We took a ferry from Kea to Naxos. We had planned to stay five nights and use Naxos as a base camp to visit one or two of the small Cyclades Islands. Neither of these plans went accordingly. The first night we were there, we stopped into the travel agency (which is also where you buy ferry tickets). I asked about getting to and from one of the small Cyclades Islands. I was told that, at this time of year, I could not get to and from any of these islands (Iraklia, Schoinousa, Koufonisi, etc.) in the same day. When I tried to ask more questions, I was rebuffed and simply told no. This was not the helpful or positive information I was looking for. Then, on the fifth night of our stay, we discovered there would be a ferry strike for the next two days. However, between these two unfortunate pieces of information, we thoroughly enjoyed the island of Naxos.
We stayed in the Old Town at an Airbnb.com for about $89 a night. While this was more expensive than I would have liked, it was a great location. We felt like we were living in a piece of history as the apartment was built into a structure that is centuries old.
We found some amazing little restaurants and bars in the Old Town of Naxos. One such restaurant has a logo of two fat men drinking. Even though we had dinner there three times, I never learned the name of the restaurant, but it was consistently delicious and I can highly recommend the meatballs and the carbonara pasta. Follow the signs; you’ll be happy you did. We also frequented a bar called Elia. It is in the Old Town and has a red door. It may look closed, but keep trying. The wine options are lovely and not your average young, Greek wines, especially when it comes to the reds. Also, the bakeries around town, even near the port, are great spots to grab a filling snack like spanikopita for around 2-3€.
When we ventured out of the Old Town, we found Nostimon Hellas among many other shops and restaurants. The restaurant takes a creative spin on Greek food and the service was very friendly.
We rented a car for two days while on the island. We drove to a few other towns and spent an afternoon hiking between five towns. We used this link to plan one of the hikes.
The hiking route was well-marked once we were on the trail. When looking for other hiking trails and information on things to do around the island, these two websites were very helpful.
After a week on the mainland, my friend Rheanna and I returned the rental car to the airport and caught a bus to Lavrion. When I read online that you had to take a bus to the town of Markopoulos, I was concerned that we wouldn’t know where to catch the following bus to Lavrion. In actuality, it was quite easy. The bus stop for the KTEL (suburban buses) was outside the airport near the escalator that takes you up to the Metro line to the city. I also asked for help from the tourism booth inside the airport. Once we arrived at Markopoulos, we hung out and waited for the next bus. We weren’t at a bus station, just a corner in town where all the buses stop. The whole trip took under an hour, not the 2-2.5 hours that we were told. Check out this link for the bus schedule. I was surprised to find that the buses in Greece were on time consistently. I can’t say this would be true in high season, but it was in October.
We spent two nights on Kea in an Airbnb.com in the very small town of Otzias about 5.5km from the port town. We knew the buses were no longer running so we grabbed a taxi for 8€ to get there (after buying provisions in town).
In my opinion, Kea was too small to really need a car/pay for a rental car but being there longer without bus service would have been tough. We spent one day hiking the footpaths that, while not well marked, were enjoyable–taking us through pastures, over rock walls and fences, and sometimes into farmers’ backyards. The routes are marked, but we didn’t see any markers until a few hours into the hike. I used Google Maps and the location feature on my smartphone to help us along (thanks T-Mobile global coverage!). We hiked 2.5 hours up to the town of Ioulis, the capital of the island. It had more restaurants and shops then we expected, though a lot of them were closed this late in the year. We grabbed lunch and then headed down to the port town of Korissia. We grabbed an early and cheap dinner in Korissia (location coordinates 37.658647,24.311807). The gyros were 2€ each and the wine was cheap at 3€ for a half carafe.
In summary, I would recommend visiting Kea but before the buses stop running at the end in September. You could easily spend a few days hiking from town to town and swimming in the small bays around the island. Also, this site seemed to have the most accurate ferry schedule including the changes in low season.
We took a day trip westward from Kalamata to see the Messoni fortress. It was so much more impressive than we expected based on the information we had found online. It’s free to enter and the grounds are vast.
After exploring all morning, we drove back up the coast to Pylos for lunch. We chose one of the many restaurants on the water and, while the service was slow, the food was tasty. Once again, the three of us were able to leave lunch fat and happy (bottled water, bread, salad, entree, and wine) having spent about 15€ each.
After lunch, we headed for Voidokilia Bay. My husband ran up to the fortress on the hill while Rheanna and I enjoyed the view from the bottom as we weren’t sure if we’d have enough time to hike it before the sun went down. We were determined to get to the actual bay for sunset. We took the “shortcut” through the rough roads that Google pointed us towards. It was a white-knuckle driving experience as we took our tiny Suzuki Celerio through muddy ruts and puddles. I would recommend entering the bay from the North not from the West.
Due to our somewhat tight schedule, we had planned on only staying in Veliko Tarnovo one night. We were going to visit the fortress and wander around town. But when we got to our room at the Hotel Comfort and looked at the view from our balcony of the valley below, the fortress, and town, we thought, “what if we stay two nights?” And that’s what we did.
We walked over to the Tsaravets Fortress in the afternoon and paid 6BGN per person for a ticket. The surrounding ruins are more expansive than we originally thought. We went into the church at the center and then wandered the ruins for another hour or so. We also inquired on how to reach the other fortress, Trapezitsa, across the river. We were told that it was not open to the public right now, so we just admired it from afar.
We spent two wonderful days wandering the town. We had dinner at the somewhat famous restaurant called Shtastlivetsa. While I am usually skeptical of TripAdvisor recommendations, this one lived up to all of its reviews and the local hype. The menu was ridiculously extensive and our food was very delicious. Although it would be considered expensive compared to other options, it was totally worth it. We ordered one beer, one glass of wine, pork medallions with cheese and mushroom sauce, and risotto and the total bill was only 30BGN.
After dinner, we wandered farther down the main road away from the fortress and turned down a small road toward a few bars. We picked one at random (the location coordinates are 43.083808,25.635271). There was a European league volleyball game on TV that everyone seemed really focused on so we joined in watching. We each grabbed two drinks (12BGN total) and while we tried to blend in, we definitely got called out as Amerikanskies when I asked why they didn’t serve Black Ram whisky. It was good, solid bar with food available.
While in Veliko Tarnovo, we spent an afternoon wandering farther into the actual town, away from the fortress. I searched Google for ‘bakery’ and found a little dessert shop called Luchia. It’s a 20 minute walk from the tourist area of town but well worth it. We grabbed four small sweets and paid 2.50BGN. They also have cakes and coffee if you want to eat there. We took our sweets and walked towards the river and Park Sveta Gora. This park is a lovely area to wander through, but beware that to get to the heart of the park you have to climb about 346 stairs (I counted). At the top there are benches, picnic tables, and walking trails heading in all directions. There are also many types of playgrounds for children including rockwalls, a zipline, and jungle gyms galore.
I drove a rental car for seven days in Bulgaria and in those seven days I saw a lot of different road conditions. Some of the highways were well paved and well marked; others were a collection of patches, dips, and potholes big enough to destroy a small car. I also saw the recklessness of Bulgarian drivers; passing on a curve or when there is oncoming traffic, riding the center dividing line, and rarely using a turn signal. I took strides not to drive at night and to avoid driving around in cities when I could help it. Renting a car was a great option for us. For around $100USD plus gasoline, we were able to explore the country and access trail heads that we would not have easy access to without a car. I would advise to proceed with caution at all times. You never know what lies ahead of you on the roads of Bulgaria.
We landed at the Sofia airport on a cool October afternoon and made a beeline for the Sixt car rental counter. We’d booked a car for seven days for 107€. After some issues with the first car’s engine (thankfully I’m a wary traveler and knew not to take the car that was violently shaking when started), my husband and I were off to the Rila mountains. The drive was pleasantly smooth and road signs were usually in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.
We arrived at the Rila Monestary at 5 p.m. and asked about staying in the monastery itself. It took a few minutes and all of our horrible Bulgarian language skills, but we did it. We met one of priests who lives at the monastery and he gave us the option of a room with a shower (25BGN per person) or without a shower (20BGN per person). We chose the latter to save a little money. The room had 5 cots, a table and chairs, and a sink. There were also some beautiful carved wooden wardrobes and a lovely painted ceiling. While the room had electricity, it did not have heat. The temperature that evening dropped to 44 degrees Fahrenheit. We made due by sleeping under all of the wool blankets from the five cots and wearing a lot of clothes.
The monastery does not offer meals, so we walked over to Hotel Tzarev Vrah (through the North gate of the monastery) for dinner and breakfast the next morning. The food was tasty, although nothing to rave about, and the prices were reasonable. We split a generous sized shopska salad, each ordered a meat dish, each had a drink (beer and wine), and split a rakia for about 31BGN total.
While in the area, we hiked to the Seven Lakes. If you are in Bulgaria, you need to do this. It’s one of the most beautiful and magical places I have ever been. To get there, we drove to the chair lift. We had planned to take the chair lift instead of hiking the 1.5 hours but we found out that it only runs on the weekends outside of summertime. Our other option was to take a ride in a Jeep from a man that hangs out nearby for this exact reason. We decided to do it as it was already 1 p.m. and we wanted to make the hike that day. The Jeep ride, round-trip for two people, was 50BGN. This is definitely not budget friendly but we went for it. Once we got up to the top of the ski lift, the man with the Jeep gave us his card and told us to call him when we were ready to come back down the mountain.
We started the hike up the hill, then the path flattened out for about 30 minutes. From here, you can see three or four of the lakes. We then hiked another 45 minutes up a rocky mountainside. It took us about two hours from the top of the chair lift to the point above all seven lakes. If we were to hike from the bottom of the ski lift, round-trip it would have been a seven hour hike. We made our way back down to the Rilski Ezera Hut and hopped in the Jeep. I do want to make it clear that the Jeep ride was incredibly bumpy and unnerving for those who are not use to off-roading. While in reality the ride down took only 25 minutes, it seemed to take forever as I feared we would tip over. I also want to note that the Rilski Ezera Hut seemed to be closed for the season, but I cannot be sure of this.
After hiking, we spent a few minutes in the car to make a plan of where to stay that night. It was 5 p.m. and we didn’t have accommodations. We picked a guesthouse room (40BGN a night for a double room with bathroom, balcony, and access to a communal kitchen) on Booking.com in the town of Sapareva Banya. The room was lovely, as was the owner of the guesthouse. We only stayed one night but this would have been an ideal base for exploring the Sapareva Banya area.
The next day we packed up into our VW Polo and headed back up the mountain to find the trail head for Skakavitsa waterfall. This was hard to find, but we did it! We parked at the Zeleni Preslap Guesthouse (Google Зелени Преслап to find the location or follow this link to the Booking.com for the location) and walked up the trail that kind of looks like a gravel road. In high season, you might want to ask about leaving your car there but in mid-October there were only two cars there and no people. From the guesthouse parking lot, the hike to the Skakavitsa Hut took one hour. Once again, it seemed like the Skakavitsa Hut was closed for the season but I cannot be sure. From the hut to the waterfall is another 30 minutes. While the trail starts off very flat and road-like, it makes a turn and you are quickly in a pine forest. From there, it’s all uphill to the hut. Both the Seven Lakes and Skakavitsa hikes were some of my favorite experiences in Bulgaria. They were well worth the effort and energy. If we had more time, I would have loved to stay in one of the huts overnight.