September 9, 2013

Road Tripping Through Greece

When most people think of Greece they imagine Athens and the islands, but the mainland has a lot to offer and so that’s where we spent over half of our time. We rented a car for an 8-day, 1,560 kilometer (970 mile) Greek road trip starting in the country’s heartland – the Peloponnese Peninsula.

Our first stop was Nafplio, the original capital city of Greece. It’s a vibrant town that’s blessed to have a neat history, strollable Old Town, and incredible setting. 

As our guidebook put it, “Nafplio is as chic as Athens, but with way less graffiti”. 

It also has 3 different castles peppered around its hills and bay. Our favorite, Palamidi Fortress, looms over the city on the highest cliff and had several different bastions that we spent hours exploring.

From Nafplio, there are a couple of decent side-trips to nearby ancient sites. Epidavros was the healing center of Ancient Greece where the sick came to be treated. And because it was buried under dirt for about 1,400 years, it also boasts a mint condition ancient theater.

The ancient site at Mycenae was a little lackluster but it had a really cool backstory. It was this settlement that attacked Troy in the famous story of the Trojan horse. This goes to show why you do not want to be one of our partners in a game of Trivial Pursuit. We didn't even know that Troy had a connection to Greece!

But it turns out that the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Troy – was originally married to the king of Sparta (Greece). When Helen was taken to Troy, the Spartan king enlisted his brother – Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae – to go after her.
We first caught a glimpse of the almost unbelievable golden treasures unearthed at Mycenae in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. These people were from 1600 BC. That’s approximately 1,200 years before the Parthenon was even built, and yet, they had a talent for gilded adornments! So even though their ancient city felt a little crude, we had to cut them some slack due to their time frame. 

From Nafplio we headed along the shoreline going south to a most peculiar place. On a large rock suspended in the ocean and connected to land only by a thin road, Monemvasia is a feast for the eyes. 

On the back side of the rock, the “lower town” is a tiny maze of cobblestone lanes and steps.

Instead of flower pots, these people use cannonballs for decoration.

I swear I saw some cannonballs laying at the bottom of the ocean during a swim directly adjacent to the rock. 

The “upper town” is a 15-minute hike to the top of the rock where an old ruined city spreads across the desolate plateau. 

Boy, I wish we could have seen the upper town in the springtime. We could tell that there are normally wildflowers, but they were all dried up by the time we visited. We also wish we had stayed in Monemvasia longer. 2 days and 2 nights of relaxing, dining, and scampering amongst the ruins would have been perfect in this little treasure trove.

Along our road trip, we drove through famous towns like Sparta and Kalamata. Corinth – of Corinthian Bible fame – was only about 45 kilometers up the road. I love how in Greece, you’re constantly surrounded by history, names, and stories you’ve heard about all of your life.

Before we arrived in Greece we had hypothesized about what the landscape might look like. We started out in olive groves along the sea and in the valleys. Sometimes there would be an occasional Cyprus tree that reminded us of Italy. But then the landscape quickly changed to pine trees with packs of goats herding along the roadsides.

We were shocked to find out that 80% of Greece is covered in mountains. If I had closed my eyes and been dropped in some of the areas we were driving, I would have thought we were in Colorado.

And then just as we would hit the coast, we’d descend out of the mountains into arid hillsides with more olive trees than I've ever seen. Sometimes it looked like they were just growing wild, and occasionally we would spot a really, really old one. 

We read an estimate that there are 150 million olive trees in Greece. I bet about 1 million of them are blanketing the valley below the gorgeous mountainside setting of Delphi.

Delphi is the site where people came from all over Ancient Greece to have their fate told by the oracle. The Ancient Greeks literally thought this was the center of the earth. 

They made their pilgrimage up the hill to the temple where they would hear their destiny read by a female fortune-teller who was most likely high on vapors. Along the way they passed elaborate treasuries built to house offerings from various city-states. So many offerings were documented by carvings on the walls of these treasury buildings that Delphi is considered the largest open-air ancient library in the world.

Above the temple where the fates were read lies a theater with an average view. I guess you could consider it the original Red Rocks.

Farther up the path is the best preserved stadium in Greece. The Ancient Greeks gathered in Delphi every 4 years to compete in the Pythian Games, second only to the Olympic Games on their athletics calendar.

Delphi had all the potential for a magical visit, but for us it was tainted by the endless tour groups that rolled through one right after the other. It was hard to mentally recreate the scene, or even hear our own thoughts, with battling tour guides shouting over top of each other. Still, the mountain setting was breathtaking and we would recommend it...with some earplugs.

Our final stop on the Greek mainland was also one of our riskiest. It was very far out of the way, and we had next to no information about it. We were going solely off the recommendation of our Aussie friend Shireen, a fellow RTW traveler who we met last year. Before our trip she told us that taking all of Greece into consideration, this is the one place we shouldn’t miss. Wow, that’s quite a recommendation! So we trusted her and went for it. We showed up without a map and without a clue...

Meteora is a magical place where 600 year-old Eastern Orthodox monasteries are perched on pinnacle rocks scattered throughout a lush green valley.

In the old days, the monks were hoisted up in rope baskets. Then in the 1920s crude steps were cut into the rock. Today there are decent stairs, although it can be a steep trek.

For ladies, the reward for the sweaty hike to the top is being told that you then have to layer on a skirt and a shawl. I looked like I was gearing up for winter while Steve strolled through in his shorts and t-shirt.

We spent 1.5 days hiking and driving between the 6 operating monasteries and nunneries. It goes very slowly when you have a camera in hand. You could literally take a picture of these monasteries from every angle and see something different. 

Inside, the monasteries vary by size but have largely the same formula. You can light a candle and then visit the sanctuary, which is always decorated with ornate frescoes, incense burners hanging from the ceiling, and elaborately whittled wooden pews that outline the shape of the room. 

It was funny to see how the nunneries felt homier and more well taken care of than the monasteries. This just goes to show that with all things being equal – living on top of a rock and having all the time in the world – women are still more attentive to detail than men.

Several people have asked us if the monasteries communicate with each other. We don’t really know the answer to this, but we assume they are using some sort of smoke signal or flashlight communication. How else would they all have known to recently raise their entry prices from 2 to 3 Euros?

We did some rough math and estimate that with the amount of tour buses rolling through Meteora, each monastery is probably bringing in about $2 million per year. OMG. We have no idea what they could possibly be doing with all of that money.

Meteora is the general name used to describe the area encompassing the monasteries, but there are a pair of towns. Kalambaka is the moderately-sized city at the base of the rocks that we felt lacked any charm. On the other hand, Kastraki is a perfectly nestled little village on the other side of the rocks where we stayed 2 nights. 

In the evening, the adolescent boys sit at one end of Kastraki’s town square and the adolescent girls sit at the other end giggling. It was very amusing.

There are also hermitages built into the rocks. They light up at night, so we know they must have electricity. The hermits are connected to land only by the ladders that they keep raised off the ground so that no one can bother them.

Finally, here's something cool and pretty much unbelievable. Just 3 miles outside of town, there's a cave where archeologists have found the oldest man-made structure of all time. It’s been dated to a Neanderthal in 21,000 BC. Think about that for a second: 21,000 BC. The Egyptian pyramids date to approximately 2,600 BC. The Roman Coliseum was finished in 80 AD. Machu Picchu was built in 1,450 AD. There were some really old people stomping around these parts of Greece.

We had gone our whole lives and never even heard of this place until a couple of months ago. And yet, Meteora was more touristy than any other site on mainland Greece…even more so than the ancient ruins in Athens. Why? The Europeans. They’re in the know about this special place that is still largely unfamiliar to Americans.

Truly the Greek mainland was a lesson learned for these two American travelers. The next time someone tells you they’re vacationing in Greece, ask them if they’re going anywhere besides Athens and the islands. I bet you they say no, but my response would be, why not?

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