as well – apparently they found Roman baths while they were digging for the Athens Metro project! Most of these were seen from outside, and we finally landed at the new National Archaeological Museum near the Acropolis. Apparently, acropolis is a common noun of sorts used to denote any citadel/fortified area built on a higher ground.

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The museum tour took over an hour across all three levels, and though the guide did her job – making sure we heard as much of history and mythology (familiar names like Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Apollo…) as possible during the time – it proved a bit tedious. But to be noted that the Greeks have done a great job into preserve and restore their history and culture.  I loved the glass floors at several places which allowed us to see the excavations in situ. Apparently a lot of the missing ‘pieces’ in the relics are being showcased in Britain, and despite several pleas, they are refusing to return it! The tickets bought by the guide could be used across four monuments in the next four days. Alas, we had just a day more! The museum has a cafe, well explained exhibits and even archaeologists on call to explain! Photography is not allowed on 2 out of 3 levels, so we didn’t really shoot a lot.

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We then walked up the winding path to the Acropolis. The buildings are so majestic, and the top of the acropolis gives a spectacular 360 degree view of Athens. We spent quite a while there, and then walked down to Plaka – the old market area.

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There are guys all over the place saying shukriya (!) and trying to sell stuff to you! Our plan was to lunch at Plaka, but thanks to hunger pangs and a slew of restaurants on a lane we reached, we decided to ignore the restaurants in our list, and just eat! Kotili appealed the most and we set about the task eagerly. We ordered what they called a ‘small platter’, penne, and a carafe of the house wine. Everything turned out to be excellent. The small platter seemed huge and does have a lot of meat, but it’s also a good packaging job over a mound of fries! Their service though is the differentiator – the most jovial and entertaining I have experienced! They also gave us complimentary Mastika and a little plate of dessert! Shot and sweet!

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Somewhere during the meal, I turned around and saw that we were very near the Monastiraki station! That meant we were on a lane parallel to the flea market! Greece is not having the best of economic times, and some of this was evident in the downtown area – entire shopping complexes closed, for instance. But this area had quite a bit of buzz happening. We did a little bit of shopping, though judging by the prices it should have been called a fleece market! Now that we had figured out the area and the possibilities, we decided to get back to the hotel to rest a bit. Caught this outside the window and were careful with the curtains!

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We did have quite a few dinner options planned, but the lunch hadn’t been digested yet! So we decided to head back to Monastiraki for a yogurt dinner. We found Yogolicious opposite Kotili, and they had the DIY concept of yogurt, with six yogurt variations and tons of topping options! D chose plain with fruit toppings, while I chose chocolate with all the choco-toppings I could find! The pricing is by weight and we ended up paying 10 euros. We then walked around a bit, listened to a concert happening at the square and then caught the train back to the hotel. Since we wanted to see the Acropolis view at night, we dropped in at the Titania’s own rooftop hotel, and over Mythos beer and Coke Zero, watched the  glorious structure all lit up!

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Day 9 – Athens – Dubai – Bangalore

:( was easily the mood since it was time to go back! We were scheduled to be picked up from the hotel only after 1, so we lazed around, ate the standard breakfast (they didn’t have hot chocolate the second day!) and decided to lunch nearby. We walked around a bit and decided on the Meet Me cafe near the metro station. D chose a club sandwich and a Freddoccino, and I had a Choco Venessia and a Caesar salad. all good, except I liked D’s drink more. We went back to the hotel and packed. A lot of sighs were heard!

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The pick up van arrived right on time and we had a few Japanese for company as we made our way to the airport – about 45 minutes away. The tour operator’s representative was there to wave goodbye! I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Rush in the first flight to Dubai, and absolutely loved both! We were at a different terminal in Dubai airport and whiled away our time reading and a coffee at the Nestle outlet. I slept all the way in the second flight. The 4.15 PM (Athens) journey ended at 9.05 AM (Bangalore) and also ended the Odyssey.

The trip (all inclusive) cost us about Rs. 3.75 lakhs – 1.23L for the international flights, 28k  for the 2 flights within Greece, 18k for the Visa which was quite a breeze, (though the paperwork kills!) 1.35 for the custom package from Fantasy Tours, (includes hotels, some of which we specifically asked for, boat tickets, airport/ferry transfers and a half day Athens city tour. Everything was handled very smoothly)  and the remaining for meals, (a Gyros can be had for as cheap as 2 euros, a meal at a good restaurant is between 20-40 euros) buses, entry tickets, and of course, shopping! You can save costs on many things – cheaper accommodation, lesser wine 😀 , more Gyros, boats vs flights within Greece are some I can think of. Also, most people like to do at least 2-3 countries in Europe at a time, and it does have its benefits, you might want to look at that option. But we have our own quirks and absolutely had a great time, enjoyed every bit. Not at all bad for a first visit to Europe. When you visit, say hellos to Hellas for us! :)

until next time, waiting for the next wanderlust!

P.S. If you don’t plan to use data at all, store Google offline maps on your mobile before you set out :)

A Greek odyssey – Day 7

Continued from Day 12345, 6

This had to be the laziest day of the vacation! We had very few plans. We woke up very late, just in time for breakfast, and then went back to the room to snooze, enjoy the view, and later get ready before our check out time at 12. Our boat to Athens was only at 2.15, and we left from the hotel at 1.15. Our (same) super friendly driver dropped us back to the new port, well in time for the boat.

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This was promised to be a looong ride – over 5.5 hours. We stowed our luggage on the ground floor as before and proceeded to our seats. This time there was no confusion because not only was the boat much larger, the crowd was also thin. So we ignored our designated seats and sat on ones we liked. Lunch was in the boat itself – a burger and a Caesar Salad washed down with Amstel beer. The boat passed Tinos (D was thrilled to see a town straight out of the book she was reading – And the Mountains Echoed) and Syros (significantly more folks got in at both these places, but we managed to keep our seat!) before we finally managed to get a glimpse of Athens, which seemed to spread over a very large area!

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A well-dressed white haired driver, picked us up and insisted on lifting some luggage despite my reluctance. The yellow taxi dropped us at the Titania in downtown Athens in about half an hour. I wondered if the shops on the street were an indication of Athenians’ chief preoccupation! The Titania is one of those old hotels which just got itself a renovation. Free wifi only for an hour in the lobby area. Hmmph! The room was functional and clean, with a view of the street below, no balcony though.

It was already close to 9PM! We decided to freshen up and go to Gostijo in Monastiraki – one of the restaurants in our list. The lady at the reception was quite helpful, and told us exactly how to reach the metro station ( a couple of minutes away) and what direction to take (to Piraeus) to reach Monastiraki, which was the next station! The streets were filled with graffiti, and so were the metro coaches (outside) The navigation at the stations is a little difficult until you figure out that you have to ignore the ‘To’ and just focus on ‘Exit’. :) Monastiraki is famous for the flea market – right next to the station – but that closes pretty early- most shops were shut when we reached. The square offers a view of the Acropolis up on the hill at night. Majestic and pretty at the same time.

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We didn’t forget our habits, and got lost a bit, despite maps, before we finally found Gostijo. We weren’t really impressed with the menu outside (which refused to open to the kosher section!) and the persuasive skills of the owner of Oineas (same lane) landed us there. It wasn’t on our list, but turned out to be a fabulous little place. His collection of vintage ads is absolutely impressive. Take a look at the video. The lady who took our order convinced us to try Tsipouro along with the Farfalle and Risotto we ordered. What a thing that turned out to be – Ouzo at least has the anise flavour, this one is pure spirit! The food was splendid though, and that includes a fantastic dessert of layered chocolate. This was the first restaurant to give me a Trip Advisor card (asking for a review)

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Now that we knew the streets, getting back to the station was a breeze, and we caught the train in the Kifisia direction, but we managed to keep our reputation intact by losing our way at the other end, and circling the hotel area for about ten minutes before we found our way back!

A Greek odyssey – Day 6

Continued from Day 1234, 5

The day’s agenda was to take the boat to Delos in the first half, have a late lunch and then wander around Mykonos town before keeping our appointment at M-eating. There were three trips to Delos – two in the morning, one in the evening – and we had decided to take the second one at 10 AM. Breakfast at Grand Beach wasn’t up to the stellar benchmark set by Volcano View, but was still quite a spread. We walked to the Old Port and just about managed to turn up in time to buy the tickets. Costs are 18 euros per person (including return) and it takes a little over half an hour on a boat with comfortable seating. The entry to the Delos excavations, a heritage site, is at 5 euros per head.

Delos has been inhabited since 3000 BC, and old as I am, even I can’t remember that far back! If you’re into history (or even Greek mythology – it’s where Apollo and Artemis were born) this is a must-visit, even otherwise it’s a very good experience. We had just about three hours to complete a DIY tour. (you can also pay for a guide – either via your hotel or at the site itself by joining a group, but we decided not to) One tip I’d give is for you to go straight to the museum after getting the tickets. Though they give you a list of things to see at the entry, the museum has a brochure with a map that explains the three different ‘circuits’, the important things to see (100 of them) and most importantly, the time taken to cover each circuit.

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We just walked along the first path we saw, and used the explanatory boards to figure out what the structures were. It’s really quite an experience to see the efforts made to maintain/restore the ruins, as well as get a glimpse of how life must have been in those times. There is also this little adventure of climbing to the highest point on the island – an uphill task – that is oh! so totally worth it! I think it’s the windiest conditions I’ve been in, blew my cap away and I could barely hold on to the mobile and camera. Not exaggerating, the video should convince you.

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The boat ride back, at 1.30, turned out to be a free roller coaster ride as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the choppy waters, but D didn’t think my ‘wheeee’ noises every time the boat went up and crashed down were funny. She is not very fond of such adventures, and the lady sitting next to her looked like she was going to be history soon! The waves went high enough to eclipse the windows. We got back to Mykonos and by a stroke of luck, found our fourth lunch/dinner option – Niko’s Taverna – in a lane right next to the port. Lunch was Octopus, and fish and chicken specials of the day, washed down with red and white wines. We then walked around town, catching some interesting sights, and sharing a choco-filled crepes before going back to the hotel to sleep.

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The original plan was to lounge in the room and catch the sunset from the lovely balcony, but we realised that the sunset wasn’t really visible from that point, so we crossed the road to the beach, which offered a splendid view.

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Dinner was to be at M-eating, which reminded me of the snootiness of some Bangalore restaurants because of how they behaved differently with different customers. I guess this one can afford it because of the undisputed Trip Advisor rating. I’m not taking away from their imaginative cuisine, or their style, but if I compared it to Niko’s or Eva’s, I’d choose to repeat visit those any day as opposed to M-eating. Quail, (smoked fillet with Katiki Domokos mousse, walnut pesto and honey gravy) Fresh Ravioli, (stuffed with braised beef fillet and goat cheese in demiglass tomate and basil foam) (you guys get the idea!)  a full bottle of O Topos Mas, (Cretan regional rose wine) a quailing wallet, and a quarter empty stomach (for all those ingredients, the total quantity was more nibble) later, we swayed our way into Yummy’s to customise our dessert crepe.

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The winds were strong (or was it?) and we somehow (and I still wonder how!) made our tipsy walk back to the hotel and warmth.

A Greek odyssey – Day 5

Continued from Day 123, 4

We woke up at about 9, it was almost like we were having a vacation or something! 😉 In addition to the standard items for breakfast, we also tried the yogurt. The Greeks love it, and with some honeyed help, it was indeed very good! As per the plan, we left the hotel at 10.45 after sitting around for a while enjoying the view. In summation, it wasn’t that the Volcano View staff were impolite or unpleasant, it was just that they always gave off an air that they had better things to do. While the view from the place is splendid, you could get the same from the Fira town itself, so you could consider some options there.  A group bus took us to the port (which we’d seen from our room) in less than half an hour. An hour later, our ride arrived. After stowing the luggage, we went to find our seats upstairs. There was quite some confusion since they seemed to have aggregated passengers from two boats, but in the end, we got comfortable seats with a view. (though the glass is usually quite smudged) There was a cafe, but we weren’t really hungry. 3 hours later, after crossing Ios and Paros, we were in Mykonos.

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A pleasant hotel representative was there to pick us up, and he helped with the bags too! He chatted all the way to the hotel (just about 15 mins) showing us landmarks, directions and a brief about the town. The Grand Beach had a room with a view that could rival Volcano View. Ok, almost. They had WiFi too.

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Town was less than ten minutes away by walk, and we decided to go there for lunch. We saw the windmills and then walked to Little Venice for lunch. We immediately noticed that prices in the menu were higher than Santorini and Rhodes. For lunch, it was Linguine pasta and calamari, and a great view of the windmills too. Ouzo, the anise flavoured Greek favourite was consumed, for the first and last time!

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Sunset was quite a while away, so we decided to find out where the boat to Delos (the plan for the next day) started from. The old port was less than 5 minutes away, and right next to it, we found the by now familiar little churches. If you’ve wondered how it looks inside,

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But after that, we got utterly lost in the maze that is Mykonos town! But there were quite a few good things that happened as a result – we found 3 of the 4 restaurants we had earmarked for lunch and dinner, and also tasted Ben & Jerry’s for the first time! Ecstasy happened in the form of yogurt and chocolate fudge! We then slowly walked back to the room to rest. Later, sunset was from the windmills area and it turned out to be a wonderful one, though the winds threatened to fly us away! My 10 euro fake Puma jacket continued to be a life saving hero.

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We walked to Avra (only open for dinner) but weren’t very impressed with the menu, and decided to try M-eating. (also open only for dinner) That turned out to be full with a waiting time of 45 minutes. Eva’s Garden was the final one among our candidates, (all three are on the same road) and we got a table inside – the garden area was full. The ambiance was absolutely old world and the food was great. We had the Eva salad, cashew chicken and as always, house wine. :) They gave us complimentary Mastika shots after dinner. Greek liquor does take getting used to!

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On the way back, we reserved a table at M-eating for the next day, and then had ice cream ‘made from Greek milk’. The friendly guy even had Mastika flavoured ice cream, but we had had enough. The ice cream was good, but not nearly as good as Ben & Jerry’s. We then walked back to the hotel and watched the splendid night view of Mykonos.

A Greek odyssey – Day 4

Continued from Day 12, 3

The day was planned in complete accordance with the bus time table photo. Volcano View has a breakfast spread that you could spend the day exploring – all kinds of meat, fruits, cereal, breads and even a couple of yogurt options. We took the first shuttle to Fira, and from there, the bus to Perissa at the priciest ticket of 2.2 euros/person one way. The view was as always splendid, and blue domes followed us everywhere. Perissa is a black sand beach, half an hour away, and we reached there at about 10.30. Either the early hour, or the fact that the tourist season was only about to begin, the beach was relatively empty, calm and silent. In fact, the web says this is one of the more unspoiled beaches in Santorini. There are a few beach restaurants along the road. But we walked on the beach and the non clingy black sand made it a pretty wonderful experience. It was quite windy and the sky seemed to promise rain. We could see a ferry to Kamari, our next stop, but we had planned on a bus ride anyway. We spent about an hour and a half at Perissa, and then got back to Fira for the bus to Kamari in time for lunch.

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Kamari is another black sand beach, just more touristy with a kilometre of beach side restaurants. In fact, the restaurant staff practically drag you in, reminding us our South East Asian trips! We weren’t really hungry so we avoided them and walked along the beach, but then the promised drizzle arrived, though only for a few minutes. After about 2 rounds comparing restaurants, (this was an unscheduled beach as per the plan, so we had no lunch options readily available) we dropped into one place – Hook, because they seemed to have a good 2 person combo meal. (most restaurants here do) But we changed our mind soon after we had tried their chicken soup!

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Tavern by the Sea, a brand new place, seemed to have an interesting menu and service staff as well. D ordered a Soutzoukakia (minced beef, cumin and tomato based) served with rice, while I asked for a  Zalouzi Tagliatelle, (chicken, ham, Kefalotyri, parsley, white cream) to be washed down with a carafe of house rose wine. Enjoyed the wine and the food and the lovely breeze. This was one of my favourite times during the vacation. I think the friendliness of the restaurant staff had much to do with it. One of them was Bulgarian and he said he wanted to see India because they had dubbed TV serials (from Hindi) where he came from! When I told him we were off to Mykonos next, he nodded appreciatively and said it was Santorini’s party capital. During the wining and before the eating, I saw a man painting ‘Hoetl’ on the signboard. I commented that the wine was good, but they said that’s how it was written on the paper he was given, and he just copied it!

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A light drizzle was back when we were ready to leave, but not really much of a bother, thankfully. We left for Fira and then back to the hotel to sleep a bit before heading back to town for dinner. Fira may not be as striking as Oia, but it does have the same ‘features’. We didn’t really expect it, but once we started exploring it – in search of Volcano Blue (our dinner destination) – its cobbled streets and view of the other islands that made up Santorini does have a lot to offer. Just like Oia, there are quite a few restaurants that can give you a sunset view. Volcano Blue, we discovered, was just one of them. We skipped it because the Japanese had invaded! (they weren’t as noisy in Greece as in our previous encounters) We landed at Aris because we liked the vantage point for the view of Fira and beyond.

Aris has been around for a while, and it shows. It’s an old hotel that is clearly in decline. The waiter was very friendly but forgot our wine order. He profusely apologised when we pointed this out while he was bringing the starter, and in his agitation, spilled some wine on the table too. But what we came for – the view – was wonderful. We sat wining as the sky changed color and the lights came on. When we left, the place was empty, we were the only people to dine there that night. But this was something we saw across Fira. Except for a couple of restaurants, there was hardly a crowd anywhere. Too early in the season, perhaps.

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We stopped at a desserts outlet on our way back, and then waited at the bus station before continuing to the shuttle pick up point. We had a message waiting for us – the pickup for the Mykonos boat would be at 10.45 the next morning. Time to pack, and hit the bed.