I hate Greece.
No, let me rephrase that: my hips hate Greece.
Actually, to be completely honest, my hips wouldn’t even mind the country so much, if it wasn’t for the fact they need to squeeze themselves into a pair of the most un-stretchable biking pants ever made. Sometimes I do wonder who on earth designs this riding gear anyway…do they never get off the bike and indulge in one of the best aspects of travelling? Do they just test on robots? What?? The problem, I fear, is that I bought a Büse outfit (German brand) whereas I probably should have searched for an Italian brand, like Dainese. Surely they would take the excessive eating under consideration!
Yes, yes, I should have known all this, after our 2-month Italian gorging session with my family, but this time it’s been a rather more subtle indulgence. As opposed to Italy, where most of the time the only smells which wafted through the helmet visor were those of car exhausts and rotten rubbish heaps, Greece smells divine from the first moment you ride through its border. No bloody wonder the Greeks are so obsessed with rosemary and thyme, it grows wild everywhere here! So whilst I may not have any aunties force-feeding me in Greece, the sheer deliciousness of the air means that we are salivating and absolutely starving pretty much 24/7. The best part of it (or would that be the worst?) is that, again unlike Italy, eating here is cheap as chips. And most dishes here include chips so now you start to understand my conundrum.
After the stunning but culinarily boring Balkans, we are ready for some seriously tasty food. It takes us barely a day to get our bearings in Greece (tastebud-wise) and soon develop a wonderful routine which consists of spinach and feta pastries for breakfast, Greek coffee and sugared doughnut for mid-morning break (who knew they could make such delish doughnuts?) and Greek salad for lunch. Our dinners consist of succulent lamb, beef or pork gyros stuffed with tzatziki, tomato salad and chips. For €2 each this just can’t be beat. Add a bottle of Retsina (the wine of the Gods!) to wash it all down and Bob’s your uncle. My occasional splurge comes in the shape of a pot of garlic prawns and a dozen fried sardines which I just love cooking myself when we’re beach camping.
Poof Laura goes after 6 weeks.
But enough about the food (said no-one ever)…there’s more to Greece than that!
Pop a country like Bosnia or Montenegro into TripAdvisor and you’ll be lucky to see the list of attractions reach three figures. Do the same for Greece and you’ll soon realize that you’ll need about 25 years to see the best attractions. And that’s only the archaeological sites. Between the ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ wonders, we find it hard to make a semi-doable list of things we want to see and do, or come to some sort of agreement as to which route we should take. As per usual, though, it doesn’t take too long to come to a compromise, based on our usual credo. Since we can’t do it all, we’ll concentrate on one area of the country, namely the Peloponnese. This is the southern-most peninsula and is reputedly the most naturally striking corner of the country and one with a fair amount of historical sites to boot. We shoot off into the sunset as we soon as we cross the border into Igoumenitsa and manage to cross the bridge in Patra (no relation!) after just two days.
Our first glimpses of the country are mighty impressive, with rocky vertiginous cliffs, verdant rosemary, olive and pine covered hills and just the most brilliant blue seas we’ve ever seen.
People seem really friendly too, their hospitality and generosity usually resulting in an extra doughnut or a paid-for coffee. That’s really weird actually, we’ll stop at a cafe in a small village, bid a friendly ‘Kalimera’ to all the little old men gathered around chatting and drinking and, by the time we go to pay, find one of those sweet old men has covered the bill.
The most overwhelming generosity we encounter is when we head inland to explore the mountain side.
This one time we came across an impossibly small village (maybe 50-60 inhabitants) near Ancient Messini and it just had the most adorable town square; so we stopped for a coffee and a ciggie right in front of it. At first, there was this eerie silence…people stopped talking and just stared. I spotted a few old ladies sitting on their balconies cleaning beans, stretching their necks out to have a look at the visitors. We sit on a bench in the square and we light a ciggie. It takes no more than two minutes and a lady, about 60 years old, comes walking towards us with a big smile on her face. Her name is Angela, she was a teacher in Athens and she’s retired to her family home in the mountains. She’s the youngest in the town (by far apparently) and she’s just so happy when she can get to share a few words in English with tourists. Needless to say, she doesn’t see many here!
Anyway, the moment the sceptical locals realise we mean no harm, out comes the food! NOT THE FOOD AGAIN!
The baker rushes out of his shop and hands us two piping hot ham and cheese pastries and a full loaf of corn bread, the supermarket lady brings us two bottles of orange juice and a little hunched-over nonna insists we must take a jar of her home-made honey. This is just too much! We’re not even related!
The only thing more common than encountering friendliness in Greece is coming across an ancient archaeological site. I guess it’s to be expected, what with this being the cradle of humanity to some extent.
Our first major port of call is ancient Olympia, where we also catch up with the biggest tourist crowd of the year for us. Ergh. Luckily they all tend to follow a certain directional flow around the site, following guides with flags on top of their caps and incredibly annoying whistles, so dodging them by going anti-clockwise does the trick. The site is quite good and impressive even if just to ‘imagine’ the giant statue of Zeus (one of the 7 Classical Wonders of the World) sitting on the corner of his colossal temple. The temple is not so colossal nowadays, there’s actually only one huge pillar left standing and whilst the multitude of really, really old rocks abounds, it fails to stir up any sort of bewilderment or wow-ness you’d get in places like the Temple of Luxor in Egypt.
This is the one constant maintained at all the sites we end up visiting in Greece; after Olympia we take in the Apollo temple in Bassai, the Delphi site (by far the most incredible of the lot) and last, but not least, the ancient Acropolis in Athens.
The latter was a bit of a meh site. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to have seen it and enjoyed a full day’s exploration…it’s just that between the crowds and the never-ending renovations, scaffoldings and fences it sort of felt a little ‘distant’ if you know what I mean. I saw it, but I just didn’t feel it.
To be honest I also know this is a consequence of having seen so many incredible things during the last 10 years. When I visit an ancient temple I want it to be in pristine condition (Luxor) and free of partitions; when I visit a waterfall, it needs to be excessively beautiful, gargantuan and I must be able to get close enough to get totally drenched (Iguazu) and when I visit an Old City Centre, it should be big enough that I can get utterly lost in it (Florence). I mean seriously…after two years in Africa the chances of me ever paying to see a lion in a zoo are somewhat remote. I WALKED with one in Zambia!
Back to Greece and its horrid economic state. Oh, had
I not mentioned that yet???
(to be continued…)