Making the most of our 10 days in Greece was everything we needed it to be this summer. It’s been a big year: with me changing job, G becoming a teenager, M taking SATs and the move to having 2 children at secondary school; and we all appreciated the chance to escape from the day-to-day and spend some precious family time together relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. From the ancient monuments in Athens to the beauty of Syros, Greece was an amazing holiday destination and one place we would love to return to again.
It feels a little as if this is becoming a mini-series in itself: a list of the countries where we’ve successfully managed to find a safe way to eat out with food allergies with both children. In the last year, Mike and I have been impressed by the options we have found in both Italy and New York whilst travelling without the children and our summer in Portugal last year was a great success thanks to the freefrom choices we uncovered there. Our decision to venture to somewhere new this August meant we had to adopt our usual 3-prong approach to travelling with food allergies:
- Pack an extra suitcase with the bare minimum of everyday essentials that we will need to cater for both G and M in our self-catering accommodation;
- Relax the rules a little for M and allow him to enjoy the full Greek experience on occasion, whilst keeping him strictly to his restricted diet the rest of the time; and
- Be prepared by doing some research about restaurants in advance and be willing to explain at length numerous times just how restricted his diet is.
Our careful planning ahead meant that we were all able to eat 3 meals a day without too much stress and we achieved some great successes along the way. We had started a new approach to food trialling about 6 weeks before we travelled, whereby we chose 3 foods to challenge M with over a 3-month period and had strategically picked the ones we thought would be of most use whilst we were in Greece. This is the 3rd way of food-trialling we’ve tried over the last 12-18 months, all with the support of our local hospital, and whilst I still have my concerns about whether this really is the best approach to take, it did allow us more flexibility that we’ve had before. M decided he wanted to trial olives, prawns and bananas and these seemed a good fit with our Mediterranean break.
We found several highlights in Athens, including our perennial favourite, the Hard Rock Cafe, where we ventured on one of our more relaxed days to the topic of M’s restricted diet. He enjoyed every mouthful of his gluten-free burger and chips with great gusto and even though the increased dose of medicines we had agreed with his consultant before we went didn’t fully tamper down his body’s response, it was a real treat for us to see the delight on his face when faced with something a bit different to the varieties of chicken, rice and cucumber that he’s become accustomed to at home. The waiting staff worked hard to accommodate our additional requests around making sure the meals were also dairy-free and the vegetables added to the plate were restricted to just cucumber for both children as we had asked.
When you wander through the Plaka in Athens, you are surrounded by a huge array of small tavernas to choose from, ranging in price and, if I’m honest, authenticity. It was surprisingly easy to cater for M at nearly all of these and the ones we ended up eating at were delightfully keen to prove themselves to us. Every menu seemed to contain grilled chicken and rice and it was just a case of just how much of an accompaniment they were able to serve, with most preparing small salads of cucumber, apple and pear. G tended to play it safe and opted for the easy option of steak and chips – or sometimes steak and rice – though we did manage to convince her to try mouthfuls of our more authentic Greek dinners, which she reluctantly had to admit to enjoying despite herself and her preconceived ideas! One evening we even found a restaurant serving gluten-free pasta and G enjoyed a delicious spaghetti bolognaise, albeit in the wrong part of Europe.
We didn’t really eat out too much on Syros as we instead took advantage of the beautiful local produce that Nick had kindly sourced for our pantry at the Good Life and spent time preparing, cooking and enjoying simple meals at our villa. However, we did choose to eat some lunches at the beachside restaurants and this is where having olives and prawns as a menu option really came into its own as M indulged in some delicious meals including those tasty morsels, whilst munching on the Greek rice-cakes we had managed to buy in both Athens and Syros.
What better to do after a busy few days walking thousands of steps to explore all that Athens has to offer, than escape the city and head to one of the many Greek islands for a change of scenery and of pace? Mike and I were keen to avoid the busier tourist destinations such as Crete and Rhodes and M expressed a desire to visit a smaller island which still gave him and G plenty to do whilst we were there. Once again our choice was somewhat dictated by the decision to stay somewhere with self-catering facilities and a few hours of careful internet research led us to the idyllic island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades islands.
It is possible to fly to Syros from Athens, but we decided to take the more scenic travel option and something that would feel like more of a new experience to G and M. The last time we travelled by ferry was when we holidayed in Ireland about 8 years ago and M has no memories of that trip at all. This time we went as foot passengers, which would perhaps not suit those who prefer a more organised and less Greek approach to boarding than was offered, but it more than met our needs. I had taken the precaution of booking seats for both our outward and return journeys, which proved to have been a sensible decision as the Blue Star ferry was incredibly busy and filled to the gills with people making the 3.5 hour trip. M was, for some unknown reason, particularly delighted to find that I could have a coffee whilst we were sailing and insisted on taking the photo below for my blog to show that, for me, it apparently really is “all about the coffee”!
We were lucky to find, and be able to book, what turned out to be a truly spectacular villa for the duration of our stay on Syros. The Good Life Greece is located in Poseidonia on the west coast of the island, just a short drive away from the main port and island capital of Ermoupoli. Although we toyed with the idea of renting a car for part of our stay, we decided in the end to spend the week vehicle-free and instead arranged with our host, the charming Nick, that he would meet us at the port and take us, and all our luggage, to our final destination. There are just so many great things to say about the wonderful villa that became our Syros home that it would be impossible to do it the justice it deserves in just a few words, so my review of our accommodation will follow in a separate blog post.
However, what I can talk about are the peaceful beaches, glorious weather, incredibly blue sea and delicious food that filled the remainder of our holiday and really rejuvenated us all. We were able to walk to 2 nearby beaches at Voulgari and Finikas and one day hopped on the local bus to journey less than 15 minutes along the coast to another sandy gem at Megas Gialos. Having spent the last couple of summers near Alvor in Portugal, these Greek beaches were a complete revelation to us and one that I think might be hard to give up in the future. My favourite beach destination on the Algarve is the beautiful Burgau, which I love because it tends to not be too crowded and the distance between sun-lounger and sea just about allows me to watch G and M without having to venture in, and out, of the sea myself. The 3 Greek beaches we discovered on Syros were just like Burgau, but even better!
Not only were all 3 far closer to our villa than we imagined possible, but even in mid-August, there was always space for us to set up camp and find enough shade to shelter in during the hottest part of the day. No matter what time we arrived at the beach, from mid-morning to early evening, we almost always were able to find either one of the fixed sun umbrellas or a tree to set up camp under and even if that wasn’t immediately possible, a space would open up within the hour. This part of Syros was welcoming and friendly and so we felt perfectly comfortable leaving our belongings – though nothing more important than beach towels, sand toys and books – on the beach to save our spot whilst we disappeared off to the nearby taverna for some lunch or a cold drink or both.
For anyone thinking of a holiday in Greece, we would all highly recommend Syros as we had a fantastic time just relaxing and enjoying what was on offer. We chose to not spend too much time on the go as we felt we had done that in Athens, but both children were able to try their hands at paddle-boarding at our local beach and I understand sailing and windsurfing lessons are also available in the area. Syros really did feel like a home from home and we would go back in a heartbeat.
One of the most wonderful things about our Greek holiday was to experience the absolute delight of both G and M as we trekked our way around Athens, visiting those ancient sites that they both associate with the fantastic Greek myths that they love to read. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when we introduced the children to the Greek myths, but they both love to listen to the audio-book of “Atticus the Storyteller” and M has been known to spend hours at bedtime absorbed in re-reading his favourite tales. There are just so many places to go and sights to see in Athens that we had to carefully pick out those we wanted to visit during our limited time in the city.
You just can’t visit Athens and even consider not wending your way to the top of the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and other monuments. Climbing up in 34°+ heat is not easy, but the views from the top were definitely worth the effort, and all the water we drank. Mike’s must-see destination was the Acropolis museum and whilst neither children was initially that keen to go, the lure of the air-conditioned inside, the wide array of artefacts on display and the brimming bookshelves they discovered in the shop soon overcame their reluctance. Our hostel for the duration was less than 5 minutes walk away from the museum, which made it the ideal place to head back to for a much-needed late lunch and a little downtime after our busy morning.
As well as his yearning to find a city playground to spend time in, M chose to take us to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. We visited these incredible remains in the early evening and were fortunate that there were very few other visitors to the site whilst we were there. The remaining columns were simply awe-inspiring and we were fascinated to spot the individual pieces that were so carefully used to construct each column. The ancient engineering skills that created this spectacular monument left the children speechless as we contemplated just how the Greeks managed to build it in a time before modern machinery existed.
Poor G had to wait to the end of our holiday to get to her location of choice, but it was definitely worth the wait. She would have loved to go to see the Temple of Poseidon, but the 2 hour journey there was just too much for us to squeeze into our already time-pressured holiday schedule. Instead, G decided she wanted to see the Temple of Hephaestus and it proved to be a great choice for our last day in Greece. It is found in the ancient Agora, which has so many wonderful ruins to explore as well as the impressive temple itself. The Temple of Hephaestus is the most complete temple in Athens and gives just a small insight into what it must have been like to live in the city over 2 thousand years ago.
By the time our first 3 days in Athens drew to an end, we were all ready to embark on the next part of our Greek adventures, which began with yet another early morning start, a cross-city taxi journey to the port and a passenger ferry trip to the beautiful Greek island that would be home for the next few days.
It could appear that I’ve been keeping our final summer holiday destination close to my chest, but hopefully the title of this post will have given you some idea of where we headed to get a healthy dose of natural vitamin D and a much-needed complete break from it all. We decided to head somewhere that the children had never been and a country that Mike and I had last visited close to 17 years ago: Greece.
For those of you not yet fluent in the Greek alphabet and language, the above words say “Hello Athens” and that was how we chose to top and tail our trip to this beautiful Mediterranean country, with a few days spent soaking up the history in the capital city. Our early flight from Gatwick meant that we had reached our hotel by mid-morning and were soon ready to get started on our explorations. We stayed at the centrally located Athens Backpackers hostel, which was only a few minutes walk from both the Acropolis and the Plaka. The double set of bunk beds in the bedroom might not be every family’s idea of a great start to a holiday, but we wanted something that gave us easy access to all we were hoping to see in Athens and were delighted with our choice. With a spacious living area, small, but well equipped kitchen and the all-important air-conditioning, this family studio apartment was everything we could have wanted to start off our holiday.
Following in the tried and tested footsteps of previous holidays, our first destination was to buy tickets for the Athens City Sightseeing bus tour and having stopped to grab a quick lunch, with mediocre success meeting the allergy needs of G and M, we set off around this ancient city to pinpoint exactly where we wanted to visit over the next couple of days. One of the highlights of our city stay was, without a doubt, the Panathenaic Stadium, site of a simple racetrack for the original Panathenaic games and latterly home of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It somehow felt fitting to visit this Olympic stadium following so shortly after our trip to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London for the 2017 IAAF World Championships and M in particular was keen to soak up the history by listening to their comprehensive audio tour. One of the hidden gems there for me was the small museum that housed a number of posters, artefacts and torches from several Olympic Games over the last 120 years. G and I took our time walking around this single room housing numerous treasures and delighted in spotting the posters and torches from all 3 London Olympics Games: 1908, 1948 and 2012.
The children also enjoyed our stop at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square, where we watched the changing of the Hellenic parliament guard, who are known as the Evzones. This ceremony is impressive to watch, not only for the incredible historic costume, but also the slow, careful and measured movements that the soldiers make as they take up their official posts for the next 60 minutes.
Travelling to Greece in August had its advantages. Not only did we enjoy constant sunshine and temperatures that could sometimes be stifling in the city, but most Athenians have also gone on holiday and so the queues and crowds were not as big as they might otherwise have been. The one downside was that our holiday coincided with the Feast of the Assumption on August 15 and we were warned that many shops would be closed on the day. However, we planned our day carefully by having a good supply of food in our apartment for lunch and fulfilled M’s desire to visit a local playground, which we found quietly hidden in the beautiful National Gardens located just behind the Parliament buildings.