“Papi, Can I pick our next vacation destination?”
I froze at my 11 year old’s innocent question. Don’t get me wrong. She is a sport all right. She has trampled museums all over the world without complaining. Followed me without protesting to a myriad of dusty ruins. She has braved long flights and longer waits at the airports.
I was still skeptical. “Here comes, Orlando?” I thought.
“Greece?” Her beautiful oval eyes wide open with anticipation.
I must have jumped with joy. I myself was deep in the middle of Iliad and Troy and Alexander and Achilles. I would have picked Greece myself. The trip was signed off in seconds.
* * *
Greece has touched my life on so many fronts. India is the largest democracy in the world, but it all started in Greece. (India is also the largest bureaucracy in the world. That too, started in Greece and still continues.) Pythagoras had me floored before I was twelve, Euclid before I was fifteen. Ayn Rand introduced me to the Parthenon a little later in her path breaking novel Fountainhead. Alexander, the Macedonian, is a personal hero, his feats – oh, so un-accomplishable. After him, “all was possible.” His teacher, Aristotle has has taught me a thing or two. Achilles is my hero’s hero.
* * *
Most Greek itineraries are focused on talking you to the islands. The islands are beautiful but the mainland has a lot to offer. People just don’t know about it. Ignoring all standard itineraries, I setout to design our own. The battle of Troy was high on my mind. I wanted to see where it all began. I want to see the Palace of Agamemnon. I want to visit the Oracle of Delphi. I wanted to touch the soil that Helen once did.
* * *
Here is how it turned out…
At Athens international airport, we were picked up by Panos, who chauffeured us for the rest of our stay in Athens, in his gleaming yellow Mercedes. We were put up at Hotel Acropolis Museum. The hotel is clean and small – one learns to expect nothing more from downtown hotels. Quick access to sights in the historical district was more important to me, and in that department, the hotel keeps its promise.
Within hours of touching down, we drove north to the ancient ruins of Corinth where we got our first taste of Classic Greek ruins. Despite the ravages of time and invading armies, enough of the beautiful fluted columns, agoras, public baths and broad streets has survived to give me a glimpse of the life back in 500 BCE.
On the way back, we stopped at the historical four mile long canal of Corinth that connects the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf.
We feasted on our first Greek salad made of fresh tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, onions, olives and feta cheese with a generous pour of olive oil
In the afternoon, we drove south to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion to witness a blazing sunset, the first of many I would witness in Greece.
Faye was our guide in Athens. She is an accomplished archeologist and when she gets time leads Rick Steve’s tours. Her effervescent personality is obvious in the personalized emails I exchanged with her. She bonded quickly with Rhea and she made the trip a whole lot more fun.
Today we explored the general area around the ancient Agora by ourselves and got our first sighting of the magnificent Acropolis atop an equally magnificent hill, floating over the city. The ruins of Agora are quaint – especially the restored stoa (or long covered portico) and the Temple of Hephaestus. Sitting al-fresco, sipping delicious, muddy Greek coffee, I realized, my God!, Plato must have done the same around here, some 2500 years ago.
We explored the flea market behind the Agora and were astonished to find a Hindi speaking Bangladeshi selling crisp, oily samosas with which we promptly stuffed ourselves.
Back with Faye, the evening was dedicated to climbing the ancient steps of the acropolis to the Parthenon, easily the most resplendent structure of antiquity.
But don’t worry if the Parthenon does not move you.
The charismatic JP Mahaffy quipped “no building on earth can sustain the burden of such greatness” and reassured the readers that, if they persevered to a second glance, the ‘glory’ of the Parthenon and the brilliance of the ‘master minds which produced this splendor” would quickly become apparent.1 After all the Parthenon is now perpetually laced with ugly scaffolding - Greece is desperately trying to wash away centuries of human atrocities inflicted on the temple. And unlike Taj Mahal, the Parthenon is not ‘whole.’
Nevertheless, since antiquity, visitors have watched Parthenon with awe, wonder, jealousy, disbelief even fear.
I climbed the tallest hill in Athens to see the Parthenon lit with exterior lights from the top. At dawn, the electric lights extinguished one by one and the ancient marble briefly bathed in the glow of the rising sun.
Faye showed us around the spanking new National Museum that has been built at the base of the Acropolis hill with large windows perfectly framing the Parthenon – an obvious Greek elbow in the British ribs to return the marbles that Lord Elgin plundered in the 1800s.
While digging up the foundation of the museum, ruins of an ancient city were discovered. (I wonder if it is possible to take the spade to ground anywhere in Greece and not find a ruins of a bygone era.) The architect of the museum, ingeniously incorporated the ruins into the design of the building by constructing the structure on stilts and incorporating glass into the floor, providing a unique POV of the ruins.
* * *
We picked up our rental car from the airport, bade Athens farewell and started our drive to the Oracle of Delphi
Delphi / Δελφοί
On the way to Delphi, we got our first taste of the splendid rugged mountainous Greek terrain. The serpentine road led us to the tiny village of Delphi that nestled on the side a sheer fall. I was tingling with excitement knowing the “who’s who” that has made this journey. I quietly slid my visiting card in that stack that already has Pericles, Aristotle, Socrates, Alexander…
Our room in Hotel Acropole Delphi () has a beautiful view of the blue-green Pleistos valley with a strip of the Aegean visible in the distance. The modern village of Delphi is built atop the ancient one, specifically to handle the tourist traffic but does not feel touristy. When you are done with the sites, there are numerous boutique eateries and shops selling local handicrafts and produce.
All that remains of the ancient Temple of Apollo is a platform and half a dozen columns that date back to 4th Century BCE. It has a stoa, a gymnasium, a reconstructed stadium, a treasury and theatre. Every element of the oracle’s paraphernalia is in plain view but to understand it thoroughly one requires to be well researched and imaginative. Or one needs to hire an excellent guide. Or both.
The Thalos is situated half a mile down the hill. These buildings were the pit stop for the weary travellers of ancient times. Today it attracts photographers in hoards because of the three reconstructed columns amidst neatly lined columns of marble against the backdrop of the verdant valley are extremely photogenic.
The highway takes us through the narrow isthmus at Corinth to the Peloponnese and towards Nafplio. The massive six lane highway drops us on to a single lane dusty road on the approach and I wonder, really?, was this once the capital of Greece?
Finally the road is dramatically ambushed by the blue-green waters of the Argolic Gulf and Nafplio becomes evident.
We had just passed the massive wall of the Mycenaean Trinthia, a fortress city of 1500 BCE. In the sea, there is a Byzantine fortress. Ruling the sky is another Byzantine fortress. Clearly civilization has been guarding this city all along.
In the four day we were there, We visited Agamemnon’s Mycenae, where the first horns of the Trojan war were sounded. We trekked the Greek classical city of healing at Epidaurus that has a surviving amphitheater so pristine that each one of the 5000 seats can hear a the speaker’s whisper from the podium. We took a cab up to the beautifully barricaded Byzantine fortification on the Palamadi and enjoyed the most beautiful 360O views of Nafplio. Nafplio reeks of history and natural beauty.
The modern town is lively. Narrow streets, al fresco eateries, boutique shops. Cobbled streets, local Athenian vacation crowd makes this town Europe’s well kept secret. Our hotel, Amfitriti Belvedere Palazzo is built along the Byzantine fortress walls and has unparalleled views of the city roof tops, the blue mountains on the horizon and the rich blue waters of the Gulf.
The lil girl and I spent four beautiful days on foot and tires in and around Nafplio.
The thing that brought me to Sparta is the name.
Before she became Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta. But alas, nothing of the Mycenaean period really remains.
The modern town of Sparta is a ugly concrete jungle. The romantic connection with the ancient Sparta has been permanently shredded once they decided that the modern town be built exactly on top of the ancient one.
We spent a couple of pleasant evenings spent people watching in the town square. But mostly we headed out. We bagged two wonderful road-trips.
The first due west to Kalamata, dripping down to Kardamyli, where I discovered the personality and penmanship of of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Driving down the west coast of the Peloponnese, we enjoyed the sights of idyllic Greek fishing villages nestled along the Mediterranean.
The second was short. 6 KMs to the fortified city of the Mystras where the Byzantine ruled until the 17the century of our side of the common era. Mystras should not be missed.
* * *
Early morning, we drove back to Athens, turned in the rental car, and caught a flight to Santorini.
All along I expecting Santorini to be beautiful. But not so beautiful!
The view of Santorini is guaranteed to change your itinerary.
It changed mine! All those activities I had planned were cancelled once I got my first glimpse of the caldera. I just sat in the covered balcony of our beautiful apartment in Oia and watched the various shades of blue of the caldera. The calming effect of the view can probably only be compared to a choice set of canyons in Utah that I have been to.
Santorini is a sit-and stare kind of a place.
When we were not sitting and staring, we walked the tiny streets. Aimlessly. Rhea found over a dozen dogs in various parts of Oia and befriended them instantaneously. Having named them, they were her entire preoccupation during our stay.
Oia gets merrier as the sun approaches the western horizon. When the sun touches the water, there is silence - the entire island holds their collective breath, as the Aegean lashes the shores. The fireball take the dunk, the lights turn on and Santorini merrily parties late into the night.
Sunsets at Santorini are hyped yet they do not disappoint. We saw one every day from a different spot – perched against the walls that have no straight lines, seated at a restaurant with a view sipping Ouzo, with the Aegean lapping our feet
We stayed at the lovely Angel Cave Houses. It is a family owned hotel that enjoys the most mesmerizing views of the caldera. It is a mere 5 minute walk from the main street – far enough to preserve the serenity and so near, that going to the village is not become a decision. We stayed in the honeymoon suite, the best apartment the hotel that has. It been tastefully decorated by the family. Sula, the owner’s daughter took care us of throughout our stay. She speaks very good English and her recommendations are immaculate.
The best part of our stay has to be the breakfast. Everyday Sula would bring a tray loaded with delicacies to our balcony. Sula’s mom is a wonderful cook. No omelet in Greece ever tasted more wonderful. The juice was always fresh. The coffee always crisp.
The only time we ventured out of Oia was to visit the ruins of Akrotiri when we drove our rented SmartCcar all the way to the other end of Santorini.
The 3600 year old ruins beg a visit. The ancient city was buried under the ashes of the very volcano that formed the caldera. Like Pompeii, except there they found bodies of ancient Roman citizens frozen in mid action in Pompeii, almost as if the volcano caught them by surprise and the volcanic ashes preserved them for eternity.
At Akrotiri, the people of the Minoan bronze age were gone long when the mountain burst. Somehow they seemed to be aware of the impending cataclysm.
“How far? I wonder.” said Dimitra, our lovely guide at Akrotiri. “Did they escape the tidal wave that followed?” We loved the tour with Dimitra precisely for that kind of a perspective. She is obviously very knowledgeable and she made my l’il girl laugh. She comes heavily recommended.
* * *
All good things have to end.
We thoroughly enjoyed the two sundrenched weeks we spent in Greece. The country is beautiful. The people are friendly. The sights are breathtaking. The history is mind numbing. Don’t want to say much about the food. But the Ouzo is refreshing.
We packed off to Athens for an overnight connection and hauled away to Seattle.
Rhea and I experienced a magical Santorini moment. We were standing at a spot with the most mesmerizing view that can be experienced in Santorini. The temperature was just right. The sun was setting. The Santorini-blue Aegean rippled somewhere below us. People were having a good time.
Out of the blue, the 11 year old asks a question that tells me I am coming back to this land.
“Papi, should my wedding be in Santorini?”