A Short but Filling Greek Venture

“Portion control” – if such a phrase exists in Greece – means that the portions control you, rather than the other way around. We discovered this first as we sat down to a streetside lunch in Athens after an overnight flight from Cape Town via Istanbul. A couple pounds of exceptionally good grilled meat later we were left stuffed, delighted, and a little horrified. The bowl of tzatziki alone had been huge, and then the pita, and the tomatoes…yum. We didn’t learn our lesson very well – it wasn’t long before the next unintentionally big meal.

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even the dogs have Greek style meals: a huge pile of treats that’s a struggle to get all the way through.

Visiting Greece was a target of opportunity in between our South African safari and our visit to Egypt: when exploring flights it popped up as a destination with little additional travel cost. It’s been on our wish lists for a while, and being the off-season we figured it was a solid opportunity to get our first experience in the fabled and occasionally disparaged country.

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We didn’t have any specific plans for our nine days in Greece beyond starting out in Athens. Our typical post-redeye city wander brought us through busy market and shopping districts to the foot of the rocky Acropolis. The skies were gray with threatening thunderstorms and we felt like the only tourists in the whole city. Having experienced this site remotely for most of my life through books, photos, classes etc, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon seeing the real thing. As I often find is the case in this type of situation, my reactions were a mix of slight disappointment in what I came to see combined with interest and excitement in the unexpected.

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We’ve already seen the Parthenon from every angle possible. Of course it’s unique actually being there and I got a kick out of seeing the famously non-straight lines that trick the eye into seeing the temple rising upward. But the eyesore scaffolding and the ropes preventing a wander through the structure kept a possibly intimate experience at bay.

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The Acropolis as a whole, however, was a very cool experience. The rocky hill presents itself more dramatically than I expected out of the modern sprawl and is ringed with impressively robust ancient walls. The hillside Theater of Herod Atticus, the massive entrance columns to the Acropolis itself, and the smaller temple Erechtheion next door to the Parthenon were all engrossing sights and made a good showing for us under the dramatic stormy lighting.

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Enough of the Acropolis which you can read about six ways to Sunday. Other Athens ventures included a visit to Archaeological Museum (which puts on a good show despite having some of its better exhibits on permanent loan to the British Museum), a lovely walk around the Agora, and some excellent meals. We could have powered through some more ancient sights and museums but with an Egypt tour on the horizon we didn’t want to overdose – we can always come back.

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the Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora

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Winged Victory at the Agora museum
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Elaine’s favorite ancient Minoan gold at the Archaeological Museum
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Karamanlidika Fanis: so tasty. I think I’m going back here after finishing this post

Our plan for the rest of this Greek visit was thus: rent a car and journey at our leisure through coastal towns and sights across the Peloponnesian peninsula. A day away, however, we realized that (unlike in southern Africa) not having international drivers permits would actually be a real problem. Bummer! We resigned ourselves to the whims of Greek public transit, which though limiting in some ways, turned out to not be so bad.

From Athens we took a bus over to the coastal Peloponnesian destination of Nafplio. This is your typical charming cobblestoned Mediterranean village, which is not meant to be a slight in the least. Charming and romantic! Though a bit touristy. Hard to imagine how hectic it is in-season. Anyway, we wandered around the picturesque old town, climbed up the steep hillside to the overlooking fortress, and found some excellent local seafood, cheese, wine, and olive oil.

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overlooking Nafplio from the hilltop Palamidi Fortress

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After a day of lazing about we decided to rent some bicycles and ride over to the regional ruins of Mycenae. This excavated citadel predates most ancient Greeks of fame by a solid thousand years and is typically visited via bus, taxi, or rental car. We figured that a roll through the countryside was a good idea after several massive meals, however, and the rainy weather cooperated by clearing off for us. So we zeroed in on one of the few local bike rental places (Greeks don’t really bike, it seems) and secured some wheels.

The 28km to the site rolled by fairly easily despite a slight uphill, headwind, and dragging brakes on my bike. We passed through countless orange groves (the citrus is really good here), interspersed occasionally with olive trees. We reached Mikines – the neighboring village of the ancient site – in good time and stopped for cafes at a gregarious eatery first before proceeding. Not another hundred yards after the coffee break, my left crank (this is the bit that attaches the pedal to the hub) wobbled and came loose. Hmmm…

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crank in hand with Mycenae’s walls in the background

The nut that holds the crank in place was missing – who knows how long – and options were few. My only attempt to engineer a solution (bashing a rock on the crank to hammer it into place) failed and so we walked our bikes up the rest of the way to Mycenae and left the problem for later. We thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the ruins which I think must be the oldest man-made ones I’ve seen. As a bonus we went to the nearby “Treasury of Atreus” (actually a tomb) which turns out held the title of Largest Dome on Earth for a solid thousand years before the Romans got to building them, and I’d never even heard of it. It’s even more fun than it sounds, being impeccably preserved and sporting crazy acoustics with just the two of us inside.

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the “Lion Gate” has the largest prehistoric Aegean sculpture.

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An impressive tunnel to a cistern hewn into solid rock – plenty of headroom!

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Sightseeing complete, we rolled back downhill for lunch at the same cafe and puzzled over what to do next. The bike rental guy (who spoke little English) had made it clear he would drive over and help us should any trouble occur, but based on that discussion it was also clear he expected us to be moseying around within a kilometer or two of Nafplio and not halfway to Corinth. I somewhat hoped a neighborhood mechanic would come to our aid with the required nut but our cafe host told us that, being Sunday, this was not possible. Fortunately he was happy to telephone the rental guy and explain our predicament. Apparently, he said, the guy was on his way.

We knew it was at least a 20-25 minute drive from Nafplio and assumed that his departure, if it actually happened, would be anything but prompt. Wrong! A short 20 minutes later the rental guy – typically Greek with stubble, moustache, hefty waistline over sweatpants – rolled up in his tiny messy car. A quick assessment and discussion led to the bikes being strapped to the back (not sure how they stayed on) and us shoving debris out of the way to pile in for a ride back. The language barrier remained but our host was kind enough to point out a few sights on our ride back including the local prison, which he indicated with a wink and universal handcuff gesture. He clearly wasn’t annoyed about the whole venture, which on one hand was expected – it was his responsibility – but on the other, quite refreshing. He also refused the extra cash we offered in lieu of the cab ride we would have had to pay for. Efcharistó!

From Nafplio we had a couple preferred destinations but none of these held up to tighter scrutiny of off-season bus and ferry schedules. Again wishing we had a car we scrubbed the timetables for something that seemed to make sense, and the small island of Hydra (pronounced EE-thra) cropped up. A cute harbor, some hiking, and within striking distance – sounds good! We spent a rather queasy travel day on exceptionally hot buses over windy hill roads followed by a short break in coastal Ermioni (rather an attractive town itself) before catching a ferry over to Hydra.

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Hydra is a rocky wedge in the Mediterranean, exposed to the elements as we quickly learned – a cold front was passing through with quite a discomforting chill and bluster. We arrived as the short fall day was already winding down and had to search out a place to stay which proved rather tricky. Being the off-season and a weekday, proprietors simply weren’t around even if they had space to let. We eventually got one on the phone who directed us to the keys to a vacant room (after directing me to wander into an occupied one – “oh, there are people in room ten? hmmm, try room five…”). He assured us that his partner was nearby and would be there in five minutes, half an hour, maybe later, to meet us. Let’s finish this tale here – we ended up leaving two days later with cash wrapped around the key left on the desk, not having seen him. For 35 euro a night the room was fine.

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Hydra was exceptionally quiet in the off-season – we were pleasantly surprised to find some places to eat – and even more adorable than Nafplio. I haven’t mentioned this yet but cats are everywhere in these small Greek towns and Hydra has more than its fair share, I guess they’re marooned. Cats everywhere, many quite fat, most friendly, enough to satisfy Elaine’s insatiable catappetite. Round things out with old whitewashed buildings, blue Mediterranean sky and strikingly clear water, and countless quaint old Greek men and donkeys (I don’t think there are any women on Hydra, just old men and donkeys).

We spent our free day walking uphill to the Prophet Elias Monastery – where we were greeted by a very gregarious host donkey – and around the coast at sunset. Both gave us gorgeous views of the rocky island and settlement. Fortunately the low season didn’t necessitate some second-rate eats – on a small street off the port we found one of the best bakeries we’ve encountered anywhere in Europe with absolutely delicious spinach pastries.

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greek salad and moussaka to refuel after our hill climb

After Hydra we considered visiting another island before our flight to Egypt but decided on a couple relaxing nights in Athens instead where we could take care of some odds and ends more easily (such as clean laundry). So we took an early morning hydrofoil which smelled excessively of gasoline to Athens’ port of Piraeus, thus rejoining the busy European city scene. Fortunately we knew where to find some delicious cheese and cured meats…

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Happy Thanksgiving from Athens! We’re off to find a meal, and I’ve no doubt it will be large and rich enough to satisfy today’s traditional indulgence.

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