Greece 2024 Travelogue!

Meteoric Rises and Ukrainian Elbows

Arriving in Athens so late this time I was worried I wouldn’t be able to catch a train downtown as the subway kind of shockingly shuts down at midnight and doesn’t run again until morning. Thankfully once I’d collected my luggage and made my way to the station I saw that the last train had yet to leave. About an hour later I was stepping out into the area south of the Plaka district and heading for my short overnight before picking up the rental car. I’d skimped a bit on this overnight amenities wise but it actually worked out well as they had a small coin laundry downstairs and after breakfast I had time to do a load before my car pickup. Freshly laundered I clattered my way down the cobble sidewalks with my suitcase and over to the subway station where the rental car pickup was. To my delight this car had Android Auto so I was able to connect my gps instructions to the screen and save some pain but to be honest getting out of Athens and onto the highway north was a breeze. That afternoon’s destination was Delphi, the home of the Pythian Oracle.

Delphi is just close enough to Athens to be bus-tour doable but I’d gone for a self drive in order to include some further destinations as well as to save myself bouncing back to the capital repeatedly. The drive itself was a mix of modern highway with extortionate tolls, side roads small enough I might have questioned if I was heading the right way if I hadn’t seen bus tours heading back to Athens and steep mountain roads winding up and around blind corners. Getting to Delphi this way also involves passing through the closest ‘ski country’ to the capital and even though I’d been aware of this in advance it was still odd to see signs for end of season ski and snowboard sales. Apparently the resort on Mt. Parnassus was still running, if I’d had a couple extra days I might have gone for a ski just to say I had. A couple of the mountain towns I passed were incredibly interesting looking but even at low season seemed to have nowhere to easily park. I think if I went back I’d  probably make an effort to spend an extra day in the area though.

Delphi itself is a relatively modern small town by Greek standards as the residents were built a new town around the turn of the 20th century after an earthquake in exchange for removing themselves from the area over what is now the archaeological park. It’s nestled around the curve of a mountain pass with steep one way streets scarcely having room for cars much less the behemoth tour buses. Again I was thankful it was low season in this instance as I managed to snag a super affordable room with a valley view out towards the Gulf of Corinth and by some miracle also lucked into free street parking a few cars down from the entrance. Less positive due to low season was the sanctuary/museum closing early and unless I felt like rushing my whole visit into a 30 minute window I’d be waiting for morning. Even here a lot of things were closed but what was open was at least staying open past 3pm (other than the museum/site.) In the end I wandered the town as it quieted down for the evening while scouting out a place for dinner, buying a few souvenir gifts. I met a number of the town dogs and cats and eventually just found a spot in the church square and spent a happy hour reading a book/enjoying the view.

Dinner was a phenomenal meal overlooking the valley for sunset. I sadly couldn’t get right on the cliff being a single diner but I still had a great view as I sampled a local cheese done saganaki style and some local lamb and herb sausages. I lingered quite a while but eventually the monotony of overhearing nearby Americans grew too much after a nice long period of not hearing much English around and I headed out into the streets. There definitely wasn’t much in the way of nightlife at this time of year though with a mostly older crowd around, I’d been hoping for a pub type situation but in the end I just took another walk then called it a night in order to be up and at the ruins first thing. This seemed to be the best way to do things at this time of year (and to be honest would probably work well in busier times as well. Hit the sights early and spend the later part of the day getting to the next destination.

Come morning I tossed everything in my trunk then headed off to the ticket office managing to sneak into the site just before a tour group of French high school kids who’d obviously stayed either in town or nearby. It was an incredible experience to be at the sanctuary as the sun was really only just beginning to shine in earnest. The kids were getting a big lecture at the entrance so it was only a couple of people up exploring the site proper.

Delphi was the site of the Pythia, oracle of Apollo and one of the most important sources of prophecy to much of the ancient Greek world. The legend is that the priestess ranted while huffing fumes from a chasm beneath the temple and her attendants then translated them into (moderately) decipherable prophecies to be interpreted by the visitors. The truth of all this is of course questionable (there are some thoughts the rantings came from a poisonous drug) but regardless Delphi was a powerful religious site for several periods in antiquity. Eventually the site was abandoned for centuries before new settlements formed in the area and covered the ruins until the aforementioned land swap.

Standing on this steep hillside I remembered my drive from Athens the day before and was struck by what an epic journey it would have been on foot from most of the other centers of that ancient Greek world. Probably a week’s walk from Athens and much further from Sparta or Macedon or the islands. No doubt made harder because you’re lugging whatever offering you’re bringing to the Oracle. You arrive in this impressive place up overlooking the valley, you get your vague prophecy to interpret how you will, then you turn around and go home. There was more to it than that of course. At the highest heights there was a whole industry around it here as well as theatre, quadrennial games nearly as important as the Olympics etc. And of course if you were a mere mortal you might be waiting around a while for your turn at the Oracle so hospitality as well.

Having the upper tiers of the site more or less to myself made it easier to try and imagine the walls rebuilt, the marble shining and the statuary truly epic as gifts to the oracle dominated the site. Once I’d finished exploring the site the nearby museum housed some of these gifts that still remain. As a side note, one of the nice things about Greece has been the fact that at most of the sites I’ve visited the nearby museums actually have some of the artifacts so you can see them at least close to in context. Of course, some of the mega treasures are in the national museum in Athens (or in various conqueror’s collections… or stolen by the Brits.)

Thanks to my early start I’d seen the sights and done the museum well before lunch time so I grabbed a ham and cheese pastry and charted a slower course up through the mountain valleys and off towards Kalabaka and the monasteries of Meteora!

Once I’d gotten out of the mountain valley I ended up back on the same highway I’d left out of Athens but this soon gave way to an odd secondary road that seemed to snake off and on a brand new/uncompleted highway. Seems like a very odd way to build a new expressway… 20km or so of basically unused road then a large section where it disappears and I snaked across some back ways. It’s new enough that it doesn’t feel like something that was abandoned during Greece’s big crash a while back. The off again on again led to some more speed camera shenanigans as the limit yoyo’d through these secondary sections but (fingers crossed anyway) I avoided the nonsense.

If you’ve never heard of it Meteora is a region of rock formations in the inland valleys of Thessaly. These picturesque pillars of stone jut out on the edge of a flat fertile valley and clinging to them sometimes seemingly in defiance of gravity are a number of ancient monasteries. Monks and hermits have apparently been retreating to the valley for almost a thousand years and more elaborate monasteries started to be built in the 1300s. There were as many as two dozen at one point but now six fairly large ones remain and are open to tourists by schedule.

For most of their existence access to these retreats was only by rope ladders, baskets or nets lowered to the valley floor from above and just getting up was a test of your faith and courage. These days there are (no small number of) steps carved into the rocky pinnacles. Some of these were ridiculously intense as you see from the pictures, one in particular was definitely 10 stories down from the parking then 12 more back up (then reverse it to leave.)

What you find at the top are no simple huts but elaborate courtyards, finely decorated orthodox churches and chapels and simple accommodations for the brothers or sisters with spectacular views. If you remember the villain’s lair from For Your Eyes Only it was filmed around/in one of the monasteries.

I won’t blather on about it, the place was gorgeous and it’s best seen in photos.

The one positive here is that things were open on a split day for some of them so I actually managed to see 3 of the 6 the same afternoon I arrived from Delphi which made the step climbing a little less intense. I’m not sure if I would have made it up to all 6 had I done them all the same day. (7 actually since I was a genius and mistakenly climbed down to one I’d already done from below, despite a friend warning me she’d made the same mistake on visiting.)

In between all this climbing I settled into a very nice little hotel called the Theatro Hotel Odysseon where every room was themed with a stage play. I was in the Madame Butterfly room with some mildly questionable Asian decoration but otherwise very nice and with a small terrace looking up at the rocks. Nightlife was also a little more hopping here and I managed to find a pub with a delicious wood fired pizza and some cider and wiled away a few hours people watching as a rainstorm hit. At this point it was definitely starting to hit that the trip was almost over and I’d more or less done the planning to maximize what little time I had left.

The following morning I had a delicious included hotel breakfast (god I miss the feta and pastries) savoured the freshly rain washed sunshine and headed up to do the rest of the climbs. They definitely made the first day look easy but the views were worth every step.

The Grand Meteoron Monastery is the oldest and largest of all of them and is truly an impressive complex but they all have something worth seeing. Each of them asks for a 3 Euro donation for entry, something that is made plainly obvious everywhere but of course I ended up walking up behind an American couple who were flabbergasted that this remote monastery didn’t have a credit card reader for them. You’re also expected to dress ‘respectfully’ with what that means being the usual religious sexism nonsense. Not really a problem at this time of year but I can imagine getting up there in the heat of summer and not particularly wanting to cover my aching legs.

Thanks to an early start I’d finished seeing what I was going to see before 11 and set out on my next transfer, this one being a bit of a marathon drive from up in the middle of the country down across the gulf of Corinth and on to the Peloponnese peninsula that juts out SW of Athens. This again took a number of mountain switchback roads to get up to the main highway followed by a truly epic series of short to long tunnels as I crossed the spine of the country. Greek mountains, while mostly not very high, do occasionally have some impressive isolation and you can see how the ancients would have thought them the homes of the gods.

As I got closer to the west coast I was slightly disappointed to not have a chance to go to Corfu only an hour or so further on but I needed to get back closer to Athens for departure. I definitely think I’ll be back in Greece at some point and I’ll come at a time of year that’s nicer for the north. I caught the occasional glimpse of a bright blue Ionian sea on my right with one of my best views being at a fuel stop of all places, at least until the impressive bridge crossing the gulf. (It has to be said that between the tunnels, the expressway and that bridge I ended up spending double on tolls than the car rental itself cost me for that day.)

Eventually after about 5 hours I arrived at my destination for the night: Ancient Olympia. The birthplace of the games is unfortunately a kind of charmless modern town (again only about half open due to low season) but it’s reasonably isolated from anywhere major so it was best just to plunk down for a night to see the site of the original games. The positive was that the site was totally walkable from town so the next morning I again just threw my bags in the car and went for my explore.

I will nerd it up here and say I’ve played a video game that recreated a few of the sights from Olympia and it was fun to see how they’d done so from seeing the real thing. The site has remnants of the temples/altars from the celebrations of the ancient games but also the practice and training facilities for the competitors, the baths and the workshops of the artisans working in the area. And of course, at one end of the site there’s the ancient stadium. The competition floor is huge and the spectator areas are small grass banks but you can still see the judging stand and there’s a marble starting mark still there for you to line up on. Overall it was worth a visit but the actual interpretation on the grounds left a bit to be desired, I was glad to have my guide book

The area around Olympia (and most of the last hour of the day before) had seemed… I don’t want to say run down but perhaps a region that was in decline. Lots of stores that appeared to be shut down not just for the season, half finished buildings etc. By contrast as I headed further south that afternoon I’d clearly passed into an area where plenty of folks both domestic and foreign had their getaway pads. The coastal road I followed wound in and out of a number of small bays and there were many small clusters of boutique hotels and ‘cottages’ from simple to palatial. Again most were closed for the winter but they became more and more plentiful the further south I went. At a certain point they all changed to a similar construction of stone block almost castle feeling structures where even the large ones under construction were aping this ancient looking build style. I’m guessing it might be a matter of insulation for the hot summer days? Or who knows, maybe just tradition, the area is known for these towers after all.

My main destination for this day was the caves of Pyrgos-dirou which are a huge network of caves filled with an underground lake. You end up taken on poled boat through almost 2 kilometers of caves and apparently this only represents a small fraction of the cave system, most of which is still being explored. The caves are super impressive, stalagmites/tites are everywhere and the water is completely transparent. If you’re a taller person or even average height you may find yourself ducking (often at the last minute) as your guide swings you around through the pillars.

The experience itself was bizarre though. I showed up about 90mins before the website said they closed, had no issues checking in at the gate and getting a ticket before driving down to the cave entrance. Parked and was told to wait a while… not entirely sure why as everyone I ended up on a boat with was already there at the time. For off season there was a truly ridiculous number of maybe staff? Maybe construction? People around. Multiple women nattering in the gift shop entrance, 5 or 6 surly men smoking who I think were all the guides and another 5 or 6 people that seemed like they worked there but I couldn’t see anything they were actively doing.

Eventually we got taken over to get a life jacket and loaded onto the boat, as a solo traveller and a bigger guy I was put at the front. I was pretty thankful for this both for advance warning of low bridges incoming and because my guide had some truly TRULY horrendous body odour. I felt for the people sitting at his feet at the back because when I had to climb past him after the tour I gagged. Due to time of year he also didn’t speak English but I didn’t mind much as I knew how the caves were formed and I caught enough to understand he was mostly giving out the fanciful names for particular formations (Zeus’ bolt etc.)

The last section of the cave is traversed on foot and then you emerge on the edge of a crystal blue bay as the waves roll past. It was absolutely worth the trip out of my way, triply so as a person who really just loves neat caves.

Unfortunately, at this point it was decision time. I needed to have the car back in Athens by noon the following day. Either I could stay somewhere near the caves and see something else in the area or I could travel part of the way back and see some more historical sites. Part of the problem was nowhere nearby being particularly affordable stay wise. It wasn’t a situation when I wanted to splurge on a hotel knowing I’d just be there for the night and having to leave at 7 the next morning. In the end I decided to head halfway back to Athens and visit the onetime republic capital of Nafplio.

Not going to lie, it had been a tiring couple days and by the time I got to Nafplio I was tired and sore and made extra grumpy by a booked room that had lied about it’s location. While I had a car and it being a couple KM from the old town wasn’t the end of the world the extra time looking for the place when I desperately wanted a shower and a meal wasn’t appreciated. Actually getting that shower lowered the grumpiness at least 50% though and I had a brief explore of the old town center before dinner.

Nafplio is a pretty town right on the coast and loomed over by a giant fort that’s well lit at night. The old town is a mix of narrow cobbled roads and wide plazas and is apparently a weekend getaway hotspot for Athenians. It was Saturday night and absolutely hopping when I was there even on a relatively chilly march day. It made for some interesting people watching between family holidaymakers, some obvious stag and stagette types and the occasional person walking past in what I’d describe as renaissance masquerade-wear (genuinely not sure if they were on their way to a fancy dress party or street performers heading home.) After a fairly middling dinner I treated myself to a nice gelato and strolled around for a while. This sort of place in Europe is always funny with the super high-end boutiques often sharing a building with a super tacky souvenir store. I’d be interested in visiting the town again on more than a flying visit but it definitely wouldn’t be tons longer.

The next morning, I got another early start and headed to the ruins of Mycenae for my final archaeology stop. This one was definitely more of a ‘mind’s eye’ ruin than some of the rest as the only really visible things remaining are the (impressive) gate stones and various pits/depressions. That said it was a fascinating spot because you could see the defensibility of the place. Excellent sightlines in all directions, clear view down to the bay side forts that would have given lots of advance warning for attackers by sea and tough approaches on land. It was one of the really ancient centers of Greece having fallen from prominence in the collapses around 1200BC. Near the site is also the Treasury of Atreus, a hillside tomb with a massive dome.

Thankfully I’d timed things pretty well and got away from there with plenty of time to get back to Athens. Unfortunately for me I’d forgotten that the wide boulevard I’d picked the car up on had been closed for the changing of the guard Sunday morning… to make matters worse I’d also picked the day of the Athens marathon to return the car. This led to me having to force my way onto a side street and some frankly stressful narrow lane crawling until I lucked into a spot in front of a coffee shop about a block from the rental return. When I told the agency where it was, I had to walk them over and they made some comment like “next time you need to bring it to the door” and I just wordlessly pointed at the cops still blocking the road completely at the nearest corner.

The rental place being in a subway station came in handy again as rather than fight my way with a suitcase past the marathon runners multiple times I scooted underground, dumped my bag at my final hotel and headed off to the national archaeology museum I’d missed on my first Athens stop. This one was fun for content as it’s got some of the greatest treasures of the land (and the originals of some of the things I’d seen reproductions of) but the building itself is pretty tired and is apparently closing in phases for needed complete rebuild.

With that done it was time for one last walk around the acropolis area, some last-minute souvenir shopping and a final souvlaki and baklava. I ran into an odd street festival procession with people dancing and Greek ‘bagpipes’ wailing away. At a sadly early hour I headed back to my hotel to do a final pack. Unfortunately I had to be at the airport by 5 which meant not having subway access. After a relatively fitful sleep I was up at 3:30 and kindly provided with a packed “breakfast” by the hotel I grabbed an uber taxi to the main square where the airport bus made a relatively fast path to the airport and I was checked in right behind a swath of Canadian schoolkids.

Getting to Zurich was relatively uneventful though I’ll never get used to prices in Switzerland (though god some of the chocolate looked tasty.) I did have a good laugh when taking the shuttle to the international area there was a stereoscopic video presentation of Heidi yelling at us about “hope you saw all these sights!” This time the travel luck wasn’t with me though and on the long hop from my stop in Zurich to Toronto I ended up next to a hulking Ukrainian dude who for the first hour of the flight insisted on watching videos on high volume on his phone…. Constantly elbowing me whenever I started to drift off and then talking across me to the woman sitting on the other side of me. The only saving grace was it was a bulkhead seat so my feet weren’t cramped but I was desperately wishing I had a sleeping pill. It was frankly amazing how fast the flight from Toronto to Winnipeg went by comparison, and typical Winnipeg small town I ran into a friend on the flight.

Greece was for the most part lovely. I would definitely visit again however I absolutely wouldn’t go at this time of year. I definitely missed out on part of the experience but, at the same time, I hate when things are super crowded and I think I’d find Santorini hellish in another way if I went in July. September/early October might be the ideal time for me for visiting the islands at least. Spring would work too but the ocean would be warmer in September for the diving side of my travel personality. That said, the quieter time definitely led to a few great experiences and some good prices so it wasn’t all bad.

The Greek people were almost universally super friendly, eager to welcome you and happy to struggle to communicate with you if they didn’t speak at least a bit of English. Bus drivers were perhaps the exception but then, aren’t they always. Probably the highlight overall was Crete, I knew I’d love Athens, other sights were great but Crete was both gorgeous and a total surprise to me versus my earlier thoughts. Thanks again to Jay and Kim for that recommendation.