In October 2007, I traveled to Greece for the Communicating Astronomy to the Public conference. The conference was in Athens, but I wanted to spend a week after the meeting seeing the Greek countryside.
I was told that October is the prefect time to be in Greece: the temperatures are mild and the tourist season is waning. In this travelogue, I chronicle my experiences, impressions, and photos from my wonderful, two-week tour of Greece.
| City of Athena
6-12 October 2007
| Monasteries of Meteora
12-13 October 2007
| Delphi, Center of the Universe
13-14 October 2007
| Nafplio, Venetian City By the Sea
14-16 October 2007
| Epidavros and Cape Sounion
16-17 October 2007
Athens, or as it is written here Αθηνα, is the largest city in Greece. However, this was not always the case; in fact, Athens only recently rose, some say reluctantly, to the status of a metropolis. Athens became the capitol of an independent Greece in the mid 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the city began to sprawl—and its sprawl is indeed impressive. From certain vantage points, there seem to be no end to the low, concrete buildings that make up Athens.
I was properly primed for my visit by my seat mate on the ten-hour flight. Her name was Anthe and she was on her way to Rhodes where she's building a house. We talked for most of the overnight flight, so I did not get too much sleep, but she had such a wealth of information to mine I easily resisted sleep.
I arrived in Athens at 11 AM, Saturday morning. My hotel, the Baby Grand, was just south of Omonias Square, the main square in Athens, which evokes memories of pre-Disney Times Square: busy by day with many tourists, equally busy by night with prostitution, drugs, and ne'er-do-wells.
The Baby Grand was one of these designer hotels and, I must admit, the novelty was pleasantly fun. The rooms are tame when compared to the public spaces, but they are surprising nonetheless. I was welcomed by a faux tiger's head staring at me.
I showered and began to work on my talk for the conference, but soon my eyes felt heavy and my head wanted nothing more than to rest on my desk. After my nap, I wrapped up my talk and burst into the Athens night. I walked toward the Acropolis and the historic neighborhood beneath the giant rock outcrop called the Plaka.
I stumbled onto Ermou Street, a bustling pedestrian street with shopping, street musicians, and plenty of tourists. In a tiny square sits the Church of Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens, dating back to the 11th century.
Soon I turned down a small street and caught my first glimpse of the Acropolis hovering over me. Bathed in golden light, it was a marvelous sight.
Walking toward the light of the Acropolis, I found myself in the Plaka, the old part of town where the streets are narrow and the houses are small. The word
old is an inadequate descriptor in Greece—records reach back thousands of years—but I believe the modern incarnation of this neighborhood dates to Turkish times. Of course in ancient times, this was the bustling center of the city—I'm standing on ground where Socrates taught in the 5th century BC and St. Paul converted people to Christianity in 49 AD.
After grabbing some dinner and strolling around the Plaka, I became disoriented. I spent the better part of an hour trying to match up the street signs to my maps. I was down by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch. It was approaching midnight when I passed an older Englishman. Looking back into a car window's reflection, I saw him stop and look at me. I turned to talk to him, but he didn't quite know where we were on the map. He was able to tell me what direction was north but could not understand why I didn't just get in a taxi. Knowing what direction to head in, I finally figured out where I was located and walked up Stadiou Avenue to my hotel, where I fell fast asleep.
Every town in Greece is filled with kiosks that sell news, candy, food, drink, phone cards, cigarettes, and anything else they can cram into the tiny, fotomat-like booths. This is the Greek convenience store and, at times, acts as the town's water cooler.
For lunch I walked into a residential part of the city, where few tourists go, to find a decent meal at local prices. I was not disappointed. Although there were some language difficulties, I figured out how to order and got what I wanted. After, I met my friend, Ryan, and we went to the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is perhaps the most important ancient monument in the world. The name acropolis means high city and this particular high point has been inhabited since the sixth millennium BC. In 510 BC, the Delphic oracle declared the high rock outcrop to be a sacred place. Temples were built, only to be destroyed by the invading Persians in 480 BC. Pericles (495-429 BC) began a massive rebuilding program culminating in the temples we see today. Well, what's left of them. Wars, occupation, and looting have reduced the temples to ruins. Perhaps the most devastating blow came when the Venetians bombed the Acropolis, which the Turks were using as an armory. An explosion in the Parthenon ignited a fire that burned for two days.
We toured the site for about an hour before they closed. We planned to come back later in the week, so we were not worried. After the Acropolis closed, many visitors ended up on the Areopagus Rock, or Mars Rock, the site of great speeches by the great philosophers and orators of the time. We ran into several friends and colleagues here, in town for the conference which begins tomorrow morning. We also took tons of pictures (as you might imagine, astronomers and science visualizers love taking pictures).
After watching the sunset from Mars Rock, we then watched as lights transformed the Acropolis into an equally awe-inspiring masterpiece by night.
As we took picture after picture, adjusting shutter speeds and ISOs, I could smell people's smoke, and not the legal kind that is ubiquitous in Greece, but that other kind. Soon after, this guy stood in front of my camera and would not move. His friend tried to pull him away, but was having little success. Rather than become annoyed, I embraced it. I Asked him to change his pose and took a couple of shots. He said he was from Afghanistan and we talked about that for a minute. After I showed him the photo, he was off.
It occurred to me later that this was the perfect time to use some of the whackier phrases in my Lonely Planet Greek phrasebook. They have a section on dating and partying that's a stitch to read. Phrases like (accent on the italicized syllable):
Other fun lines include:
I highly recommend the Lonely Planet phrasebooks, they are not only useful, but entertaining as well.
After, a bunch of us got dinner and walked home to get some sleep before the early wake-up call tomorrow.
The following day we were busy at the conference all day and night. And, the day after that was busy, but we had the conference banquet, which was being held at a hotel below the Acropolis. This offered another opportunity to explore. My friend Ryan and I walked around the Acropolis and into the parks to the west.
We walked around the Acropolis to the east, then walked toward the old Athens Observatory, which was built on a hill to the west. It was getting dark, and our dinner time was approaching. We walked along the grand promenade to the south of the Acropolis, where we took a few pictures of the Parthenon.
Our dinner was on the roof of a nearby hotel, with a view of the illuminated fortress. Wonderful! Every dinner in the area is designed with this in mind—tomorrow night's view will be no different.
On the last day of the conference, we skipped out a little early to take in the Acropolis, full-scale. I met my friends Angie and Curtis and we walked down to the great hill once more. This time the sun was shining and the morning light was great.
I'll take this moment to mention that Greece is plagued with stray cats and dogs. They seem friendly and the dogs are tame, but they are everywhere. All of the roadkill I saw were dogs. I found this sign funny, as there are a dozen cats and dogs that roam the Acropolis freely.
We arrived at the temple before the tour buses arrived, so we rushed to take pictures before the site was flooded with tourists. It didn't take long though. We bumped into a few other colleagues playing hooky too.
We spent several hours at the site, then Angie and I decided to grab some lunch and see the Ancient Agora. Agora translates to "marketplace" and was the center of activity in ancient Athens, where political, commercial, and social activity thrived. It was the city center.
As with all ancient sites, it has seen great phases of construction and destruction. It was first built in the 6th century BC, but destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. Pericles rebuilt it during Athens' golden age, but it was again destroyed in 267 AD by a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia. The Turks built a town here, but it was dismantled after Greek independence in the 19th century.
On our way back, we walked around town and came across a demonstration across from our hotel. I'm always a little leary of demonstrations in a foreign land, as one never knows what it's about or of the cops are going to come in a
disperse the crowd.
Athens was a good way to get my feet wet in Greece, but I was ready to see the countryside. The city is, like any city, noisy, filthy, and populated by people from all over the world. Athens does not provide me with the feeling that I am experiencing Greece, just as New York City cannot (and does not) represent America. So, I'm off to the airport to pick up a car to drive the roads of Greece, to see the small towns, and to talk with the natives (as best I can).
In many ways, this week will be a personal challenge. To drive and navigate in a country where I don't speak the language, and to do that alone, is something new for me.
During my week in Athens, I was still deciding what I would like to see in Greece. I was enticed by the islands, particularly Santorini, but the islands take some time to reach, and they are expensive. And, once you're on the island, that's all you're gonna see. So, I opted toward the side of renting a car and seeing the Greek mainland.
I talked to people at the conference all week searching for validation of my plan. It finally came yesterday afternoon, when I bumped into my co-worker, Carter, at the Acropolis. He mentioned that he had spoken with one of the local conference organizers who told him that the
real Greece is not in the islands, but north in the mainland. This was a relief to me, and put an end to second-guessing my itinerary.
To bolster my newly found confidence, I talked with someone in the hotel bar last night who was from Spain (but schooled in England and Australia, so he had a wicked English accent), and I explained my plan to him. He responded by saying that Meteora and Delphi are
Finally, I felt I could embrace my plan wholeheartedly.
I set out from the airport where I rented a silver, four-door Opel Corsa. After talking with Eduardo, the Spaniard, last night, he recommended that I go to Meteora first, then south to Delphi, and on to the Peloponnesus, which made more sense to me than my original plan.
Greece is in the process of building a national system of highways. Around Athens the highways are in good shape. They are also very crowded, but no worse than those in New York. I was taking the road around Athens, which connects with the National Road north. It took me awhile to understand the relationship between the scale on my map and reality, but I successfully navigated around Athens and found the highway north.
Driving on the highways was pretty easy, but later I would be on smaller roads that pass through city centers and wondered whether I will lose my way.
The main highlight on the highway north was passing through the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, where the Greeks held the Persians for three days in 480 BC. The Greeks ultimately were defeated, but the Persians suffered disproportionate losses.
At Lamía, I turned off the highway and headed northwest to Trikala, then to Meteora. I passed over a mountain range, then descended into the fertile, flat Thessaly plain, where I saw cotton and other staples growing.
Meteora is the name used for a group of monasteries built atop massive rock outcrops. As I drove north toward the mountains, it began to rain, but I could see the towering rocks on the horizon. As I grew closer, the Sun began to peek through the late-afternoon storm.
I booked a room this morning at the Sydney Hotel in the small town of Kastraki (population 1,203). The larger town near the monasteries is Kalambaka, but I decided to stay in the smaller, closer town.
By the time I found the hotel (and the town for that matter), the Sun had returned and the rain had cleared. The view toward the smooth rock pinnacles was spectacular. I rushed to check in and unpack so I could catch the last hour of sunlight.
I ran into town and took some shots of the quaint village beneath the rocks.
After walking around Kastraki, I rushed back to the hotel, grabbed the car, and drove up into the mountains to see the rocks and the monasteries. The light was wonderful and I drove from lookout to lookout until it was completely dark.
I returned home and walked around the streets of Kastraki. I ate at a restaurant and took a few pictures, but this town is pretty buttoned up after sundown. It's dark and so quiet I can hear my own thoughts.
While I was paying for dinner, I noticed that my ATM card was not in my wallet. This seemed odd to me; I always put it back in the same place. I walked back to the hotel and looked through my suitcase, but I knew it was gone. I believe I left it in the bank machine in Athens—I've grown accustomed to dipping my card instead of surrendering it to the machine for the duration of the transaction, so I probably walked away once I received my cash.
I used my phone card to call Citibank and cancel my card, which also terminates my on-line access. I was sorting this out on the phone for a couple hours. Some of the phones in this small town do not work too well, so I had to try a few, which is about all the phones this town has. We talked about the possibility of getting a card delivered to the city of Patra, but going there would screw up the entire trip. I will have to survive on the cash that I have and charge when I can. I have about €250 and I wonder if that will be enough.
I met a couple from Minnesota in the hotel. They were having a beer in the hotel lounge and, had I not lost my bank card, I would have joined them. I did join them the following morning for breakfast. Well, we were talking across tables. It is heading into the low season so there was only me, the Minnesota couple, and a family of four from Sweden.
The Minnesota couple were heading to Delphi this morning. It turns out we booked a room in the same hotel there too, but I was heading for the monasteries this morning. I finished my breakfast—slices of ham and cheese wrapped in saran, a tiny glass of juice, tea, a hard-boiled egg, and bread—and checked out.
It was a bit hard to pull myself away from the Aussie-Greek who runs this place. The Sydney Hotel is in fact named for Australia, and Australian tchochkis, including stuffed kangaroos and a boomerang or two, decorate the lounge. The owner is a friendly man in his early 70s who seems constantly disenchanted with the red tape of Greek society. In Greek cities there is reliable phone service, electricity, and plumbing. Out here in the country, it is a different story.
Meteora is an otherworldly place. It is known for the monasteries that were built atop stunning rock formations that protrude from the Thessaly plain. The geology alone would make this area an attraction, but the monasteries give the rock towers an added cultural significance.
The rocks lie at the edge of the Pindhos Mountains but were once at the bottom of the sea. About 60 million years ago, the sea floor was pushed up, exposing the sandstone to weathering, which sculpted the rock formations we see today.
Monks began living in the area in the 11th century. Over the next few hundred years, Byzantine power of the Roman Empire was waning while Turkish attacks were on the rise. This drove the monks onto the seemingly inaccessible rock towers, where they built their monasteries. Early monasteries were reachable only by removable ladders, but later, rope baskets were used to hoist supplies and people up the sheer rock cliffs. In the 1920s stairs were built, and occasionally carved through rock tunnels, for easier access. However, these are for tourists. Today's monks use tiny cable cars suspended on wires. They hit a switch and slowly inch their way over vast gorges to reach their home.
On my way to the monasteries this morning, I passed a fellow traveler hitchhiking up the mountain. Many people arrive by bus to this area, and then have to walk up the mountain roads to see the monasteries. Contrary to my American common sense, I decided to pick one up. He looked like a foreigner in a foreign land and was certainly a traveler. Travelers are well acquainted with the feeling of inexperience, which is always easier to endure if you share it with someone. This creates a bond among travelers and, perhaps naively, prompted me to lower my guard. I also knew how far it was to the top and felt I had plenty of space in my car.
His name was Marc and he was from a town outside Barcelona, Spain. He did not really speak English, but we were able to communicate with my piecemeal Spanish. He was a nice kid. When I asked what he did when he wasn't traveling, he responded by saying and gesturing that he juggled. I wondered how he was able to make a living, but I didn't ask.
We drove up to the 14th-century Moni Megalou Meteorou. Meteora means
suspended in the air, or
in the heavens above. This monastery was the richest of the dozen or so that were built here, thanks to the Serbian emperor Simeon Uroš, who donated his fortune to this monastery and became a monk in the 1300s.
Marc paid for my admission and we explored the monastery together. It is an amazing place. How people built these complex buildings hundreds of feet up without modern machinery is amazing.
Marc and I parted after touring this monastery. He was off to see one, while I was heading to another. I needed to be on my way to Delphi by mid-afternoon, so I could not see all the monasteries. The other monastery that I wanted to see is the Moni Agias Triados, or the Holy Trinity Monastery. It is the most remote monastery, so I hoped it would be relatively empty. On my way, I took a few more pictures (of course!).
The Agias Triados monastery is one of the most difficult to reach. The path leads down a steep hill, then up the rock tower. I hoped there would not be so many tourists here and, aside from two other tourists and two monks, I was alone.
Meteora is an incredible sight to see. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site—one can't travel too far in Greece without bumping into one—and it is a living relic to the Greek culture. Many believe there would be no Greek culture today without the monasteries' work to preserve their religion and culture from the occupying Turks.
I headed down the mountain to get lunch in Kalambaka. After I got out of my car, I stopped an older American couple and asked them if they could point me to a decent restaurant in town. They asked me about the car and driving in Greece; they were on a bus tour and I sensed they envied my car, wishing they could see Greece at their own pace. Most people do bus tours, but I just don't think it's for me. I don't want to hear
you have an hour to see... at every stop. I overheard countless people say that at each monument I visited. While one might meet some interesting people on these tours, I would have a hard time with the constraints.
After lunch, I'm off to Delphi, the center of the ancient world.
After lunch in Kalambaka under the monasteries of Meteora, I jumped in the car and headed south to Delphi. Once considered the center of the world, Delphi is the most important ancient site in Greece and the Delphic oracle was the most influential in Classical Greece.
Between Meteora and Lamía, there are several mountain ranges to cross. Between these ranges are flat, fertile plains, where I saw cotton and other staples growing.
After Lamía, I headed south along a winding, mountain road toward the Corinthian Gulf and Delphi. The scenery along this road was wonderful and there was very little traffic.
As I approached Delphi, the mountain road opened into a wide delta region on the Gulf of Corinth. The entire plain was packed with olive trees. These are connected to the town of Amfissa, which is famous for its green olives.
I settled into my small room overlooking Delphi's main street, then explored the town. I watched the sunset from a cliff overlooking the valley, after which I grabbed dinner at the Lonely-Planet-recommended Taverna Vakhos. It was by far the best food I've eaten in Greece thus far. I ate a seasonal salad along with a whole snapper with fresh, in-season vegetables, rice, and some wine.
For the first time, I actually ordered dessert. A tour of the offerings from my waiter revealed four choices: chocolate cake, tiramisu, walnut cake, and something that was untranslatable. The chocolate cake and tiramisu seemed boring, while the walnut cake and the other dessert were Greek specialties. I chose the untranslatable cake. As I was eating it, the waiter asked me if I knew how to describe this in English, and I did not. It is called Ekmek Kataifi (Εκμέκ Καταϊφι), and it is a layered sweet with kataifi pastry under egg custard and vanilla cream icing. It was luscious and light.
Satisfied by a wonderful meal, I walked around town for a bit taking a few snapshots.
Ancient Delphi presents an entirely different experience than the modern town. After checking out of my hotel this morning, I grabbed a fresh-squeezed orange juice and walked about a kilometer to the ancient city.
I wanted to get there early to beat the mobs of people from tour buses. I arrived at 8:30 (they open at 7:30), and rushed to the monument saving the museum for later. I walked into the site and headed up to the top where the theater and the stadium are located.
I was the only one here. It was just me and the birds, whose song was reminiscent of the canyon wren.
I made it up to the stadium and I still did not see a soul. I was blown away by the stadium. How many people must have sat and watched sporting events and concerts held here? I did a rough estimate, counting the number of seats in one row, the number of rows in one section, and the number of sections in the stadium. Turns out, the stadium sat about 6,500. Its stone seating extends the 177-meter length of the stadium and ends in a horseshoe curve in the back. The seating on the opposite side has largely been destroyed.
On my way down, I toured the 5,000-seat theater.
Below the theater is the most important monument of ancient Greece: the Temple of Apollo. Inside the temple, the Delphic oracle, Pythia, would breathe fumes that emanated from cracks in the Earth, then fall into a trance and begin speaking in tongues and riddles. No major decision among the Greek city-states was made without consulting the oracle at Delphi.
I spent about two and a half hours on the site and by now the buses had arrived. And, along with the buses come the tour guides, dragging apathetic children by the ancient ruins. At the bottom of the site, I sat for a minute to book my hotel for tonight in Nafplio. I opened my guide book, chose a hotel, and called them on my cell phone. Within a few minutes, about seven cats were surrounding me.
After the main site, I walked another half-mile down the road to the ancient gymnasium and the Sanctuary of Athena. To my delight, there were very few people here. I walked to the Tholos at the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia only to discover there were five people on the opposite side of the temple. Damn!
We began to talk and I recognized one man's voice as belonging to a group of annoying Americans in the restaurant last night. They were from Atlanta and, based on my eavesdropping over dinner last night, they were hairdressers. They asked me if they were in my way, and I responded politely that they were fine. A minute later they were standing beside the round sanctuary, holding hands in a circle and chanting. Between these people and the group prayer I witnessed at the Acropolis, I was left wondering why Americans are so damn freakish. Why do they feel they need to foist their religious displays upon others? Will a more demonstrative prayer session be more effective than quietly communicating in your head? Christians, you've gained a foothold in this world, you can stop with the downtrodden act.
Finally, the Atlanta hairdresser cult people left and I was able to explore the site on my own.
It was beginning to rain a little and I didn't have my jacket, so I rushed over to the gymnasium. Guess who I ran into there? They were sitting inside the round bath, once fed by a spring and used by athletes. I was waiting for them to be kicked out by the guard, but he didn't notice for about 15 minutes. The fact that these people knew better only increased my animosity toward them.
I hiked back up to the road and headed to the museum, where many of the artifacts from the site are displayed. The most striking figure to me was the melancholy Roman and the charioteer.
Having lucked out with the rain, I headed back to town on this gray day to grab lunch. The food was so good last night that I decided to return to the Taverna Vakhos. I had a fresh beet salad, which consisted of three huge slices of the most flavorful beets I've ever had in a little olive oil, along with a lamb stew. Today, I tried the walnut cake, the other Greek speciality on the dessert menu. He put
the sweet on the house.
I walked around this quaint town, taking a few photos before getting in the car to drive to Nafplio, the Venetian, seaside city on the Peloponnesus.
A Venetian city in Greece, you ask? Yes, this city was once part of the powerful Republic of Venice, but I'll talk more about that later.
For now, I am heading to Nafplio from Delphi. There is no direct way to get there from here. Either I go east to Thiva (ancient Thebes), head south toward Athens, then turn west to the Peloponnesus. Or, I can drive west along the Gulf of Corinth, cross to the Peloponnesus over the newly built Rio-Antirio bridge near Patra, then head east along the water to Nafplio. Six of one, half a dozen of the other—let's see this famous bridge.
The Rio-Antirio bridge is awesome, a work of modern, architectural art. A bridge at this location was proposed over 100 years ago, but it was not until 2004 that the cable-stayed span was completed.
Still mindful of my cash flow problem, I was shocked at the €10.90 toll to cross (that's about $15!). The bridge crosses the Strait of Rion, the western entry to the Gulf of Corinth.
Now I turn east along the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth. The road to Corinth is mostly two-lane, but people drive like it's a four-lane highway. It is customary to ride in the shoulder of the road so faster drivers can pass.
I was a little concerned about finding my hotel in Nafplio. It's in the old part of town, where it's not really prudent or possible to drive. After a detour, I arrived in Nafplio and followed the signs to the old town and parked beside a large town square.
I walked into the old section and, with some difficulty, found the Hotel Byron. The hotel is named for Lord Byron, the 19th-century Romantic poet from Britian whose most famous work is Don Juan. He is well regarded in Greece for his participation in the War of Independence from the Turks—there is a monument to him in Nafplio. He traveled throughout Greece, looking for love and adventure. Besides a hotel in Nafplio, he has an asteroid named for him (thought I'd bring us back to astronomy for a moment).
I showered and set out to explore the town. Along the way, I spotted the couple I'd met in Meteora on the street and looking at their guidebook. "Are you lost?" I asked as I snuck up on them.
Soon I found a place to eat, but I was the only person in the place. It came recommended from my Lonely Planet guide, so I knew it must be okay, but it was odd to be the only one in the restaurant. I had the pork stew, which was yummy. After dinner, I tracked down the Italian homemade gelato parlor which also came highly recommended by my guidebook. It is divine.
I strolled around town while I ate my ice cream, then turned in early. Tomorrow I will explore the town and the surrounding fortresses.
As I mentioned before, Nafplio was once part of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (yes, that was its official name). At their apex, they held land in Italy, down the Croatian coast, in Greece and Turkey, and occupied the island of Cyprus. They funded explorers like Marco Polo and backed the Crusades, earning favors around Europe.
Nafplio was occupied by the Byzantines, then the French, and in 1377 the Venetians arrived but were soon ousted by the Ottomans. The Venetians returned in 1685 and fortified the city, but this was the last gasp of the Venetian empire. In a little over 100 years, the 1,100-year empire would be divvied up between Napoleon, the Austrians, and the Turks.
Today, the city resembles a quaint, Italian town with pastel houses and white-washed alleyways. During the Greek War of Independence the city was under siege for an entire year. Its fortifications are so strong, it was made the first capital of Greece after independence from the Turks in 1829. After Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state of independent Greece, was assassinated here, his successor moved the capital to Athens in 1834.
I woke up this morning and looked at my watch. It said 10.15, but it was still pretty dark outside. Was it going to be a rainy day? A ship arrived over night, its lighted masts towered over the terracotta roofs. I got up, showered, and prepared to hit the town. Then, I looked at my watch again. Turns out I was looking at the date and it was only 8:30 in the morning. Damn! Well, I was awake now, so I may as well venture out.
I walked up to the lower fort today called the Akronafplia Fortress. It sits on a ridge that shelters the town from the south. In fact, Nafplio is one of the best harbor cities in the world, which is why it was a prized military target. The town faces north toward a small harbor that opens up to the Argolic Gulf to the south. The ridges and mountains are placed perfectly to watch the water to the south and the land to the east and north.
The Akronafplia Fortress rests on the ridge that hugs the city; it was the acropolis of Nafplio. The earliest fortifications date from the 2nd century BC, but most of the remaining structures were built by the Venetians in the 15th century. To the south is the beach and gulf, and to the north is the town.
Much of the ridge is covered in prickly pear cacti and, as I walked the length of the ridge, I discovered that they are covered with snails.
Because this is a relatively recent construction, there are no limitations to where you can explore. I walked into rooms, through tunnels, and onto ramparts without ropes or restriction. And, I was completely alone, not a soul around.
From here, the city appears as a clustering of continuous terracotta. I returned to town and walked around awhile before lunch. Frankly, the town isn't all that big, something I would come to realize by the end of the day.
It is said that Nafplio is one of the most beautiful cities in Greece, and I can see why. Quaint, narrow streets and alleyways lined with pastel houses and couples strolling. And the quintessential cat around each corner.
I ate lunch at a restaurant called Mezedopoleio O Noulis and, in typical fashion, I was the only one there—tourist season is certainly coming to an end. When I walk into a restaurant, the chef's break is over. After lunch, I will climb the steps to the Palamidi Fortress, the state-of-the-art military compound built in the 1710s.
Local lore says there are 999 steps to the top. I did not count, but I'd say that's about right. The stairs begin in town and continue to the top of the 700-foot mountain. I hoofed it up there; it's really not that difficult. Stopped along the way to take in the view (and catch my breath).
The fortress was the last major fort built by the Venetians before their empire collapsed. Palamidi and Akronafplia Fortresses were used as political prisons into the 20th century.
I sat on a wall overlooking Nafplio for some time. I wrote in my journal and people-watched. It was a cool, breezy day and there was one group of Russian teenagers touring the place—an invasion of another kind. After being chased from my solitude, I explored the fort, creeping through tiny crawl-spaces that open up into stone-walled, windowless prison cells. I found a large, underground room down some steps, but it was kind of dark and spooky; the floor was muddy with a large pool of stagnant water and there was only one small window near the ceiling.
Soon I descended the 1,000 steps back to town and explored the streets. Around 4 o'clock, I heard chanting and prayers from one of the churches in town and headed over to see what was happening.
I continued to walk around town. To the main square, down to the pier, and around the narrow alleyways. I settled on a place for dinner and asked the waiter what was happening at the church this afternoon. He then asked another waiter who said that the head of a saint had arrived in town and was on display in the church.
Night fell and I snapped a few more pictures.
Truthfully, I was a little bored this evening. Maybe I've seen all that Nafplio has to offer; maybe I'm lonely and desire a quality conversation, something I've not had since leaving Athens days ago. I thought about going to a bar, but decided against it. I went to bed early and looked forward to getting on the road tomorrow morning.
The clouds finally cleared this morning, motivating me to run around town and take some photos before checking out of my hotel. I visited a bakery and grabbed a fresh apple turnover and some juice and took some last shots of this lovely town.
I packed my things and lugged them back to the car, which was parked outside the old town. The birds had not been kind to me over the past day; the car was covered in poop. As I drove out of town I stopped to get gas, another €35, and tried to remove the poop from the windows. The attendant was telling me I needed hot water, but we did our best.
Nafplio was a wonderful town, unlike anything I've ever seen. I have yet to visit Italy, but this town is probably the closest I've come. The town's quaint streets and alleys remind me of a quieter existence, where life's pace is slower. I wish I had someone here to share it with.
Today, I'm off to Epidavros to see the best preserved ancient theater in the world, and then I'm heading for the Temple of Poseidon, where I will spend my last night in Greece.
Today is my final full day in Greece; tomorrow morning, I head for the airport. The question is, where will I be sleeping tonight? I want to be somewhat close to the Athens airport, but I am not familiar with that area. My guidebook does not mention too much beyond Cape Sounion, which is about an hour south of the airport. I'd never heard of Cape Sounion until Mel and my friend Angie mentioned the Temple of Poseidon, which is located at the cape. I guess I'll see what accommodations the area offers when I arrive there later this afternoon.
I drove for about an hour this morning to the ancient site of Epidavros on the Argolic Peninsula. Across the Saronic Gulf to the northeast is Athens. Epidavros is famous for its 3rd century theater, which is still in use today.
The theater is indeed amazing. I've seen ancient theaters in Athens and Delphi, but this one is intact and much larger than the others. It seats 14,000 people and the acoustics are perfect. It's said that if someone drops a coin on stage, you can hear it clearly in the last row. That particular test would be impossible today, given the two groups of obnoxious teenagers who were making barnyard noises, belching, and screaming.
Every now and then, staff from the site stand on the center stone and perform a few readings. I couldn't help imagine, as I did at the Acropolis and in Delphi, the many thousands of people who sat in these very seats before me. Who and what entertained them 2,000 years ago?
I scaled the stone structure from top to bottom and around the perimeter.
Finally, the teenagers left and took their goat and cow noises with them. I, too, left the theater and explored the rest of the ancient city here. Frankly, there is not much to see. In ancient times, Epidavros was a place to go to be cured of your ailments. People from as far as Rome came here to visit the sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of medicine.
In the ancient city there were hospitals, a convalescent, and long-term care facilities. Most of these structures are mere foundations today, but the Greek government is restoring the site. Why, I'm not sure, but they press on year after year, decade after decade.
Nothing else here was as impressive as the theater. I toured the other sites and visited the small museum, but soon I hit the road to find a place to stay tonight near Cape Sounion.
The road north is very curvy and passes through tree-covered mountains that occasionally open up to views of the vivid blue sea. I passed through only a few towns, including Katakali and Almiri. Sensing I was nearing the highway, I stopped to get some food and drink from a kiosk along the side of the road. As I said earlier, these are for the locals and the person inside generally knows everyone who stops by for a paper, cigarettes, or a bottle of soda. I pulled over and picked up a few things to tide me over till dinner and the girl inside said something to me followed by a wink. I'll never know what she said, but I sure did allow my imagination to run wild.
The road joins the highway at Isthmia, the ancient town on the south end of the five-mile-wide Isthmus of Corinth which connects the Peloponnesus to Attica. Just a few minutes after entering the highway, I crossed the Corinth Canal, a deep trench below the road. The canal connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas and was dreamt about since the 7th century BC. It was not until Nero, in the year 67, that the digging began. The canal was built by 6,000 Jewish prisoners, but was interrupted by invasions and soon abandoned. As it turns out, the canal was not completed until the late 1800s by a French company. The result is impressive: a deep trench that is only 70 feet wide. It saves about 200 nautical miles off a mariner's journey.
Heading back toward Athens, I took the by-pass around the city and continued until the highway ended shortly after the airport. I was heading to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. The towns along this road are mainly industrial, nothing too pretty here. I was on the lookout for a place to stay and paying close attention to the route, as I will need to drive back here tomorrow morning on my way to the airport.
After Lavrio, the road narrowed and became more scenic. I wasn't sure where the temple was, and I took a few wrong turns, but I kept following the road and eventually reached the site at the southern tip of the Attica peninsula. It was about 4 o'clock by now and the light was wonderful, not a cloud in the sky. I walked up to the monument, paid the €4 admission, and wandered around. There were a few tours here, but it was not mobbed.
The tawny color of the earth contrasted wonderfully with the indigo sea and the azure sky, throw in an ancient temple and it was a sight to behold. The Temple of Poseidon was built in 444 BC, around the same time as the Parthenon in Athens. In ancient times, it was an important landmark to sailors returning home to Athens, just as the skyscrapers of Manhattan are for New Yorkers today.
After touring the site, I jumped in the car to get a bite to eat. I'd not eaten anything substantial today. I got a table at a seaside taverna below the temple. I ordered some octopus along with the bean dish I've not tried yet. This is a dish of large kidney beans cooked in a light, tomato-based sauce. It was good, but the octopus was better. Washed it down with my last ΑΛΦΑ beer as I watched the sun slowly make its way toward the horizon.
I asked the waiter about places to stay in the area. There are only four. The swanky hotel just across the street, a hotel up the road to the west, a hotel up the road to the east, and a campground. Well, the luxury hotel on the sea was beyond my tight budget, and the waiter recommended the Hotel Saron on the east coast road over the other hotel. I passed the Hotel Saron on my way here, so I went back to check it out. The receptionist was Polish and was asking €75 for the night. Not much of a choice, unless I want to stay in the campground. The room was adequate, and that's about all I can say about it.
The hotel is dead, nothing to walk to and no one to talk to. I jumped in the car and headed to Lavrio, a town to the north, where I got a calling card and talked to Mel for about an hour at a phone booth.
I arrived back at my room, watched a little Greek television, and went to sleep. I needed to wake up early to allow for the additional time to reach the airport. My flight takes off at 12:20 in the afternoon.
I woke up first around 5 AM and again just before my 7 AM wake-up call. I was out of the hotel by 8, bypassing the free breakfast, which I imagined to be as adequate as the rooms. The road to the airport was pretty empty. I filled the gas tank last night, leaving me with about €35 for the rest of the trip. The money worked out perfectly, despite the fact that I lost my ATM card.
I arrived at the airport before 9, returned the car (I was relieved that he didn't say anything about the bird poop), and headed to departures where a group of us had congregated waiting for the ticket counter to open. Once they did open, I got a bite to eat in the airport, relaxed for a bit, then headed for the gate.
At 11 AM, the airline gate attendants arrived and proceeded to kick everyone out to the chairs in the next gate. I scored the only plug in the room for my laptop so that I could begin sorting through the 1,000 photos I shot, and now I was being asked to give that up? They told us the gate didn't open until 11:15, which felt like a cruel joke, Greek style.
The flight back to New York was not as pleasant as my flight here. I was on an aisle, but in the middle section with three rather large people. The guy next to me had no concept of personal space either. And, he was not very talkative to boot. We arrived in New York safe and sound at four in the afternoon (11 PM Greek time).
For the most part, Greece lived up to my expectations. The mountains emanate a delightful pine scent while the valleys are a bit dry and scrubby. The roads are pretty good and the signage is good too. I only lost my way a few times, and never for very long.
In a strange way, Greece made me appreciate how stable the world is today. Every place I visited has witnessed legendary wars and the downfall of empires. Thousands of years ago, people were being attacked from all sides, so much of their effort in life went toward defending what they have. Some may argue this is just as true today, but I believe the world is far more stable today than it was centuries ago. Perhaps this is due to the emergence of superpowers, or technological advances that allow us to see what's coming, but today I feel like we have it easy. Hopefully civilization will continue to evolve in this direction. (Given what is happening today, I'm not so sure it will.)
I hate to besmirch the reputation of the food in Greece, but I was not overwhelmed by its offerings. First, with the exception of a few restaurants, I was not impressed with the quality of the food. Yes, they use fresh ingredients and it was a pleasure to hear "that's not in season right now," but the meat was often overcooked and not of great quality. Second, the variety on the menu was nonexistent. Every place, again, with the exception of a few, offers exactly the same menu. By the third day I swore off Greek salad and souvlaki altogether. However, the wine was incredibly cheap and pretty good. I never paid over €3 for a glass of wine. Perhaps this compensates for the uninspiring food.
On the whole, I loved Greece and I was lucky enough to see a wide variety of places. From the hustle of Athens, to the scenic mountains and monasteries at Meteora, to the prestigious ancient city of Delphi in its idyllic setting, to the Venetian town of Nafplio on the coast. Each of these gave me a different impression of Greece and its people that I will remember for a long time.
When I return to Greece, I would like to see a few of the islands and more of the mainland too. I hear Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, is wonderful. I would like to have seen Olympia, the tiny Venetian town of Monemvasia, and the islands of Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, and others. Perhaps even venture over to Turkey and Istanbul, which is not too far from the Greek border. But, for now, I am content with my memories from Greece and will treasure them always.