An accessible and dog-friendly break in the Peak District

After a short visit to the Peak District while being confined to the UK back at the height of the Covid-pandemic in 2020, I was always hoping to return and see more at some point so when my elderly parents wanted a getaway with me and the family dog Lily over winter half term week, I was excited to find a cheap deal at a Darwin Escapes site at the southern end of the park.

Lily settles into our lodge and enjoys her complimentary toy

Having taken 2 short breaks at other Darwin Escapes resorts before, we were becoming quite a fan of their spacious lodges on sites where ‘quiet’ and ‘secluded’ is their selling point and our lodge on their Rivendale Lodge Retreat site just north of Ashbourne did not disappoint.

With my dad being unable to walk long distances due to a variety of ongoing health problems and an anxious large rescue dog in tow, I had spent a bit of time looking up possible places to visit where we could take short walks on paved or easily accessible paths but at the same time, not be spending too much time in the obvious tourist sites where Lily would spend her time barking at anyone who happened to walk past and encroach on her space!

A trip to Carsington Water

With it being just a short journey of just under 2 hours from where we were in South Birmingham to the holiday park, we made it most of the way there without stopping, deciding to call in at the large Ashbourne Park to give Lily a long walk before continuing the short drive from the town to Rivendale in time for check in. Upon entering our lodge, Lily was pleased to find she had been left complimentary dog treats and a tug rope toy to keep her entertained during her stay!

On our first full day in the region, we decided to venture out of the National Park boundaries slightly upon the recommendation of a friend who had suggested Carsington Water as the perfect place for both my parents and Lily to take a walk.

View along the High Peak Trail near Minninglow

Pulling up on the large car park, we were unsure at first if it would be a bit busy for Lily’s liking but decided to head away from the visitors’ centre area and followed the path that ran alongside the reservoir. For the most part, the path was separated in two with a side for walkers and a side for cyclists. There weren’t too many cyclists out but when we did see any, there was plenty of room to move Lily to the side and let them pass. The path was an easy one for my dad to walk along, often flat and with just a few gradual inclines and declines on the section we walked along and few tripping hazards and there were pretty views across the water along the way. After an enjoyable, leisurely walk for 15 minutes or so, we turned around and retraced our steps back to the car park before finding a quiet bench to sit on overlooking the reservoir to sit and eat our picnic lunch.

After lunch, we walked Lily along to Stones Island, a peninsula that juts out into the reservoir in front of the visitor centre. While this was a busier section of the park, there was still plenty of room to keep Lily away from other people and dogs.

Lily enjoys her walk

We drove back via Matlock Bath so we could pick up some shopping from a nearby supermarket but as it seemed very busy in Matlock Bath itself, decided not to make a stop in what is a very touristy town. Instead, after our quick shop, we continued our drive through the Derbyshire Dales and spotting a National Park car park on google maps, decided to pull in there and see what we’d find.

Late afternoon in the High Peak Trail

The car park was at Minninglow and gave access to the High Peak Trail, one of many former train tracks in the Peak District that has since been turned into a walking and biking trail. Having cycled the Monsal Trail on my last visit to the Peak District, I was worried that this would be as busy but with this being a less well-known track than the Monsal Trail – plus it not being the middle of August! – there were very few cars parked on the free car park and very few people about.

By the river in Bakewell

With two directions to possibly go in, we randomly took the path in the direction of Parsley Hay. After a short stretch through woodland, the wide, flat path opened out to views across field and farmland. We walked for about 15-20 minutes in the late afternoon sunshine before turning back and heading back to the car park, my parents and Lily now tiring and in need of a rest. It was just a short drive back to our lodge from here and we spent the evening relaxing in our peaceful surroundings.

The next day, my parents were keen to visit the town of Bakewell to pick up some sweet treats. Knowing it was likely to be busy, we drove in before the midday rush and after a little bark in the car park, Lily managed a walk around town with us without getting too bothered by the passersby and other dogs out for a walk.

After picking up some cakes, we wandered down a back alleyway which lead to the riverside and took a walk up to the historic Bakewell Bridge and then, crossing the road, down to Brookside, a path running along side a narrow offshoot of the River Wye.

Padley Gorge

From Bakewell, we drove north towards Padley Gorge. Here, we parked for free in a layby on the B6521 and went through a gate down a few manageable steps to a public footpath which runs alongside Burbage Brook. Following the path to the left, we soon left the moorland we’d started in and went through a gate into woodland, still following alongside the brook.

There were a few walkers, families and dogs out for a walk about but it wasn’t too busy and despite having to look for a few roots or stones sticking up, the path was mainly manageable for my parents. After a while, the path became steeper and narrower and we decided to turn back.

Pond at the Longshaw Estate

After a cup of tea and snack back at the car, we crossed the B-road to the gate on the other side which lead in to the Longshaw Estate, a National Trust site with meadow and woodland walks. We followed the path past the Granby Discovery Barn and up to a small lake then through woodland and out into open meadows before turning back and retracing our steps back to the car again.

Visiting the historic town of Eyam

With it still being only early afternoon, we decided to make one more stop on our way back to the holiday park – in the historic town of Eyam, often referred to as the ‘plague village’. During the and outbreak of Black Death in 1665-6, villagers here decided to isolate and cut themselves off from the rest of the World in order to try and stop further spread of the plague.

Above, Pavillion Gardens, Buxton, and below, Sepentine Walk

Many villagers died of the black death here while some survived, finding themselves to be naturally immune. Some descendants of these survivors still live in Eyam today! There’s a small museum in the town near the free car park but, having Lily with us, we didn’t visit. Instead, we took a walk around the town and found it to be really interesting and worth a stop with a multitude of information about the town and the black death on placards around the town.

After successful visits with Lily to both Bakewell and Eyam the previous day, on our last full day in the Peak District, my parents decided they’d like to visit the town of Buxton where they’d been on a weekend away many years earlier. Parking up at the Pavillion Gardens car park, we wondered into the picturesque – but very busy – park. With Lily getting agitated by everything going on around her, we exited the main park and crossed the road to a quieter section known as the Serpentine Walk where a path followed the river before crossing a bridge and looping back on itself. We then crossed the road again back in to the Pavillion Gardens, taking a quieter route along the back paths of the park to reach Buxton Town Centre. After a short walk through the town – picking up some more sweet treats for later – we returned past the Pavillion building to the car park.

Above, and below, beautiful views at Goyt Valley

I had had in mind today that since we were visiting Buxton, we would go to Buxton Country Park for the afternoon, part of which I had been to on my last visit to the Peak District. But having seen how busy Buxton and the Pavillion Gardens were, I was having second thoughts so once back at the car, I had a quick look on google maps to see if there were any National Park car parks not too far away.

I spotted one marked on the map as Goyt Valley car park and not too far from there, could see Errwood Reservoir on the map. A quick google revealed both to be listed as good for walking dogs so I made a hasty decision to head that way instead of to the country park.

Errwood Reservoir

And I’m so glad I did! The short drive to Goyt Valley took us over steep hills to reveal sweeping valley views and we found the free Goyt Valley car park at the foot of one of the hills with plenty of parking space. From the car park, we took one of the paths leading past a small lake. The path ran alongside the valley below offering beautiful views across the peak district made even prettier under the blue skies and sunshine.

We walked for about half an hour meeting just a few passers by along the way before returning to the car and driving on to the reservoirs we had seen in the distance.

Overlooking Errwood Reservoir

Arriving at the car park for Errwood Reservoir, I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be a path running alongside the reservoir so instead we took a path up a hill which lead to Errs Wood at the top. We took a short walk through a shady path alongside a stream in the wood but as it started to descend, we decided to turn back as my parents were tiring and unsure they’d make it back up again.

Returning to the top of the hill at the edge of the wood, we enjoyed the views over the reservoir below before returning to the car and driving back to our lodge.

The next morning, we had to check out of our lodge by 10am but not wanting to return home just yet, we decided to pull into the Tissington Trail car park at Ashby de la Zouche right next to the holiday park. The Tissington Trail is yet another of the Peak District’s former train tracks that is now a cycling and hiking trail and similar to the High Peak and Monsal Trails therefore offers a wide and mainly flat path through the Peak District. With Lily apparently tired from her week away and pulling to go back to the car, we walked just a short distance of the trail heading north bound. Like the High Peak Trail, I found the trail to be a lot quieter than the Monsal Trail – we bumped into just a couple of cyclists and one other dog being walked along the way.

A short walk at Dovedale

As we reached the car, the weather started to change and rain was in the air but I had one more stop I wanted to make before we returned home – Dovedale. This was another recommendation from a friend. Another National Trust site, I knew it would be busy and I was right but with the rain, many people were returning to their cars and we found enough space along the path to keep Lily calm and away from too many people.

The path at Dovedale followed a river running through a glacier carved valley and there were really pretty views on the short walk to a set of Stepping Stones at the far end.

To continue the walk any further, we had to cross the stepping stones but we thought better of it with my parents being wary of getting across and me having visions of Lily ending up wading across the river rather than sticking to walking across the stones but despite this, it was an enjoyable short walk to finish off our trip.

I felt like I’d seen a lot more of the Peak District than I had on my last visit. It was great to have seen different places and taken different walks and especially nice to have found places walks that were manageable for my parents and that Lily could enjoy with us!

A city break in Budapest

Budapest had been on my list of places to visit for a long time after a lot of recommendations from family and friends who had taken short city breaks there so when a concert I wanted to see was announced to be on at the city’s arena, I jumped at the excuse to finally travel to Hungary.

Deciding to book our flights and hotel separately, we were disappointed to find a limited number of flights departing from our local airport in Birmingham on days that did not suit our plans and therefore, to my slight dismay following poor experiences on previous trips, ended up having to book flights with British Airways from Heathrow.

I’d like to say the airline redeemed itself but just a few weeks before our trip, they cancelled our evening return flight, transferring us to an unsuitable early morning one and giving us no alternative but to cancel that leg and return with a different airline, losing quite a bit of money after they gave us just a measly £12 refund on the return portion. But that’s another story…

With my travel companion having a friend who’d lived in the city for a few years, I left it to her to sort out our accommodation based on her friend’s recommendations on the area and the hotel itself and the result was a stay in an attic room at the conveniently-located and beautiful boutique hotel, Gerloczy Boutique Hotel at a pretty reasonable price.

Arriving later than planned after an hour’s delay to our flight departure, we easily found our way to the airport buses that went directly to the city and our hotel was an easy and short walk from the final stop.

Staff at the hotel were happy to give us recommendations and directions to Gozsdu Courtyard, the lively entertainment district a 5 minute walk from the hotel where we easily found somewhere to grab a light snack and a drink before it got too late.

We had pre-booked a free walking tour of the Pest side of the city for the next morning through GuruWalks on the recommendation of a friend who had recently been to Budapest. Being mainly unfamiliar with the city after just a short walk out the previous night, we decided to grab breakfast from the cafe attached to the hotel rather than go searching for somewhere else on the way to the walk’s meeting point. After some delicious pastries, we walked towards the city’s Cathedral Square, arriving just minutes before we were due to meet our tour guide. Failing to locate anyone holding a bright red umbrella, I check my emails to make sure we were in the right place only to see the guide had had to cancel following a family emergency and had transferred us all onto an earlier tour which we had, of course, now missed!

Disappointed, I did a quick google search and managed to find another free walking tour with a different company departing a nearby location in the next hour and with a couple of spaces to spare so we booked ourselves on that then spent our free half hour or so visiting the Cathedral while it was right there in front of us. Luckily, there wasn’t a queue for the entrance tickets and we had just enough time to look around without having to rush.

Time for our walking tour, take 2, and this time we found our guide waiting exactly where we expected to find him and checked onto the tour 5 minutes before it departed. The tour gave us a good overview of the Pest side of the city and helped us to get our bearings as well as see what we might want to return to see later in our stay and our guide had lots of recommendations on places to eat at for traditional Hungarian food for anyone that was interested in sampling local cuisine.

With it being mid-afternoon by the time the tour finished, we walked back to the central shopping district and found somewhere to eat before returning to our hotel to get ready for the evening’s concert.

With the arena being slightly further out of the city, we would have to use the city’s metro system for the first time to get there. It was just a short walk to the closest stop though and we found it easy to work out how to buy tickets and to navigate our way there. We were pleasantly surprised at how cheap the metro tickets were compared to in other European cities!

We had allocated the following day to exploring the Buda side of the city, starting with spending the morning at one of the city’s thermal baths. We decided to walk there so after another breakfast at the hotel’s cafe, set off towards the banks of the River Danube, crossing the Szabadsag Bridge into Buda.

We had booked the Gellert Spa rather than the larger, and more touristy Széchenyi Thermal Baths, again, upon the recommendation of a friend and as soon as we entered the building, with its beautiful Art Nouveau decor, we were really pleased with our choice.

After spending a few relaxing hours enjoying both the indoor and outdoor pools of varying temperatures included in our entry ticket, we headed back out into the cool Autumnal weather to explore the Buda side of the city further.

Walking along the riverside, we stopped for a snack at a small local cafe before continuing our walk towards Buda Castle. Short on time, we decided to catch the funicular up the hill to the castle and walked from here to Fisherman’s Bastion, an old hilltop fortress from where there were amazing views across the Danube to the Pest side of the city.

We also stopped to look around the beautiful Matthias Church before walking back towards the castle.

Rather than catching the funicular back down to the riverside, we continues to walk South along the hilltop within the grounds of the castle. It was dusk by now meaning the lights were starting to come on across the city making for more pretty views from above.

After a while, we walked downhill and crossed the Danube over Elizabet Bridge back to Pest where we spent a few hours warming up back at our hotel before heading back out to the Gozsdu Courtyard where we had a delicious dinner at 2 Spaghi, a fresh pasta bar.

From here, we walked the short distance to some of the famous Budapest Ruins Bars – bars opened in formerly derelict buildings in the old town area of Pest. Our first stop was at Szimpla Kert, probably the best known and the first of the Ruins Bars to open.

The huge space set across multiple floors was filled with an eclectic collection of mismatched items and had graffiti covered walls but had a really great atmosphere and was lively even on a midweek evening.

After a couple of drinks here, we walked to Csendes Vintage Bar and Cafe, a much more relaxed affair but with equally eclectic decoration – bicycles and all sorts of other objects mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling!!

We were flying out of Budapest the following evening giving us plenty of time that day for some last minute sightseeing. We began our day with some bagels for breakfast at a nearby cafe before walking down to the Danube and following the river north towards the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Along the way, we made a sombre stop at the Shoes on the Danube Holocaust Memorial, a simple but haunting sculpture of shoes left behind by Jews murdered on that spot during World War II.

Then we continued toward the impressive Parliament Building. We had tried to get tickets to tour this building from its website in advance but had left it too late and found them to be sold out. However, we had been told on our walking tour that it was possible to get tickets on the day so we called into the visitors centre and managed to acquire 2 spots on a tour that afternoon.

With a few hours to spare before we needed to check in for our tour, we decided to catch the metro across to Városliget or City Park. This meant taking a trip on the historic metro line M1, the oldest metro line in Hungary and the second oldest in Europe after the London Underground.

We were pleasantly surprise at just how cheap the metro system was for a capital European city, with prices for a single journey working out at less than £1 in UK money. Varolsliget is home to the pretty Vajdahunyad Castle and we spent some time walking around the grounds and the park before having dinner at an on site restaurant.

Then it was time to hop back onto the M1 and return to the Parliament Building to check in for our tour. Tours were led regularly in a variety of languages and when it was time for our English speaking tour to depart, we were all given ear pieces and battery packs to wear so our guide didn’t have to shout to be heard.

Unfortunately, we felt this had the opposite effect to what it should have with our guide often speaking too quietly so that even with our ear pieces in, we sometimes had trouble picking up what she was telling us. What we did hear, was interesting and the rooms we were allowed to visit were very ornate but the tour was vert short and we were allowed to see only a very small fraction of the vast building. Still, we were glad we had had the opportunity to see inside.

By the time our tour had finished, it was time to return to our hotel and collect our luggage before catching the airport bus back to Ferenc Liszt Airport where we checked in for our Jet2 flight which would be taking us directly back to Birmingham, saving on coach fare back from London had we not had to cancel our original British Airways flight.

We’d had a fun few days and had really liked the city of Budapest. We found there was plenty to do and see and for a capital city, prices were very reasonable. I’d definitely recommend a visit.

A short city break in Lisbon

Praça Luis de Camoes

Following a few days in the beautiful city of Porto, we took the train southbound from Campanha Station to Lisbon’s Oriente station, a straightforward and efficient way to travel between the two cities. Arriving in Portugal’s capital, we quickly worked out the metro system to travel to our Ibis hotel in the Saldanha area of the city – not right in the centre of the city but close to the metro making the main areas easily accessible.

The National Theatre in Rossio Square

Arriving early afternoon, we wandered locally finding a nearby diner that seemed popular with locals to grab a burger before catching the metro the few stops to Baixa in the heart of the tourist area. We had signed up for a free evening walking tour of the Alfama district, the oldest neighbourhood in the city.

Above, street art in the Alfama neighbourhood, and below, views over the city

Arriving at Luis de Camoes Square with its central statue, we quickly located our guide and shortly after were on our way stopping at Rossio Square before swapping the busy roads with their hoards of tourists for the quieter, narrower and prettier streets of Alfama.

The tour lasted almost 3 hours and took us to picturesque back streets, up steep hills to beautiful viewpoints over the city, stopping to hear stories about the area and its people. It was dark by the time we finished the tour and we stopped at a final viewpoint to see the city lit up beneath us before walking to the impressive Cathedral making a mental not to return there the next day.

Saying goodbye to our group, we wandered down to the seafront stopping for a drink at a local bar before catching the metro back to our hotel.

The colourful Pena Palace, Sintra

The next evening, we had a concert to attend back in the Oriente district of the city. We had originally planned to spend the day leading up to this exploring Lisbon more but after seeing photos online made a spur of the moment decision to instead catch a train out to the town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We managed to navigate our way to the train station and buy a return ticket easily enough and had read that once there, it was possibly to get a hop on/off bus that looped up to the main sites as these weren’t really walkable from the main town.

We arrived at Sintra station just after 11am. The buses were waiting outside and we quickly managed to get a ticket and board. Although we had read these could become very busy, we were surprised at just how crowded our bus was. We took advice we had seen online to get off at Moorish Castle and walk from here to Pena Palace once we’d finished there rather than trying to get back on a bus.

Above, finally inside to find more queues, and below, slowly exploring the palace grounds

With it already begin almost midday and conscious that we had to be back for a concert that evening, the queues at Moorish Castle put us off from actually paying to go in and we could see little from outside the gates so instead, we decided to take the short but steep path through the woods to Pena Palace as this was the attraction we wanted to see most. Us and the rest of Portugal, it seemed as there were people everywhere and even larger queues for tickets!

While my friend got in the queue, I tried to find some phone reception to book them online, eventually managing to get 2 tickets for 1.30pm entry. I was starting to regret our spur of the moment trip, feeling we’d have got more out of it if we’d thought about travelling here in advance and planned it properly, leaving earlier and pre-booking attractions!

Our ticket gave us access to the vast Palace grounds and also warned of an uphill walk that could take up to half hour to get to the Palace gates to the main entrance so we headed straight inside stopping along the way to grab a sandwich from a kiosk in the grounds before continuing our climb. Finally reaching the hilltop where the palace stood, we were met by what could only be described as disorganised chaos. Multiple queues of vert frustrated tourists all with different timed tickets, some of whom had timed entry that should have got them through the gates over an hour ago. Joining a queue containing people who seemed to mainly have the same ticket time as us, my friend went off in search of someone who could advise us if we were waiting in the correct place. Having established that we were in the correct line, we had no choice but to wait and wonder when we would finally make it inside the palace.

The answer to this turned out to be over an hour later than our ticket time and even once our line started to move, it was at a snails pace as the crowds tried to squeeze through and have their tickets scanned. Finally making it inside, we found that we were not free to wander through but were basically in one long queue to walk around the palace. If we left it, to climb turrets to viewpoints, we then had to rejoin again. This was especially annoying when we got inside the castle as we had to keep moving with the line rather than stopping to look at what we wanted to and skip anything we didn’t. Realising that at this pace, we’d be there hours and be in a huge rush to get back to Lisbon in time to have dinner and make it to the concert, we decided to fight our way out of the buildings and back into the courtyards where there was a bit more room and we could at least see the pretty colourful structure of the palace and take some photos before fighting our way back out of its grounds.

The next problem was getting back into the town. We had our bus ticket but the queues were miles long and as buses were turning up full from their Moorish Castle pickup and few were now getting off at Pena Palace with tickets for today now completely sold out, hardly anyone was managing to get on any of the buses that appeared. After getting chatting to some other girls who were equally frustrated, we made the decision to go halves on a taxi with them – making our purchase of around trip bus ticket obsolete and meaning extra expense but at least we knew we’d be back in town in the next half hour instead of still queueing for a bus.

Strolling through Lisbon

It was after 5pm by the time we got back to town and we still had a 15 minute walk to the station and the wait for a train back to Lisbon but we knew we should at least have a bit of time to return to our hotel, freshen up and change for the concert and grab some dinner before the concert began. Making it to the concert just half an hour before it began, we knew we’d made the right decision abandoning our Pena Palace trip and catching a taxi back to Sintra town.

Triumphal Arch, Praça do Comércio

Sintra looked like it was a pretty place and if we’d have planned more carefully, gone at a quieter time or even done it as an organised tour from Lisbon, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more. If it was like that in October though, I dread to think what it’s like in the summer months! Lesson learned anyway. Next time, its back to carefully planning excursions in advance.

Statue if Joseph I

The following morning, we returned to the central part of Lisbon to explore further before our evening flight back to the UK. Being short on time we decided to make use of the city’s hop on/off bus to see as much as possible.

Above, Praça do Commercio, Lisbon, and below, taking in the sites of the city from the hop on/off bus

While this was a good way to see the highlights of the city, we felt the pre-recorded commentary was not the best with large sections filled with just traditional Portuguese music playing. It would have been nice to have had time to visit some of the city’s museums and churches but we did at least have time to make it back to the Cathedral for a quick look inside.

I feel that Lisbon had a lot more on offer than I had seen and I partly regret that we wasted one of our days there with the trip out to Sintra. It’s definitely a city I’d like to return to, research more next time and have more of a plan of what to see and do.

Discovering the beautiful city of Porto

Chapel of Souls

Setting off for the city of Porto was the most unprepared I’d felt for an upcoming trip in a long time. Being pre-occupied with work and some recent family issues had meant I’d not done my usual research on a city. I had no idea what there was to see or do, no activities booked – my friend had even booked the hotel so I had no idea where we were staying even!

Annoyingly – but perhaps conveniently – we had plenty of time to research things at the airport that morning as we found ourselves in the now expected lengthy queues to get through security. Leaving us with little time to grab breakfast and a couple of essentials from departures, it did, at least give us plenty of opportunity to flick through a Porto guidebook a friend had lent us and to look up how to get from the airport to our pretty central hotel once we arrived.

After a quick flick through tripadvisor and a few travel blogs, we also made a hasty booking for a highly-recommended walking tour of the city for the morning of our first full day there in the hope that this would throw up some ideas for places to visit or return to in more detail.

Five minutes after finally clearing security, our gate was being called and we were soon on board and ready to go. A speedy 2-hours later, we were landing. Clearing passport control quickly, we soon found ourselves in arrivals and easily navigated our way to the station to pick up the metro line which would take us to the Bolhao area of the city where our hotel was situated. Once checked in, we took a stroll, heading straight away to a nearby church which had caught our eye as soon as we exited the metro station earlier. What made the Chapel of Souls church so striking was the blue and white tiles covering its exterior. The church was just as stunning inside and definitely worth a visit.

After visiting the pretty church, we wandered down Rua Santa Catarina, a pedestrianised street lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Here, we couldn’t resist stopping at Fabrica da Nata, supposedly one of the best pastry shops in the city to get a Pastel de Nata – the popular Portuguese custard tart-style treat – from. After enjoying our sweet snack, we continued to explore Rua Santa Catarina. Turning right further down the road, we found ourselves stumbling across the entrance to Mercado do Bolhao, a huge food market with stall selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cooked meats, pastries, traditional sweets and much more. We spent a bit of time enjoying the hustle and bustle of the market and picking up some healthy fruit snacks for later before continuing our walk, heading south towards the Douro River.

Tired from our early start and travelling, once riverside, we found a cafe bar to sit outside at for drinks watching the World go by for a bit before making our way back towards our hotel. From the riverfront, we walked towards the Luis I Bridge before turning away from the river to climb a series of steps tucked away up the narrow back streets passing small local cafes and bars hidden from the tourist trail along the way. From here, we wound our way back to Rua Santa Catarina.

After a bit of time relaxing and freshening up at our hotel, we went looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a nearby Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner followed by gelato from one of the many dessert stores along Rua Santa Catarina.

We awoke the next morning to rain. Armed with umbrellas, we set out anyway to find the meet point of the walking tour we had booked.

Above, and below, Bolsa Palace and Infante Dom Henrique Square

We made it as far as Sao Bento station before having to turn around as the rain became torrential and despite our umbrellas, we were soaked to the skin. Deciding we probably wouldn’t enjoy a walking tour in this weather, we contacted the tour guide to apologise for our absence and transfer our booking to the next day then sheltered in a local cafe grabbing chocolate croissants and hot drinks for breakfast before a quick return to our hotel to change into dry clothes and rethink our plans for the day!

Typically, at this point the rain stopped but worried more wasn’t far behind, we decided to take a tour of Bolsa Palace, Porto’s impressive stock exchange building. Luckily, despite nt pre-booking, there were tickets left for the upcoming English-speaking tour. With a bit of time to spare before the tour began, we took a stroll around the pretty Infante Dom Henrique Square in front of the building and across to St Nicholas Church, another pretty tiled church we had spotted from the steps of Bolsa Palace.

After a quick look around the church, it was time to make our way back to Bolsa Palace to begin our tour. We were taken in a group of about 50 around the building by an informative English guide who told us a bit about the building, its architecture and its uses over the years. Our guide also gave us a bit of background on some of the history of Portugal and the city of Porto.

Sampling a Franceshino

The tour lasted about 45 minutes and after, we made our way towards another, larger church we had seen nearby, the Monument Church of St Francis. Entrance to this church and its museum was ticketed but after stepping inside, we could see it was worth every cent! The church’s ornate, intricate interiors, gilded in gold (and giving the church its nickname “The Golden Church”), are breath-taking.

After our visit to the church and its museum, we were pleased to see the sun was now shining so we walked the short distance back to the River Douro to find somewhere to sit and have lunch.

Above, riverside again, and below, on the Six Bridges river cruise

We had decided that today would be the day we tried Franceshino, a (rather large) Portuguese sandwich which originated in Porto and, traditionally, contains layers of meat including ham, bacon, sausage and steak. The meat is topped with a fried egg then sandwiched between 2 pieces of white sliced bread before being wrapped in cheese and served in a bowl of a spicy tomato sauce!

Finding a local cafe with some outdoor seating, I ordered a traditional Franceshino and my friend a vegetarian version. While I’m glad I tried it, and managed to eat a large portion of mine, it definitely sounded better than it tasted, the spicy tomato sauce especially not being to my tastes!

Full from lunch, we took a slow stroll along the riverside towards the Ribeira area and with the weather now being so beautiful, decided to take a Six Bridges River Cruise along the Douro River. This short sightseeing cruise was offered by numerous companies with booths along the river front, all selling the cruises at similar prices. Some companies offered combo tickets including Port tasting or cellar tours but we opted to just buy a ticket for the cruise.

St Ildefenso Church

Despite not pre-booking, we were sold tickets for a cruise departing in the next 5 minutes and hurried from the ticket counter to board the awaiting boat. As we sailed along the river, there was a commentary telling us about the various bridges spanning the Douro in Porto as well as some information about Porto and the city of Gaia which lies on the other side of the river. The views of Porto with its colourful buildings were really pretty from the river.

Having walked up a long flight of stairs from the river front back into the city centre the previous day, today we decided to take the Ribeira inclined railway to the top of the hill. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the Church of Saint Ildefenso, another pretty church with a blue and white tiled facade. There was a small fee to enter the church but this gave us access to the church museum as well.

After a bit of down time back at the hotel, we went for a walk towards Praca do Municipio, a square overlooked by Porto’s impressive town hall then on to Rua de Galeria de Paris, a street famed for its nightlife. Being a Thursday night and not particularly late yet, it was quite quiet out and we found a nice cocktail bar to sit inside at for a few drinks before calling it a night.

The following day, we finally made it onto the walking tour we had delayed our attendance on from the previous day.

Passing through Jardim das Oliveiras on our walking tour

Our excellent guide took us on a detailed 3-hour-plus tour of the city, showing us many places we probably wouldn’t have thought to have known about or visited otherwise – such as a McDonald’s set in a former grand art deco cafe and now said to be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the World and Sao Bento station which we had passed a few times but not though to go inside – and gave us some ideas for places to return to later including the so-called “Harry Potter” bookstore, Livaria Lello.

There was also a lot of interesting information about the city, its buildings and UNESCO World Heritage status and about the history of Portugal itself.

The tour finished back by the river and after a snack from a nearby cafe, we decided to walk back to Livaria Lello bookstore. Along the way, we made a quick call into another beautiful church, St Antonio Church just across from Sao Bento station before hiking up a steep hill to reach the bookstore again. There was a huge queue outside the store with a 2-hour wait to enter but staff explained that if we booked online, we could probably get a timed ticket to enter within the next half an hour. Luckily, we had some phone reception and managed to get online and book tickets quickly; 10 minutes later we were showing our barcodes and entering the store!

A Pastel de Nata from Manteigaria

The store was really beautiful inside and its carved wood staircase is especially worth seeing. However, it was so busy inside, it was at times, difficult to move around the store, especially along its narrow upstairs corridors.

Following our visit to the bookstore, we returned to our hotel via a stop at Manteigaria, another patisserie whose Pastel de Nata came highly recommended.

With one final day in Porto, we still had lots to fit in, including returning to a few more places we had stopped at on our walking tour and now wanted to see in more detail.

Above, making our way to the cathedral tower, and below, enjoying views over the city.

After stopping at Mercado do Bolhao to grab some fresh pastries and fruit for breakfast, we made our way back to Se Cathedral. We had stopped outside the Cathedral on our city tour but wanted to see inside. With it being a Saturday morning, everywhere was a bit busier and there was a bit of a queue for entrance tickets but this moved quickly and we were soon entering the Cloisters.

From here we climbed some stairs up one of the towers for views over the city and looked around the small museum before entering the main chapel of the Cathedral.

Above, and below, Douro River views crossing Luis I Bridge into Gaia

Next up was a walk back towards the river where we finally crossed Luis I Bridge from Porto to the city of Gaia on the other side of the Douro River. The bridge has two pedestrian walkways, one at ground level and one higher up. As advised on our tour, we chose the higher walkway and this offered stunning river views as we made our way across although we did have to be careful of the trams which also used this level to whizz back and forth.

Once in Gaia, we took a walk along the river front from where there were beautiful views across to Porto with its colourful building facades.

Porto view from Gaia

Gaia is home to most of the region’s Port Houses and we had hoped to do a tour of one the cellars but we hadn’t thought to book in advance and with it being a busy weekend, everywhere was sold out.

Above, looking across to Porto from Gaia, and below, at Sandemans Port House

Instead, we popped into the foyer of Sandemans, one of the most famous Port Houses where there was a small museum which was free to look around before visiting its bar where we sat outside in its large courtyard area overlooking the river to purchase a glass of Port to sample for ourselves.

Crossing back to Porto along the lower level of Luis I Bridge, we walked to Clergios Church and Tower. The tower is visible from points across the city and for a fee, it is possible to climb a series of steps to the top to enjoy the views.

The joined churches of Carmo and Carmelitas

As we had been to the top of the Cathedral tower earlier that day, we decided against climbing this tower but the church was free to enter so we did have a quick look inside.

Not far from here was another church which had caught our attention on our walking tour, the Churches of Carmo and Carmelitas so we stopped by for a look in here as well.

The churches of Porto had all been so beautiful and this one didn’t disappoint either. Like many of the others we had visited, there was a small museum of church treasures to look around inside too.

Having eaten a large dinner in Gaia earlier that day, we decided to visit Majestic Cafe that evening for a smaller bite to eat. Not too far from our hotel, on Rua Santa Catarina, this cafe is said to be one of the most beautiful in the World with its decor reminiscent of Parisian Cafes from the early 1900s. It is also one of the oldest cafes in the city.

Being a popular tourist attraction, the prices inside are not cheap with a tea and a slice of cake costing me as much as a full meal in many Porto restaurants but you’re paying for the experience of dining there as much as the food so as a one off, it was worth it.

I was sad to say goodbye to Porto the next day. Having no expectations of the city before my visit, I was more than impressed by what I found and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a city break.

The Greek Cyclades – Exploring Central Crete

After 2 weeks, we were nearing the end of our first ever trip to Greece. Wanting to see as much as possible of this beautiful and history-filled country, we’d certainly packed a lot in. Starting in the Sporades Islands where we’d made flying visits to both Skiathos and Skopelos, we’d then spent 3 days exploring the fascinating city of Athens, sailed to the Saronic Islands and then moved on to the Cyclades making stops on Naxos, Iraklia, Koufonissi and Santorini.

Aposelimi Dam

Now on our final island destination, Crete – the largest of the Greek Islands – we had already made trips out to Chania and Rethymnom in the West and to Agios Nikolaus, Elounda and Spinalonga Island to the East of our base in the city of Heraklion. Today, we would be heading inland to Crete’s Lassithi Plateau.

Another escorted tour but this time with a difference – instead of boarding a huge coach, we would be travelling in a small group on a Jeep Safari with Crete’s Safari Club company.

Ancient Aquaduct

Meeting our guide outside our city apartments, we were once again driven out to the resorts to the east of us stopping to pick up two couples staying in the pretty resort of Analipsi. We’d be just a small group of 6 as another couple had cancelled last minute and with room in the jeep already quite sparse, we were quite glad about this!

Our guide outlined the day explaining that we’d regularly swap seats between the front and back of the jeep throughout the day to make it fair before we began our adventure.

After stopping at a viewpoint overlooking Aposelimi Dam and watching huge vultures circling overhead, we began to make our ascent upwards.

Views over Crete

Pulling over again, our guide pointed out the remnants of an ancient Roman aquaduct before we continued our climb to the traditional village of Kastamonitsa. Here, we learnt how laundry would have been done in ancient times before visiting a local cafe to sample olive oil and raki – a rather potent alcoholic beverage.

Above, the view as we made our way up the mountain, and below, visiting a goat farm

Despite it being way too early in the morning and despite not really being much of a drinker, I felt obliged to knock back the shot to accept the host’s hospitality but one was definitely enough!!

Back in the land rover and now sat up the back after a seat switch, we continued our climb driving up narrow roads with a sheer drop on the one side. This made for some spectacular views.

Our destination, at the top of the mountain, was an alpine goat farm and as we parked up and jumped out of the jeep, we were met by some friendly goats wanting to say hello! As well as greeting the goats, we learnt a bit about the farm and after seeing some of the home-made wheels of cheese produced on the farm, we got to sample some. We were even offered some more raki to wash it down with which, this time, I politely declined!

Leaving the farm, we continued along some of the ancient Minoan Trail and began our descent back down the mountain, stopping again to take in the views and get some photos.

Reaching the Lassithi Plateau, our next stop was at Vidiani Monastery where we had a bit of time to visit the 19th century church. Next up was our lunch stop and we were taken to a local restaurant where a buffet style lunch was served giving us time to chat with the rest of the group and swap stories of our time in Greece and on the island of Crete so far.

After lunch, we made our way to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Lassithi Plateau, the Cave of Diktaion Andron, also referred to as the Psychro Cave or Cave of Zeus as legend has it that this was the cave where Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek gods, was born.

Above, views over Lassithi Plateau from the entrance to the Cave of Zeus, and below, inside the cave.

After hearing the rather grisly story of his birth, we were dropped in the car park for the cave from where we had to climb a steep, uneven path to the cave’s entrance. After paying a small entrance fee, we headed down the steps into the dark cave, following a well lit path to look around before walking back downhill to our awaiting guide and land rover.

Birds in the fields of the Lassithi Plateau

The day now almost at an end, we drove through the Lassithi Plateau past farms and fields and even some old Greek windmills before reaching our final stop of the day in the town of Krasi.

Here, as well as finding yet another ancient laundry, we saw the oldest Plain Tree on the island, thought to have stood there for almost 2500 years.

Another ancient laundry

After taking photos with and of the tree, it was back into the land rover one last time as we were taken back to our various resorts.

The day had been really fun and it was interesting to see another side of Crete away from it’s resorts and Venetian port cities and towns.

Once back in Heraklion, we made our now daily trek into the main town finding a local restaurant to have dinner at followed by an ice cream and a wander down to the sea front as the sun started to set.

The following day, we would be flying out of Crete – and Greece – and returning to the UK but as our flights weren’t until late evening, we had the day free to explore more in the local area.

Above, and below, visiting the Archaeological site of the Palace of Knossos

We began our day with a walk to the local bus station where we caught the bus out to the Palace of Knossos. After reading advice on line, we had pre-booked tickets into the site and after seeing the huge line at the entrance, were glad we had. The Palace of Knossos is famous for it’s links to Greek mythology as beneath it, is where the labyrinth containing the Minotaur is said to have been.

The site was discovered in the late 19th century and excavated in the early 20th century. Unlike other archaeological sites we’d seen while in Greece, parts of the palace had been restored to show what they could have looked like in ancient Minoan times. We actually felt this took away from the site a bit although at the same time, it was interesting to see how it would have been. We were surprised at how busy the site was and it reminded us of our visit to the Acropolis in Athens a week or so before.

Despite booking an early timeslot, we had to queue to see some of the indoor areas and often had long waits to get the front of a viewing platform to see some of the ruins which spoilt our visit a bit. A late afternoon or early evening visit might have been a quieter time to go if we had had the time to fit it in then.

Artefacts at Heraklion Archaeological Museum

We had booked a combo ticket for the Palace of Knossos which also included entrance to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum so after leaving the Palace of Knossos, we caught the bus back into Heraklion city. The museum contains many of the artefacts found during excavations of the Palace of Knossos and gives a bit more background to the site so it’s definitely worth visiting both.

There were also plenty of other relics from archaeological sites around Crete including some from the Cave of Zeus we had visited the previous day.

Above, and below, exploring Heraklion

We still had some time left before needing to make our way to the airport that evening so following our visit to the museum, we spent some time walking through the streets of Heraklion city, stopping for some lunch at one of the many cafes tucked away down its backstreets, souvenir shopping at its markets and admiring its fountains and churches.

Above, Rocca a Mare Fortress, and below, wandering along the Venetian harbour of Heraklion

Our stay in Heraklion wouldn’t be complete without a walk to its Venetian Harbour so before making our way to the airport, we battled the howling wind to walk along the sea wall to Rocca a Mare Fortress and back.

Then, it was time to say goodbye to Heraklion, the island of Crete and Greece itself as our summer adventure came to an end. We had packed a lot into our 2-and-a-bit weeks in this amazing country but there is still so much to see and I hope to return one day.

The Greek Cyclades – East Crete and Spinalonga Island

The lake at Agios Nikolaus

We were coming to an end of our 2-and-a-bit weeks exploring Greece. But after island hopping in the Sporades, visiting archaeological sites aplenty in Athens, a day in the Saronic Gulf, enjoying the beautiful islands of Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi, hiking around Santorini and a day spent on the West coast of Crete, we still had much to pack in.

With a few more nights left on our final destination, the largest of the Greek islands, Crete, we would today be heading to the east of the island on another organised excursion on which we would eventually get the chance to explore the former leper colony of Spinalonga Island.

The town’s seafront

Our island base in the city of Heraklion was the first pick up of the day for the trip meaning a rather early start followed by a long morning sat on board the coach as we picked up passengers from the many popular coastal resorts east of us – multiple stops at hotels in the resorts of Gouves, Analipsi, Heronissos and, of course, Malia.

Having never been to Crete before, this did at least give me chance to size up the different towns and resorts and see which I might consider should I return to Crete for a more relaxing break one day!

Pick ups done and our tour guide for the day on board the coach, we finally got on our way towards out first stop of the day, the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaus. Along the way our guide explained that the coastal town’s main attraction was its lake which is now joined to the sea via a canal and that the bridge spanning the canal is the most photographed place in town.

The bridge across the canal connecting the lake to the sea

Having not had anything except a small bowl of cereal for breakfast hours and hours ago, we were rather hungry by the time we arrived so after being dropped by the small port, we spent the first part of our free time in the town looking for a cafe or bakery to grab a pastry or sweet snack from.

Mission accomplished, we made our way to the pretty lake where we sat eating our pastries before walking back towards the seafront.

The canal connecting the lake to the sea

After walking along the seafront, we returned to the port and taking photos with the canal bridge before wandering through the town eventually finding ourselves at a small but popular pebbly cove.

Then, taking photos with a couple of unusual sculptures which our tour guide had pointed out to us on the way in, we made our way back to the coach.

Above, and below, in the town of Elounda

Next up was the town of Elounda from where we would later be taking the boat to Spinalonga Island. First though, some free time to get some lunch. We chose a small cafe overlooking the front offering reasonably priced sandwiches and toasties and opted to sit inside to take advantage of some aircon for a bit.

After lunch, we had a quick walk around town before meeting back up with our guide and the rest of the group in time to make our boat’s departure time.

It was a short trip across the sea to Spinalonga Island, our guide giving us some background information along the way and I was surprised to learn just how recently it had been an active leper colony – the last inhabitant not leaving the island until 1962.

After docking at the island, we joined the short queue to buy entrance tickets and, at the advice of our guide, made our way around in a clockwise direction. While there were some information boards along the way round, we felt there could have been more along with a suggested route as there were a few paths leading off the main one up to view points and other buildings along the way.

On Spinalonga Island

We chose to stay on the main path to ensure we’d complete the full loop in the hour time frame we had before needing to be back on the boat but as this turned out to be more than enough time, we then used our tickets to re-enter and take some of the paths to see other parts of the island.

It was definitely an interesting place to visit and a bit different from the ancient archaeological sites we’d mainly seen on our trip to Greece.

On our way back to Elounda, our boat docked out at sea for anyone who wanted to do a spot of open sea swimming. Luckily, I’d remembered my swim suit so took a quick dip to cool off.

Once back in Elounda, we were given a bit of time to get any refreshments we needed for the trip back then it was back on the coach to once again drive through the various resorts dropping off passengers until we finally reached Heraklion again.

We spent the evening again wandering up into town for dinner followed by a walk along the main shopping street looking for souvenirs and an ice cream from one of the many delicious-looking dessert stores in town.

Tomorrow would be our last full day of our holiday and we had yet another excursion planned, this time into the centre of the island on a jeep safari and then with late flights home meaning we’ had most of the following day to spend have most of the day to spare, we planned to spend the following day in Heraklion and the surrounding area exploring a bit more.

The Greek Cyclades – West Crete

It had been a busy (almost) two weeks travelling through Greece, starting with a couple of nights in the Sporades followed by a city break in Athens, a day sailing between three of the Saronic Islands, beginning our visit to the Cyclades with some time in Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi and then onto Santorini. Now, after yet a rather chaotic ferry experience, we were heading to our final island base, the largest of the Cyclades – Crete.

Arriving into the port of Heraklion quite a few hours later than planned due to ferry delays, we made the short walk to our city apartment block which would be our island base for the next 4 nights. With darkness already descending outside, we walked into the town centre to grab something to eat from a Greek fast food-style restaurant before returning for a quiet night in.

Wanting to see as much of Crete as possible, we had chosen Heraklion due to its central position on the north coast of Crete and had made plans to take excursions to different parts of the island from here over the next few days.

Fountain in the main square of Chania

First up was a trip to West Crete. We were met by a company representative at a pick up point close to our accommodation the next morning and driven to a main road where we joined a coach load of people already on board.

The old Mosque in Chania

Being the most westerly pick up point that day meant we were last on – the positive of that being we hadn’t had to get up too early and hadn’t spent hours sat on board making stop after stop picking up more passengers, the negative that it was a full coach and the last few seats were at opposite ends of the bus from each other.

Taking the last seat in the middle of the very back seat between two sets of strangers wasn’t ideal, especially as it seemed they’d been some of the first to board and had therefore been up since the early hours. Unable to keep there eyes open, I found my shoulders regularly becoming cushions for them to rest upon!

Walking along the sea front in Chania

It was still a couple of hours drive from Heraklion to our first stop in the city of Chania. The journey was broken up with a convenience stop at a roadside cafe and our guide kept us entertained with an informative commentary as we travelled.

Once in Chania, we were given a decent amount of free time to explore although it was lunch time and when we factored in finding somewhere to eat, this did drain into our time to explore quite a bit.

Above, and below, views strolling along the sea wall in Chania

From the coach park, we made our way through the pretty narrow streets at the back of the town and then out to the main square where a former Mosque (now used as an exhibition space) stood right on the water’s edge. We made our way around the sea wall out towards Chania lighthouse in the distance, from where there were impressive views of Chania’s beautiful Venetian harbour.

Back on the main seafront in Chnaia

This turned out to be a longer walk than we’d anticipated forcing us to turn back just before reaching the lighthouse itself and make our way back to the seafront. Lined with shops an restaurants, the promenade was bustling with seas of tourists enjoying the sunshine and pretty views.

We chose one of the many restaurant cafes to sit out at and ordered some toasties and drinks and then it was time to walk back towards the Venetian fortress which was our maker for finding the coach again.

Above, and below, Lake Kournas

An hour later we reached the second stop of the day, Lake Kournas. For those who could hold out for food, our guide had recommended eating here at one of the restaurants with a rooftop patio overlooking the lake but apart from hunger, we had had another reason for wanting to eat in Chania – we wanted to hire a pedalo during our free time at the lake!!

Strolling along the shore at Lake Kournas

This was a really pretty spot with the bright blue water of the lake surrounded by mountains.

Not wanting to hire the boats for the full hour being advertised, we took our guide’s advice to haggle with the vendors for a deal on a shorter amount of time and we soon found ourselves clambering into a pedal-powered boat and setting off for the middle of the lake.

As well as being a lot of fun, this was a great way to get some beautiful views of the lakeshore.

Once back on dry land, we wandered along the shore, looked in some of the souvenir stores and grabbed an ice cream from one of the cafes before it was time to board the coach again.

The Venetian Port of Rethymnom

It was just half an hour to our final stop of the day, another town with a Venetian port, Rethymnom. Here, we again wandered through pretty back streets past shops, restaurants and cafes and out onto the seafront with its Venetian-style harbour.

Whether it was because it was early evening – and therefore quieter – or not, but I liked Rethymnom more than Chania as it felt less touristy. We spent the last few minutes enjoying the atmosphere around the pretty harbour before boarding the coach one last time.

Above, and below, enjoying the views in Rethymnom

As we were last pick up that day, we were first drop off at the end. Instead of being dropped back in Heraklion itself, we once again found ourselves at the side of a busy main road where we were met by a driver to take us back into town.

The day had finished slightly earlier than we’d expected giving us plenty of time to walk up to the main square in Heraklion where we found an Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner before returning to our apartment.

The next day, we would be heading east on the island of Crete and this time, being first pick up of the day, it’d be an early start…

The Greek Cyclades – Santorini

The view looking south over Santorini from Fira

Santorini was the island in the Cyclades that I’d heard most about and I was really looking forward to visiting. We were now over half way through the island-hopping trip to Greece we had planned having already visited islands in the Sporades and spent some time in the capital city of Athens – taking a day to island hop in the Saronic Gulf while we were there. We had now just completed a stay on the island of Naxos which had been my favourite location we’d spent time in so far and were boarding a ferry from here to Santorini.

Views from Fira

The ferry was much larger than the one we’d taken from Athens to Naxos and this time, there were no set seats, we could sit anywhere in the economy area. With a lot more options for food – multiple cafes and a fast food burger restaurant, we spent most of our time on board trying to decide what to get for a snack.

Once we’d arrived at the main ferry port in Santorini, we quickly found our pre-arranged transfer to our hotel which was just down a (rather steep) hill from the town of Fira. All checked in, we made our way into town having to stop multiple times to get our breath back as we climbed one hill after another in the blistering heat!

Not really knowing exactly where we were going, we wandered along the streets deciding to just see what we’d find. And what we found were people and plenty of them! The streets were crowded making it difficult to pass through many of the narrower streets or get near any of the stores – not that that really mattered as many of them were touristy souvenir stores all selling the same thing at slightly differing prices.

View of the Fira cable cars from the steps down to the old port

As one of the streets lead us out to a view point, we could see one of the reasons for the number of people around – three large cruise ships were docked near the island. After the peace and quiet of Naxos, it was a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves fighting for space on Santorini and it didn’t endear me to the town of Fira at all.

Still, the views from the lookout points were pretty and we had plenty planned to see more of the island over the next few days so I was sure my opinion would change over time.

Arriving on the island of Nea Kameni

After a disappointing dinner – a pizza that tasted like the kind you buy frozen at a supermarket – we returned to our hotel to spend the last hour of sunshine cooling down in the pool followed by a relaxing night in ready for the next day.

We were up bright and early the next morning to ensure we had time to grab some breakfast in town before walking to the old port. Deciding McDonalds might be a safe bet, we were surprised to find it didn’t have any breakfast options instead selling burgers and fries even at 8am! Luckily, we came across a bakery nearby where we found plenty of bread and pastry options.

After gobbling these down, we began our descent down the clifftop town of Fira to the old port, navigating almost 600 steps and trying to avoid the hoards of poor donkeys and mules carrying tourists back up. It took a long time to make it all the way down and I was thankful that there was a cable car option to bring us back up to the town at the end of the day!

Volcanic landscape

At the old port, we met our tour guide for the day and boarded our pirate-style boat which would be taking us out to the nearby ‘caldera’ – Santorini’s volcano on the island of Nea Kameni.

It didn’t take very long to sail there and once we were docked alongside the many other boats also taking trips there, we had some free time to make our way to the top of the island, enjoy the views, see some volcanic activity and make our way back down again.

The hotsprings of Palea island in the distance

The walk to the top of the island, which is made completely of black lava, was easier than we had expected and the views of the volcanic landscape, the crater at the top and out across the sea from the island really were beautiful.

On the way, we could see steam rising from the ground due to the volcanic activity still going on there.

Back on the boat, our guide gave us a bit more information about the island as we made our way to the second stop of the day, the island of Palea. We wouldn’t actually be stopping on the island itself, instead, the boat docked a short distance out from where we could see the waters change to a rusty orange colour where the islands’ hot springs were. We had the chance to swim out from the boat to the hot springs – an opportunity I jumped at although, not literally, as many people decided to jump into the sea from the side of the boat, I chose to climb down a ladder into the water! ‘Noodle’ float aids were supplied to anyone who wanted them.

Looking out from the steps up to Thirassia town

It was an easy swim out to the hot springs and the water did feel noticeably warmer once I reached them. As I was one of the last off the boat, by the time I reached the hot springs, it was almost time to swim back again.

This was a lot more difficult as we were swimming again the current and I was relieved when I finally managed to grab the ladder off the side of the boat and begin my climb back aboard!

It didn’t take long to dry out in the warm sun and breeze as we set sail for our final stop of the day, the island of Thirassia. Here, we had more free time to spend. The main town was at the top of a cliff up a steep zig-zagging path similar to that in Fira on Santorini island but there were plenty of restaurants – both sit-down and fast food places – in the port area for anyone that didn’t want the trek up. Having found somewhere to purchase drinks and sat by the sea to eat the picnic lunch we had brought with us, we decided we didn’t have the time or inclination to walk up to town so after climbing the first section of stairs to take some photos of the view, we made our way back down to the port again grabbing an ice cream and walking along the coast a bit until it was time to board the boat again.

Enjoying the view from the cable car

Although we had no more stops to make, the day was not over yet as we took the scenic route back to Santorini sailing up to the town on Oia at the north of the island and making our way down the east coast of the island back to Fira enjoying the views of the white-washed houses and blue-domed churches on the cliffs above.

Once back on dry land, we took the cable car back up to Fira town and had a much more enjoyable meal – chicken souvlaki – at another one of the restaurants in town before returning to our hotel for another late evening dip in the pool.

For our final full day in Santorini, we had a coastal walk from Fira to Oia planned.

Above, the town of Imerovigli, and below, more views on the coastal walk from Fira To Oia

Heading into town, we quickly picked up the coastal path and began the 10km-or-so walk. Despite the 30-something degree heat, the beautiful views, especially in the town of Imerovigli with its white-washed hotels and houses built into the cliffs, kept us going and made some of the more brutal hills worthwhile in the end!

A well-deserved treat in Oia

When we reached Oia, almost 6 hours later, we were exhausted and decided to treat ourselves to a sweet treat of crepes covered in hazelnut sauce and with a dollop of ice cream from a local cafe.

Feet rested and fuelled up on sugar, we then spent some time exploring Oia.

With its mainly wider streets and white footpaths and buildings, first impressions of Oia were a lot more favourable than Fira. It was busy but didn’t feel quite as crowded. We found a viewpoint for its famous three blue-domes churches and grabbed photos, saw the castle from a distance and walked to some windmills too. We had originally planned to stay in Oia until sunset but had read that it got ridiculously busy around this time of day and could be extremely difficult to get a bus back to Fira at the end of the night. So instead, we decided to catch the bus back to Fira late afternoon, grab dinner there then watch the sunset from somewhere along the coast path near there.

The buses were already busy, even in the middle of the afternoon but we managed to get a seat on the second one that came along and were soon back in Fira. After dinner in Fira’s main square, we took a stroll to one of the many viewpoints over the coast to watch the sunset.

Exploring ancient ruins at Akrotiri

The next day we would be taking a ferry to our final island stop of Crete but as our ferry wasn’t scheduled until 4pm, we still had plenty of time that morning for some sightseeing. We had decided to use public transport to head to the south of the island and see the archaeological site at Akrotiri.

Having arrived back to chaotic scene at Fira bus station the night before, we should have been prepared for what would await us this morning. The bus station was more like a large car park with buses coming and going while people stood around here there and everywhere, walking out behind reversing buses and in front of buses about to pull away not knowing where they should be going. None of the bays were labelled and none of the buses or routes seemed to be numbered. Instead, whenever a bus pulled up and parked, the driver would just yell out its destination and there be a mad scramble to get on before all the seats went!

Despite the chaos and disorganisation surrounding us, we somehow managed to board the bus to Akrotiri. Once there we took the short walk to the archaeological site and spent some time exploring the ancient ruins.

The seafront at Akrotiri

While interesting to see, the museum didn’t take us very long to go round. It is possible to take taxi boats out from the small, pebbly beach at Akrotiri to visit Red Beach and White Beach, two popular Santorini attractions but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time if we were going to make our ferry to Crete.

After my initial reservations, the island of Santorini definitely grew on me. It’s certainly very beautiful but I feel tourism has spoilt it slightly and the complete contrast to the slower paced Naxos island we had just come from made the busy, crowded streets of Fira a shock to the system at first. If I was to return I think I’d consider choosing a different part of the island than Fira to stay in and would definitely choose a quieter time of the year than the middle of August to visit! But there was plenty to enjoy and I was glad to have finally ticked it off my list of places to go!

The Greek Cyclades – Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi

On the ferry to Naxos island

Stop number 3 on our 16-day vacation to Greece was the island of Naxos in the popular Cyclades island group. It was an island I hadn’t even heard of before starting to plan this trip but one I was looking forward to visiting after reading lots of positive things about it.

Our lovely guesthouse in Naxos

Having started our Greek adventure in the Sporades Islands, we were currently in Athens and after a long daytrip sailing to three of the Saronic Islands yesterday, we were now on our way to another marina, or rather, the city’s main ferry port, Piraeus to board the first of three passenger ferries we’d be taking this trip.

Church in old Naxos town

The journey to the ferry port was pretty straight forward, taking just one metro line from near our hotel all the way to the Piraeus stop. Arriving in plenty of time, we grabbed breakfast from a cafe near the station before setting off to find our ferry.

This was a little less straightforward, the information on our ticket not being enough to identify our boat from all of those docked nearby. Eventually, we found someone to ask who pointed us in the right direction and find that point forward, we boarded without problems, a staff member helping us to load our luggage in the correct compartment for our port of call.

The remains of a Venetian Castle in Naxos town

Finding our seats – like on a plane, we’d all been allocated seat numbers! – we settled down ready for the journey only to find ourselves in the middle of chaotic scenes as other couples, groups of friends and even families with young children found they hadn’t been allocated seats together.

What ensued was like a game of musical chairs crossed with a jigsaw puzzle as we all tried to move around to accommodate those that had been separated. Realising it was a bit of an impossible task, we at were at least able to make sure that the young children were as close to their parents as possible.

The ferry ride was not what I had expected. I thought we’d be able to freely road the boat and that there’d be an outside deck we could maybe stand on if we wanted similar to when I’d used the ferries between the Scottish islands. Instead, we were encouraged to mainly stay in our seats – at one point told not to move around the boat at all as we hit rough seas – and while we could walk from one end of the boat to the other to visit the shop or cafes on board, many areas were out of bounds.

The sun starts to set with the Temple of Apollo on the hill in the distance

Naxos was the second stop after the island of Poros. The rough seas had delayed our arrival time by about an hour but upon arrival, we were still met by the owner of the guesthouse we’d be staying at who had offered us free transfers from the port.

We were actually staying within walking distance from the port but with it being on a slight uphill gradient to the guesthouse and as we were armed with our luggage, we appreciated being transported the short journey.

Walking back to town after watching the sunset

Once settled in and armed with the maps and information given to us by the guesthouse owners, we set out to start exploring. We followed the instructions given us to walk to the elevator which would take us up the hill to the old Venetian Castle at the top of Naxos old town.

The elevator actually led to the Archaeological Museum of Naxos – which was unfortunately closed during our visit – or to a rooftop cafe bar with pretty views over the island. Despite us not purchasing anything from the bar, no one seemed to mind us and other visitors stopping to take a few photos before we made our way out via the museum shop to the narrow paths old the old town.

Artefacts in the small museum for the Temple of Demeter

Unsure exactly where we were, we wandered through the pretty, winding streets, up and down steps and along narrow alleyways passing churches, guesthouses and galleries along the way. Being high up, we could often see views of the sea or the port so just kept turning in that direction and going downhill until we eventually reached the main street running along the sea front.

After stopping for an ice cream from one of the many cafes and restaurants lining the front, we decided to walk away from the main port following the coast path and we eventually found ourselves at the busy Agios Georgios beach. Stopping to rest for a while, we then retraced our steps back into town and followed the road from the port around the hilly old town back to our guesthouse to cool down in the air con for a bit.

That evening, we walked back into town choosing one of the many restaurants along the front for dinner and both ordering a delicious chicken souvlaki meal. Then we took a walk up to the Temple of Apollo, ancient ruins stood on a hill along the coast and a popular spot for seeing the sunset. While it was already busy when we arrived, we managed to find a spot to sit just before more crowds of people made their way up there. It really was a beautiful sunset and a beautiful spot to watch it from!

The next day, we had booked a rather reasonable day tour of the highlights of Naxos island. Meeting our coach by the ferry port, we set off for our first stop, the Temple of Demeter where we had a bit of free time to see the ruins and explore the small museum.

Next stop was out in the countryside in the small town of Damalas where we visited a small pottery store to see a traditional Naxos ceramic wine decanter being made and then stopped by a small museum to see a traditional olive press as our guide explained the process that would have been used to make olive oil.

Above, Monastery Panagia Drossiani, and below, exploring the marble town of Apeiranthos

After stopping at the beautiful church of the Monastery Panagia Drossiani, we were taken to the pretty town of Chalkio where we visited a distillery and had the opportunity to try citron liquor.

A ‘coffee stop’ in the village of Apeiranthos was next. Apeiranthos is known as the ‘marble village’ as most of the buildings and roads here were built out of marble. We spent the free time we had here wandering through the narrow streets and stopping for ice cream to keep us going until lunch.

The seaside resort of Apollon

The final two stops of the day were in Apollon, a seaside resort on the North-East coast of the island. First we stopped in the town itself where we chose one of the seafront cafes to sit and have lunch before taking a stroll through the town and along the popular beach.

Apollon Kouros

Then we stopped up the hill just outside the of the town to visit Apollonas Kouros, a huge, ancient statue which still lies flat on the ground having never been moved to where it may have been intended to end up!

Our tour ended with a drive along the scenic coast road back to Naxos town and after dinner at another of the seafront restaurants, we walked back to our guesthouse exhausted.

Arriving on the island of Iraklia

For our final full day on Naxos island, we had actually booked a trip to the nearby islands of Delos and Mykonos, Delos because it was home of another archaeological site we wanted to visit and Mykonos because while we felt we shouldn’t come to the Cyclades without visiting, an afternoon there would be more than long enough.

Above, and below, a blue-domes church on the island of Iraklia

Making our way down to the pier where our boat would depart from, we were confused to see it about to depart 45 minutes before the time we had been told. Racing down the jetty, we spoke with the crew who told us the trip we had been booked on had been cancelled ‘weeks ago’.

As we had had confirmation from the tour company with instructions on how to find the boat within the last 24 hours, this seemed strange to us but the crew told us it was nothing to do with them and we’d need to speak to the operator to sort it out.

Above, and below, on the beach at Iraklia

Googling the tour company’s name, we found it had a branch along the seafront in Naxos so walked the short distance there to explain to the assistant what had happened. It turned out the boat to Delos had been cancelled the day before and we just hadn’t been informed. The assistant looked into other options for us but it was impossible to get to Delos or Mykonos that day and back and still have enough time there.

Seeing we were at a bit of a loss with how to spend our day, instead, she suggested a boat trip out to the islands of Iraklia and Koufonissi.

Above, arriving on the island of Koufonissi, and below, lunch with a view

While many of the day trips had already left for the day, this one was yet to depart and we’d still have time to make the boat. So, unsure where we were really going or what there was to do there but needing something to do, we exchanged our tickets and made our way back to the jetty to board our new boat!

Above, the clear sea of Koufonissi, and below, walking along the coast

With everyone on board the boat in their swimwear, we had a feeling there wouldn’t be a huge amount to do to keep us occupied at either island and we were completely unprepared for a beach day ourselves having expected to be exploring the ruins of Delos that morning.

Arriving onto the island of Iraklia, we decided to walk up a rather steep hill to a viewpoint that was marked on google maps then returned back into the small town and wandered towards a blue-domed church we had spotted before returning towards the sea front, stopping to buy a drink to cool us down. We spent the last half hour of our time there sat in the shade at the back of the pretty beach until it was time to make our way back to board the boat. Iraklia seemed a lovely quiet spot to spend a relaxing holiday away from it all or a few hours on the beach and we wished we’d been more prepared to enjoy it a bit more.

Beautiful Koufinissi

Pulling up at the larger island of Koufonissi, we could see the large sandy beach in front of us but were hopeful that there’d be more to do in the town here to occupy us, starting with finding a spot of lunch.

Heading inland, we soon settled on a pretty cafe-restaurant sat up on a hill with a patio offering beautiful views over the bay and ordered sandwiches and drinks before wandering through the quiet streets past shops, galleries and more pretty blue-domed churches.

View of the marina

Leaving the town behind, we then walked down to the beach and followed the coast path past some rocky coves where we sat paddling our feet before continuing on to another beach further along the coast. The walk offered some really pretty views.

Returning back to the town, we had another walk around and up to another viewpoint before it was time to return to board the boat back to Naxos. Koufonissi was another really beautiful island and another place you could spend a really relaxing holiday getting away from it all.

Arriving back in Naxos late evening, we again ate dinner at one of the restaurants along the front before returning to our accommodation ready to pack to leave the next day.

With our ferry being early afternoon, we had the morning to spend in Naxos town. The owners of the guesthouse we were staying in very generously offered to look after our luggage and to meet us down at the ferry port with it later meaning that we could stay in town all morning and walk straight to the port without having to return to our accommodation to pick anything up. We spent the morning again wandering through the old town, getting lost in its narrow alleyways knowing that eventually all roads lead back to either the old Venetian castle walls or the seafront. Then after lunch at a cafe overlooking the seafront, we made our way to the main port to pick up our luggage and board our ferry to Santorini.

I’d really loved Naxos Island with its relaxed vibe, friendly locals and authentic feel and would definitely like to return there one day in the future.

A day trip to the Saronic Islands of Greece

Having never visited Greece before, I was eager to see as much of it as possible. Beginning our (mainly) island-hopping adventure in the Sporades islands and finishing in the Cyclades, we were currently at the end of 4 days in the country’s capital city, Athens, and having spent the last few days fitting in as much sight-seeing and archaeological sites as possible, we decided to spend our final day based there on day trip out to some of the nearby Saronic Islands.

Off to sea!

We had found an organised tour including hotel pick-up, transfers to the marina and lunch which would visit the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina all over the course of one day – a rather long day in which, being one of the first pick-ups, we had to be up at the crack of dawn to meet our coach transfer and were then not back til late evening.

Our coach was pretty much on time and having handed over our prepaid voucher, we settled in for the journey around Athens and its outskirts picking up more groups and individuals before dropping us at marina where we – and coach loads of other tourists – boarded a rather large boat!

Above, Kavos Castle on the island of Hydra, and below, views from and of the castle

By the time we were on board, space on the deck was running short but we freed a couple of chairs from a stack lying around and squeezed them in to a spot in the shade before settling sown ready to depart.

Donkeys and mules on the carless island of Hydra

The excursion was one of the most expensive daytrips we had planned while in Greece but what we hadn’t expected were the attempts to constantly upsell us. First, was the option to upgrade for access to a ‘VIP area’ – a quieter outdoor area and a more luxurious interior area.

Then, not long after departing Athens, we were all called, by the language we spoke, to a meeting in a downstairs room where we were told the day would be outlined and we’d find out the lunch arrangements. This was actually just a brief part of the meeting and could have been explained over the tannoy system. The main point of the meeting was to try and sell us a variety of on shore excursions including an over priced walking tour on Hydra and multiple, similarly overpriced options for the island of Aegina.

Having read that there was little to do around the port of Aegina where we’d be docking, we reluctantly parted with 25 euros each for a ‘scenic’ coach tour of the island, the other options being a visit to an ancient temple (we felt we needed a rest from ancient ruins) or a boat trip out to another nearby island for some beach and swimming time (we didn’t have any swimwear with us).

Meeting over, we headed back to the top deck where luckily, our seats still sat unoccupied and spent the next hour or so relaxing and admiring the scenery en route to Hydra.

Docking at Hydra, we planned to spend our hour or so there just wandering around and seeing what we’d find. We began by walking to Kavos Castle, a fortress and viewpoint on the sea front, before retracing our steps and walking along the seafront towards its clock tower, grabbing an ice cream from one of the many cafes. We then turned up one of the narrow side streets and wandered up steep steps, through winding passageways and up hills exploring.

At a viewpoint over Hydra

Hydra is a car free island and donkeys are used by the locals to transport good around the town. As we wandered, we passed donkeys carrying goods up to local stores as well as luggage belonging to tourists staying in town. We ended up at a viewpoint over the island and after admiring the scenery, made our way back down to the seafront and marina ready to board the boat in time to depart for Poros.

Back at the marina on the island of Hydra

Before arriving at Poros, it was lunch time. As we boarded the boat in Hydra, we were all given coloured cards indicating where on the boat we needed to go for dinner. Finding the correct room, we managed to grab a couple of seats together at a table and jump in the queue for the buffet. There was bread and a choice of fish, chicken, pasta and rice available, all of which was served to you rather than you being able to help yourself to as much as you wanted. You could then collect a sticky pastry-type dessert on the way back to your tables. Drinks were at your own expense. While what we had was enough, we felt there could have been a bit more choice.

Above, arriving into the island of Poros, and below, a quick stroll on the island

After lunch, we headed back to the top deck where we sat out in the sunshine as we sailed closer to the island of Poros. Poros was to be the shortest island stop of the day so there were no pricey excusrions on offer. We had been told there would be time to wither wander along the seafront or to head uphill to a viewpoint.

In desperate need of something to cool us down, we walked along the seafront buying an ice cream each by which time it was about time to be back on board the boat.

Our final island stop of the day was on Aegina where we had booked the scenic tour of the island. Disembarking the boat, we followed guides to a coach and we soon took off on a clockwise route around the island.

Above, pecan trees out of the coach window, and below, other ‘sights’ on our scenic tour of the island of Aegina

As we would our way along the coast, the driver started to narrate what we were looking at but not stopping and not always finding ourselves on the right side of the bus, it wasn’t always easy to see what we were supposed to be looking at and more often than not it wasn’t anything particularly interesting anyway – houses in residential areas are hardly must see tourist spots!

Views over Aegina

As we headed inland and uphill, the views did at least get prettier and the coach pulled over for a brief moment so we could take pictures from the car park the hill top. Shortly after, the coach pulled in at the car park for The Monastery of Agios Nektarios, a really beautiful church and religious monument of Aegina.

We were given time to go inside the church and look around before re-boarding the coach to complete our tour, driving back downhill towards the seafront and marina.

Stopping at the monastery on the island of Aegina

The coach dropped us in Aegina’s old town, a short walk from the marina where we were taken to a small, local restaurant to sample the seafood. From here, we made our own way back to the boat and with a bit of time to kill, we wandered a bit further through the pretty old town before returning to board the boat one last time.

The sun going down, it was another relaxing and slightly cooler trip back to Athens and we arrived just as the sun was about to set. Finding our coach in the marina car park, we had a long journey back to our hotel as we dropped off almost every other passenger before reaching our stop. It had been a long, but mainly enjoyable day and it had been nice to spend a bit of time in some of the Saronic Islands but the time in each place was often very rushed and I’m not sure the trip was completely worth the money.

If we were to plan it again, we’d maybe look into just doing a day trip out to Hydra ourselves using public transport to the marina and then the ferry there and back but at least doing it this way it was all completely organised for us and we got to see a few more places.

The following day we’d be leaving Athens some more island-hopping adventures, this time in the Cyclades where our first stop would be the island of Naxos!