OUR AEGEAN CRUISE had been exciting, but my wife, Lynn, and I, were glad to get back to Athens and begin our adventure of exploring central and northeastern Greece.
Picking up our rental car, we were pleasantly surprised when the Europacar agent pulled up in a smart little lime-green Ford Fiesta. And we waited only 20 minutes. So we picked up where we had cost off, spending a full day on the Acropolis and the nearby ancient agora, or meeting place, of Athens.
Tourists are no longer allowed to actually enter the Parthenon, but that doesn't detract from its awe-inspiring beauty. With our Blue Guide in hand, we learned about the architects who designed it, about its meaning and its history. We toured on foot the surrounding temples, including the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the charming little Temple of Athena Nike. In early June, we found ourselves at times surrounded by hundreds of tourists on bus tours. But, with patience, moments could be found for photography or reflection when hardly a person interrupted our picture or mental frames.
In the ancient agora stands the Hephaisteion, built about 449 B.C. It is the m ost complete remaining example of a Doric Hexastyle temple, with parts of the original roof still intact, and an eternal tribute to the minds that conceived it.And, unlike the Parthenon, which, on a smaller scale, it resembles, the Hephaisteion can be entered and examined.
Nearly two weeks before, on the first day of our cruise, we had passed Cape Sounion, with its beautiful, shining temple to Poseidon high on a cliff. So we made the easy day-trip from Athens to Sounion, about 45 miles south. The poet, Lord Byron, a hopeless romantic, sought inspiration from the Muses at Sounion. But he was reported to be disappointed with our next destination -- Delphi.
Set among towering mountain walls at the base of Mt. Parnassos, Delphi is today the "most spectacularly beautiful ancient site in Greece," according to Benn's Blue Guide. Center of the classical universe, and home of the famous oracles, Delphi was also the place where our dollars seemed to come into their own.
Away from the high prices and surly waiters of Athens, the long sought after Grecian hospitality also made the first of many memorable appearances. Pulling into Delphi after a long drive from Sounion, well after 10 p.m., we selected the Hotel Stadion on the basis of its exterior. The gods smiled upon us.
Inside, the desk clerk showed us to a "room with a view." But in the darkness we wondered what view would greet us in the morning. It turned out to be a dramatic panorama of the Gulf of Corinth, stretching from the base of the nearby mountains into the sea. And the Hotel Stadion was likewise a treat. For 700 drachmae, roughly $13, we enjoyed both the view and an excellent continental breakfast. In Greece, the hotel room with breakfast replaces Europe's bed-and-breakfast concept. It's very convenient, and sets you up for a day of hiking or driving through the countryside.
Delphi takes a whole day to explore. As we poked around the seemingly countless courtyards and baths, set among towering, naked columns, we encountered the Australian couple who had shared the stateroom next door to us on the Viking of Kos. A reunion!
Small world, this Greece. The distance markers on the highways are, of course, in kilometers. The effect, on someone totally immersed in mileage, is delightful. Speed limits are set at a maximum of 110 kmph (about 66 mph) on the state-maintained toll highways, but everyone seems to do aobut 140 kmph. This delivers a psychological boost when one covers 300 km in under three hours. The country is small, but the roads are narrow and often steep, which keeps high speeds down to a dull roar.
Anyway, in Delphi, we met a young-at-heart Englishwoman who seemed envious of our carefree itinerary. She suggested we try the beaches along the Magnesium Peninsula in Pelion. Having nothing more pressing in mind, we aimed our car east, and chanced upon perhaps the most fertile, scenic corner of Greece.
The drive, through an enchanting series of mountains and valleys, was hard to negotiate. Not because the roads are poor (they're adequate, at least), but because I, the driver, was tempted to view the incredible scenery as we rounded each bend. Such distractions have on more than one occasion proved fatal, as most roads have no guardrails, and the drop-offs range from tens to thousands of feet. At many curves, small, enclosed miniature churches, tended mainly by unseen old woman, mark the spots where such accidents took place. At night these tiny altars are graced with oil lamps, creating an eerie warning of the unexpected in the road ahead.
Driving down the slopes of Mount Pelion toward the village of Ayios Ioannis, we were interested to learn that we had traversed, according to the Blue Guide, "one of the most delightful regions in all Greece." That much was obvious.
Pulling into the little seaside town, we discerned almost immediately that, for Americans, we were well off the beaten path. We stopped for a huge, delicious lunch of stew, bread, and wine (less than $6), and couldn't convince our waitress, the owner, that we weren't German or French. Evidently Americans haven't discovered the Pelion area. It turned out to be our favorite Grecian hideaway.
We hadn't selected a room for the evening, so while Lynn enjoyed the sea breezes, I set out on foot to locate the "usual" -- a room with a view. It took about two minutes. The innkeeper, Dimitri, offered me a seaside double for 750 drachmae, but dropped his price to 550 drachmae ($10) a night -- "special for you today" -- when I told him I had to check with the boss. The boss, needless to say, was delighted, and we checked in for two wonderful days, sharing the sand, surf, and sun mostly with seagulls.
Just 20 miles south, we discovered the superb beach at Milopotamos. It was here that we stumbled on illegal campers and were tempted to get out our tent and sleeping bags, but camping in Greece is strictly limited to licensed sites. And, with clean, comfortable rooms crying for guests at less than $15 a night for two, who needs to economize under the stars?
But the days alloted to lying on the beach soon expired, and it was time to execute the only real plan we had for our driving tour. That plan was a visit to Lynn's relatives in Kozani, a city of 40,000 in central Greece famed for its goldsmithing.
We drove west all day, stopping briefly at Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great. At the archeological dig, a worker surreptitiously held up a perfect clay head of Athena, previously cradled by the dross of centuries, for our viewing pleasure. He kept an eye on the archaeologist, who was excitedly unearthing one of the statue's legs. We were pleased.
Arriving in Kozani, we were brokenhearted to learn that Lynn's cousin, Gregory, had an unlisted telephone number. A tourist policeman used a phone in a hotel lobby to call information for us, to no avail. But, wonder of wonders, a patron eating lunch at the hotel restaurant overheard our predicament, and came to the rescue.
"Gregory Fokides? Come on, I'll show you his house," our helpful Greek friend proclaimed. And true to his word, within minutes, we were wrapped in the embraces of the Fokides family. Fortunately, Louizes, Gregory's 15-year-old son, spoke some English, and we all tried to utilize this overworked interpreter at the same time. Out came the traditional thick, rich Greek coffee and the candied preserves, along with all the other trademarks of Greek hospitality. They really made us feel at home.
That evening we all drove to Velvendos, a prosperous mountain village that is the ancestral home of Lynn's parents' families. Our hosts there, who were Lynn's great-uncle Eleftheria and Gregory's parents, own the oldest house in the town, a 400-year-old stone home that has been in the family since it was built. It's often used for marriage ceremonies by couples who want an authentic Greek backdrop. Out came the coffee and preserves again. We were getting full fast, but loving every minute of it. That evening, Gregory and his family took us to the Cafe Metoxi, where the owner shared our table and the wine never stopped flowing. Stin iyia mas!
The next morning, other relatives came to see Lynn and her American husband. The commotion and laughing attracted an old Greek woman, who entered the courtyard and got the lowdown on the "visitors from America." We didn't understand the conversation, of course, but the lady approached Lynn and stroked her cheeks tenderly before bursting into tears. She couldn't be consoled and, sobbing, left us.
It turned out that Lynn's grandmother and this silent, proud woman had been childhood friends in the Greece of nearly eight decades ago. We'll never know what thoughts and memories overcame her, but the moment was very touching, and more than one teardrop was brushed away as our unknown friend disappeared up the narrow streets.
Our sojourn was almost over when we arrived at the Meteora, a valley full of monastic buildings set on detached precipitous granite rocks soaring hundreds of feet straight up. Signs exhort the visitor to ponder the devotion (and need for protection) that drove Byzantine monks to build their monuments on such perilous pinnacles. Fortunately, stairs have been cut into the rock, allowing access to all who care to climb them.
But be forewarned. Men with hair over the collar, or women in shorts or with shoulders uncovered, will not be admitted, regardless of the climb. Here, as everywhere in Greece, "modest" dress is required to visit the monasteries. The Meteora, and the surrounding geological area, is unique in Greece, and merits a full day for contemplation.
Having explored the less popular, less crowded northern and eastern areas of Greece, we set our sights once again on Athens. During our drives, we had priced local handicrafts such as embroidery, gold jewelry, and regional souvenirs, only to find, much to our amazement, that the items were not appreciably more expensive in Athens. So, with a final day in the capital, we hit the Plaka, and blew our remaining bankroll (which, thanks to the prices in northern Greece, was still quite healthy) on all sorts of goodies -- necklaces, worry beads, shirts and dresses, pottery, you name it.
At the airport we returned our Ford, none the worse for wear, and settled down to reminisce about our adventures. We were tan, fat and happy. And although we missed the ruin-studded, steeped-in-history Peloponnesus, destination of most tourists who venture away from Athens and the southern beaches, we were quite pleased with our adventures.
We won't need any slick brochures or bargain air fares to lure us back to Greece. And the regions we missed this time around will serve as the topping that makes our future return engagement all the sweeter.