In writing this almost a full two weeks after we departed, Greece is already fading in memory. It’s not that parts of the “Cradle of Modern Civilization” didn’t have its moments, it’s that all those moments felt like fleeting glimpses of what could have been. The opportunity Greece, and specifically Athens, has thus far squandered to be a tourism and cultural dynamo can’t be understated. From civilizations nearly as old as human storytelling itself to ancient, medieval, & modern history, Greece may have the world’s biggest head start with traveling history buffs. It has some of the most photographed beaches in the world. Its food is vastly under appreciated in culinary circles. And yet to us, our time in Greece can’t be summed up any way other than…Meh.
If you subscribe to the theory that first impressions are everything, our feelings towards Greece may have something to do with that. There is no way to qualify this expression, Athens is simply a dump. Not the rough and tumble gritty “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” city that can be like Homer’s Sirens luring the soul of the adventurous traveler, but the what the hell is wrong with these people that they’d do this to their city kind of dump. The streets reek of urine to the point of nauseousness, graffiti covers every square inch of anything at street level and most of what is above, and any building built pre-1970 is in about as good of shape as the Parthenon without the scaffolding to hide the scars.
The tourist institutions and central tourist areas have been covered with a thin veneer of repair, but that veneer predominately is a sugary mix of tourist shtick businesses that reflect little of Greece itself. It would be as though the only two neighborhoods in Los Angeles were The Sunset Strip or Skid Row.
That all sounds quite horrible, huh? Well, it’s not all so bad. The sites you’ve come to see haven’t faded with time and there isn’t much in this world a good Greek salad, $3 half-liters of wine, and some souvlaki can’t solve. Here’s our story of landing in Greece on the eve of the Grexit referendum, watching communist party rallies, making the pilgrimage to the Parthenon, and exploring the Grecian countryside that, thank Zeus, is nothing like Athens.
We arrived in Athens at 3:00 in the morning after our extended layover in Belgrade, Serbia, and made use of some benches in the arrival area to catch the rest of the morning’s sleep. Up early we took the long bus ride into town. It was a great bus ride, because you see, it was a free bus ride. Only a handful of days earlier, the capital controls limiting Greeks to 60 euros a day in bank withdraws had been enacted. Since no one had cash to pay bus fare, Athens public transit was free “until further notice”.
We arrived in Syntagma Square not to throngs of protesters and politicians, but to a few news crews setting up their live shots for the morning news, a boatload of pigeons, and one drunk naked fellow sprawled out in the middle of the square. Protesting is hard business yo.
We launched straight into our handy dandy Rick Steve’s Audio Podcast walking tour of Athens. We went through the requisite churches, neighborhoods, ruins, and climbed to the base of the Parthenon.
The sites were great, but the neighborhoods we’d seen aside from the lovely one pictured above, supposedly the cultural highlights of central Athens, already had us suspicious of what we were in for. So, checking into our AirBnB we climbed to our ivory tower for the next three days. The apartment was the embodiment of Athens. It was replete with sketchy entrance in a dank alley, creaky elevator, absolutely falling apart inside, uncomfortable, and poorly thought out…but look.at.that.view.
So, rather than trip over each other in the apartment, we just moved the bed into the center of the room and ate, slept, and wrote blog posts from right there with that view. Still a little strung out from the weird overnight schedule we took a long nap before venturing out into the still evening to find dinner and see the area. That night we saw our first Communist Party Rally (not surprisingly, they were no big fans of living up to their end of the bargain with the EU & ECB).
For all the Commiefornia jokes we’ve heard over the last 8-years, it was a little jarring to see the hammer and scythe outside of a history book or Stalin Halloween costume. It was something of a “huh, that’s right, these guys actually still exist” moment.
After seeing the aforementioned sugary veneer tourist trap restaurant row, we decided to head deeper into the city chasing our AirBnB hosts recommendation of a local restaurant. Block by block the lingering curious glances of the locals turned to stares and for the first time, we really got the uncomfortable feeling of being unwelcome where we were. Then, as though someone turned on a light, we found one of the culinary highlights of our trip. The restaurant was built into the rear of an adjoining church, served plenty of the home made sacramental beverage and some of the most succulent lamb & potatoes one could ever dream of. The walk home was no more comfortable, but with a lamb fat high, it doesn’t stand out quiet as much.
The next two full days in Athens were largely reflective of our first. Up early, tourist hard, dodge tourist food hawkers, find better cheaper food, see more sights. The highlight, of course is the Parthenon. For being a temple (ok, three temples) on a rock, it requires a lot of time, basically a full day. There is the ever crowded, but still awe-inspiring temple hill and all the other sites on the top of the rock itself. Then there are two wonderful Roman era theaters, an archaeological site around the base of the mountain, and a museum dedicated to it all. Everything save the museum was absolutely first-rate, the museum was a B-. Interesting, but far from a must.
While everyone at home was firing up their grills & lighting fireworks, Independence Day brought simply “Day Three” in Athens for us. We wrapped up the rest of major sights.
Maybe an uninspiring picture, but Grant’s favorite non-sculpture piece to date, an actual Spartan shield. This along with more ancient pottery and columns, of which we’ve become unintentional amateur experts, made a great visit to the National Archaeological Museum.
The Ancient Temple of Hephaestus is the crown jewel of the Ancient Agora, the former “city center” of Ancient Athens. You truly get to walk in the footsteps of the “heretic” Aristotle.
Having already done our American duty and eaten more grilled meat than we previously thought possible the night before (imagine a lunch room tray filled 6″ high with meat, french fries, and a few veggies for $15. Winning), we spent the evening at the closest thing to an “American” bar in Athens. We watched baseball and drank a few cold ones…
Before topping the night off with an American staple…
This mostly concluded our stay in Athens. We discovered some wonderful things, mostly culinary, about the city we never thought we’d find. But mostly, we were left with a sense of “what if”. What if the Grecians cared enough to care for their city? What if their government had made smarter, more ethical decisions 10, 20, 25 years ago? What if this city reached it’s potential… But instead, as we left on Sunday, Athenians were heading to the polls to overwhelming vote Oxi, no, on an already dead EU bailout package. A bailout package that was far more favorable to them than the one they were force-fed just two short weeks later. On the bright side of all those what-ifs, there is certainly a “what if” they defy all the odds and turn it all around, we hope to visit that Athens some day.
That was such a nice wrap up, no? Well, it only concludes our first three and a half days in Greece! Having had our fill of the city life, we hopped on a bus to the Peloponnese. What is a Peloponnese you say? It’s that big peninsula just to the west of Athens. Home to the history’s mighty Spartans, ancient Mycenaeans, and about a quarter of the sites of Homer’s Odyssey the Peloponnese is often overlooked, but historically & culturally rich. Plus, wine and pretty beaches.
By now you’ve realized we didn’t go to any of the traditional Greek Islands. A few things played into this. One, holy smokes it’s expensive. The ferries alone would have cost what our entire trip to the Peloponnese did, that’s before all the food, expensive lodging, etc… For those that have traveled to and loved Greece, most have fallen in love with one or many islands. These largely have their own unique culture, pace, etc… almost little mini-city states unto themselves. We don’t doubt that they’re stunning, but frankly having just come from our new-found personal heaven in Croatia and its island life, we just didn’t see the value in the exorbitant price.
For our goals, we think we made the right decision. Our days in the Peloponnese (we’re going to ingrain that word in your head) were filled with all of the things we love while base camped in a kitschy little seaside town, Nafplion.
For the second time in a row, we scored a room with an amazing view. Thankfully, this time, the room itself was wonderful too.
The Peloponnese is huge and most of the sites are scattered around so we scooped up another hot set of wheels and the Biker Babe was back in action!
We visited one of the oldest “intact” settlements in the world in Mycenea. The ingeniously named town is the former home of the Myceneans. One of three great “clans” that ruled the Peloponnese in its heyday along with the Spartans and Corinthians. What from a distance looks like little more than a rubble strewn hilltop is almost unbelievably well preserved. Through nearly 150 years of excavation the village almost comes to life before your eyes.
The Legendary “Lion Gate” of Mycenea
Place is in pretty good shape for being 5000 years old, huh?
We also found possibly the worlds best stuffed wine leaves at a little cafe in the nearby village. That’s not a typo by the way, the Greeks translate Dolomates into Wine Leaves, not grape leaves as American restaurants tend to. No one there is under any illusion as to what those grapes are going to be used for.
We capped the day off with a visit to the Nafplion Fortress. It was a 5-Star Indiana Jones experience. The fortress was built over the course of several hundred years by two different empires, the Venetians & Ottoman Turks. Today, you can pay your entrance fee and explore, climb, and jump you way into just about any place in the old fortress. From sunset sea views to dank dungeons with dark histories, our three hours here were some of our most memorable from Greece.
Trapped in the dungeon of many terrible tales. After valiantly leading the Greeks in routing the Ottomans out of Nafplion, a tremendous Greek general was thrown in this dungeon cell as those who were ascending to power feared his popularity with the people could unseat them. He never had any such desires…
The final day in the area brought a combo trip thanks to our super hot ride. We started our day in Epidavorus, home to the most complete Roman-era amphitheater in the world. The 2000+ seat, 2000 year old venue still hosts plays today. Kevin Spacey starred there as recently as 2012.
That afternoon was finally beach time. Taking the long way back to Nafplion we stopped at little cove beaches, beach bars, and one Mycenean-era bridge, which was so easy to find we nearly missed it.
The next 24-hours were travel days. Back to Athens and then another night sleeping in Athens Airport…we’re getting pretty good at that. And with that we said goodbye to Greece, sort of. We were headed off to an island that if not for several fateful turns of history could just as easily be one of the “Greek Isles.” But, thanks to the Crusades, the little island nation of Cyprus stands proudly independent, if noticeably “Greek” in many ways. With close friends from there and a sister who studied abroad in the Cypriot capital, we’d heard so much about this magical place, we had to see for ourselves.
That story in a week… We’re off the grid and sailing for the next week in Southwestern Turkey.
Mr & Mrs. Trading Paradises
Filed From: Marmaris Harbor, Marmaris, Turkey. Going off the grid for the week, sorry for any delays in approving comments!