Evelyn and I decided, more or less on a whim, to travel to Greece this year. We went for ten days.
This was the first time we'd ever been overseas without knowing anyone at the other end. The one time we were in Europe together, in Lyon, we stayed at a friend's apartment.
Our itinerary consisted of Athens, followed by Santorini, Rhodes, Delphi and then Athens again. This is quite a bit of moving about and I feel like we saw a lot while simultaneously seeing very little. Greece is the kind of place where you can spit in a random direction and hit an ancient ruin. This is only a slight exaggeration. We are, after all, talking about the cradle of Western civilization. You can't hope to see more than a tiny fraction of all there is to see in only 10 days.
We landed in Athens, and stayed at a centrally located Airbnb.
First impressions of Athens: very noisy, very crowded, very dirty, and very graffitied. In other words, I am unimpressed.
My opinion changed somewhat as I made the climb to the Acropolis. There is something surreal about this...fort? temple?...sitting proud and high on its hill, keeping watch over the city.
The whole experience needed time to marinate a bit before I could appreciate the full impact. "These buildings are thousands of years old, built during a time when people believed the myths", I thought, and it slowly begins to sink in. "There was a time when people believed in Athena, not as a character in series of fictional stories, but as an object of actual worship, and this temple is proof". I understand that everyone knows this, but the reality of it hits you when you see the Parthenon up close.
Did people have the same arguments back then? Did some people believe in the literal truth of the myths, while others insisted that they were only to be interpreted metaphorically? Did they fight over it?
As with any city, I suppose, Athens has its pleasant areas, its not-so-pleasant areas, and its bustling areas. Monastiraki square, with an awesome view of the Acropolis on its perch, would count as bustling, being so close to the flea market - mostly consisting of cheap tourist shops, but with the occasional stall worth your time. The Plaka is pleasant, but in the same way that Old Montreal is pleasant: it's for tourists, and locals don't really hang out here.
That's the thing about Greece when you don't know Greek. Venturing outside the tourist zones is risky. There's a very real chance you won't be able to ask for directions if you get lost. This was a theme that would crop up again and again.
After Athens, we flew to Santorini. This was a bit of an ordeal. We bought a cheap(ish) flight with Voltea, without realizing that you needed to check in and print our your boarding passes at least two hours in advance of the flight. Failure to do so results in a 30 euro charge for each passenger. We didn't notice the two hour limit, so we tried checking in with 30 minutes to spare. Ding! 30 euros each please.
To rub salt in the wound, we forgot about the no liquids rule and we had to ditch our sunscreen. Double ding! It was a dark day. But we made it!
First impressions of Santorini: very noisy, very crowded. In other words, I am unimpressed.
At some point early in your stay, you make your way over to the caldera, and all is forgiven. The views, for lack of a better word, are jaw-dropping. I mean that quite literally; my jaw dropped a bit when I saw the caldera for the first time. There is a very good reason why this island is thick with tourists. And I'm convinced that Greece dyes the sea blue.
We stayed in Fira, the main town on the island. Attractive town, but crowded and noisy, full of places catering to people from all over the world (Chinese restaurant here, Irish pub there). It wasn't really my jam.
I did end up learning something about Greek food that I'm ashamed to say I didn't already know. "Souvlaki" refers to meat skewered on a stick, while "gyros" refers to the shaved meat from a spinning vertical spit. Everybody already knew that, right? I feel silly. Add "pita" to the name, and you have the familiar wrapped sandwich, but otherwise you get a plate with rice and salad. I learned this when I ordered a "souvlaki" thinking I was going to get a pita wrap. Live and learn, and now I know.
Oh, and I also learned, to my surprise, that I love moussaka.
A boat tour around the caldera was much more fun than Fira itself. You get to see the volcano up close, and you get to take in a 360 degree panorama view of the caldera. Again, jaw-dropping is not an exaggeration.
The boat let us off in Oia, at the tip of island. Oia is just like Fira, only prettier and quieter, mostly due to the lack of motorbikes on the roads. The place is stunning. From certain angles, your breath catches a bit in your throat.
We spent the next day at Kamari beach. Nothing much to report about that, except to say that the water was clear and perfect. I don't know how they do it. Maybe all the salt kills the algae or something.
Our next stop after Santorini was Rhodes, as far east as you can get in Greece before you hit Turkey. Evelyn and I had decided beforehand to take the ferry. We had bought the ticket in Montreal: 3-9pm, it said. Six hours. Not so bad, right?
The night before we were supposed to leave, we happened to show our ticket to our hotel manager in Fira, who kindly pointed out that the ticket said 3am to 9pm. That was...not six hours. That was 18 hours, my friends.
18 fricking hours.
After a desperate and futile attempt to find another way off the island the next day (we had a plane leaving out of Rhodes a couple of days later), we sucked it up and decided that the 3am ferry was our only option. The taxi picked us up at 1:45am sharp and dropped us off at the port, where a couple of other hearty souls were waiting.
The ferry arrived, and Evelyn made me upgrade to a cabin. Thank god for that; we collapsed on our cots and slept until noon the next day. That was 8 hours dealt with. Small favours and all.
We ended up being pleasantly surprised. It turned out, mostly due to the fact that we could actually sleep, that this was one of the better parts of the trip! You could walk around on deck, get some fresh air and you got to see a bunch of different ports from a distance - lovely, tucked away places. I only wish we could have visited.
First impressions of Rhodes Town: less noisy, less crowded. I am pleased.
The thing about Santorini - at least the parts we saw - is that it doesn't feel like anyone actually lives there. The whole thing looks like it exists solely for the benefit of tourists which, to some extent, it does.
Rhodes was still very touristy, but it felt like locals actually lived there, so I liked it.
Our hotel was in Rhodes Town. It's main draw is the Old Town. Now, lots of cities have an Old Town (Montreal, Quebec City, Lyon) but this Old Town was special in that a) it's huge and b) the architecture is this oddly attractive mix of Byzantine and Ottoman styles. A lot of it was built by the Templars. It's also differentiated from some other Old Towns in that it doesn't just exist for the benefit of tourists; people actually live there.
It was here where I tried my first stifado (Greek stew). I feel it's worth mentioning because it was freaking awesome and I want to learn how to make it.
The same meal also saw me ordering an ouzo special (a long drink consisting of Ouzo mixed with soda water) and I feel like this is a good point to pause and say few words on Greek booze. First, despite its presence in every single tourist shop in Greece, no one actually drinks Metaxa. I'm not sure why; I tried some and it's actually pretty tasty. Ouzo is big, though, much to my dismay. It's not that ouzo is bad, exactly, but I just can't say that I'm a big fan of anise flavoured liqueurs. I feel the same way about sambucca. Every so often I'll try some (like I did with the ouzo special) to see if my taste buds have changed, and I'm always vaguely put off.
We dipped our toes into the Mediterranean the first evening we arrived in Rhodes. The main town itself is fringed by a rather nice beach, so how could we not?
We had time for just one more beach after that, so we picked Lindos.
There's not much to say about Lindos. How much can you say about a beach? The water was crystal clear blue, the beach was sandy, and was overlooked by Lindos itself, with its myriad sugar cube houses. It's pretty idyllic.
The last stop on our trip, before our last night in Athens, was Delphi. The plan was to fly back to Athens, hop on a public bus to Delphi, spend the night, visit the site the next day, and head back into Athens for the evening. The plan worked, but it was pretty tiring.
Stress level were high as well. We ended up at the wrong bus terminal the first time around, and people we're not overly helpful or friendly. This wasn't a touristy area - these are the buses that the locals take to get around. Therein lies the rub with Greece. The tourist areas are the way they are for a reason. You can venture outside of them, but doing so means managing a certain amount of stress, unless you know your way around, and we didn't.
The bus trip itself was a treat. The route takes you through mountainous Greek countryside. It was a different kind of stunning than Santorini, but the word still applied.
Our hotel was fairly comfortable, and also sported a nice view.
First impressions of Delphi town: picturesque, but kind of dead, which was a welcome change from the rest of Greece. Most people, as it turns out, don't actually stay here; they do day tours from Athens. In retrospect that might have been a good idea, as we managed to "do" Delphi in only four hours.
When you're actually walking through the site, it doesn't feel completely real. The place drips with historical significance (Alexander the Great himself was said to have consulted the Oracle) and you feel a little bit numb once you're there. You have to keep reminding yourself that you are walking through the fabled site of the Oracle at Delphi. The enormity of that fact takes a while to sink in. And, as is the norm in Delphi, the view is spectacular. It's not hard to see why the ancients called it the "navel of the world".
Across the road was the Temple of Athena. Not quite the same historical significance as the Oracle, but still quite an iconic site.
Back in Athens
We get back to Athens at roughly 7pm. Our last night was spent in yet another Airbnb. This time we had the entire apartment to ourselves.
In the time we were gone, the PM had announced that he was calling a referendum concerning Greece's debt. During our first few days in Athens, we saw very little evidence that Greece was in an economic crisis at all. We saw more evidence of it now. A society which had already looked upon credit cards with suspicion suddenly started avoiding them like the plague. The capital controls imposed by the PM, whereby Greek citizens were forbidden from withdrawing more than 60 euros a day, did not apply to foreigners and so any attempt to pay by credit card was usually met with a pointed and slightly bitter "There's an ATM machine around the corner, and you can take out as much as you want - unlike us." Long(ish) lines at ATM machines were not uncommon, though not nearly so bad at the news seemed to make out.
The phrase I've used to describe Greece is: equal parts stunning and horrifying. I stand by it.
Stunning is not an exaggeration. Parts of Greece are simply gorgeous. The entire country is steeped in sun, scenery and history.
And tourists (I know, I know...I'm a tourist), and tackiness. Hence the horrifying. I realize, as was pointed out to me, that I was a part of that. And yet it somehow doesn't diminish the horrifying.
I think I've identified at least part of the issue. When you go to a place like Paris or Lyon they are, of course, crawling with tourists. But most of the places tourists go are still at least somewhat frequented by locals as well. This isn't the case in Greece. There are what one might call "tourist zones", which are almost like theme parks, and one tends not to venture outside those areas.
This is, perhaps, our own fault for not being more adventurous. I'm very curious to know what Greece is like for someone who can actually speak and read Greek. I suspect even some rudimentary Greek would serve us well.
Maybe one day.
Photos of the whole trip can be found elswhere on my site.