Santorini in Winter?

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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!

Caldera Santorini
The famous Caldera

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.

Red Beach
Red Beach

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.

Ia
Famous domes in Ia

Our third and last day on the island we spent in Pyrgos, Perissa Beach and catching the sunset one last time in Fira.

Santorini
Anywhere in Santorini is picture perfect..

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?

Santorini
Ia sunset

Barcelona to Cadaques

Cadaques

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.

The clear waters of Cadaques
The clear waters of Cadaques
We could stay here forever
We could stay here forever
White washed houses on the hill
White washed houses on the hill

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.

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Cava, sangria, anchovies and the sunset
Cava, sangria, anchovies and the sunset

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.

Our lunch of spaghetti, steamed mussels and more chillies
Our lunch of spaghetti, steamed mussels and more chillies

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.

Take me back to Cadaques please
Take me back to Cadaques please

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.

Holiday in Barcelona Lovely Food, Great Art

Barcelona

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.

The itinerary
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

Tapas
Tapas
Peach Melba at Caelis a 1 starred Michelin restaurant
Peach Melba at Caelis, a 1 starred Michelin restaurant
Patatas Bravas and Fried Chilis
Patatas Bravas and Fried Chilis

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.

Tips:
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”).

Top picks:

Our top sights (in this order) for Barcelona are: Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia & Barri Gotico.

Parc Guell

Barcelona
Viaducts in Parc Guell. Gaudi led a very austere life. Yet his works are playful, even whimsical.
The viaducts blend into the natural environment
The viaducts blend into the natural environment
Gingerbread houses
Gingerbread houses
Parc Guell
Paid Area, the main square

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

Sagrada Familia Church, still under construction almost 100 years since they started
Sagrada Familia Church, still under construction almost 100 years since they started

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.

Casa Batlo, a house designed by Gaudi
Casa Batlo at night, a house designed by Gaudi

Las Ramblas and Barri Gotico

Barcelona
La Rambla from Placa Catalunya

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.

Montserrat

Montserrat
Mysterious Montserrat

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.

 

Useful links:

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