Text and photos by Christine Potter
A trip to Greece can be many things to many people: an adventurous self-drive tour ripe with historic reference, a luxurious cruise among romantic islands, a cheeky Shirley Valentine-style getaway, or an escorted motor-coach tour – they come in a range of prices and quality levels from budget to exclusively upmarket.
And here’s a commission builder: with the many European cruises embarking and disembarking in Pireaus (Athens), Greece is the perfect destination for a pre- and/or post-voyage add-on.
Your clients’ Greece will depend on what they want to see and do, and on their comfort levels, but wherever they go, they’ll enjoy a sun-drenched land where whispers of ancient philosophers seem to carry on the breezes.
This sprawling, vivacious, multifaceted capital is not just ancient, it’s Byzantine, Neoclassical, modern, crowded, and noisy. Yet peaceful pockets of green are plentiful with many reminders of Athens’ illustrious past and its role as the cradle of western civilization.
Of course your clients will visit the Acropolis area, where the Parthenon temple (built more than 2,400 years ago) overlooks other ancient structures, including two theatres still used for Athens Festival performances each summer.
The ancient Agora (meeting place) sprawls at the foot of the hill. It’s easy to discern the layout of the old marketplace, and to imagine Plato and Socrates discoursing as they strolled along these streets. They would have loved Hadrian’s Library, but were born six centuries too early to enjoy the Roman ruler’s masterpiece, built in the second century AD.
The Plaka, with its labyrinthine, cobblestone lanes and whitewashed tavernas and shops, was there then, and remains today, on the north slope of the Acropolis. The Plaka was once considered the heartbeat of Athens, but the city’s modern-day equivalent is Syntagma Square (also known as Constitution Square), filled with outdoor cafes, nightclubs, shops, offices, and hotels. One side of the square faces Parliament, guarded by two evzones (guards) in their traditional skirted uniforms and pom-pommed shoes. The National Gardens, behind the Parliament building, offers a cool respite from the heat of summer, and an oasis at any time of year from busy traffic.
Athens enjoyed a facelift with upgraded public transportation for the 2004 Olympic Games. The city offers excellent shopping and if your clients enjoy bargain hunting, direct them to Monastiraki, especially the Sunday Flea Market. A morning visit avoids dense crowds.
As you’d expect from such a venerable city, museums abound. If there’s only time for one, it has to be the National Archeological at 1, Tosita Street. It’s among the world’s best, and boasts the greatest collection of Greek artefacts.
The Greek Islands
Cruises among the Greek Islands invariably incorporate calls to Santorini and Crete, each distinctly different.
Heraklion, the capital of Crete (and fourth largest city in Greece) was once home to the Minoans, a society named for the legendary King Minos who ruled over much of the Mediterranean, that came to an abrupt end between 1400 and 1500 BC. Little is known about the culture but a wealth of magnificent Minoan objects – retrieved from 19th-century excavations of the massive 1,200-room Royal Palace at nearby Knossos – is displayed at the Archeological Museum. Legend has it that the Minotaur – half man, half bull – lived in a labyrinth beneath the palace and had to devour 14 youths each year to survive.
At about the same time Santorini, southernmost of the massive Cyclades archipelago, was destroyed by a huge volcanic eruption.
Romantics say Santorini was once part of the lost city of Atlantis, easy to believe when you see Thera, one of two villages topping the crescent of land like white icing on a cake.
Santorini’s popularity is understandable: steep, narrow streets are lined with colourful boutiques, excellent restaurants, and enticing bars like Franco’s where the best seats are outside, against a low white wall separating visitors from the steep drop into the harbour. Sip your ouzo, listen to classical music under an unbelievably blue sky, and watch the parade of donkeys patiently climbing 800 broad steps from harbour to village, carrying adventurous souls who scorn the efficient funicular.
This hand-shaped peninsula, separated from the mainland by the Corinth Canal, shows a different aspect of Greece. It’s less-travelled and appeals to clients who prefer to rent a car and “go it alone.”
The Peloponnese boasts plenty of two- and three-star hotels but few truly deluxe properties adding (for many) to a sense of adventure and charm.
On a recent trip to explore this area, home to Olympia and the original Olympic Games, a friend and I opted to rent a car from Athens Airport rather than face the capital’s zany traffic. (Car rentals are a convenient, short walk from the International terminal.)
The Peloponnese roughly resembles a hand with three fingers and a thumb. The thumb is closest to Athens. We wanted to reach the fishing town of Pylos on the far finger, and I was prepared, with a list of major towns written in our alphabet beside the Greek equivalent. (Unless you speak and read some Greek, the different alphabet is a challenge.) However, Pylos was just too small to warrant mention on most maps and signposts, we discovered.
The drive took about five hours and was more appealing than we expected. It was May (the best time to visit) and wildflowers carpeted the landscape from mountains to ocean. Olive trees grow beside grapevines and potato crops, and some of the most venerable – gnarled and twisted – have reached the age of 2,000 years or more.
Major roads are in excellent repair and a freeway carried us two thirds of the journey – across the canal and over a couple of high mountain ranges, beside olive groves and orchards.
Minor roads, not in such good repair, are fun to explore. Orange and lemon stands are frequent sights, as are little shrines of all shapes, sizes, and themes.
Our pre-booked hotel, the MiraMare, was a two-star property overlooking Pylos’ working harbour. It’s basic, looking great from the outside, but we did wonder if Sparta (not far from Pylos) had influenced the furnishings and décor. No shower curtain meant everything got wet in the tiny bathroom, but it soon became home at the end of a day’s sightseeing, when the helpful English-speaking staff greeted us like family.
Among the highlights was a drive to Methoni, immediately south. (The town has better hotels than Pylos, and I’d recommend it as a base for clients wanting a self-drive Peloponnese vacation.) A wide sandy beach hems an incredibly blue sea dappled with the shadows of coral reefs. The ruins of a huge castle stretch into the ocean and invite investigation.
Pylos also has its castle, an impressive edifice overlooking Navarino Bay, the site of a major battle in 1827 when Greek, British, French, and Russian ships defeated invading Turks. The battle was described by Britain’s King George IV as “a terrible mistake.” Nonetheless, it became the turning point in Greece’s War of Independence. The story is depicted in engravings in the castle museum.
Restaurant food is invariably fresh and wholesome, with an emphasis on fish. Stopping at a lovely little restaurant overlooking the sea, we asked for a menu, but the proprietor shook his head.
“No menu. Big fish, small fish, calamari.”
He beckoned us to his cooler in the kitchen. We settled for big fish – a bream, just right for two people. The small fish were like smelts. That and a Greek salad, with Mythos, a Greek beer, the sun and the sea. Perfect.
Not surprisingly, Greek salad is served abundantly and souvlaki is available at most country restaurants. We also learned that traditional Greek music is not made for tourists: it’s played everywhere.
We found the people helpful and friendly and the language barrier was invariably broken by a smile. Just as well, because even a locally purchased large-scale map is missing most of the back roads, so when we found ourselves lost on the way to Karamata, we called at a village bakery for help. An aging, chubby, local jumped on his motorbike and escorted us some considerable distance to the main road, making sure we were headed in the right direction.
No trip to the Peloponnese would be complete without a visit to Olympia in the northwest (allow at least three hours to get there from the south coast) and to Nestor’s Palace, about halfway between Pylos and Olympia.
For more information on Greece from Hellenic Tourism Organization in Toronto, call (416) 968-2220, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.gnto.gr.