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EXCITEMENT IN GREECE … a trip to remember.

Any trip to Europe is special, but the one I took in the Spring of 2010, with my daughter-in-law had lots of interesting twists and turns. About that time, the economic downturn was just beginning to affect European countries, and upon making what was a – “just us girls” – trip to Athens and the Greek Isles to immerse ourselves in ancient Grecian history … we ended up in the midst of modern Greek history in the making.

When first arriving at the Athens airport we were told that our pre-planned itinerary had been slightly altered because the Greek populace was demonstrating against the country’s financial failings. All planes/ferries to the outer isles had been grounded due to these demonstrations, and our first stop to the isles had been temporarily postponed.

The good news – we were to spend our first night and day touring Athens. The bad news – our much anticipated tour of two of the most historical sites in the city, the Acropolis (highest city) and the Parthenon (temple dedicated to the Greek Goddess Athena) had been cancelled. That area had been shut down in anticipation of the demonstrating.

     

Area Below the Acropolis                        Gypsy Musicians outside the Museum

Instead – we would be rerouted to the Acropolis Museum (site of ancient treasures and archeological excavation), to the Agora (an ancient Grecian marketplace), and finally to the adjacent village of Plaka (the oldest part of the city … auto free). At the end of this altered tour we were told that the metro, buses and taxis would stop running everywhere in the city at 4 pm, and for safety’s sake we should plan to return to our hotel around that time.

   

The Plaka – Auto free shopping district/restaurants and good-looking Greek men!

Undaunted and abiding by that advice, after lunch and shopping in Plaka, my daughter-in-law and I entered the underground metro station at about 3:15 pm. Before we knew it we found ourselves below a demonstration that had turned into a riot. Unbeknownst to us a mob had set fire to a bank and tear gas was dispelled by the local police to quell the disturbance. That gas had filtered into the metro station below, where we were in the midst of changing trains. People were running everywhere, and as we found our connection many hopped on with us, wet cloths over their faces. Fortunately we only experienced minimal tearing as our train left the area immediately. Before long we were safely ensconced in our hotel on the outskirts of the rioting.  A very exciting, close call.

My philosophy is that everything happens for a reason, and in spite of the close call, we learned much from our very informed tour guide. A French teacher by profession, she began our tour explaining that she had always wanted to be a guide, and that in spite of  obtaining degrees in a chosen profession,  it is required of all Grecian tour guides in Athens that they complete an extra 2 1/2 years studying Grecian history before they will be hired. This extra education manifested itself in her knowledgable, historical instruction on our pre-tour of the archeological museum and excavations below the famous sites, preparing us well for our eventual visit (on our own) to the Acropolis and the Parthenon when they were finally re-opened.

There’s nothing like a little excitement, mixed with a dose of history to get your juices flowing. I am sure we will never forget our “girl’s” trip to Greece and the experiencing of history in the making. In spite of the pending disappointments, changes in itinerary and close calls, it was definitely a trip that will stay with us forever.

Read more about the sites seen in Greece next posting …..

ATHENS GREECE, 2010 … the trip to remember continues.

Approaching Greece by air,  it was surprising to discover that although bordered by the beauty of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Greece is an arid mountainous, rock-strewn country with five of its ten million inhabitants residing in its largest city and capital, Athens. Within this crowded and noisy city,  a mass of autos, motorcycles, taxis, buses and cable cars maneuver tenuously for limited road space. With traffic signals few and far between, the road warriors there (and that is what one must be to drive in Greece) are controlled only by roundabouts and honking horns. Vehicles are parked in a puzzled maze with cars and motorbikes angled in all directions, some coming to rest upon the sidewalks. Many are marred with one or more dents, but unlike motorists in the USA, no one seems to mind.

Graffiti is scrawled across walls everywhere, and apartment buildings are squeezed in-between stores and professional buildings, reaching no more than the mandated limit of five stories high. Convenient, public transportation connects residents, workers and visitors to all parts of the sprawling city. And as a bustling populace hurries to and fro fulfilling their daily obligations, restaurants bars and coffee houses host elderly Greek males, leisurely playing backgammon or checkers, smoking cigarettes and sipping ouzo. In fact, everywhere you look, people are smoking.

A profoundly religious country, Greece  consists of a population that is 97% Christian Orthodox, and most Greeks owe their names to a saint of their church. Theirs is a faith expressed in the presence of beautifully constructed and ornately decorated churches interwoven everywhere throughout the city – in squares, parks, and even perched high atop the surrounding hills. And intertwined with their religion are their myths about gods and goddesses which are the foundation of much of their history.

Majestically located at the capital’s center is Constitution Square. Surrounded by ancient monuments, works of art, exquisite gardens, entertainment arenas, government buildings, business offices and high-end shopping districts, it is the hub of all major happenings in Athens. And elevated on a mountainous plateau overseeing it all, sits the Acropolis, home to the Parthenon, the original center of life in this ancient city.

Located defensively on the highest ground available, the Acropolis contains the remnants of what once were the chief municipal and religious buildings of those historical times. Towering over the capital it’s a very impressive sight, and walking on its grounds and through its ruins gives one a feeling of awe and a true sense of the greatness of the ancient Greek builders. It’s a site that can be viewed from anywhere in the city, and is a most pleasurable view at night when lit up for all to see.

THE GREEK ISLES – STEPPING STONES OF GREECE

From Athens, a two-hour ferry ride or short plane hop takes one to the popular island of Mykonos. Although definitely not a tropical island, it is exactly as pictured in travel magazines and films, with white-washed buildings, pastel shutters and fragrant flowering plants in abundance.

     

Winding cobblestone streets – which according to legend were built to confuse sea-faring pirates – wend their way throughout Mykonos Town. Within its confines are a myriad of shops, churches, residences and even a school. While shopping there it would be wise to purchase anything you like right away. If you plan to return later, the shop might be difficult to find again among the many twists and turns in the village.

When hunger strikes a plethora of restaurants line the seashore, with many (often annoying) proprietors urging you to try their fare. Evening dining for most begins at 8 pm and meals are prepared with only seasonal fruits and vegetables. Menus include items like baked sesame seed encrusted feta cheese appetizers, Greek salads of varying kinds, grilled vegetable-filled crepes, selections of fresh fish from the nearby sea, and much more. Each meal is  often followed by a generously provided dessert or an aperitif of ouzo or mastika. And while seated you may find yourself stalked by one of many cats, or entertained by local pet pelicans, or  residents riding donkeys.

    

There are many historical sites to be seen on the island – elaborate churches, a monastery and several archeological, maritime and agricultural museums. But the most striking are the enormous white windmills. Harnessing the powerful northern winds from the coast, they have been used  to grind grain since the 17th century. Today many of them have been preserved and turned into either residences or monuments.

                            An Orthodox Priest rests outside St. George’s Church

Other places of interest include the small village of Ana Mera, most famous for the beautiful byzantine church of St. George, as well as the Elia, Agios Ioannis and Ornos beaches, which can be reached by public transportation, taxi or private auto.

ISLAND IN THE SUN

Like Mykonos, Santorini can be reached by ferry or plane. Made up of red and brown volcanic cliffs, where blue-domed churches and traditional white-washed villages reside atop the Caldera (a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption), the island is a breath-taking and picturesque place.

Perched high atop this mountainous terrain is Santorini’s capital Fira, whose cobbled streets lead to bars and restaurants built on terraces descending the cliff’s face. The old Santorini harbor (once the only stop for boats visiting there) can be accessed from Fira by traversing one of the island’s most famous landmarks, the 588 steps. An extremely steep ascent and descent, these narrow steps can be traveled by foot, cable car, or donkey. It was advised that one should take the cable car down and the donkeys up, as walking can be precarious when trying to avoid animal droppings.

A little farther north at the tip of Santorini sits the traditional village of Oia, offering a labyrinth of cobblestoned lanes leading to unique shopping in unusual boutiques. Famous for its view of the Caldera, it is said to be the place to behold the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

On the other side of the island, those seeking a more casual atmosphere will find the cosmopolitan beach town of Kamari the place to be. Offering a wealth of cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and supermarkets, as well as a lively nightlife, this village spreads out along a crescent bay under the shadow of Mesa Vouno (an enormous rock that rises from the Aegean Sea).

As is true in Mykonos Town, visitors strolling leisurely along the stone-paved promenade of the black sand beaches are accosted by restaurant proprietors urgently encouraging them to patronize their establishments. Famous for its cherry tomatoes, an island favorite is the Santorini salad (cherry tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives, capers, feta cheese and olive oil), along with tomato fritters and melitinia (sweet cheese pastries made with mitzithra cheese and yogurt). Many of these establishments are family owned and under the watchful eyes of elders dressed head-to-toe in black, with the owners’ children frequently running and playing along the promenade until all hours of the evening.

History buffs will be interested in walking around on the volcano responsible for creating the island, as well as visiting the architectural and folklore museums, archeological sites and beautiful churches there.

If you get a chance, escape to Greece, it is guaranteed to give you  an adventure of a lifetime.

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