Trip Coach: May 1, 2007

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Eleni Gage, author of North of Ithaka, answers your questions about planning a trip to the Greek Isles.

Eleni Gage: Hi! Thanks for joining me! I'm suffering from allergies here in New York, so I'm a little foggy-headed. But I just took a Claritin, and I LOVE talking about Greece; I grew up there for four years, have spent every summer there since I was 14 and lived there for a year in 2002. My next trip is in July and I can't wait! So I hope my enthusiasm will override my allergies, as I'm eager to answer your questions. Bring them on!

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Lexington, KY: I'm teaching a 2 week evening MBA course in Athens this June. I have weekend trips to the islands planned, but I wondered about day trips from Athens. The constraint is that I have to be back before 6pm each night. My preference is more toward hiking and history than the beaches. Any suggestions?

Thanks!

Kristine

Details: Myself and my husband are in are early 30s and will be traveling June 6 (Chicago - Athens) and return June 23. We have sidetrips to Crete and Rhodes planned for the weekends.

Eleni Gage: Hi Kristine,

You're going to have a great time! You're lucky that I will be in New York, teaching a travel writing class at that time, or I would try and talk you into letting me be your assistant. There are a lot of great daytrips you can do from Athens. In terms of islands, I'd focus Aegina, Poros, Hydra, and Spetses, which are the Saronic Gulf islands, the ones closest in to Athens. Hydrofoils (also called Flying Dolphins) go to them every day from the port of Piraeus. You can look up--and book--hydrofoil schedules at hellenicseaways.gr. Look for a guidebook to the Saronic Gulf Islands and you can browse them before you go. If you're picking between the islands, I have to say that my personal favorite is Hydra (although I have never been to Aegina, which is very close to Athens and said to be lovely). Hydra is tiny, has no cars, cobblestoned streets, arty boutiques, traditional tavernas and you can hike to a monastery at the top of town. There's also a museum (behind the clock tower on the harbor) and an art gallery and shipping museum to the right of the harbor if you're facing the water. If you did want to go to the beach, the fishing boats in the harbor do excursions to some nearby beaches, but I'd stay wandering in and around town. Another nice walk is the one to the left of the harbor (if you're facing the water) along the coast to the town of Mantouki. There is a great taverna above the sea there--I can't remember the name but you'll find it--and along the way there are steps leading down to the sea so you can have a swim. (One set of steps is just past the Hydronetta bar, a nice place to have a drink or milkshake, great sea view and sunset view although you won't be there late enough). You should also consider some overland excursions if you have a car. (It can be tough to rent automatics but Smart Cars are automatics if you need one). Delphi is beautiful and can be done as a day trip (most of the big hotels run day trips to Delphi on buses, so you could inquire with a concierge, say at the Grande Bretagne about that option if you didn't want to drive). Nauplion, the original capital of Greece, is a charming town and you could visit the ancient theater at Epidaurus on the way (that's my favorite ruin, very peaceful and charming). A gorgeous day trip with a car (or you could arrange a price with a cab) is to Sounion, the Temple of Poseidon, a lovely temple on a cape above the sea, you can swim along the way. There's also plenty to explore in Athens. You could go to the beach in Lagonissi or Glyfada (a 45 minute cab or car ride from the center--I believe the trolley goes to the Southern Coast, too) or go north to the beach at Marathon, which is also where the Battle of Marathon took place, so there's a museum nearby and a tholos tomb (if you guys saw the 300 you might be into this). But I think it's also fun to explore the neighborhoods in Athens; I love Thisseion (great galleries like the Herakleidon, herakleidon.gr) and Plaka, but there are lots of great places to see. Your ticket to the Acropolis (go in the morning before it gets hot) gets you into several other archaeological sites, like the forum, that are worth seeing, and most tourists don't have a chance to do so, so hang on to that ticket (it costs 12 Euros, so it's expensive, but a bargain if you see most of the sites it allows you into--and who can put a price on the Acropolis!) And there are good small museums, like the Benaki and the Cycladic museum, and other sites right in Athens, like the original Olympic Stadium (called the Panathenaic stadium). You can learn about Athens sites at athensguide.gr Good luck with your class!

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New Market, Maryland: Will the water temperatures be warm enough for snorkeling in late April/early May?

Eleni Gage: The traditional day Greeks hit the beach for the first time is May first, so my basic answer is yes: usually, the weather is warm enough in late April/early May (and if you're planning a trip for next year, Orthodox Easter is April 27th, and it's great to be in Greece for that celebratory season; each island town and city observes the holiday in its own way). So it would be a great time to go for many reasons. But if you're really worried about water temp, you can always go after May 1.

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Dix Hills, NY: Hi!

We are taking our 3 daughters to Athens for 3 days at the end of August. One of those days we wanted to get out of the city and show the girls a "real" island experience - sort of like the one from "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Which island is the easiest day trip from Athens? What are the logistics about getting to the port (we are staying at the Athens Hilton) and catching a ferry? How much does it cost? Should we try and do it one our own or should we just book the full day tour that goes to Aegina, Poros and Hydra? It does get expensive for 5 people though to go on the tour. Thanks for your help! Claudia

Eleni Gage: Hello, family in Dix Hills,
Check out my answer to Kristine in Lexington and you'll see that Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses are the closest islands to Athens (they're called the Saronic Gulf islands). It's totally doable to go to one of them on your own--and Hydra will look the most like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, because of the donkeys on the harbor! You can get on the subway in front of the Hilton and take it down to the port of Piraeus to catch the hydrofoil (faster than the ferry); schedules and prices are at hellenicseaways.gr, and ferry schedules are at greekferries.gr The cruise you mention is a nice option because you get to see three islands, but you won't have as much time on each island, so if you're concerned about the cost, I'd wing it and go to Hydra on your own. (I gave Kristine some suggestions about what to do on Hydra, so you can check those out, too.) In Athens, I'd recommend taking the girls up to Mt. Lycabbettus for a soda or coffee at sunset; it's a small white chapel to St. George at the top of a hill in Athens, with great views. To get there you can take a funicular or walk up whitewashed steps through a picturesque neighborhood--I would recommend doing that because it will feel very Traveling Pants to the girls. The caf? at the top is expensive--you're paying for the view!--so come back down and eat at one of the more casual places along the steps, or hop in a cab or subway and go to Filoistron, my favorite restaurant in Athens on the pedestrian walkway with views of the Acropolis and Mt. Lycabbettus lit up at night (filoistron.gr). It is affordable and authentic--but keep in mind no one goes to dinner before 10, although you can probably get dinner at 9 if you try!

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Scottsdale, AZ: Next year, in Oct., we want to see the Greek Isles. A day in Athens should be enough; then we want to head for Crete, then some other islands (as many as we can see sufficiently in two weeks). Even though Ken likes to have his ducks in a row (hotels lined up ahead of time), I'm insisting we just wing it. If we want to stay longer on one island, we can; or if we want to move along sooner than planned, we can do that, too. With a plan like that, whats the best way to see Crete, Santorini, Mykonos, and whatever other islands we can fit in? We are both in our mid-fifties, but very active, love hiking, sightseeing, photography. Ken is anxious to see where democracy began; I'm just anxious to see Greece again after 30 years!We live in Phoenix, Az. but would probably leave for Greece from NY or Atlanta, or whatever works out best. Lynn

Eleni Gage: October is a great time to go--beautiful weather and not as crowded. I'd spend at least two days in Athens--you want to see the Acropolis, the subways in Syntagma square, eat at some of the great restaurants (I love Filoistron, filoistron.com), maybe visit the Olympic stadium maybe, roam around Plaka. One night, two days, I'd suggest. The fastest way to get around is flying--a flight from Athens to an island won't take more than 45 minutes--and I think the cheapest and best airline is Aegean, aegeanair.com. But it's nicer sometimes to take a hydrofoil or ferry. Hydrofoil info is at hellenicseaways.gr, and the ferries are at greekferries.gr

Santorini is a great choice--you'll feel like you "saw Greece". Stay in Oia--it's the most beautiful town, recognized by the world monument fun. and Mykonos will be calmer than in summer and is also beautiful--the main town, the windmills. Ken will want to take a daytrip to Delos to see Apollo's island, which is cool. My favorite beach (no chair rental, but there's a monastery at the top of the hill and a taverna with no electricity but great grilled specials halfway down) is Agios Sostis. I'm going to Crete for the first time this summer, but that's great too, and you'll want to hike the Samaria gorge. I'd also try to see Hydra, which is very close to Athens and lovely (a lot of artists and photographers live there--you could even go as a daytrip but you'll wish you stayed), Corfu (the main town is so lovely, the prettiest city I've seen anywhere), and there's a hiking path, the Corfu Trail, you can google. Folegandros is great (in the Cyclades) and I also like Paros (Naoussa especially) and Antiparos. Read up on the places I've named and pick what you can fit in--in two weeks, you should be able to hit four or so I think.
Have a great time!

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Hithland Park, New Jersey: I'll be in Crete for 3 days in August. What is the best way to see the island: local bus, scooter or rent a car?

Eleni Gage: If you can, rent a car--then you're not dependent on the bus schedules. I'm afraid of scooters, personally--I know a few people who've gotten banged up on Greek islands on scooters. Automatic cars can be hard to find if you need one, but Smart Cars are automatics, and cheaper than regular rentals if there's two of you or less. (I noticed this site offers them: motorclub.gr)

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New Market, Maryland: I'm concerned about the political climate in the Middle East. Are the Greek islands that are closer to Turkey safe for travelers? Do you have any suggestions for how we find out about any problem areas before we go?

Eleni Gage: Generally, the Greek islands near Turkey are very safe. I especially love Symi; Rhodes is great, too, and has a lot of history--the Crusaders were there and it once had a large Jewish community, which is interesting--you can still visit the synagogue. If you're concerned, when planning your trip, check out the state department website for travel advisories (travel.state.gov/travel). But overall, Greece is very safe.

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Boston, MA: Hello,

If you had about 7-10 days, what islands would you squeeze into the trip? I will be travelling with my friend and we are both single, females in our early thirties. We are looking for a good mix of relaxing on the beach, sightseeing, fun nightlife and some adventure (hiking, sailing, etc). We would be flying in and out of Athens and have never been to Greece. We want to keep the trip somewhat moderately priced since the airfare over is quite expensive. We are either looking at the first two weeks in August or first two weeks in September.

Thanks for your help!

Eleni Gage: Hi! First piece of advice: Do early September. It's much less crowded and therefore more fun. You've got to do Santorini--it's the postcard capital of Greece--stay in Oia if you can. From there you can also get to Mykonos, which is lovely but CRAZY in August. From Athens you can very easily get to Hydra, which is lovely, no cars, and a less than two hour hydrofoil ride away (check out the schedules on hellenicseaways.gr). For beaches, the Ionian islands are great--Zakynthos, Cephallonia, Lefkada, Corfu, but Mykonos also has amazing beaches (my favorite is Agios Sostis). Santorini beaches are cool, but since it's volcanic they're black and red sand, not white sand. Have a great trip!

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Chicago, IL: Yasu Eleni,

Without question, Thira (aka, Santorini), Crete, and Rhodes are not-to-be-missed. That being said, what are some lesser-known Greeks isles in each of the chains (i.e., Cyclades, Ionian, etc., ) that the savvy traveler might wish to explore?

Efharisto, Patrick

Eleni Gage: Folegandros is beautiful in the Cyclades. Naoussa on Paros is a breathtaking town, but very crowded in summer; Antiparos is more relaxed. I love all the Ionians--Corfu has the prettiest town anywhere, Zakynthos has Shipwreck Beach and the Blue Caves, Cephallonia is large and lovely with amazing beaches. THe Ionians get a lot of European visitors (they're close to Italy) so are crowded in August but not so much at other times of the year. In the Dodecanese I love Symi, and near Athens, Hydra is beautiful. Kythera is a great, little-known island--large, beautiful beaches, windswept villages, and a lovely capital (Chora), all whitewashed houses under a Venetian fort.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: My girlfriend and I are traveling from Sept 24 to Oct. 9 this year. We are flying into Venus and out of Athens. Our plan is for 4 to 5 days in Venice then to Split and to Debrovnick for a couple days each by train. From there we are not sure whether to take the bus, plane or train to get to the Greek Isles and which islands might be easiest to get to from the north, or is it best to not plan on taking the train or bus but to just fly from that point. We are both ex-Peace Corps Volunteers and would enjoy seeing some of Maccedonia but do not want to waste too much time on public transport as this is a short trip. I have heard there are some boats that go down the coast to Greece, but not sure if they will all be in action this late in the fall.

Thanks--

Richard

Eleni Gage: That's a perfect time to travel. I have taken an overnight Minoan lines ferry from Venice to Corfu, and to Igoumenitsa on the mainland, and a hydrofoil from Albania (Sarande) to Corfu, which are very close to each other. I've done a little web research on the subject and it seems to me that you'll have to go through Albania to get a boat to Greece, that there aren't ferries direct from Croatia to Greece, but you might find out otherwise once you get there. I have not traveled through Croatia, but in any case, I think your best bet is to see the Ionian islands. They are lovely, lush and green, with a lot of Venetian influence (they were never under Turkish dominion, but were ruled by the Venetians instead). The islands are also known as the Eptanissia, because there are seven of them: Corfu, Paxos, Lefkada, Ithaka, Cephallonia, Zakynthos and Kythera. Your point of entry would most likely be Corfu, from there you can take hydrofoils to Paxos or a ferry to Igoumenitsa on the mainland, where you could take a bus to Lefkada (it's attached to the mainland by a causeway). From there you can ferry between the other islands (except Kythera, which is far removed from the rest) and take a ferry from Zakynthos to the mainland and a bus from Athens. Alternatively, you could spend your Greek time on Corfu and Paxos (Paxos is seldom visited by American tourists, good for hiking) and fly from Corfu to Athens. (Flights should not be very expensive in October)

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Tampa, Florida: My wife and I are flying to Athens for a 7 day cruise on the SeaDream Cruise Lines.

We arrive on Friday before our Saturday afternoon boarding time.

What do you suggest we see / do in the one day we have on the ground in Athens.

MKM

Eleni Gage: Wow! That is a short amount of time to do Athens' greatest hits! I'm not sure what time you get in to Athens, but if it's in the afternoon or evening, I'd suggest heading straight to the pedestrian walkway below the Acropolis (it is called Apostolou Pavlou). There are a lot of caf?'s and galleries at the top of the walkway (near the Thisseion metro stop) and if you follow it in one direction it will lead you to Monastiraki and Plaka, charming, but crowded, old sections of Athens, and in the other direction, under the Acropolis, you'll hit my favorite restaurant, Filoistron (filoistron.gr), where you can have dinner on the roof (book ahead) with a view of the Acropolis illuminated at night and also of Mt Lycabbettus. If you want nightlife, head to Psyrri, where there are lots of nightclubs, but since dinner is eaten late in Athens (like from 10 on), I'd suggest walking down Apostolou Pavlou under the illuminated Acropolis until you get to the main street where you can take a cab or subway to wherever you're staying. The walkway is very safe (as is most of Athens) and there will be performers and people strolling at all hours. If you finish dinner early, you could walk into the National Gardens and see a movie at Aegli, the outdoor cinema (it's lovely and you can get drinks and snacks while watching; most of the movies shown at Aegli are American with subtitles). The next day, I would do the Acropolis as soon as it opens, before the day gets too hot, then wander down from it, in the opposite direction from the walkway, into Plaka where you can eventually have lunch. Last of all, don't miss the subway station in Syntagma Square--it's amazing, like a museum, with walls showcasing all the ancient artifacts they found while digging the subway. Again, visit athensguide.gr for tips on how to navigate Athens.

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Cheverly, Maryland: I am taking an easyCruise of the Greek Isles May 31-June 7. Before going, I'd love to read a good book set in Greece or travel narratives about Greece. Can you recommend a few?

Eleni Gage: Of course! Corelli's Mandolin gives a feel of the islands and a lot of info on Greek history sandwiched in between a fascinating romance, so that's a good one. If you're going to Patmos, Summer of My Greek Taverna is fun because it's set there. And I wouldn't be a very good self-promoter if I didn't suggest the travel memoir I wrote, North of Ithaka! It's set in Northern Greece, where I lived for a year, so is not too islandy, but it's a lot about Greek culture. My father is also a writer, and has written a book called Hellas that's sort of an overview of Greece. Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote great classic travel books on Greece (and Gerald Durrell wrote a hilarious book about Corfu called My Family and Other Animals). And I haven't read this, but I know there's a book of essays by women writers called Greece: A Love Story.

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Southborough, MA: We're going to Greece Sept. 10-23, taking a tour, land and two islands. Could you recommend interesting places to eat in Mykonos, Santorini, Kusadasi, and Athens? We particularly love seafood.

Eleni Gage: On Mykonos Caprice Sea Satin has a great setting and delicious food and is very lively but it's a definite splurge! A more affordable, superdelicious spot is the nameless taverna on Agios Sostis beach, halfway up the hillside between the monastery and the sea. In Santorini, a lot of places in Oia are great. Oia Cafe has a delicious shrimp dish in ouzo sauce. For a casual meal, the last taverna (there are three) to the left when you walk down the stairs to the harbor is great. And a good place to watch the sunset is the bar at Fanari Villas--if you can find it! I don't know of an spots on Kusadasi, but in Athens I love Filoistron (filoistron.gr), Mamacas (mamacas.gr), Alatsi (behind the Hilton) for Cretan food. All of those are affordable and so much fun, and Filoistron has great views.

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Memphis, TN: Hi! I will be traveling to the Greek Isles with 8 other people on Saturday (May 5) for 12 days. Since this is still the off-season, do you think we need to make advance reservations, or can we just show up and find something? We are planning to go to Mykonos, Santorini, and Paros. We would prefer budget accomodations to nicer resorts. Thanks!

Whitney

Eleni Gage: It is early in the season, so I think you can wing it without too much trouble. But you might want to email ahead to see if you can get good deals on expensive places since it is so early (and a great time to go, by the way). On Santorini, try to stay in Oia--it's the prettiest spot, although Firostefani is nice too (but quieter). And in this month's Budget Travel there's a piece I wrote on the Secret Hotels of Paros and Antiparos--that should help there, but since the places are small, it couldn't hurt to book ahead.

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Oak Creek, WI: For those of us who only speak English, would it be difficult to navigate and communicate with the people on Santorini? I have been wanting to go to that island for a long time. If I were to go to two islands on the same trip, which one do you recommend as a companion to Santorini? We like our vacations to be laid back, quiet and romantic.

Eleni Gage: No, it won't be difficult at all. Most people on Santorini speak English! If you want a quiet companion island in the Cyclades, Folegandros is great. Or if you want to try another island group, Hydra is very romantic and close to Athens, and Corfu town is also so romantic. There is a windmill on Zakynthos (in the Ionian islands) that is a very romantic place to stay, on a cape above the Blue Caves. Go to potamitisbrothers.gr and click on Windmills accomodations. Fewer people speak English there, but you still shouldn't have a problem at all, as there is usually someone around who does.

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New Market, Maryland: Hello again!

We've been studying guidebooks about the Islands, but we're still having trouble deciding which one(s) we'd prefer for our trip next April/May. We're looking for a quiet island with history, hiking, good beaches, and opportunities to get to know the locals. We're not really interested in nightlife or upscale shopping and restaurants. Do you have some recommendations?

Eleni Gage: I do! Cephallonia is great because it's large, so it never feels crowded, and it is rich in history and has amazing beaches. (And you'd be near to Zakynthos and could easily visit there as well). A nice place to stay on Cephallonia, with English speaking owners who would be able to offer advice is garbisvillas.gr, and a lovely place on Zakynthos is potamitisbrothers.gr--in both places the owners could help you mix with locals. Crete has great hiking (the Samaria Gorge). Kythera is very quiet and has lovely beaches, ruined Venetian fortresses, and well preserved medeival villages (also very good hiking, and a significant web presence because so many Kytherans emigrated to Australia and they tend to return each summer. If you chose any one of those I don't think you'd go wrong.

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Seattle, WA: My husband and I are celebrating our 25th aniversarry with a 10-day trip to Athens, Santorini and Mykonos in mid September. We will be in each location for three days. Gate One Travel, who we purchased the trip through, also offers quite a few of the typical sightseeing options, or we could rent a moped and go off on our own. What are your don't-miss recommendations for each location? I am especially interested in rubbing elbows with the locals and enjoying the true Greek culture. How do a fifty-something couple get the most out of the Greek Islands?

Eleni Gage: A great way to get know locals is to go to a festival--you can check out a list of them at gogreece.about.com. Have dinner late, like the locals do, pop into churches at any time, the way they do, and go to the main square in each town, find the kafenion, which will be full of old men playing backgammon and have a cafe frappe. You'll be surrounded by locals! On Santorini, see (and/or stay in Oia--it's beautiful!) Akrotiri is cool as an archaeological site, but was closed after a recent accident, if it's open, do go. And I think it would be a good idea to rent a moped (if you're not too chicken--I am) and ride into some of the interior villages--see if any are having a wine festival, maybe. On Mykonos, wander the town, see the windmills, watch the sunset from a cafe on Little Venice (I like Galleria but they all have great views), and for a quiet beach and great taverna go to Agios Sostis--you'll need to take a cab. In Athens, wander the pedestrian walkway (called Apostolou Pavlou) and the cafes along the Roman forum and the train station to the right of the Monastiraki metro station--there are always locals there. The Central market is chaotic but full of locals doing their shopping! Congratulations on your anniversary! I hope your trip will be one of the highlights of your marriage. (And September is a great time to go!)

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Golden, CO: My husband and I have been wanting to go to the Greek Isles for a few years. We would like to go during the "low" season to avoid crowds, but still would like to enjoy nice (sunny, warm) weather. What time of year do you suggest we go?

Eleni Gage: The absolute best times are mid-May and late September/early October, but late September is great, too. The weather will be lovely and everyplace will be less crowded (and less expensive; prices fall after Sept. 15 in most places). Another idea would be to go at the tail end of August to see some of the celebrations of Greek Easter (it's April 27th next year)

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Memphis, TN: My husband and I (64 and 56) are considering the Greek islands for late September 2007. We love to swim - would the Aegean sea still be warm enough for swimming at that time? And if so, which islands might be best for that (i.e. not those with rocky coaslines).

Thanks!

Juliet

Eleni Gage: The water will definitely be warm enough and that's a great time to go. The best beaches are on Cephallonia, Lefkada (Porto Katsiki), Zakynthos--those are all in the Ionian; Elafonissos and Kythera off the coast of the Peloponnese, and some of the Cycladic islands, like Mykonos also have great beaches.

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Eleni Gage: I've really enjoyed answering your questions. If you wrote a question I didn't get a chance to answer, please accept my apologies, and check out the answers I did get to write--in many cases, some of the information you requested will be in those. I wish you all happy travels and amazing trips that will leave you loving Greece as much as I do!

All best,
Eleni

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