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Touring Athens and the Greek Isles

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:46 PM

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WHAT: Two weeks in Greece -- one on the mainland, one on two islands.

WHO: Myself and an equally adventurous friend, Ann Marie Cusella, both former Californians in our early 60s.

WHEN: Mid-May.

WHY: How can you beat the place where Western civilization began?

THE TRIP: Loosely planned to allow for fatigue, local recommendations and maximum spontaneity. But basically, we flew to Athens, drove to Delphi to consult the Oracle, then traveled to the small coastal town of Nafplio. Back in Athens, we dumped half our stuff at the hotel and flew to Santorini, then took the ferry to Naxos.

COST: Around $2,000 each. Airfare was financed with frequent-flier miles from the greatest cousin in the world.

GETTING AROUND: The metro in Athens allowed us to visit neighborhoods off the tourist path. Driving was a terrifying experience: Greece has one of the worst accident rates in Europe, according to the World Health Organization, and it is a reputation well earned. Still, having a rental car allowed us the flexibility to stop in villages and explore ancient sites along the way. The ferry to Naxos was comfortable and took five hours on the return ride to Athens.

A-LIST ATTRACTIONS: For history, it is hard to top the Acropolis (Athens), the Sanctuary of Apollo (Delphi) and the Theater at Epidaurus. The islands were relaxed with beaches, wineries, monasteries and little villages untouched by tourism.

FAVORITE EATS: I never tired of Greek yogurt, swimming in honey, every morning. And, yum, fried cheese. The Greeks love to drink and often brought free ouzo or local liquor to our table, shots of goodwill. They also serve octopus balls -- not what you think, but kind of like crab cakes.

BEDS, BATHS AND BEYOND: We had clean, charming, simple rooms, always with a balcony or patio, and the great (pre-tourist season) prices often included full breakfasts. The staff/owners were unfailingly helpful. The Carolina Hotel in Athens stored our extraneous stuff, the brothers at the Pan Hotel in Delphi told us stories about their grandparents whose house sat atop the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, and the owner of the Antonia on Santorini called his friend on Naxos to get us a great deal there.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The Greeks were friendly, informative, always willing to help, funny and generous. On the islands, we were served wine, olives, feta and bread before being shown to our rooms. Restaurant owners would give us their card and say, "I know everybody on the island. You have any trouble, you call me."

ELVIS LIVE: At the ancient stone Theater at Epidaurus, visitors test the acoustics by standing in the center of the stage and singing, opera mostly. One man dedicated an Elvis song to us.

BEST SOUVENIR: In the village of Halki on Naxos, a small distillery makes a liqueur from the leaves of the citron tree. It is made and sold only on the island. We tasted all three flavors (sweet, strong, very strong), and I regret not buying more than one bottle.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: The size of the cliffs that form the caldera, or volcanic basin, on Santorini; the cliffs were created when the volcano erupted and half the island dropped into the sea.

WHAT I'D DO DIFFERENTLY: Leave behind one-third of the clothes, shoes and miscellaneous stuff, but still take the same size luggage. There were so many unique items to purchase there, it changed forever how I will travel in the future.

I COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT . . . the harrowing cliff-side bus rides on the islands, driven by men who appeared distracted by their lively conversations with the ticket-takers in the stairwell.

MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE? On our last night, in the dirt and stone cellar of a 12th-century Venetian castle on Naxos, we attended a traditional music and dance performance hosted by a duke, the last remaining heir to the castle. In addition to offering us sunset on his porch, he taught us a dance at the end of the evening.

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