Greek Road Trip

Greece seemed like it would be the perfect capper to our Leg 4 itinerary for several reasons: we’d be wrapping up in November, so it would be one of the few places in Europe that would still be warm; it has a reputation for being less expensive than Western Europe; and we’ve both wanted to go to Greece for a really long time – there’s so much cool history to see there.

We found that we were right on most counts as we started our time in Greece with a one-week road that took us to Meteora, Delphi, Nafplio, and Mycenae. Here are the highlights:

Intro to Greece – Kamena Vourla

We arrived in Greece pretty late (after 8 p.m.) and immediately picked up our rental car. Since we planned to start with Meteora, a four-hour drive away, I had reserved a somewhat random hotel along the coast about halfway between Athens and Meteora in a town called Kamena Vourla. I picked it based on it accepting arrivals until midnight, giving us just enough time to get there by the time we dealt with border control and picking up the car. We arrived around 11:30 and were met by a couple who we assumed were the proprietors. They got us settled in and were very friendly, though spoke no English. I think they’d been waiting up for us! 

The next morning, we found a place near the beach to have breakfast. It was ok, but our first sticker shock of Greek prices being much higher than what we were used to in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We went back and checked out of the hotel – there was some slight confusion about our prepaid room, but we worked it out and the couple saw us off with friendly hugs and even a kiss on the neck for Chad! We experienced several instances of great hospitality and kindness in Greece, but no one matched this couple! My review of their place is below.

Kamena Vourla was a cute beach town, but we took no photos there, which is pretty telling. However, it worked well for an overnight stop on the way to Meteora.

Meteora – Magical Monasteries

With about two more hours to drive to Meteora, we arrived around 12 p.m. Our hotel there was able to check us in early and we immediately fell in love with our room, which included a great balcony with a view of the pretty rock formations. We headed right out to begin exploring the land and the monasteries, visiting the Holy Trinity Monastery and hiking to get a view of the Monastery of St. Stephen. We were blown away by the beauty of the area and how cool the monasteries look perched atop the cliffs.

After our hike, we picked up some local wine and snacks (including a huge jar of delicious olives for 3 euros!) from a local minimart (owned by an adorable elderly couple) and had a lovely late afternoon enjoying our balcony view. That night we ate dinner in our hotel’s restaurant and got our first taste of real Greek food. It was a great meal with a fantastic eggplant dish, which we ate so quickly we didn’t even get pictures!

The next morning, we got an early start with breakfast at our hotel and then drove off to park at the most popular monastery, Great Meteoron, to be there at its opening time in the hope of beating the rush of tour busses. Unfortunately, there were already several in the parking lot, so we decided to go on to the next monastery over, Varlaam, to see it before the tours arrived. This proved to be a great choice and Varlaam Monastery was not only beautiful but also included a very interesting museum that really gave context to these monasteries, which date back to the 15th Century. 

We enjoyed a fun and interesting hike from Varlaam to Great Meteoron, hiking down into the valley and back up the other cliff along a path that we imagined monks had used for centuries. Great Meteoron also did not disappoint!

After Meteoron, we decided to try to walk to the next stop on our list, Rousseau Nunnery (formerly a monastery), even though it wasn’t well-marked on Chad’s hiking app. Using a little bit of instinct, we managed to find our way and we were so glad we walked off the beaten path rather than along the road. We decided to skip going in at this monastery and the 6th, leaving our total count at visiting three of the six monasteries, which felt like plenty. Because each individual monastery charges 3 euro per person to enter, this also saved us a little bit of money in admission charges. After lunch and a rest followed by another lovely hike, we enjoyed another nice dinner, this time at the restaurant across the street, before a great night’s sleep. We were so pleased with our choice of accommodation (review below) and our choice to stay in the little village of Kastraki over the larger town of Kalabaka. Kastraki was very charming and walkable to several of the best trails.

We were so enamored with Meteora that we decided we had to get a last hike in before departing for Delphi. This time we hiked up into the rock formations, including scaling a small (maybe 4-foot) cliff to stay on the path we wanted. It was really beautiful and memorable and I’m glad we took the extra time.  

Delphi – A Close Encounter with History

After a roadside picnic, we arrived in Delphi in the late afternoon. The town of Delphi is right next to the Delphi ruins and seems to be mostly set up for tourism. There wasn’t much to see there, and we weren’t able to find a bar willing to show that evening’s key Liverpool match, so we watched it in our room before going out for a late dinner.

This allowed us to get up bright and early the next morning. Our hotel thoughtfully started their breakfast service an hour before the Delphi ruins opened, so we went right down for a great continental breakfast at 7:30 and made sure we were at the gate of the ruins right at 8:30. This worked out great, as we were able to have the whole ruins to ourselves for about 45 minutes. There are great advantages to traveling around Greece in the off-season, not the least of which is that all of the museums and archeological sites are half-price from November to March, and of course you avoid the crowds. It really only took us about an hour to see the Delphi ruins, which were so interesting how they were built up along the mountain. We made a short visit to the onsite museum, which was so-so, but provided some context. Then we were off to Nafplio. 

Nafplio – Lessons Learned

I’d chosen Nafplio because it is a seaside town that is supposed to have a Greek Island feel to it, and also in a good position for exploring the Peloponnesian Peninsula if we wanted to (ultimately, we didn’t; we can only do about 3 days at a time of touring before we get tired!). I’d booked a hotel room with a kitchenette for three nights so we could settle in a bit after racketing around Greece for so many days. But, when we arrived, we were very disappointed with our place. More details are in my review below, but ultimately I think it was a bad choice on my part and we left after one night and found a better (and not much more expensive) place in Nafplio walking distance to the town. It was worlds better and I wished I’d booked it in the first place since we were not able to get a refund on the cost of our original hotel. However, I think we made the right choice to pay a little more (maybe $90 for the two nights) to be happier and fully enjoy our limited time in Greece.

Nafplio itself proved to be pretty rainy – the danger of traveling in the off-season. But we found it to be charming and enjoyed a wonderful seafood dinner out there on our last night.  

Mycenae – A Close Encounter with Literature

On a whim (Chad’s whim), we decided to stop at the ruins of Mycenae on our way from Nafplio to Athens. They are quite close to Nafplio and only required us to go about 15 minutes out of our way. Chad’s point was that we wanted to do a morning walk, so we might as well walk around some great Greek ruins. 

I am so glad we did! Not only was Mycenae an interesting contrast to Delphi (and much older) but it is associated with Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad and brought to mind how much each of us had enjoyed studying ancient humanities, especially the Greeks, in college. Later, in Athens, one of the Archeological Museum featured a large exhibit of items discovered in Mycenae by archeologist Hermann Schliemann. We loved the exhibit and were so glad that we had taken the time to experience the site, which gave it all greater meaning and context.

Summary

Renting a car in Greece gave us great access to see some of the most interesting sights at our own pace. I highly recommend it and outside of Athens, the Greek drivers are easy to deal with. Just be prepared for lots and lots of tolls! Also, gas prices are on the high side. But, the cost of our rental car for a week was quite inexpensive (we actually saved $50 because a few weeks before our trip I rechecked the prices and was able to cancel our old Sixt reservation in favor of a better, cheaper Alamo one). And, it gave us a ton of flexibility that was really nice. I’m so glad we started our time in Greece with this awesome road trip.

Accommodation Reviews

Kamena Vourla – Hotel Persefoni: Great place to spend the night between Athens and Meteora. We chose Persephone because it is open until midnight for check-in and we knew we’d arrive in Athens fairly late. The town it is in is just off the highway about halfway between Athens and Meteora, so seemed perfect for splitting up our journey. The very friendly proprietors were waiting for us when we arrived at 11:30 p.m. They were kind about helping us with the bags and making sure we were comfortable (despite limited English and we don’t speak Greek!). It was a comfortable bed and room at a good price. There was a bit of confusion around payment in the morning when I checked out, so I’d advise paying direct to the property rather than in advance on this site as we did. It was all worked out with a phone call, but in hindsight would have been easier if I’d paid there.

Guesthouse Batalogianni – Kalabaka: Lovely hotel and restaurant in a perfect spot. We loved the balcony with its wonderful view and the location in the village of Kastraki (more charming than Kalabaka, we think). The breakfast (for just 5E per person) was very good. We had dinner in the restaurant on our first night and recommend that as well – delicious food and nice service. The room was a good size and it was handy to have a fridge. Free parking behind the hotel was very handy. We’d stay here again!

Tolo (near Nafplio – Orelia Pension: Not like the photos, not a kitchenette. It pains me to leave a bad review when the employees tried to be kind, but I must warn others about this place. We checked out after one night of our three-night stay. Because we paid through this booking site, we were unable to get any sort of refund or compensation. The property looks nothing like a photo; it is far more rundown. The bathroom has a very odd layout and the plumbing does not work well. Our biggest problem was that our room was advertised as having a kitchenette and while it did have a sink/fridge/stovetop in the corner, there were no cooking items or anything you’d expect to find in accommodations that advertise a kitchenette. We don’t expect a fully kitted out kitchen, but at least one or two pots or pans, a few plates, utensils and glassware is pretty standard at every other place we’ve stayed. We were also surprised by how rural the property is – up a dirt road. It looked close to the village of Tolo on a map, but with how the roads are, it would be an unpleasant walk (we had a car so didn’t have to test this). We were very disappointed so decided to eat the cost of the last two nights and check into another place we found in Nafplio for the same price that was 100x nicer. The staff were kind about us checking out, but could not or would not do anything to help us. I recommend avoiding this place.
Hotel Vasilis – Nafplio: Nice place, especially for the price. We came to Vasilis after cutting our stay in another hotel in the village of Tolo short for many reasons. This place was 100 times better than the place we left. The view and balcony were very nice, the kitchenette was functional, there was decent hot water and the beds were comfortable. The hill gave us no trouble and it was great having a safe place to park our car. The walk to the city center is maybe 10 minutes. I’d definitely stay here again. The wifi wasn’t great – not very fast and would randomly click off from time to time.

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