Mr and Mrs TTM say Hello world!
Our destination travel notes
Mr & Mrs TTM spent a week in Athens and Santorini in winter and it was a really interesting holiday.
It’s true what they say about Athens- it’s an open air museum. There are lots of archaelogical sites in and around Athens. The most famous of them all of course is the Acropolis, the city on the hill that was the seat of Greece’s glory days as a world power. This city dates back to 400BC and saw the rise and fall of successive civilizations and conquerors from the Myceneans to the Greeks to the Romans, the Italians and Turks and finally modern Greece, each successive power building on (or modifying or destroying as the case may be) it’s predecessors’ architectural achievements at the same site.
The most famous of the buildings in the Acropolis is The Parthenon, originally a temple dedicated to Athena and at various points in its history was converted to a church and a mosque. Aside from the Acropolis complex there are other famous Archaeological sites at the foot of the hill e.g. Herod Atticus Odeon, the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library, the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Hippastus. The modern Acropolis Museum building was built over the ruins of an old residential complex that was at least a thousand year old. You could see though the transparent glass floors the archaeological diggings under and see a 1,000-year old living room with its mosaic floor intact! It was very interesting to walk the places that have thousand year plus histories. We literally breathed history in Athens.
Unfortunately, the effects of the crisis are noticeable in the city. There is a sense of neglect around the ruins e.g. rubbish in the streets, lack of cleaners and security personnel in and about the areas, abandoned diggings and unrepaired facilities. There were some graffitis even in the ruins – these are irreplaceable monuments not just for Athens but for humanity as a whole and it’s very sad that they are not being taken care of as they should.
What we liked best about Athens is that you could walk to all the attractions. We had 3 full days in Athens and we never once used the metro in all that time. We simply walked to all the attractions. The historical and tourist sites are all located in a compact city centre. From Syntagma Square, it’s a no more than a 30-minute walk to Acropolis. In between lies the Plaka and Monastiraki where you can find great restaurants, shops and more-a turn in a corner could surprise you with an excavated site, they are just all over the city.
We found the accommodation in Athens cheap. We stayed in the Acropolis area in a quiet neighborhood in a 3 star hotel that cost less than €100 per night. However, the food is quite expensive, more expensive than Barcelona. (See our post on our Holiday in Barcelona Lovely Food, Great Art) Lunch or dinner in middle range restaurants across the Acropolis museums with 3-4 items good for two people is €40. We found a gem of a place that not only saved us money but also let us have a taste of home cooked Greek food. To Kati Allo is an unassuming place located behind the Acropolis museum. They have large servings and the bill for two people only comes up to €15-30. If you are not picky, souvlakis and sandwiches could be have for €4. Greek cooking uses lots of olive oils, tomatoes and eggplants. Seafood is not as common or cheap as we would have liked but we did enjoy the salads and grilled vegetables and meats.
We were supposed to go on our holidays in September but due to work commitments it got pushed back lots of times and before we knew it it was the last week of November. We had misgivings about going to Greece in the winter but you go when you can right? As it turned out, autumn/winter is a great time to visit Athens as the cooler weather made for comfortable exploring.
Started the day wandering around in Syntagma Square and watched the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; visited the ruins of Hadrians Library and the Roman Agora; walked around Monastiraki,wandered into the famous Athens flea market, and after more walking found ourselves on the foot of the Acropolis. The white marbles of the Acropolis steps and the theater of Dionysius are impressive.
Morning spent in Acropolis Museum which gave us a nice background to the visit to Acropolis itself in the afternoon. The museum is just a 10 minutes walk to the Acropolis.
Rode the bus to Piraues Port out of curiosity (nothing there, not worth a visit unless you’re joining a cruise or getting on a ferry); went back Syntagma Square and walked to the Roman Temple of Zeus barely making it before they close for the day. The highlight of our day was watching the sunset from Areospagus Hill (or Mars Hill) which is just off the entrance to the Acropolis. If you are Christian the Aerospagus is significant because this was the place where Saint Paul preached to the members of the Aerospagites which is a jury that tries murder cases in Ancient Athens. In the evening after dinner we bought souvenirs in Plaka.
Out of town on a train to Corinth. Here is our post on How to go to Corinth from Athens by Train
1) Walk to everywhere- it’s a very walkable city. The marble steps to the Acropolis are very manageable with low gradient but they can get slippery so do be careful.
2) When you do need to use public transport the metro is very easy to navigate and is clean and modern. Single trip tickets for the metro could be purchased at the station. We took the X95 bus from the airport to Syntagma Square and while the bus is a bit old it was not so bad. Cost €6 per person and took about 40 minutes to the city. Tickets were purchased at the kiosk just before the bus stop outside the arrivals hall. Taxi fares are fixed- no meters in Athens. Be sure to fix the price with your driver before getting in the car. Generally expect to pay: €5 for Syntagma-Plaka or Acropolis area; €38 from the Airport daytime but midnight-5am rides are more expensive at €55. Public buses are trickier- tickets need to be purchased from designated kiosks in the city centers though we never found the kiosks to buy the bus tickets from.
3) Validate your ticket (by inserting it into a machine located on the bus or right outside a metro station) as soon as you board a bus or enter a metro station. There are no turnstiles or gates at the metro stations but you apparently risk a large fine if you’re caught without a validated ticket inside the metro.
4) Do you need a guide to the Acropolis? This is a matter of preference. We hired the services of a licensed tour guide on the spot before going into the Acropolis. Honestly we found the guide only distracted us from enjoying our time at the Acropolis. Going first to the Acropolis Museum and/or reading up before going into the Acropolis would give you enough background information to understand and appreciate what’s at the site.
5) Be mindful of opening hours. Acropolis closes at 5pm and the other ruins generally close at 3pm which we find too early. We are not sure if it’s a public policy or we just got lucky but we’ve turned up at monuments 30 minutes before closing time and got in for free. Just enough time to snap photos and read the plaques, but it was free of charge so we can’t complain.
After Athens, it’s off to Santorini in Winter.
A visit to Corinth makes a nice day tour from Athens. To go to Corinth from Athens by train, take the metro blue line from Syntagma all the way to the last station on the line-D. Plakentias. Metro cost €1.4 per person one way. The blue line is the same train line that goes to the airport from the city.
Transfer to one of the suburban trains from D. Plakentias bound for Aktio. Corinth is third to the last station and it takes one hour from D. Plakentias to Corinth station. You may buy the train ticket at the station, the cost is €14 per person round trip. Be sure to validate the ticket before boarding and keep the validated ticket with you at all times as inspectors would ask for your ticket at some point in the journey.
Ancient Corinth is about 5km away from the Corinth train station. To go to Ancient Corinth we took a taxi from the station and it cost €10 each way.
Ancient Corinth ruins include a temple to Apollo and a Roman Fora. If you are Christian this place is significant as one of the places where Saint Paul established early churches and the Roman Fora is where he was tried by Gallus after Jewish accusations that he was preaching a foreign religion. Entrance fee to the archaeological site cost €4. They close at 3pm.
On the top of the mountain is Acrocorinth or the Acropolis of Corinth. You can drive here or hire a taxi to see amazing views of the Agean Sea.
Aside from Ancient Corinth ruins, visitors could also see the Corinth Canal but this attraction is closed in winter.
We just got back from Santorini and like everyone else who’ve been there or dreaming to get there, we’ve become fans of the island. That didn’t happen immediately though.
We were supposed to go on our holidays in September but due to work commitments it got pushed back lots of times and before we knew it it was the last week of November. We had misgivings about going to Greece in the winter but you go when you can right?
We wanted to get to Santorini as quickly as possible so we flew RyanAir which took less than an hour from Athens instead of an 8-hour ferry trip. (Next time we visit and have more time we would try the ferry so that we could see more of the Greek isles and have a mini-cruise). The flight was full. We landed before 8 in the morning and from the airport took the local bus to Fira. Bus stop is right outside the single airport building. The bus is clean and modern, so unlike the crappy airport buses in Athens. We checked into Hotel Antonia where our host greeted us with smiles, maps and hot coffee. Thankfully, even that early in the morning our room was ready and we managed to rest a bit before hitting the town.
We arrived Santorini from Athens. It was November and the temperature was at 17C. We weren’t expecting beach weather and knew that this is the winter or low season. What we didn’t expect though was how isolated the island felt with 90% of the houses and business closed! We walked from Fira’s Main Street to the winding little streets and steps that connect the many hotels and houses on the cliff and had our first sight of the caldera. To be perfectly honest we were disappointed because it was overcast, skies were gray and looked washed out in photos, there was a faint mist covering the caldera, cigarette butts and rubbish were on the ground and in some places it smelled of donkey poo!
We walked from Fira to Imerovigli for more than an hour. The businesses were closed and there was no one around except for a few construction crews repairing or renovating for the hotel owners and a group of package tourers wandering around like us. An odd family here or there may have been inside the houses because there was the faint cooking smell of tomato -this made us hungry but there were no open restaurants once we left Fira behind all the way to Imerovigli where we finally found a bakery selling sandwiches.
The next day we took the 10am public bus from Fira to Akrotiri. We walked up a little hill and followed the trail on the cliff below huge rocks piled on each other and ignoring the warning signs stuck on the way against the danger of landslide!! We were rewarded by one of the most amazing sights we’ve ever seen- the red beach. At the same time the sun’s rays came out from behind the clouds and we got some lovely photos. I think this is the moment we feel in love with Santorini.
After the red beach we found time to visit the Akrotiri Archaelogical Site before taking the bus back to Fira. In Santorini, all public buses start from and terminate at Fira. There are no inter-village buses except the buses that go to either Akrotiri or Perissa which stops by Pyrgos from or to Fira.
In the afternoon we went to Ia (Oia) and this is where the love was sealed. The drive from Fira to Ia is very scenic and the landscape diverse-one minute you see plains, next volcanic mountains and the caldera. In Ia we finally found the spot to take the perfect blue dome picture- you know the picture that appears on every magazine or postcard advertising Santorini.
Our third and last day on the island we spent in Pyrgos, Perissa Beach and catching the sunset one last time in Fira.
So is Santorini in November (or in autumn or winter) possible? Yes very much so just keep in mind the following:
1) Stay for a few days. The weather could be unpredictable and you will be very sad if the only day you were there it was overcast or raining. We stayed 3 full days and we only got bright blue clear skies on the third day. Besides you need more than a day to see the different sights the island has to offer.
2) Fira is where you should stay as at least the Main Street retains some semblance of life. You can catch the public bus from Fira station, roads are still busy here and there would be a few restaurants and eateries open, more than enough to give you choices.
3) The days will be short so plan well. Sunset is at 5pm. Local buses only make 9 or so trips a day (lesser on weekends). Renting a car is cheap and driving if you can is the best option to explore the island.
Notwithstanding the isolation in the winter time, there are lots of advantages visiting Santorini in November. You could walk and hike long distances very comfortably in the cool weather. People are friendly and more relaxed, everyone’s quick to offer a smile or greeting. But the one single best reason to come to Santorini in November as we discovered is precisely the lack of crowds- no scrambling for a spot to watch the sunset and best of all no unwanted photo bombers in your photos! How else could we have gotten the blue dome pictures just like the ones in the magazines?
We could not get enough of Catalunya. After gorging ourselves on Food and Art in Barcelona and slowing down in tranquil Cadaques we visited Figueres and Girona on our way back to Barcelona. The bus took us from Cadaques to Figueres. From the bus terminal we went to the city square and walked to Dali’s museum.
Dali himself commissioned this museum to himself before his death. Surreal, madcap, self absorbed and totally convinced of his own genius, Dali’s works are colorful and lively.
We went in the morning about 10am to the Dali museum and it was already fairly crowded. People could not get enough of this mad genius.
Aftee lunch we boarded the train and went to Girona. We spent our last night in Catalunya in Girona. Girona is very similar to Barcelona with it’s historic alleys and old buildings.
After our feast of Food and Art in Barcelona, we wanted to go off the beaten track a little and decided to go up to Costa Brava.
Costa Brava is Catalunya’s northeastern coast. It stretches from just outside of Barcelona all the way to the French border.
Cadaques used to be a sleepy fishing village, it hosted Dali and his swinging friends just before WW2 and now attracts visitors from all over the world who wish to enjoy its beautiful coastline and the peace and quiet of a small town. Mediterranean light is different from light anywhere else in the world, probably because light from the sun hits the Mediterranean at 45 degrees. Cadaques is a shinning example of this Mediterranean luminosity. Clear dark blue waters capped by a bright sky and wispy clouds. The white houses perched precariously on the cliffs. We imagine in the summer months of July and August there would be plenty of sun worshipers, but in the middle of October only a few brave souls were in the water.
We took the Renfe train from Passieg de Gracia in Barcelona before 10 in the morning. The train’s last stop was Figueres which we reached about 12, so we had to take a bus to go further. After a tapas lunch we boarded the 1pm bus. The bus from Figueres stopped along the way in the various towns among them Roses, which is equally famous as Cadaques. We reached Cadaques about 2:00 in the afternoon. We walked up from the bus terminal to the town centre. Cadaques was much colder than Barcelona, about 10C that time.
As we did not make any reservations beforehand we had to quickly look for accommodations. While walking around we bumped into a compatriot from the home country and she recommended Ranxho hostel. It was a good choice as the rooms while basic were very clean, the bed was comfortable and the sheets while mismatched smelled of laundry dried under the sun. The hostel is run by a family and we could see they take pride in their place. It was the cheapest room we stayed at while in Catalunya at €40. We planned on staying only one night but Cadaques was so beautiful we ended up staying two nights!
We had breakfast the next day at one of the places by the beach. We walked up narrow alleys and admired the holiday homes with white washed walls, wrought iron windows and colorful plant boxes. We followed the road down the coastline all the way to the little island off the coast, and just breathed the fresh ocean air feeling grateful to be alive and enjoying the beautiful sights. We even found time to walk up the opposite side of town to Port Lligat where Dali had a house.
When we got hungry we had lunch at the place next to the hostel where we had the largest spaghetti portion we ever had, with tapas and coke. For dinner we had our host Rita’s crepes. Yum yum.
We were sorry to leave Cadaques the next day.
On our way back to Barcelona we stopped by Figueres and Girona. Check here to see our photos of Dali’s strange and wonderful museum in Figueres and how we even found time for Girona.
Food and Art. These 2 words sum up our Barcelona trip. Our week in Catalunya was the best gastronomical experience of our lives and in between meals we saw the works of the masters Gaudi, Picasso and Dali. Yummy food, great architecture and paintings, what more could you ask for? Add in nice weather and friendly people and you’ve got the perfect holiday, a Barcelonan holiday.
5 days Barcelona
2 days Cadaques
1 day Figuerres/Girona
Pace of Sightseeing: slow
We spent 5 days in Barcelona middle of October 2015. We like to travel during the shoulder season to save money and we love fall weather. The weather was refreshing, between 15-20C, we got away just wearing light sweaters and cardigans, which was good for me, as I hate feeling cold and bulky clothes (hubby likes cold better). Barcelona in October, fall season was just beginning, the leaves turning bright yellow, a quarter of the leaves have fallen but a good deal of them are still firmly attached to the trees. The weather was mild and clear, other than the night we had dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant when it rained, we were blessed with nice, cool weather that was perfect for walking around and sightseeing.
The people we met were polite and nice if slightly aloof. Nobody was in a hurry. Everybody in the hotels and restaurants spoke English but they appreciate if you try some Spanish or even better Catalan.
Food Glorious Food
We ate some of the best meals we ever had in Barcelona. Of course it helped that the weather was cool and we were hungry from all of that walking, but really the food was beyond compare, very fresh, with great variety and some awesome cooking. We had croissants, coffee and zumo naranja natural (fresh squeezed orange juice) for breakfasts, gorged on fresh seafood, paellas and tapas for lunch and dinner, ate cakes and sweets from neighborhood bakeries, and treated ourselves to a Michelen restaurant dinner. We found the restaurant food to be cheaper and nicer in Barcelona than Singapore where we live and work, most of our meals (without wine) came to under €30 for two people. Add €20 for a bottle of cava. None of the hotels we stayed at served breakfast and that was alright because there were plenty of neighborhood cafes serving the locals their cafes, te and croissants for €5 and under. The Michelen restaurant dinner was an extravagance, but hey why not, this was Barcelona, the city with the largest number of Michelen starred restaurants.
Be sure to try La Paradeta, a non-pretentious restaurant that sells and cooks seafood by the weight market style. If you stick to mussels, squid and fish and avoid the expensive oyster you can easily tuck in a nice and filling lunch or dinner for under €20 for two people (before wine). In the Boquerria market in Ramblas, we tried one of the stalls that sold seafood by weight as well..food was nice but more expensive and not as fresh as Paradeta.
Here is our itinerary:
Day 1 – Arrive about 3pm, and settled into our first hotel.
Day 2 – As this was a Sunday went for mass in a church, walked to admire the houses on Passeig de Gracia (Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, La Pedrera and their equally magnificent neighbors), changed to our 2nd hotel, lunched at one of the restaurants around Rambla Catalunya and spent the afternoon in Parc Guell.
Day 3 – Joined a Montserrat and winery daytour. Dinner in La Boqueria market in La Rambla.
Day 4 – Morning went to Sagrada Familia by metro, looked around and appreciated Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, bought souvenirs from one of the shops around Sagrada Familia, took the public bus to Arc de Triomf, walked around Ciutadella Park, took the bus and metro back to Sagrada Familia to tour the inside (we only managed to get tickets on the day itself for the 5pm intake). Finished the night with a dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant.
Day 5 – Changed into our 3rd hotel, walked around La Rambla, visited Barri Gotico or the Old Quarter and toured Picasso museum.
1) Stay in Eixample rather than on Ciutat Vella or La Rambla to save on hotel rates. Hotels on the Passeig de Gracia side of the Placa Catalunya are cheaper (and newer) than the other end of the street going to the harbor. Aside from hotels, restaurants and shops also tend to be cheaper on this side.
2) Use public transport. We took the aerobus from and to the airport. You can buy the ticket from the driver onboard. The bus end at Placa Catalunya from which the Ramblas are within walking distance. Buy the T10 ticket in one of the machines in the metro stations and use it on both bus and metro around Barcelona. T10 allows you to take 10 journeys on the card, and the card can be shared by more than 1 person, and last we checked the T10 costs €10per ticket, this is very economical compared to the €2 per single journey ticket.
3) Pre-book the Sagrada Familia tickets. If you want to see the inside, know that this is a very popular tour and they only allow ingress by the hour on your ticket, but once inside you may stay as long as you like. We did not prebook any tickets online, and when we tried to buy tickets online the night before going there the website would not sell us any. We had to go buy from the ticket counter at the back of the church, we were very lucky to have gotten tickets to get in at 5pm, one of the last intakes for the day!
4) Wear comfortable shoes. If you stay around Placa Catalunya like we did you could walk to almost all the attractions.
5) Barcelonians are not Spaniards, they are Catalans. Their language is not the standard Spanish (which they call rather condescendingly “Castellano” they speak Catalan; say Hola (hello) and Gracies (not gracias, pronounced like “gratzi”).
Our top sights (in this order) for Barcelona are: Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia & Barri Gotico.
Allocate half a day to see the enormous Parc Guell, go in the afternoon when the sun is coming down. Entrance to the Parc is free, but you need separate tickets to get to see Gaudi’s house and the main square. Parc Guell was supposed to be an exclusive gated community for the affluent in the 1900s Barcelona who wanted a residence far away from the hustle of the city and was designed by Gaudi. Parc Guell is on a mountain. You can have a good panoramic view of Barcelona from up here. The Parc is sprawling and there is plenty of whimsy in the winding viaducts, birds nests and colorful tiles. There is a big stage like area near the entrance which was supposed to be the main square and an aqueduct at the same time to collect rain water. From here you can take photos of the fairylike gingerbread houses (which were built as guard houses to the estate but now used as gift shops). How to get here: bus or taxi. We used the metro to get to Parc Guell but this turned out not to be a good idea as we ended up at the back of the park and had to walk a long way to get to the main square.
Sagrada Familia and Gaudi’s works
A monster of a church, looking gothic and weathered outside but inside, amazingly light and airy it was almost unbelievable. Supposed to be Gaudi’s crowning masterpiece unfortunately he passed away before the church’s completion. Metro station: Sagrada Familia.
Amongst the 3 masters Gaudi is inarguably the one with the greatest influence in Barcelona. The city is so highly shaped by Gaudi that you can not take Gaudi and still have a Barcelona. Walk along Passieg de Gracia and admire the madcap genius of a house of dragons bones and skin of Casa Batllo and the chimney stacks shaped like knights’ masks of Casa Mila. Metro station: Passeig de Gracia.
Las Ramblas and Barri Gotico
Walk along Las Ramblas and take in the main tourist street. Stop by and eat and shop in La Boqueria. Continue to Barri Gotico or the old quarter. Centuries old buildings, cobblestone and narrow alleyways to get lost in and breathe the history. Try and ignore the souvenir shops. Perfect for walking and exploring.
We went to see the Picasso museum just behind Barri Gotico but left not so impressed, maybe because we were not really fans of the guy. The museum has a good collection of his early works as an art student. There were some knick knacks too, for instance they show an old magazine page where Picasso sketched his friend’s head, tehee it looked like something a fifth grader will draw.
How to get here: From metro station Catalunya walk to Placa Catalunya, to Las Ramblas and Barri Gotico. Or if you want to start from the Picasso Museum metro station: Jaume Uno.
The Montserrat day tour was the only guided tour we had during this trip. It was good to get an overview of Barcelona and its history. We bought the tour online via viatour and the tour was run by Castletour. We met up with the group in Placa Catalunya, then a bus took us to Montserrat. In Montserrat our tour guide told us the history of the church and its surrounds and we had a couple of hours free time. We used the time to go up the funicular train to the top of the mountain and hiked there a bit. We left the monastery a little before noon and went to a small winery where we had lunch and had a tour of the vineyard. We had wine tasting and the guide gave us a great lesson on wines and its characteristics, my aspiring sommelier husband really enjoyed knowing about grading wines scent, taste, color, leg, etc. It was one of the highlights of our trip, it cost us USD100 per person. The pace of the day tour was nice and easy and left plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings. My only disappointment was that we had to leave the Montserrat church before lunch and missed the boys choir performance. You could go to Montserrat using public transport (train) and that’s what we would do should we have another chance to visit Barcelona again.
We enjoyed our time immensely in Barcelona, and as with any other trip we want to wander off the beaten track. When we travelled to London we added Edinburgh and Inverness on the side. This time around we took a trip up the Costa Brava coast and went to Cadaques. Check here for our trip from Barcelona to Cadaques.
http://www.aerobusbcn.com/en/?gclid=CJ2Ops-9uc8CFc8TaAodn5UBhg – aerobus from airport to Placa Catalunya
http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/ – to book train tickets from Barcelona to anywhere in Europe
http://www.sagradafamilia.org/en/tickets/ – official website of the Sagrada Famila, purchase tickets online
http://www.parkguell.cat/en/buy-tickets/ – official site of Parc Guell
http://www.laparadeta.com/en/ – our favorite market style seafood eatery
Hello everybody! Welcome to TTM. Hubby and I love traveling. We spend so much time researching a place even before we even go and we are so grateful to the travelers who have gone ahead of us and shared their tips online. We want to pay it forward and share our own experiences on the road and hopefully inspire and help you plan your next trip.
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To travel much.
Mr and Mrs TTM