First Days of the Greece Trip (April 20-22, 2012)
We began planning this trip back in November of 2010, when our friends and longtime travel compatriots Ingrid and Bob told us they had extra timeshare points and wanted to "take" us somewhere (in return for us bringing them along when we used our timeshare week in Spain in 2009). We also managed to get all four plane tickets through Rob's airline points, making the trip quite a bargain.
As I recall, the financial situation in the country was already rocky at the time we made the initial decision, though not quite as at the center of the news as it became over the ensuing year and a half. Yes, I did some worrying, and wondered if it would prove to be a stupid idea to take the kids over there if there was risk of strikes and riots, but we never really seriously considered cancelling. Plus, we were heading there to see traces of a civilization dating back 3500 years, surely it would last another year and a half, right?
April 20-21. Here we go! Picked up the kids a little early from school for our flight out of Dulles. Normally I consider Dulles to be an experience slightly preferable to dental surgery, but I must say they've improved the place. The endlessly-in-development underground train is finally operational, and the security lines are much more efficient than they used to be. Though they'll still sell you swill for $12 and call it a margarita. I should have known better.
The flights went through without a hitch, though. An overnighter to Frankfurt with a tight connection to Athens. Fortunately we got in a little on the early side, because (of course) we had to traverse the entire distance of the airport, go through passport control, and back through security to reach our connecting gate. This is always a fun experience on a few hours of sleep (I did get 3 or 4 hours on the plane, considerably more than other recent overseas trips) and with that "first hours in a new country" disorientation in full swing. We got a fairly unvarnished view of both airport and city in the security line from a native, who I half suspect was using the opportunity to practice saying "f***ing" in English.
But we made it to Athens intact, and so did all our luggage, to our mild surprise. The bad news was that Ingrid and Bob were delayed by 2 hours. We sent them an email saying that we were going to head down to see the temple of Poseidon and we would meet them at the resort later. Then crossed our fingers that Bob would notice the hour of free WiFi offered by the airport and get the change in plans, since the hotel reservations were both in his name.
Onward. The rental car was a small Suzuki with four-wheel drive. I'm not sure if it has a U.S analog, but it fit our kids and our luggage, I guess that's about all you can ask. Rob took the first shift in driving, he's good about that sort of thing. I like to observe and get the feel of the traffic and the signs before I jump into driving. But it turned out there was very little of the former (the roads were nearly empty on a Saturday afternoon, and most of the signs had names printed in the Roman alphabet beneath the Greek lettering. We headed south from the airport to the tip of the Attica peninsula. We couldn't see much of the city at this point, the airport is separated from the main part of Athens by a large hill. The vegetation was low and sparse, definitely more arid than Italy, and similar to southern Spain. Over the course of the week we would realize that we had picked the perfect time to visit: wildflowers were in bloom all over, and it was as if someone had set the weather dial to "perfect" and then broken off the**** - highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s, breezy with no humidity (we did have one cloudy, drizzly day, which we spent in Athens and it probably helped keep some of the hordes off the Acropolis).
The Temple of Poseidon was a fitting kick-off to our trip. In addition to it being a lovely drive to a stunning spot, Poseidon figures prominently in the Percy Jackson book series, our kids' gateway drug into an interest in Ancient Greece. Located on a high promontory at Sounio, on the very southern tip of the peninsula, with panoramic views of the most beautiful water you've ever seen, it is indeed a fitting tribute to the lord of the seas. This is the first glimpse of home that the Greek sea-voyager would see, the spot where reputedly 1,000 ships launched to retrieve Helen from Troy, and where Aegeus flung himself into the water after Theseus forgot to raise the "Hey, Dad, I'm alive" white sails. He did get a Sea named after himself, for his trouble.
The Temple was our first bona fide Greek ruin, and it was a pretty good one. Nearly half (15 of 34) of the white marble Doric columns still stand, so it is not too difficult to picture the place in its glory. Lord Byron carved his name on one of the columns when he visited in the early 1800s; however, they are not visible because the site is roped off, since a******s like Lord Byron can't seem to visit an ancient monument without carving their initials into it.
We stayed quite a while there, enjoying the views, seeing some new birds (eg, rock partridge), and pretending to be offspring of the sea-god. Eventually, we headed back north to the resort, checking out back roads and coastal views along the way. If I had been better oriented, we would have stopped to find the Temple of Artemis at Brauron, now called Artemida on our map. We never managed to get back there, and it's one I would have like to have seen. It was a lovely little town too. By some stroke of luck, we got to the resort (lacking a reservation in our name), and not five minutes after checking to see if Ingrid and Bob had checked in (they hadn't), we managed to raise them on the radio (circa 1999 two-way radios that nowadays only see use when we travel in cell-phone-challenged places). Nice timing! They had gotten our email and were just behind us getting to the resort.
The resort was the Golden Coast Holiday Club, just south of Marathon (yes, *that* Marathon, more on that later). It was formerly a Club Med but apparently got kicked out of the system for not being nice enough. The online reviews were decidedly middling, but the people who really hated it seemed to be the ones that were looking for a pampered resort experience, and the ones that said it was fine were the people who took the attitude of, "You're in Greece, get the hell out of your hotel room!" As we were decidedly in the latter camp and had picked the place entirely on location, we expected it would be fine, and it was. Our unit was a one-bedroom with daybeds in the living room for the kids and a small kitchen. It had a fridge and a coffeemaker, which was all we really needed. Not lap of luxury, but totally fine.
Once we were settled in, the next order of business was to find ourselves our first real meal in Greece (lunch had been some pastries and stuffed grape leaves from an airport shop). We headed to Rafina, another town we had scoped out on the trip north from Sounio (not as cute as Artemida, but closer). Rafina is a port town serving the islands east of Attica. The restaurants right on the water were mostly seafood joints, and I am not a seafood person. But there was also a central pedestrian mall just up the hill, and that had several restaurants. We picked one using the criteria that would become standard for the week - looks nice and has some people in it. We ordered Greek salad, chicken souvlaki for the kids, and a bunch of mezze (mezedes is the Greek term): stuffed grape leaves (dolmades, a favorite of Elena's), meatballs (keftedes), zucchini fritters (kolokothokeftedes,a word whose pronunciation for no apparent I felt compelled to master), grilled octopus (yes, I tried a bite, and no, I couldn't get it down), garlic dip (skordalia), and fried cheese (saganaki, a favorite of Kieran's). All this, plus house red all around: 65 euros. Thus began a theme of the trip: you can't get a bad meal in this county, short of walking into a McDonalds, and you will be hard pressed to spend 100 euros, even to feed six serious foodies (OK, five foodies and one eleven-year-old on the beige diet). Seriously, my adoration of the food in Greece is going to haunt my dreams.
April 22. We decided to start with a trip west to several sites at the northeastern corner of the Peloponnesian peninsula. The Peloponnese is connected to the rest of Greece by a narrow isthmus, through which a very steep, narrow canal was cut in the 1880s. The city of Corinth is perched on the isthmus, giving it strategic importance going back centuries—even before the canal, it was considered more efficient to unload ships and cart the gear overland rather than sail around the peninsula. There are several sites of interest just on the northeast part of the peninsula - Ancient Corinth, Mycenae, Tiryns, the theater of Epidaurus, and the town of Nafplio. We were hoping to hit several of these sites on the first day.
We got a bit of a late start due to lingering at breakfast on the balcony. Once again, there was no traffic on the roads, which was nice. From our hotel, there is a main road (Marathon Avenue) that takes us all the way down to the ring road (expressway) that skirts Athens and runs west toward the Peloponnese. By the time we got to Ancient Corinth, it was about 11AM. And I noticed that the site was only open till 3. Turns out this was true of sites everywhere—even though we were officially into spring, everything is still running on winter hours, due to austerity measures.
Ancient Corinth is a fairly extensive site, with most of its extant ruins dating from the Roman era. It is most famous for St. Paul's denunciation of the licentious habits of its residents. But it also has a temple to Apollo with several columns still standing (the Romans left it untouched when they took over), extensive remains of the agora (marketplace), theater, odeon (theaters were open-air, odeons roofed), and a later temple, probably to the Octavia, the sister of the Emperor Augustus (the Apollo temple has simple Doric columns and the Octavia temple has elaborate, leafy-pattern Corinthian columns). There is also a small but great museum, with mosaics, statues, glassware and other artifacts from the site. Almost all of the sites have their own museums.
Even though it was about 1 PM when we left Ancient Corinth, we still had hopes of getting down to Mycenae that afternoon. First, however, we wanted to check out Acrocorinth, the high city. (The guide books all mentioned Acrocorinth, in enough detail that it looked like a must-stop, but they only gave it a few lines and we thought it would be a quick trip.) Turns out it was a much more involved and interesting stop. Acro, of course, means "high," and most cities had an ancient fortification on a strategic spot on high ground, the Acropolis of Athens being but the most famous. Corinth's just happens to be one of the most impressive in the whole country. First of all, it is much higher than the guide books indicated, we could see that from the ruins of ancient Corinth. The walls are extensive and imposing, covering the top of a sheer-faced hillside. There is a road up the back side, leading to a small parking lot at the first of the three gates in the defensive walls. My impression had been that a quick look at the three successive gates was pretty much all there was to the site - but the hilltop beckoned, and soon we were climbing, up a very steep path through each of the gates. The third gate opened onto a huge, bowl-shaped area, with lots of ruins to explore and more climbing. Due to its strategic importance, the place reads like a tableau of all the various occupiers of Greece: Roman, Turkish, Frankish, and Byzantine ruins all interposed on a site that was listed as 60 acres but actually seemed bigger than that. Wandering around, we checked out an extant Orthodox chapel, a ruined mosque, village foundations, remnants of a barracks, the site of a spring (the city once held out under siege for four years, in part because it was large enough on top to raise food, and had a dependable source of water), a Frankish tower, and eventually went to the very top, where there was once had stood a temple to Aphrodite. Now the strategic importance of Acrocorinth became entirely clear—you can see forever from here. OK, not quite forever, but you can see a long way, with commanding views of the Saronic (to the southeast) and Corinthian (to the northwest) Gulfs, the isthmus itself, and a good ways out into the Peloponnesian peninsula. Pretty much no one approaches Acrocorinth unnoticed, either by land or by sea.
After all that exploring, we pretty much just made it out of Acrocorinth before the 3 PM closing. No one minded missing Mycenae that day, we know from long experience that some of the best and most memorable spots in our travels have involved a climb to a high vantage that we didn't expect to make. Add Acrocorinth to the list. We headed back down to the main town, and got lunch at a café we had noticed earlier, with tables overlooking the Ancient Corinth site—closed now for the day, so it was like we had our own private ancient city. Lunch was excellent again, I had a gyro, which in Greece is actually recognizable as minced lamb, not the pressed meat oddity that one finds in the States.
After lunch, Ingrid and Bob headed out to catch the Temple of Poseidon, and we took the kids back to the hotel for a swim. The pool was cold and closed early, but the beach, while also on the cool side, provided some nice wading. For dinner we drove into the nearest town, Nea Makri, and got dinner at a pasta place (the kids were ready for some food they recognized). It wasn't half bad, though we were later to find that pizza and pasta are only slightly less ubiquitous in Greece than they are in Italy, and I think one or other of the kids ate one or other of those dishes almost every day for the rest of the trip.