September 18, 2013

Greece Recap

We spent 18 days walking, driving, flying, and cruising through Greece. We saw big cities and small towns, mountains and plains, the mainland and the islands. Greece has a little bit of everything to offer.

Greece is dangerous. But not because of crime, theft, riots, food poisoning, or pirates. In all seriousness, Greece has very slippery rocks. Just about every single town is paved in uneven cobblestones, and at ancient sites in Athens, people have been walking on the same cobbles for thousands of years. From ancient sandals to today’s flip flops, those rocks have been shined to a polish. If you ever go to Greece, you have been warned.

The sites throughout mainland Greece were fantastic, but they were also really far away from each other. Often times the journey between them felt more like South America. Greece was surprisingly undeveloped with a lot of abandoned building foundations along the roadsides. Even Santorini looked a little ramshackle until we got to the very manufactured tourist towns.

So maybe in between towns Greece was more ghetto than we had imagined, but that’s because their strength is the water. There is no trash floating in the water in Greece. It’s pristine, blue, clear, and always stocked with fish. For some reason boats only seemed to moor off of islands, but we learned that the mainland beaches are just as good. 

Straight away we observed that the Greek people were extremely friendly…one of the friendliest cultures we’ve seen. We experienced absolutely zero sign of any political unrest. The only side effects of Greece’s recent financial struggle were the staggeringly low hotel rates. We were upgraded three different times and always had a stunning view from our balcony or a room dripping in character. This amazing room in Nafplio was a whopping $67.

We had the honor of seeing two traditional wedding processions where the bride’s family, friends, and musicians (always playing a clarinet and accordion) walk her down the road to the Orthodox Church where her groom awaits.

And one of the most endearing Grecian observations is that you can sometimes hear them before you see them. That’s because the men spend all day fidgeting with their personal set of beads on a string, known as kompoloi or “worry beads”. There’s no religious or ceremonial purpose…they just do it to pass the time and you can hear the clicking of the beads just walking down the street.

Before we arrived in Greece, we laughed that we didn’t really know what Greek people look like. They’re very attractive with dark hair and a language that flows with a rhythm similar to Italian. The men are particularly hairy and sometimes rock Tom Selleck mustaches, but overall, they're attractive.

Before I jump into the food, here’s a handful of amusing observations about the dining scene in Greece:

1. Each restaurant lures you in with their nice, colorful tablecloths. But then as soon as you sit down, they cover said tablecloths with a paper that's just like the bibs you get at the dentist office. It’s weird, loud and annoying,

2. Restaurant owners are never in a hurry for you to leave, but the food consistently came out within 5 minutes of ordering…even at a nice sit-down restaurants for dinner.

3. Receipts are a big deal. Apparently Greece used to have a corruption issue where employees would pocket money after a transaction. So now it’s a law that they have to give shoppers a receipt for everything...even a 35-cent bottle of water. Even if I don't want a receipt, they make me take it.

4. Every table for 2 somehow seems to have 10 plates.

5. Every meal is accompanied by some sort of dip or spread that doesn’t necessarily come with bread. That would be like ordering salsa in the US and then just eating it with a spoon.

For as many olive trees that blanket the landscape, olives are somewhat hard to come by outside of tourist shops selling them in vacuum sealed bags. We saw them most mornings at breakfast, but Greek salads only came with 4-5 olives and they were rarely in dishes or served as a starter. I ate more olives in Spain than in Greece.

That said, they LOVE olive oil. Everything is drenched in it. They also love feta cheese. Greeks eat more cheese per capita than anywhere else in the world. They shamelessly eat it all by itself in every way imaginable (room temperature, baked, fried, spicy, and oily).

The #1 Greek dish I was most excited to try was the Greek salad. Now if I could make a list of every food that Steve despises, it would be in a Greek salad. Huge chunks of tomatoes, red onion, green peppers, cucumber, and olives are all on his hate list. Naturally, it’s everything that I love.  The only two ingredients that redeem this dish for him were olive oil to dunk his bread in and feta, which comes as a huge block on top. We estimate that the block of feta cheese on one Greek salad is about as much as you would buy in an entire tub of feta in the US.

Feta – more salty than what we get in the US. It is sold in bulk in a huge feta section of the grocery store.

Salads – aside from Greek salads, we also tried avocado salad (hardly any avocado), beet salad (hardly anything but beets), and the Mykonian salad from Mykonos (lentil based).

Mezes – these are small plates very similar to Spanish tapas. We sampled all sorts of mezes like artichokes, cheese/zucchini/chicken croquettes, eggplant, bacon and eggplant wrapped feta cheese, stuffed mushrooms, and a garlic spread (see #5 above) that closely resembled mashed potatoes. 

Tzatziki – a thick white sauce made of yogurt, cucumber and garlic. We had it served on its own (#5 above) and in gyro and souvlaki pitas.

Tirokafteri – spicy feta cheese spread, served either on its own (#5 above or stuffed inside of roasted red peppers).

Dolmathes – stuffed grape leaves filled with rice and served cold.

Pastitsio – the Greek version of lasagna.

Moussaka – a traditional Greek casserole made with layers of minced meat, eggplant, tomatoes, and a cream or cheese top layer. This was a staple on every single menu.

Stuffed Tomatoes & Peppers – whole red tomatoes and green peppers filled with rice and then baked. This reminded me very much of a childhood dish my mom used to make.

Gyro – shaved pork or chicken eaten in a pita taco stuffed with tomatoes, red onions, tzatiki and french fries. This was our very favorite lunch because it was tasty and fast. When there’s so much sightseeing to be done, we’re not really into hour-long lunches.

Souvlaki – chunks of pork or chicken cooked on a skewer like a shish kebab. The meat would either be eaten in a pita taco with tomatoes, red onions and tzatziki or served on a plate with pita, tzatziki and french fries.

Meatballs – in the shape of sausages covered with beef sauce and served over french fries

Rooster – this is the first time we’ve ever knowingly had rooster, and wondered how many times we’ve eaten it under the label of chicken. Regardless, it was good!

Apache – a specialty of Crete, and one of our very favorite Greek dishes. It consisted of spice-infused pork baked in earthenware with peppers and tomatoes and topped with cheese. Super flavorful and oh so yummy!

Seafood – unless specifically called out on the menu, it is always fresh. We also found it to be fairly expensive. One time a very proud restaurant owner brought us back into his kitchen to show us his fresh catch in the refrigerators…and then proceeded to order for us 4 huge plates of food. 

Another time we ordered a mixed seafood plate with grilled octopus, calamari, fried shrimp, a mixed crab dip, and little fish called Gavros. These are like anchovies that we were instructed to eat whole. After I had popped about 12 of these in my mouth, Steve pulled out one of the spines to show me what I was eating, and it was at least 2 inches long. The rest I cut apart.

Yogurt – better than the Greek yogurt you can find in the US. I wouldn’t necessarily call it sweet, but it was less tart. In general just very mild, smooth, and delicious.  It was always served with honey, and sometimes served with halved or quartered peaches. We even tried frozen Greek yogurt, and it too was creamier and smoother than our American counterpart. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Fage is commonly sold at Greek grocery stores, so we’ll be buying that brand from now on.

“Pies” – this was a catchall phrase that could either mean the equivalent of a humongous empanada filled with cheese and bacon or a casserole of cream custard or cheese. Either way, they were always based with flaky phyllo dough.

Sesame seeds – we saw this used a lot, particularly on circular baked goods eaten for breakfast or lunch. 

Baklava – phyllo dough with nuts and dripping in honey. We tried several different kinds, and my favorite was called Kataifi. It had thin fibers that reminded me shredded wheat and was delicious when drenched in honey. Restaurants were almost always sold out of this by the time we would go to dinner around 9:00.

Fried donuts with honey.

Ice cream – special Greek flavors that we tried were Baklava and Mastic a mixture of vanilla and tree resin which is only made on a Greek island names Chios. Of course we had other European staples like Kinder Bueno, Cookies, Dark Chocolate, Snickers, and Lemon. I also tried the rarely found Werther's Original.

Greek coffee – a tiny espresso cup with loose coffee grinds at the bottom. Iced coffees were also very popular.

Beer – as expected with most warm international destinations, they only really had lagers. Major brands were Mythose (favorite), Fix, and Alpha. We also tried an organic beer from Crete. Funny side note: they always referred to organic as “biological”.

Wine – Greece is deservingly not well known for their wine. In Santorini our hotel gave us a bottle of their own white production. You know it’s bad when you can't even tell if the wine had spoiled or if that's just how it was supposed to taste. House wines come by the liter for about $6 at restaurants. It was sometimes a challenge to find a bottle priced more than $10. The best Greek wines (that’s relatively speaking, of course) came from the Peloponnese Peninsula and the most common grape varietal we drank was called Agiorgitikotranslated as “Blood of Hercules”.

Retsina – an old-fashioned type of white Greek wine that has a dash of pine resin. It seriously tastes like Pine Sol. Luckily it’s not as common anymore.

Ouzo – Greece’s most famous drink. It’s a clear spirit that is sipped sort of like lemoncello in Italy. It’s always served with ice cubes and then cut with some water (up to 50/50 depending on your preference). Adding water immediately makes it turn a cloudy white. Ouzo tastes exactly like a black jelly bean.

Raki – an after dinner drink that restaurants give for free. It reminded us of rice wine from Southeast Asia. It might as well be rubbing alcohol. 

There were quite a bit of Italian influences, so in some cities we also had Italian staples like prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches, tagliatelle, pizza, gelato, and lemoncello.

Land: goats, cows, snakes, and roosters.

Sea: fish, sea urchins, and you-name-it sitting on ice and ready for purchase.

Air: the scariest red wasps we’ve ever seen. Greece also has a ridiculously annoying number of bees. Perhaps that’s why they have so much honey on hand?

Sometimes the bees would get so bad that the restaurant owners had to put out honey that their wings would get stuck in, or some smoking coffee to ward them off.

Always lurking: stray cats, which outnumber the stray dogs. Mysteriously, all of the stray animals wear collars.

-  Leather sandals in Athens
-  Olive wood bracelet in Athens
-  Gold bracelet in Hydra
-  Worry beads in Nafplio
-  Olive wood cheese board in Crete
-  Olive branch ring in Santorini
-  Swim trunks in Mykonos

Fun fact: to care for our new olive wood goods, we were instructed to rub olive oil over them every couple of months.

-  The Acropolis and various ancient ruins in Athens
-  Exploring Nafplio’s sprawling hilltop fortress
-  The remote island village of Monemvasia
-  Visiting the original Olympic site in Ancient Olympia
-  Staring in awe at the breathtaking valley and monasteries of Meteora
-  The nighttime energy in Crete
-  Santorini’s volcano caldera and pretty cliff-hugging villages
-  Getting lost in the winding maze of streets of Mykonos
If we had to do it over again…

Athens – 4 days, 3 nights
Hydra – 2 days, 1 night + (depending on the ferry times)
Nafplio – 2 days, 1 night (optional side trip to Epidavros on the way in)
Drive to Monemvasia – late afternoon
Monemvasia – 1 day, 2 nights
Drive to Olympia with a stopover in Mystras – 1 day
Olympia – 1 day, 1 night
Delphi – 1 day, 1 night
Meterora – 2 days, 3 nights (less if you can cut travel times to maximize the days)
Crete – 4 days minimum (Chania, Elafonisi, Samaria Gorge, Reythmnon) or just cut it out
Santorini – 2 days, 2 nights +
Mykonos – 1 day, 2 nights

We saw and did a lot in 18 days! I wouldn’t say it was a “relaxing” vacation in the sense that we sat at a beach all day every day. We would have gotten super bored doing that anyway. In fact we stayed in 12 different hotels/cities over those 18 days. It was “relaxing” in the sense that we didn’t think about work, we felt like our old selves again, and we explored a new part of the world.

We had heard horror stories of Greece in July and August when it’s hot, crowded and expensive. Visiting in September gave us great weather in the upper 80s and surprisingly very little crowds. That said, it would have been nice to visit in the springtime when the landscape would have looked less dry and wildflowers would have been blooming. If I had to do it over again, I would have chosen April or May.

The more ancient sites we visited, the more baffled I became. A lot of times, there are more pieces of statues missing than there are intact. I just don’t understand how the archeologists know that this foot belonged to that hip.

So in the land of ancient sites, the reoccurring question is, do you go see the archeological site first or the museum that explains the archeological site first? We have tested this out, just as diligently as we've tested ice cream flavors. The answer is that it depends on the quality of either your guidebook or the signage at the archeological site. If you have an information source that’s good enough to somewhat recreate the site for you, then go to the archeological site first while your energy is high. Otherwise if it’s just a pile of rocks with no illustrations, then hit up the museum first.

It was neat to piece together the Roman history we learned last year while in Italy with our new-found Greek history knowledge. The Romans are famous for their strong cultural identity, but I’ve always loved how much the Romans borrowed from the Greeks. For example we always think of Greek statues as being made of white marble, but that wasn’t necessarily true. The Greeks actually used a lot of bronze, and our misunderstanding comes from Roman marble reproductions of their favorite Greek statues.

The intertwining of Greek and Roman history reminded us what an embarrassingly little amount of perspective we had when we started our RTW adventure in South America last year. At the time, we were mesmerized by the Incan cities built in the 1400s. Later we came to appreciate that the Romans were conquering the world 1,500 years earlier. And now we understand that the Greeks conjured up the basis of modern day civilization 300 years before that!

It’s become obvious to me that travel makes us better because it gives us perspective. Each new country unveils a connection to places we’ve already been. Hooray for perspective on perspective.

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