Greece is on everyone’s bucket list. That’s what I realised after posting pictures of our holiday there, featuring our sunburnt kids and deliciously blue seas. With the country’s economic crisis, the tourism industry has taken quite a hit and prices across the board, including airfares, are at an all-time low. The Mediterranean haven is more accessible than it ever was.
It’s a particularly great destination for children. Our kids loved the people, the food, the views, the sights, and the feeling of living in a picture postcard.
Kids are filled with curiosity so getting them engaged was the key. Parents can use maps, notebooks, cameras, and point out quaint bits and all the history and mythology that make Greece so special. Help them pick up local words—saganaki for fried cheese, proskynitaria for the little wayside shrines that dot the countryside, and ne when you mean yes. Over this vacation we watched our kids grow—into historians, mythologists, and mock Olympic athletes. To ensure you have a wonderful family vacation in Greece, here’s a guide to what to aim for, and what to steer clear of.
If the children can stand at the Temple of Zeus and imagine the towering god of thunder holding Nike, the winged goddess of victory, by his side, it becomes more special than just any crumbling ruin. Do your bit by helping them see history as an important part of who they are today. We took our boys to the Panathenaic Stadium, the first to host the modern Olympic Games in 1896. “How is 1896 modern, Ma?” asked my eight-year-old mischievously. We told them this is the exact spot where the Olympic Games flag off each year with the flame handover ceremony. Without much ado, the boys hurled themselves across the deserted track imagining the cheers of a packed stadium. We took athletes back home that day.
Begin preparations to visit Greece weeks in advance. Get the children sturdy boots and wear them in by walking everywhere. Every monument demands a fair bit of clambering about and everyone from toddlers to grandmas are doing it. Kids usually gambol up steep flights of stairs like mountain goats, while adults count the steps and the stitches in their sides. Athens has four hills surrounding it, and the best forts, tombs, and views are at their finest from the top.
Eating local is a delight. Here’s when the kids discover life beyond pizza. In Athens, there are kiosks at every road corner, selling the ubiquitous souvlakis, or grilled kebabs. I fell in love with Greek coffee which is strong, black, and sweet. In the evenings, we headed out to the Plaka, the heart of Athens, where the crowds collect to eat, drink, and make merry in open-air cafés and restaurants. Pretty lanes lined by tourist shops crisscross each other like lines on a palm and in between, sit the cafés. Beware of slick waiters who speak English, but are not averse to shrugging and shaking their heads and bringing you the most expensive dish on the menu. Bills are frustratingly always in Greek, though menus may have English translations. Vegetarian travellers will have to contend with meat-heavy selections in most places. At basic restaurants especially, vegetarian options are limited to salads dressed in olive oil, and fries. Greeks eat potato fries with everything. Our children took to Greek food and ordered gyros rolls—pita bread stuffed with meats or vegetables—wherever they went. They also gorged on the different cheeses, long after they gave up trying to pronounce their names.
Greece is more than the tourist spots in Athens city. Long scenic drives out of town lead to some of the most historic and memorable places. The countryside is pretty, and local people delightful. Pack for the whole day out. While the sun-bleached land with its vineyards and stark white houses is drop-dead charming for adults, the little ones might justifiably tire after their 17th olive grove, so do warn them not to expect Disneyland. Invest in guidebooks, maps, and carry water. Always ask before drinking from a tap as not all water is potable. In Greece wine is plentiful and often cheaper than water, so adults can have a party.
While travelling in and around Athens, we found it worth spending a little extra on a personal car. Our guide-cum-driver Stratos was booked online from Athens Taxi Tour (www.athenstaxitour.com; around €240/₹18,071 for a private day tour). He was a Wiki-on-wheels who gave us the lowdown on everything from the detailed history of every era, the historical ravages on each monument, to where the best coffee could be found. He’d often let slip an insider joke too: “Be careful when you ask for gyros,” he told our amused boys explaining that the term also means “old man” in the local lingo. Our boys still think about “Stratos Uncle,” an honour he took to heart.
Like us Indians, the Greeks are big on family, and children are welcome in most establishments. While I was picking out gifts in a souvenir shop in Mykonos, the owner insisted my little boy take a sweet. He took a handful, and then to my mortification, came back to take another handful for his brother. However, she was so taken-in by his “efharisto” (thank you), that she packed him a free fridge magnet as well. Of course other tourists may not feel so kindly towards children, so beg or bribe, but get the kids to behave.
Break away from the touristy keychains and caps and get to a flea market. Monastiraki flea market in Athens, on Sunday, has something for everyone. There are pop-up stalls selling antiques, music, T-shirts and second-hand “heirlooms.” Some are authentic, but it is best to be wary and do a little recce before making a purchase. However, the kids will love all the strange stuff on offer, which includes replica swords and ships. I carried home a two-foot-tall rusty suit of armour that now ferociously guards my potted plants.
Every holiday advertisement talks about islands with white sand beaches. Here’s the thing though: in Greece the islands are often party places or nudist zones. Do a bit of homework and find kid-friendly beaches on the islands you choose. Ornos beach in Mykonos and Agios Georgios beach in Naxos, for example, have shallow water, and a family-friendly ambience. While the water looks inviting, it is cold most of the year, as is the sea breeze. Set for a sunny Indian seaside, we went out in our beach flimsies and soon wished we’d brought blankets instead. Beaches are at their warmest in July-August, but that’s also when they are packed with tourists. Take ferries to visit various islands. Since the weather is unpredictable, the sea journey can get choppy. Paper barf bags are distributed on ferries, but keep anti-emetics, mints, and ginger sweets handy. If the kids are good sailors, they will find the views majestic. The islands themselves are perfect, and you could have the children asking why they can’t go to school in Santorini or Corfu.
Don’t spend too much on pricey hotels since you’ll be enjoying the outdoors so much, you’ll only return to sleep at night. In Athens, try to find a room on the top floor because the four lit-up hills, including that of the Acropolis, offer spectacular night views. Book a hotel near a metro station to make intra-city travel easy and save on taxi money.
Ask for children’s discounts on the metro, buses, and entry fees. For example, the Acropolis ticket, which includes six other sites, is €30/₹2,250 per adult and half that for students. Many sites are free for those under 19. Ask for the family suite in hotels, which allow children to stay with parents in a single suite housing four people. The Athens transit system also allows children to travel on reduced fare tickets. Remember, the policy is “ask and you shall receive”—discounts aren’t automatic.
The ten days we spent in Greece brought home the fact that while travelling with kids may be expensive, it’s an investment. Our boys tested the acoustics of the fourth century B.C. Stadium of Epidaurus with as much zest as they made us follow Petros the Pelican, the Mykonos mascot, who waddles along the narrow streets of the island. In Athens, they discovered local delights at the Corner on the Circle, a souvlaki kiosk, and led us on a treasure hunt in the Acropolis Museum. They taught us to make memories beyond those captured by a camera, and to live in the words of Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “A Big, Fat, Greek Holiday”.
Jane De Suza is an author and creative consultant. Her books include the humorous thriller "The Spy Who Lost Her Head" and the best-selling SuperZero series for kids. She lives in Bangalore, writes for magazines and advertising brands across the world; and brings back masks, germs and funny stories from her frequent travels.