Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Summer of Fun: Greece

Greece 9 May - 15 May
This won't be my usual rambling tale (Hooray! I hear you cry.) Simply because if I wrote this like I normally do, then I would have approximately 30 blog posts and they would never get done. So here are some highlights of my summer of fun. Starting with Greece.

Edit: I visited Greece in the weeks before their financial crisis came to a head. It is a beautiful country with a rich and varied history, so you can help them out here.

My Greece trip consisted of a couple of days in Athens by myself on either end of a Contiki Spotlight on Greece tour. This tour was marketed as not being quite like the usual party-oriented Contiki's, but more of a cultural experience. While I can't deny that I enjoy the party lifestyle, this Spotlight tour was exactly what I wanted to do - to see the Ancient Greece that I had studied and fallen in love with during my final year at high school.

10 May
My first day alone in Athens was spent sitting in a cafe, eating the most delicious fresh Greek salad I have ever encountered and having my wine refilled while birdies tried to fly off with my bread. I felt like a Disney princess. I sat here and felt inspired - I wrote and wrote on my phone. The day was warm, the people friendly; I felt good.

I haggled down a skirt from €25 down to €10, simply because that's all the cash I had on me. I bought another brooch and returned to the hostel for happy hour. I whittled the night away chatting with a couple of Canadians before dinner (which involved me forgetting my bank card and having to leg it back to the hostel) and heading to bed - on the morrow the tour would start and I was booked in to meet up with some folks early.

11 May
The one thing Google Maps doesn't tell you is incline. 

That's my gripe of the day. So the next morning, when Google Maps said the walk to the new hotel was 2.6km, I thought "Sure! That's about half an hour, I'll be fine." Shouldering my 12kg backpack and my other smaller backpack, I set off.

Up. Fucking. Hill.

Needless to say I was a sweaty, puffed mess when I introduced myself to the first folk of the tour. After catching my breath, we spent the morning in the National Archaeological Museum, the significance of which I didn't realise until a day later.

We spent some time in the gold and jewellery and statues section, but decided to forgo the vase section for lunch. Another greek salad for me before returning to the hotel to check in. Note: Hotel.  None of this #hostellyf business for me! I'm doing this shiz in style. Here I met my two room mates Paula and Monique, who would be putting up with me for the next 4 days. The rest of the night consisted of meeting the remaining 40-odd Contikiers and eating, drinking and Greek dancing the evening away.

Glass of vino in hand, I promised to drink the rest for breakfast in the shower, and I did not disappoint (it was vile, just so you know).

12 May
Our first day was jam packed and on the bus at 7.30am. Our first stop was the first modern Olympic Stadium built for the 1896 Games before moving on to the Acropolis to visit the Parthenon. The traffic was dreadful due a transport strike, and so there were a lot of people at the Acropolis when we arrived. 

Today's weather took a turn for the worst, and it was cold and so windy we were all terrified we'd be blown right off the top of the crest. Most of the Parthenon, the ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, was under scaffolding as they worked to both reconstruct and reinforce the structure. 

Here's my big tip for Athens: do not take photos of your stuffed meerkat at the Parthenon. As much as you might really want to whip out your meerkat, do not, I repeat DO NOT.

It's not every day that one gets chased by an angry Greek policeman, yelling at you in what only sounded like Greek (lol), trying to drag you in the opposite direction away from your group. I broke free of his grip on my arm and legged it towards where the tour guide was standing.

"Help! Excuse me! I don't know what he's saying! Everyone else is taking selfless!"

You see, I didn't realise the toy was the issue. I thought I wasn't supposed to take selfless and I couldn't understand when there were so many people around me striking a pose. The tour guide half laughed and explained to me that pictures of "symbols" couldn't be taken in front of the structure, then explained to the policeman that I hadn't known, and then had me delete the photo off my phone. He walked away in a huff, while I had a panic attack.

I was quite pleased to get away from the Acropolis, to be honest. The experience had completely shaken me and Shazza didn't make an appearance for the rest of the trip.

Next stop was the Corinth Canal, a man-made passage way carved through the land to save ancient ships from having to sail all the way around the coast, effectively reducing the travel by 700km. It was first attempted in 3BC by Nero with a golden pickaxe but finally completed in 1881. These days, ships are far too big to go through, which seems like a bit of wasted effort.

Back on the bus for the long drive to Mycenae, where we stood inside the suspected tomb of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, brother of Menelaus and he who commanded the Greeks to fight the Trojan War. This was an exciting moment for me, as I had studied so much about Odysseus and Agamemnon - if this was indeed his grave, it was his wife, Clytemnestra, who put him there. 

Across the way were the ruins of an ancient castle and the oldest in-place motif in Europe; two majestic lions, dating back to 1300BC. The view here over the valleys was breathtaking, despite the breeze trying to sweep us away, and I could imagine a king surveying his kingdom from this vantage point. All those artefacts I had seen the day before in Athens had been uncovered here, and I strained my memory to remember the golden masks and jewellery and imagine them buried beneath the ground.

This was an exhausting day where loads was packed in. We stopped at a sleepy little town called Nafplion where I ate an enormous fish platter (sharing it with my little kitty friend that joined us!) before the long drive to Olympia, where we would be staying for the night.

13 May
Today was my favourite day of the tour. We had an early and lovely cool start to head to the ancient site of the Olympic Games (although if they knew they were considered 'games', they would be rolling in their graves!). The Games were held every 4 years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD.

The Games began almost almost 3000 years ago. Let that sink in for a moment. It was a time of complete peace - all wars were to stop for the months preceding the Games, and were meant to be symbolic of the countries waging battle in a sportsmanlike fashion instead. 

They were also naked. And oiled up.

We started with the Museum, where the remaining relics were housed. Enormous marble statues dedicated to gods, goddesses and winners. 

Olympia had a beautiful tranquil feel to it. Maybe it was because we arrived early in the morning before it was too overrun by people, but the cool early morning air, the overgrown trees and grass around the partially reconstructed ruins made me feel at ease. Through a passageway, we could see the entrance to the running track - this is the entrance where the Olympians stripped themselves naked and ran in to the cheers of over 40 thousand  adoring [male] fans - no women allowed, of course. Although - interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks were ahead of their time. There was a separate, albeit much smaller, athletic games held for women by women to also allow them to compete.

We ran onto the field; the running track surprised me by being straight, not circular. The hills raised high on each side and at each end were marble blocks with grooves - these were the starting blocks.

A race along the 200m track, an almost wheezing asthma attack and a lamenting of my lost fitness later, and it was time to explore the rest of the ruins around Olympia. We were able to walk inside the house of the esteemed statue maker, we rounded the pillars of the Temple of Zeus and I cartwheeled in the ancient gymnasium (although very clothed, and very female). I silently thanked the Gods for cartwheeling without injury. The day grew progressively hotter, and it was time to say farewell to Olympia.

Lunch was a delicious share table with dolmades, baked cheese, greek salad and I had the moussaka for the main. Amazing! Next up, after a long, sleepy drive crossing the Rion Antirion Bridge, we stopped in Nafpaktos for an iced chocolate and a sit on the pebbly beach. We could have stayed here all day, it was so peaceful.

Another sleepy drive (the bus temperature was always quite warm, and I instantly dozed off every time I was on there!) to the little town of Galaxidi where we popped into a Greek Othadox Church with the most brilliant blue ceiling and adored with idols - very unlike other Catholic churches, before eating a chocolate orgy ice-cream (the irony isn't lost on me).

This was our last night together, and we were spending it in Delphi. We drove up and up and up, and up some more until at last we arrived at a little town nestled amongst the mountains. If I had thought the view spectacular before, this simply blew it away. Green rolling hills, pink sky, hazy blue ocean on the horizon. We all got dressed up nice and fancy like and headed to the club to dance the night away.

A little note of caution: some places in Greece like to free-pour. And I mean start pouring, turn around for a conversation, and return back to the drink to put a splash of soft drink in the top. I'm talking gag-worthy strong. It was a late night followed by an early start.

14 May
Delphi - our guide was running on Greek "ish-time" (I'll be there at 8ish, it'll be ready in half-an-hour-ish) and arrived quite late. This meant that we were whisked at an alarming pace through the now-filled-to-capacity museum housing many of the statues and relics found when they unearthed Delphi, dedicated to Apollo.

While not as affecting as Olympia the day before, it was not hard to see why Delphi was considered the naval of the world; nestled amongst the mountains and jagged rocks, one could see for miles. I stood in awe at the uncovered rock whereupon the priestess would have perched on her tripod, high as a kite off the fumes below, prophesying the lives of kings and peasants alike. This was the Oracle of Delphi, that changed the fates of men both real and mythical.

I ran my fingers gently across the inscriptions as we left (very naughty of me); the stones felt cool under the beating sun, and we made our way from Ancient Delphi.

Here I had the most incredible food of the trip: a greek salad cheesecake. If you ever see one of these on the menu, get it. It's not sweet, rather it's a giant crouton, with whipped feta cheese and the normal greek salad ingredients diced on top. It was life-changing.

We then had the long drive ahead of us back to Athens, where we would be dropped off for those continuing on with other tours or those that were leaving there. I had one more full day in Athens, and so I was deposited near the square. Amanda, another girl and I decided to grab a gyros. A gyros is one of the most fantastic food creations of all time. It is like the yiros we all know and love, but with the most delicious sauces and THE CHIPS INSIDE THE WRAP. 

I wandered for a while before returning to the hostel, completely exhausted.

15 May
This was my last day in Greece and it was a lazy one. I spent some time getting to know an older lady from the US who had uprooted her life to travel the world for a few years. For lunch, I was salespersoned into eating at a restaurant - at the same time a young gentleman passed so I said that if he wanted to chat he was more than welcome to join me.

We spent lunch talking about writing, drawing and dreams. It was fascinating. I do not remember his name nor did we exchange details, but it was a delightful conversation to be having in the middle of Athens.

I had another lovely interaction with an older lady in a little hole-in-the wall shop. As I paid for my item, she asked "Did your father pay for your holiday?"
"No," I replied hesitantly, "I paid for my holiday," not quite sure how to explain that this was all self funded and quite normal in Australia.
"Your mother," she continued, "Must miss you very much?"
"Yes," still a little puzzled, "but she encourages me to see the world."
"Oh!" the lady laughed, putting her hands to her face like she was crying, "very different here! Do not go! Do not leave! - we say." 

It is fascinating the different family structures around the world, isn't it?

It was time to leave Greece for the next leg of my journey: Egypt.