Athens is such an amazing city with stunning views of the Acropolis from everywhere we look! But travelling during the pandemic caused us some stress, especially knowing we needed to meet certain requirements to enter Greece like negative covid tests and vaccines. Websites had conflicting information, making it even more difficult to tell exactly what was needed. Did we need a negative covid test? Was entering with just proof of vaccine enough? Would we be randomly selected for a covid test upon landing and what if we ended up testing positive?
After much reading and re-reading of the official website from the Greek government, we decided that a negative covid test was not necessary to enter the country and our proof of vaccine from British Columbia would be enough. I did discover that we needed to fill out a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) prior to departure, so I did that, then proceeded to create several copies of the form in electronic PDF, paper PDF, and phone screenshot form, just to be sure I had the necessary paperwork to enter the country. I duplicated the excessive copies of paperwork for both my proof of vaccine and Chris's too. I figured you can never be too careful.
So armed with electronic proofs of vaccine and PLF, paper copies of proofs of vaccine and PLF, and screenshots of said PDFs on my phone, we got into an Uber and headed to Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
While waiting in line to check our bags, we heard the Air Canada attendant asking the person checking in if they had their negative covid test. Chris and I looked at each other and our hearts started pounding. Were we wrong? Was proof of vaccine not enough? Should we have paid for the covid test? What if we couldn't get on our flight?
We waited about 10 more agonizing minutes before it was finally our turn to check in. The attendant asked us if we'd been vaccinated and for proof of the vaccine. Phew! No negative covid test needed! We scanned through our phones and showed her the screen shots of our PDF documents showing that we each received our double dose. She looked at Chris's single screen shot, showing all the required info and nodded her head. Then she scanned across my 2 screen shots that showed my name and first dose on the first screen, and second dose info on the second screen and shook her head. Apparently having it over two screen shots wasn't acceptable because my name needed to be on the same sheet as my second dose. Oh crap! My heart resumed its racing. My fingers shook as I desperately pulled up the BC Health Services app on my phone trying to get the actual screen to show up. In my nervousness I wasn't clicking the right options and I couldn't find the proof I needed. Seeing my shaking hands, the Air Canada attendant told me to relax and take my time. I took a deep breath and decided to go to option C, the paper printouts. Of course, I had shoved these in the zippered pouch at the bottom of my carryon, so accessing them resulted in me having to pull all my stuff out of my bag. With my bag of liquids on the check-in counter, I finally pulled out the required paperwork and handed it to her. She looked it over and said that these papers were for Chris's vaccine, not mine. What?? I was sure mine was in there. Chris looked through the sheets and pointed out that the second sheet was in fact my vaccine proof, with name and dose information all on one page. She nodded. Yay! After 3 tries I'd finally been able to give her the proof needed to get my boarding pass to Athens.
With boarding passes printed (electronic ones not available due to special requirements for international flights), we breezed through security and left on-time for Montreal. Our connection in Montreal was less than 50 minutes. Between deplaning time and the realization that our landing gate and departure gate were as far apart as possible, we boarded our flight to Athens just in time.
The 10-hour flight went by extremely quickly and next thing I knew, we were being told to put away our tray tables and adjust our seat backs to an upright position. Once we landed, my heart racing resumed. What would the Greek immigration officials ask for? Did I fill out the PLF form correctly? Would our proof of vaccine be acceptable here too? What if we were selected for random testing?
As we walked down the hallway towards immigration, there was a sign saying to have our PLF form QR code ready, so I pulled it up on my phone. The official looked at the QR code and initially nodded his head, then pointed to Chris and asked if he was on the same form. I said yes, at which point the official indicated he needed to see the full form and not just the QR code. Time to pull out the papers again! Fortunately, I'd learned from the earlier paper-finding difficulties and had placed my papers in an easier to access spot. I pulled out the form and the official verified that Chris was listed as a family member. Thank goodness I had so many backup copies of everything!
From there we continued into the lineup for passport verification. Less than a minute later, we were presenting our passports to Greek immigration. The official opened our passports, looked up at us and said "Canadian?". Before we finished saying yes, she was already stamping our passports.
After clearing passport control, Chris and I continued our walk down the hallway looking for the spot where we could potentially be selected for random covid testing. We walked into the baggage claim area, still not seeing it, and saw that our bags were coming out of the carousel. (Well done Athens luggage handling!) We picked up our bags and continued walking towards the exit, prepared to be stopped at a random covid testing checkpoint. We figured it would be something like in other countries we'd travelled to, where each person has to hit a button, and if the button goes red, you need to go for additional inspection. We kept walking and eventually found ourselves going through the doors to the main arrivals area, where limo drivers were holding name signs and family members carried balloons. Chris and I looked at each other - "that's it?". No proof of vaccine needed to be shown again, no random covid testing queue, nothing! We just walked off the plane, showed our PLF form, had our passports stamped, and within 10 minutes of deboarding, we were looking for signs to the trains.
Athens here we come!
We travel for months at a time, trying to get a local feel for the cities and countries we're visiting. Because we do long-term travel, we combine regular daily life, like going to the gym and working on projects, with touring the cities we're currently staying in and checking out the sites. This month, we're in Athens, Greece. It's so easy to spend tons of money here, but since we travel most of the year we can't be spending money on expensive tours and high-end restaurants all the time, so our goal is to have amazing adventures while keeping our spending in-check.
We landed at the Athens airport and made our way to the metro to get on the train to the city center. After exiting the station and walking uphill for many, many blocks we found our apartment in Kolonaki. The apartment we rented is a simple one-bedroom apartment in a great area of town at the base of Lycabettus Hill. The neighbourhood is filled with tons of restaurants, gyms, and cafes that cater to the locals, but it's still walking distance to the Acropolis and other major tourist sites. One of our favourite features of the apartment is the rooftop deck that has 360-degree views of Athens. We can see spanning views from the Acropolis all the way to the Aegean Sea.
After unpacking, we headed out to get some groceries. There are tons of grocers near our apartment, from small organic grocers, to larger chain-style grocery stores, to 24-hour Ok! corner stores that carry fresh produce, frozen foods, and packaged goods. There is a lot of English in Athens, but grocery store products are often labelled just in Greek. So we've been coming home with food and only a guess as to what it actually is. We also can't read the cooking instructions, so we're just taking our best guess on how to make the food we're buying. Our first bites of food have lead to some unexpected reactions.
On our first full day in Athens, I joined a local gym and we walked around the city to get a feel for the different neighbourhoods. Athens is filled with ancient ruins and we kept being surprising when we turned a corner and found oursleves overlooking a park with ancient columns and temples. We eventually arrived at Filopappou Hill, which is an amazing place for great views of the city and the Acropolis. And it also has a few ancient ruins of its own to check out. On our way back, we checked out the very touristy area of Plaka where we tried our first made-in-Athens gyros - they were delicious!
As I mentioned already, there is a lot of English in Athens. Most of the street signs are in both Greek and English and most people seem to speak at least some English. But Greek is the language that is most widely spoken. For example, when we're in lineups at the grocery store, the register clerk tells people the prices in Greek. But for some reason, and this happens every time, when we go up to the cash, the clerk always gives us the price in English. How can they tell we don't speak Greek? Do we really look like tourists?
A few days later we found ourselves walking past a park on our way to see the Statue of Athena. The park had a hill that looked like it would have extended views of the city, so we started heading up the path to the top, noticing a bit of broken glass on the ground at the trailhead. A few turns in, we started seeing tons of garbage on the ground, then a few needles. We noticed that unlike other places in Athens, the park was mostly empty, except for a few people that had setup camp under the trees. When we arrived at the top of the hill, we took a few photos, but quickly made our way down the other side of the hill to what we hoped would be a more populated area. But the streets on that side of the park were filled with graffiti and bars covered most of the windows. The streets were quiet, except for a few groups of people that had gathered under the trees for shade. After a few more hurried blocks we finally came out onto a main street and could see the park with the Statue of Athena in the distance. We took a different route home.
One evening, we decided to walk up Lycabettus Hill behind our apartment for views of the sun setting over the city. Lycabettus Hill is known for its sunsets, so there were tons of people making their way up the hill at the same time as us. There was a group on the path in front of us that had stopped to take a photo. I paused so I wouldn't get in the way. The photo taker was speaking Greek to his friends. As I was waiting for them to finish taking the photo, the photo taker looked at me and said, "Sorry". Sorry?? Why in English? Why not "Sygnomi"?? How does everyone in Athens seem to know we don't speak Greek??
The sunset viewing area at Lycabettus Hill was very busy and pretty amazing. It was a great energy to have everyone there watching the sunset and taking photos as the Parthenon lights up.
Our first weekend in Greece was European Cultural Heritage Days. This meant that the historical sites that normally cost about 30 Euros/person to enter were free. At first, we thought that places like the Acropolis would be way too busy to visit on a weekend like that, but after reading a few reports from previous years, we decided to give it a try. And we're so glad we did! I thought we'd have to wait hours in line, but we just walked right up to the ticket booths and were granted free entry immediately. Yes, it was busy on the Acropolis but it's also a huge area with lots of space to take photos and just gaze at the ruins. We spent hours walking around the Acropolis, looking at the Parthenon and the temples that are over 2000 years old, checking out the Theatre of Dionysus, and walking through the Olympieion and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. All for free! Afterwards, we splurged and had a snack of fried calamari and a couple of drinks on a local patio.
Being in Athens has allowed us to walk among the ruins of the buildings created under the first democracies, see the foundations of the ancient Olympic arenas, stay where the great philosophers and mathematicians studied, and be in the birthplace of Western Civilization. I loved putting my hand on the old stones and imagining what life might have been like here over 2000 years ago, how far we've come since then, and how much more we need to do.
A lot of Athens, especially around the ruins, are filled with cobblestone streets, marble, slippery rocks, and uneven terrain. On our first day of touring, I was wearing my white runners, but found they didn't have the grippy-ness I wanted on the rocks. I switched to my trail runners for the day we went into the Acropolis and I was super glad I did. If you're packing for Athens, I highly recommend a sturdy, grippy pair of shoes for checking out the ruins and walking up the hills.
Yesterday, we took the metro to the seaside neighbourhood of Piraeus to walk along the Aegean Sea. We forgot that most things in Athens are closed on Sundays, so in retrospect going there without having eaten first wasn't the smartest idea. The only places that were open were pricey, brunch-style restaurants. We kept walking, hoping we would see an open Ok! market or inexpensive cafe, but none were around. We eventually found a small kiosk where I picked up a packaged croissant and Chris bought a bag of chips. We had to laugh at ourselves as we ate our kiosk "brunch" sitting on some concrete near a parking lot overlooking the Aegean Sea. If we had been ok with spending money on a seaside brunch, we never would have ended up with the adventure of eating a packaged croissant on the side of a parking lot with a quiet, private view of the strikingly blue water.
Onto week 2!
The Temple of Poseidon extends up from the cliffs off Cape Sounion on the Aegean Sea. The raw power and beauty of this place are clear indicators of why the ancient Greeks chose to build a temple to honour their God of the Sea here, 2500 years ago. The crystal blue waters of the sea surrounding the Attica Peninsula must have been the perfect backdrop for the ancient civilization.
Our day trip to Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon started with a dip in the Aegean Sea. We walked down the steep sided trails from where the bus dropped us off, to the small beach on the east side of the cape. The water glistened an inviting crystal blue as we jumped into the warm waters and took advantage of the salinity by floating on our backs, looking up at the cliffs the temple is built on and the clear blue sky.
Putting on our hiking clothes, we then took a hike up the mountains of the Sounion National Park, where we had stunning views of the Temple of Poseidon and the Aegean Sea from a distance.
In the mid-afternoon, we descended from the mountains to the road, then climbed the hill to the 60m cliff where the Temple of Poseidon stands. Our first close-up look at the marble columns stopped us in our tracks. We stood there and gazed up at the ancient ruin without speaking or pulling out our cameras. We spent the next hour walking around the temple, looking at the columns, steps, and foundation from all angles. We walked around it several times, slowly at first, stopping many times to take photos to attempt to capture the beauty of the place, then more quickly to look for details in the columns that we'd read about on the information boards. We then headed down the hill along the paths of the historical site, past the foundations of the ancient village, learning that this place was not just a stand-alone temple in ancient times, but an entire town. As the paths took us towards the exit, and not having had quite enough of the temple, we ascended to the cliff top once more to have one last look at the Temple of Poseidon before catching our bus back to Athens.
Getting to the Temple of Poseidon
There are many tours and private transport options to get you to the Temple of Poseidon, but if you'd like to do this on your own, at a fraction of the cost, you can take a public bus there. It's easy to do and when you visit the Temple of Poseidon, especially in the off-season like we did on a weekday in early October, you can have the place almost to yourself. If you go in a tour group, you'll always be in the crowd of the group, even if it's not very busy.
How we got there:
Chris and I took the 4-hour train ride from Athens to Kalambaka, Greece to visit the Meteora Rocks. These rocks are stunning, but what's more is the powerful energy you feel from these mammoth pieces of stone that formed over 60 million years ago. The tiny village of Kalambaka, the hiking trails through the rocks, and the monasteries built precariously at the peaks all lead to the feelings of awe and amazement I had during our 2-day visit.
If you're heading to Athens, visiting the Meteora Rocks is a definite must. You can do this in a very long day trip, but if you have the time, spending the night will give you more time to experience the rocks from different angles and enjoy a dinner under the illuminated rocks at night.
We took 3 hikes over our two days, with the first one being the longest one, ascending the trails through the rocks and up to the peaks, where the monasteries lie. The views are incredible and worth the uphill climbs. Our second hike also went through the rocks, but took us much closer to their bases. And our last hike, right before we needed to get back on the train to Athens, was across the main road where we had sweeping views of many of the Meteora Rocks at once.
We spent our evening in Kalambaka at a lively rooftop patio overlooking the rocks, enjoying great food and drinks, while we recapped what we loved about our day.
Getting to Kalambaka (the town at the base of the Meteora Rocks)
To get to Kalambaka, sometimes called Kalabaka, you take a train directly from the Athens Train Terminal next to Larisa Metro Station. You can take a train that requires a transfer too, but we took the one that goes directly from Athens to Kalambaka that leaves at 7:20am and arrives at 11:30am. We purchased our tickets online ahead of time here.
There are many tours you can buy, but we just bought the train tickets on our own, as it was much cheaper that way. When we arrived in Kalambaka, we walked and hiked everywhere, so we didn't need a vehicle. However, if you have less time, you can take a local bus or taxi.
If you only have one day, you can spend the afternoon in Kalambaka/Kalabaka, then take the return train at 5:15pm on the same day. We spent the night, at the Hotel Kosta Famissi, a very inexpensive and simple hotel, then took the train home the next afternoon, giving us plenty of time to try the great food (we highly recommend € 2 gyros at Psitopoleio Vakis)the and get in lots of different views of the rocks.
Website we used to book the Hotel Kosta Famissi is here.
Website to checkout the hiking trails through the Meteora Rocks is here.
We've just spent the last month renting an apartment in Athens and today is our last day here. I'm sad to be leaving Athens, but I'm also super excited about the next part of our trip. The next month is going to be quite different from the last, in that we'll be exploring many different places and not booking our travels more than a few days ahead of time. Tomorrow we're heading to Delphi and then from there we don't really have much booked. Our plan is to take the bus from Delphi to Patra, then catch the overnight ferry to Italy, then make our way to Rome. I'm a bit anxious as the bus that goes from Delphi to Patra only runs twice a week, the instructions on the website are cryptic, and you can't buy tickets online ahead of time. So hopefully it all works out. I'm also a bit stressed about going to Italy because their Covid checks and requirements appear to be much stricter than Greece's and it's hard to get the most up to date info online. So hopefully we'll be able to go to Italy! I do love travelling without a ton of bookings and seeing where the trip takes us!
But for now, the first step is getting the bus from Athens to Delphi, then touring the ancient ruins there!
To read about the next part of our trip, go here