By RICH GRANT
From a cruise ship, it’s easy to get a taste of Greece and its 6,000 islands. Thousands do each year, sailing from Athens to Mykonos to Santorini. But they are missing the best part.
It’s almost as simple, and quite often considerably cheaper, to island hop on public ferries like the locals. Sure, it takes some effort, but nearly everyone speaks English, the Greeks are friendly and like tourists, tickets are easy to buy from local travel agents, schedules are convenient and there’s an abundance of good hotels near ferry docks to which you can roll your bags.
Best of all, when the hot afternoon sun starts to cool off and the cruise ship passengers have all sailed away, you’re still in town — ready to enjoy a sunset on a cliff or the magic at the cafes along the waterfront. Greece can be brutally hot in the daytime, so many people take a siesta from 3 to 5 p.m. But at twilight, the temperatures cool, the skies glow from magenta to deep shades of purple and the streets fill with families. Windmills along the horizon turn orange with the setting sun, outdoor cafes and restaurants glow with strings of lights, and there are crowds — even at midnight — dining on fresh grilled calamari, octopus and shrimp, with colorful Greek salads of juicy red vine-ripened tomato, cucumber, olives and feta cheese, all washed down with surprisingly good local wines. As the sound of a musician playing a lavouto (a funny-shaped Greek lute) drifts across the warm summer evening, pulled along by refreshing coastal breezes, you can almost feel sorry for the poor people out on the dark sea in cruise ships missing all this.
On a recent trip, we visited eight islands and coastal towns effortlessly and often inexpensively, all using public transportation. Here are some tips on how to see Athens and the less-well-known island of Hydra, which is a great way to start your ship-less Greek adventure. Later, you can consider exploring the more famous islands of Mykonos and Santorini, and also stop at two nearby and practically free islands, the medieval town of Naxos and the holy shrine of Tinos.
The advantage of this itinerary-free travel is that you can decide where you want to go, when you want to go and for how long you want to go.
Arriving in Athens
Almost half the population of Greece, some 4 million people, live in Athens, which often gets mixed reviews as sprawling, traffic congested and noisy. Well, it doesn’t have to be. All the major tourist attractions are within walking distance on pedestrian streets packed with lively restaurants, bars, cafes and shops — many of which have outstanding views of the world’s Number One antiquity — the Acropolis.
From the airport, simply take the 10-euro Metro Line 3 (blue line) to the Monastiraki Square station, and select a hotel within easy rolling distance. This is the heart of the Old Town, and in easy walking to the somewhat-touristy, but definitely Old World-looking Plaka neighborhood, or the trendy Psyrri neighborhood. Or check out a great apartment rental near the Metro stop in Psyrri, where for 90 euros you can have an entire beautiful apartment, filled with original art.
Despite rumors, usually started by people who haven’t visited Athens in years, it is one of the most compact, exciting, traffic-free, safe and easy-to-navigate city centers in Europe.
Almost all of the streets near Monastiraki Square are pedestrian and fun, many offering live Greek music. The streets in Psyrri can look a bit sketchy in daylight because of the Greek penchant for graffiti. Every building is covered. Some with art — some, not so much.
But come evening, cafes and clubs sprout up everywhere, especially in buildings that by day look abandoned.
There are plenty of tourist restaurants with a view of the Acropolis, but, like HBO, it’s pay for view. Since you can see the 450 B.C. monument from virtually everywhere, forget the view while eating. You’ll get more than enough views of it elsewhere, since every inch of it is lit up until midnight. The Parthenon sits several hundred feet higher than the town on top of a hill, so you can see it everywhere, from every angle. So get away from the tourists and enjoy more local and inexpensive restaurants on the pedestrian back streets and in quiet tree-lined squares.
The Greek people live outdoors. Every restaurant has an outdoor café, and once evening comes, the entire city is out on the streets, parading up and down the pedestrian alleys, drinking at bars, admiring the hundreds of cats who come out to stroll or listening to live music. A word of warning: don’t pet the loose dogs or cats that wander around by the dozens, and as in any city, be aware of pickpockets.
It’s easy to get somewhat lost in the maze of pedestrian alleyways, but you can almost always see the brightly lit Acropolis sitting up on its hill to get your bearings. Tickets for the two major antiquities, the Acropolis, which is a collection of temples and the crowning glory of old Athens, and the Ancient Agora, which was the main business area of Athens from 600 B.C. until it was destroyed by barbarians in 267 A.D., are both one-time entry tickets, so choose your entry time carefully. Both sites are better early in the morning, or, what we preferred, early evening, when it’s cooler and less crowded. Tour buses can swamp the sites in mid-day.
Monastiraki Square station is also where you catch a simple 1.80 euro, 20-minute Metro ride on the Green Line (Line 1) to Piraeus, which is Athen’s port with ferries to all the islands.
Hydra, the Quiet Island
Hydra is in the Peloponnese, the opposite direction from the more famous Greek islands, which means you’ll have to backtrack to Athens if you want to visit the others. However, it’s only two hours away and worth the effort, because Hydra is unlike any of the other islands.
There are no cars or motorbikes allowed.
Although Hydra is hardly undiscovered, it’s too small for major cruise ships, and most of the tourists here are Greeks weekending from Athens, with relatively few U.S. tourists. Wranglers with donkeys and horses meet every incoming ferry and will carry your bags to your hotel for 10 euros, but most hotels are close and it’s just as easy to roll them (though four-wheel bags don’t fare so well on the rough cobblestone streets).
Life is slow and quiet on Hydra, with no major attractions and not much to do but sit at a waterside café on the wonderful, busy stone harbor, or hop on a water taxi to one of the nearby beaches. Ferries, water taxis, fishing boats, sailboats and even multi-million dollar yachts are constantly jockeying for position at the docks, sailing by the cannon-studded-fortresses that guard each side of the harbor. Hydra played an important naval role in the 1821 Greek War of Independence, and there’s a museum filled with ship models and paintings. But today, it’s hard to believe anyone fought over this quiet place.
There’s no beach in town, but many people swim off a stone quay with a ladder located on the rocky shoreline under the fort.
There is a delightful, two-mile hike along the top of the cliffs lining the coast, past a windmill built for a Sophia Loren movie, to the cliff-side cafés and beaches at Kaminia, just 20 minutes away, or on a bit farther to the beach at Vlychos. You can sit at a bar overlooking the idyllic scene, or hop a water taxi back to Hydra town for 4 euros.
The harbor cafés in Hydra town have an unusual canopy system that appears to be huge horizontal sails that can be maneuvered throughout the day to constantly provide shade.
As the cooling and refreshing dusk envelops the sky, practically everyone heads to one of the forts to watch the sunset over the red-tiled roofs of the town, the cats come out to play (there are dozens and dozens of them) and the cafes come alive with bustling waiters and musicians playing lavoutos.
The backstreets of Hydra are a maze of quiet narrow white-washed alleys, decorated with brightly lit shops and cafes bursting with the color of painted tables and chairs. Until you visit the other islands, you won’t realize how peaceful life is without the noise of motorbikes and cars, in a place where the only sounds are the crowing of a rooster, the baying of donkey or the deep nautical horn of a ferry as it leaves port.
Greek law says that menus have to indicate when calamari or octopus is frozen rather than fresh, and there is a big difference, so always check for that when selecting a restaurant. As a rule, tavernas (local taverns) are cheaper and serve only traditional Greek dishes; restaurants — even Greek restaurants — can be more expensive and international.
Hydra’s not cheap by any stretch, especially along the waterfront, but you can always get by with the national dish — a gyro of pork or chicken, stuffed with fries, tomatoes and onions that sells for under 3 euros. Expect to pay 10 to 12 euros for a calamari or octopus dinner on the waterfront.
It’s not easy to understand ferry websites beforehand. On arriving in Athens, find a local travel agency (there’s one in Monastiraki Square across from the station, but there are many on the side streets as well). Tell them when you want to leave and return from Hydra and they’ll give you options. The fast ferries to Hydra require that all passengers stay inside the boat, which is unfortunate for sightseeing, but you do get there in just two hours. Like a plane, ferries sell a specific seat on a specific departure. The travel agencies can also book hotels, but hotels can be easily pre-booked on sites like Expedia and Booking.com. When looking at hotel locations, be aware that Hydra rises sharply from the street along the dock, so the farther you are from the dock, the more you will have to roll your bag uphill.