Greece


I booked this trip because I figured the airfare would be covered by a Delta bump voucher I received. My scheme is thwarted when Delta failed to put the route on sale, and am not crazy enough to pay $700 on top of the voucher. Curiously, all reasonably priced seats to Athens are sold out for the end of April/beginning of May. I solve the problem with find a cheap fare on Olympic from Dusseldorf, which happens to be a place to which Continental is having half-price sale on frequent flyer mile redemption.

The mystery of the missing cheap seats is solved when I learn that the Pope will be arriving in Athens two days ahead of me. I figure that's okay, he can warm up the crowd for me. The Greeks are less than thrilled by his visit -- they are still pissed off over the crusaders sacking Constantinople in 1204. The Pope apologizes to the Greeks, but he did not see fit to apologize to ME for inconveniencing my travel plans.

Athens has a new airport. Open less than three weeks, it's part of getting ready for the 2004 Olympics. Plenty of Olympic stuff is already on sale. Also, lots of EU flags. They should be grateful -- all over the country are signs marking projects being paid for by EU.

The airport is serviced by a nice, new road. The motoring pleasure terminates after about 10 minutes when the expressway ends abruptly and all traffic is dumped on to the highly congested city streets. It takes another 50 minutes to crawl the remaining few miles to the hotel. Greece has ten million people, four million people of which live in the Athens sprawl.

In the morning our group meets up. We are eighteen, the largest Explore tour I have ever been on. We are 4 Canadian, 2 US, 1 Kiwi (from "Enzed") and the rest Brits. Our leader is Scottish. For once, I am not the senior traveler. In fact, I am in the youth group. These are OLD people, although spritely, spry, and unlike American geezers, uncomplaining.



Athens is modern and congested, but surprisingly clean and quiet. English is widely spoken. There are plenty of tourists, but the seasonal mobs have not yet arrived. The weather is sunny, pleasant, and clear. We begin with a walking tour. The honor guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are supposed to be intimidating, but it's tough to look fierce when they are wearing skirts and have pompoms on their shoes. After that, we visit the Acropolis. Finally I visit the National Archaeological Museum. There is some good stuff, but a lot of the exhibits are nothing more than eroded fragments of statuary. I can't get excited viewing a lump of stone that kind of looks like it once was a head. (Most of the cool stuff is in New York, London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin.) By 5 pm I have done the city. I looks like the extra day I have booked at the end will be unnecessary.


Day 2: We board our bus. Although we are only 18, we get a giant, new 48 seat Mercedes tourmobile. No complaints here. The first stop is Delphi, about 3 1/2 hours (75 miles according to my GPS) distant, for more of what used to be. Our local guide is quite personable and has a pronounced New Jersey accent. He's an exile from Newark, New Jersey. There are plenty of buses on day trips and too many other tourists. When it starts to rain they clear right out. There is a small museum with exhibits labeled only in French and Greek. (The French originally excavated the site.)

We overnight in Delphi. The modern town consists of two parallel streets, each one-way to/from Athens. Our hotel is situated in the middle, fronting on each road. It is like sleeping on a highway median. For the guests on one side of the hotel the morning wake-up call is the first truck heading to Athens; and for those on the other side it's the first truck on its way from Athens.

Day 3: We continue along the Gulf of Corinth and catch a ferry over to the Peloponnese, the peninsula that form the bottom part of Greece. We then take a narrow gauge cog railway through a scenic gorge to the town of Kalavytra. It's like a toy train, just two cars long. Kalavytra is a national shrine because in 1943 the occupying Germans rounded up and executed all 1400+ men in reprisal for partisan activities. Monuments and memorials abound. (Although I looked hard, I did not see any memorials to other nationalities massacred by the Greeks or even to Greeks massacred by other Greeks during their own civil war five years later.) These pacific sentiments do not appear to have crossed to the next generation. Kiddie rides in the town square include "Apache Helicopter," "USA Army Tank," and, my favorite, "Tank War," a Frankenstein hybrid on which a tyke can battle tanks while astride a hobby horse with a machine gun mounted in its head.



A quiet town yields the quietest night yet. It's also the best hotel yet except for the no hot water in the morning. Something else about early morning in small town Greece: the bakeries aren't open yet. Plenty of beer and cigarettes for sale, though.

Day 4: We drive along winding mountain roads affording spectacular views. We are heading to Olympia, site of the ancient games and the last of the tourist honey pots on our itinerary. It's not as crowded as Delphi ? the site is bigger and more remote. The river shifted in ancient times and covered the site with silt, so it's in reasonably good shape. The on site museum has all sorts of cool stuff that they dug up. (This site was excavated by the Germans, so the captions are in German and Greek.) My favorite item is the helmet of the victorious general at Marathon alongside a captured Persian helmet. The original Olympic stadium was excavated during the war by the Germans, allegedly on orders from Hitler. The start and finish lines are intact, but the midday heat lets me resist the urge to run a lap.



We continue on to Pylos, a pleasant little seaside town on Navarino Bay. In 1827 a combined British, French, and Russian force "accidentally" sunk the Turkish navy here, thus assuring Greek independence. The main square contains a large monument to the victorious admirals.



Day 5: An early morning visit to the principal attraction in Pylos, the large, imposing 16th century Turkish fort. It's in good shape because it was used as a prison right up to modern times.



The balance of the morning is a boat trip around the bay and its islets. The French, the British, and the Russians, none of which lost a ship in the battle, have erected monuments to their glory, but the only monument for the Turks is their 53 ships on the bottom of the bay. The English memorial notes "Greece is grateful." (Oh yeah, then why did the English have to erect their own monument?)

In the afternoon, we head a few miles down the road to Methoni and its fort. Different (Venetian), but similar (still a fort). We get there by public bus. The bus schedule that must have been worked out by the Pylos Chamber of Commerce to ensure that we do not have enough time to spend any money in Methoni: the choice is either spend an hour looking around the fort and race back to the bus, or walk slowly and wait four hours for the next one.



There are plenty of fish restaurants along the waterfront. The menus are extensive, but only two items are actually available: mullet and what they call "black snapper." Both look like baitfish, and the portions are appetizer-sized.

The food in Greece is generally okay. Not great, but edible -- a combination of regular food and relabeled Turkish food (e.g.: shish kabob is called souvlaki). Everything is served with french fries. Surprisingly, there is little rice. (I guess because the EU has a big potato surplus but no rice surplus.)

These days the Greeks are no longer on the bottom of the Euro barrel. For service work, they now have Albanians, Serbians, Bosnians, Kosovars, and other flotsam from the Balkan chaos. The refugees all speak English, plus whatever Greek they've learned. (This means that even the French have to order in English). Other Euro-problems limit the menu: when I ask for veal, the waitress explains "The veal is not so tender. It is local. You have heard that the animals in Europe are crazy?" (i.e., mad cow disease)

Day 6: A morning departure from Pylos, stopping at the excavated ruins of Nestor's Palace overlooking the bay. In The Odyssey, Homer tells us of Telamachus' visit to Nestor's Palace where he was bathed by the princess. Among the ruins is a fancy, carved bathtub. Not real exciting, but of literary interest.

So far the weather has been warm. I am dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. Big mistake. We follow an ancient route across a high mountain pass to Sparta. In 1200 BC it took Telamachus one day on a chariot. Although we are in a new bus andon a decent road, we don't seem to travel a whole lot faster. The peaks are snowcapped, the scenery Alpine. At the rest stop, I dare not leave the bus lest I freeze to death.

Modern Sparti (ancient Sparta) is nothing. The Spartans didn't believe in leaving behind monuments. We pass through on the way to Mystra, an abandoned Byzantine city. The weather is sunny and clear but cold, so the first thing we do on arrival is raid our luggage for warm clothes. Mystra is situated on a mountain that dominates the Laconian plain. It started as a Frankish fort, then fell to the Byzantines. Although its golden age was in the thirteenth century, it endured as the last province of the Byzantine empire even after the fall of Constantinople. Eventually, it too fell to the Ottomans. Once a city of 40,000, Mystra was abandoned after Greek independence. We are dropped off at the upper town, climb to the citadel, and then spend the next three hours meandering towards the lower town. Wildflowers are abloom among the ruins, and there are but a handful of other tourists. It is a magical places, definitely worthwhile.



Just as we reach the bottom, it starts raining. Back on the bus, we continue on to Gythion, the ancient seaport for Sparta. Nothing to see, especially in the rain.

We continue south to the Mani peninsula, one of the three "fingers" at the very bottom of Greece. There is a stark change in the scenery: the landscape goes from lush to arid (the mountains block the moisture, although it's raining at the moment). The Mani was the last place Christianized (in the 9th century) and the last place pacified. Feuds and vendettas continued across the centuries until about a century ago when the Greek army finally imposed order. Everything is built of stone. The houses and villages are all built of stone and fortified, featuring high towers enabling one to shoot downwards at the neighbors. Our home base is the main town of Aurepoli.



Day 7, Sunday, brings a bright and clear morning. The only sounds are birds and the strains of the Greek Orthodox service being broadcast from the church. I peek inside: there are only about a dozen worshipers. Typical of the Eastern Orthodox rites, the priests are conducting the service from behind a scrim. The town is very picturesque. Unfortunately, power lines keep ruining my photo vistas. Electricity didn't come to the Mani until the 70's, and they just draped the lines everywhere. It hasn't been prettified like the tourist towns of northern Europe. It takes a lot of money to pretend that you don't have electricity.



Later that morning, we take a scenic hike to the Diros Caves, a flooded cave system on the coast inhabited in neolithic times but not rediscovered until 1949. Tourists are taken through the caves on a 25-minute boat trip. It's a head bumping experience of the type ? I am surprised the euro-safety-nazis haven't shut it down.



On the afternoon agenda is climbing the mountain overlooking Aureopoli. From the bottom, does not look like there's any way up, but a faint path snakes up. That is, MOST of the way up. Just shy of the top I lose the trail and run into a bluff which blocks the last little bit to the crest. Failure! Then it starts raining. The descent is miserable and seems to take three times as long.

That evening we walk a couple miles down to the next village for supper. Normally, I carry my camera at all times but make an exception because it just finished raining and the sky is overcast. Half way down the sun breaks through and illuminates the seaside village like a Botticelli painting. A prize-winning shot lost to the ages!

The hotels are surprisingly good for Explore. I was expecting the usual misery class lodgings. Instead, we have regular beds, bathrooms, hot water, telephones, TVs, and everything. The TV fare is all Greek stuff plus MTV India which show nonstop Bollywood videos. On the Greek channels, lots of bottle blonds. Blond Greeks (with their black eyebrows) look even sillier and more fake than blond Italians. Oh, and there's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Except that it's Who Wants To Be A 50 Million Drachmaire? (about $130,000).

Day 8: We set out in a fleet of five taxis to tour the peninsula. Many fortified villages, largely deserted. The Mani is, as they say, "undiscovered" by tourists. We hike to Cape Ternaro, the southernmost point on the Greek mainland. It is traditionally the gateway to Hades, but I can't find the access. Probably it's been moved to Washington (with a special entrance in Little Rock, Arkansas). The road twists and turns along the rugged coastline. There are scenic vistas at every turn, but the taxi drivers won't stop for photos. Right on cue, for the third day in a row the rain begins at 3:30 p.m.



Day 9: Leaving The Mani, we drive back through Gythion. In the sunshine it looks completely different. Then on to Monemvasia, a Gibraltar-like rock just off the coast but now connected to the mainland by a causeway. There is a lower, modern town at seaside, above it an abandoned Byzantine city, and at the peak a citadel. The place saw its heyday in the 13th century. Because of its strategic position, it has been the last stand of everybody from the Byzantines besieged by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century to the Ottoman Turks holding out against the Greeks in the 19th century. It takes an hour climb to the citadel, which is in ruins but affords terrific views. The city once held 60,000; now it's down to about ten families. The lower town is full of tourist shops.



After a three hour visit, we continue on to Neapoli and the ferry to Kythira, 12 miles off the southern coast. An island 18 miles long by 11 miles wide, Kythira is located on the main shipping channel to Crete and has been occupied by everyone from the Venetians to the Turks to the English to the Germans. (When the Brits had it, it was called Cirigo.) In myth, it is the birthplace of Aphrodite.

Our home base is the port village of Agia Palagia, where we completely take over a 10-room hotel. There is a beach, if you using the generous European definition: rocks, dirty brown sand, and tar balls. The water is clear, but much too cold for this Florida boy. Just down the road from us is a steep gorge with a freshwater pool at its base. We are warned not to go swimming there because of the danger of falling goats. We are also given an opportunity to order traditional Kythiran specialty for dinner: wild goat. They won't say whether it fell off the cliff.



Kythira was once heavily populated, but after the war everyone packed up and moved to Australia. There are 100,000 people down under and only 2,500 left. Greeks refer to Kythira as "Kangaroo Island" and islanders refer to Australia as "Big Kythira." English is widely spoken, but with an Australian accent. Abandoned houses and fields are everywhere. A promotional video describes the island as "hot, dry, rocky, and barren." (Actually, it's not that bad, since people have lived here for thousands of years.) The video also notes that weddings are rare because there are so few young people left. The economy revolves around returned retirees and summer tourists. The ambience is ancient ruins, modern ruins, and the white seaside buildings with blue trim typical of the Greek islands.

We have three days on Kythira. There is no public transport, so, after dropping off the students, the local school bus hauls us around. There is great variety of scenery and sites for such a small place. Our tour ends at Khora at the south end of the island. A Venetian castle on a bluff overlooks the town as well as the harbor at Kapsali, a popular stopover in the yachting world. Its beach is also cold and rocky, but at least there are no tar balls. As tourist season has not yet begun everywhere we go it's just us.

 

In addition to retirees from Australia, the island also attracts a few exiles from northern Europe. A Swede, who has set up a business packaging and exporting olive oil, shows us his grove with 1000 year old trees. While we are on island, there is a nationwide general strike, but there is no effect here. It's hard to go on strike when you don't work anyway.



Kythira is too hilly for bicycles but a great place for motor scooters. Unfortunately, I don't have my driver's license with me so they won't rent me one. Our Kiwi rents one and is seduced by the island : when we board the hydrofoil to return to Athens, he stays behind. (His flight home is a few days later). I recognize the Russian hydrofoil design immediately. Judging from the extremely sloppy workmanship, it appears to be of Russian construction as well. We get back to Athens that night. The Brits depart for the airport at 6 am.

I still have a day to kill. In the past two weeks, the tourists have multiplied like flies, and Athens is now crawling with them. And, instead of being cool and clear, the weather has turned hot and hazy. I head for the port at Pireaus. Although part of the same continuous urban sprawl, it is a separate city from Athens and has its own museum. I like it better because it has some cool stuff fished out of the sea. Statues fare a lot better on the seabed covered in mud than when left outside in the sun and rain for 2500 years. I also take care of my shopping. My patronage ends up concentrated at a store with a salesgirl in a flimsy white dress and no underwear. What can I say? Sex sells.

GERMAN POSTSCRIPT

My flight from Athens does not leave early enough to make the same day connection back to the U.S., so I decide to stay over for a day and a half. In Dusseldorf, I store my luggage at the airport and hop on the train to Cologne. I see its gothic cathedral, the touristy rebuilt old city (postcards on sale show how it looked in 1945), and take a boat trip on the Rhine. That's about it. The city is prosperous, but not particularly attractive. There is nothing over 50 years old. It's Sunday, and the city is deserted except for the Aldstadt, which has zillions of strollers and tourists enjoying an exceptional spring day. The cathedral plaza attracts every greenie and protester around spouting their tree-hugging, leftist hippie crap. The adults look lumpy, and the kids look weird. Lots of old women; not a lot of old men. Consumer tip: the main train station has the best food court anywhere. A price war has driven the cost of ice cream cones (high quality) down to 1 mark (45?).

The next day I decide on Bonn. It's even more prosperous and more prettified. Fair amount of stuff to see. Not much war damage. It's the Federal City, and on a Monday afternoon the pedestrian malls are lined with cafes, all full. No one seems to be working. It's another Brussels. In the central plaza there is a big demonstration in progress ? a bunch of bicyclists speechifying ? something about we should be pedaling our way to no more power plants. In contrast to Greece or Belgium, I don't see any EU flags. I guess the enthusiasm of the people paying the bills is less than that of those on the receiving end.

The next morning, I return to Dusseldorf for an uneventful flight home.


Trip date: May 2001