Here we were, finally retired, with all the time in the world. But we weren't after the world -- just a part of it. Specifically, we were itching to return to Greece -- and not for a paltry two weeks this time, either.
There was no question that my wife Ruth and I had the time. What we didn't have a lot of was money. On a Social Security-check budget, we were hardly in a position for a lengthy trip.
But we knew we'd need a year -- and come to think of it, a car would be nice too -- to experience Greece fully. We wanted to travel at our own pace, sans tour groups and rigid itineraries, seeing and tasting everything from prehistoric villages and Minoan palaces to Mycenaean tombs, ancient Greek theaters and temples, Roman baths, Byzantine churches, medieval towns, Venetian fortresses and modern Turkish bazaars.
And we wanted to have fun doing it. We could see ourselves relaxing at tavernas with coffee and ouzo, watching whitecaps caress the beaches and climbing to mountaintops to view sunsets and moonrises over the Aegean.
But could we afford it? We didn't want to camp, and the thought of a year's worth of hotel and restaurant bills was staggering. In fact, the more we thought about it, traveling to exotic spots for an entire year seemed like an impossible dream -- something reserved for crazy kids or the idle rich.
But it isn't, and it wasn't, largely because of the very low living costs in Greece and Turkey. When we added up our modest Social Security income for the year, plus what we could earn by leasing our house, the total came to nearly $28,000. Could we do it all for that or less? With a little figuring, we estimated we could.
And we did. When our year had ended, we calculated that we'd spent less than $35 a day for each of us; we did everything we wanted to do -- even more -- and wound up with nearly $2,000 left over.
Our itinerary was keyed to the seasons. After flying to Italy in mid-August, we would buy a car, transport it by ferry across the Adriatic Sea and spend the last days of summer roaming northern Greece. We'd experience autumn on the Turkish coast while shuttling to nearby Greek isles, winter on southernmost Crete, spend spring back on the mainland and summer on the seashore not far from Athens.
We had planned to spend less than a week in Italy but had to stay a few extra days because of Roman red tape, in connection with the purchase of a new Fiat Uno. That was the biggest error of our trip: Buying the car in Rome instead of Athens. We knew buying would be cheaper than renting, but we were under the mistaken impression that the car would cost less in Italy. In fact, auto prices were higher there, and so was our auto insurance: We later learned we'd paid $1,000 too much. But even considering those mistakes, we ended up paying less than $3,000 for the use of the car for a year.
Our first view of the Greek mainland, on the ferry from Brindisi, Italy, was a rosy dawn over the 8,000-foot Pindus Mountains. From the tiny fishing port of Igoumenitsa, a few miles across from Corfu, we set out in our new car over steep peaks and hairpin turns into Ioannina, the provincial capital of northwest Greece. This would be our first base camp.
Like Greek coffee, food and music, much that is Greek is Turkish. That's because most of Greece was ruled by the Turks for nearly 500 years, up to the eve of World War I. Turkish influence is strongest in northern Greece, which we traversed from Ioannina to Alexandroupolis, "the city of Alexander" the Great, near the Turkish border.
Ioannina has made a public park out of the hated Ali Pasha's walled fortress on a rocky spit in Lake Pambotis. A lakeside drive took us past a lover's walk and family strolling area, just as the dying sun bathed the surrounding peaks in pink and purple.
As tough as the Turkish overlords were in northeast Greece, they rarely dared to disturb the fiercely independent natives of the rugged Zagoria area of some 45 mountain villages stretching north of Ioannina toward Albania. Zagoria is a delight because it is so authentically Old World and wildly beautiful, yet refreshingly untouristy. Not much has changed there over the centuries except for a network of recently paved roads . Electricity did not arrive until the '60s. A more recent incongruity is cable television, with its hourly newscasts -- this in a region where it can take six years to get a telephone installed!
Most of the houses here are made of local gray stone with gray slate roofs. The gray is so pervasive that from a distance, villages blend right into the landscape. Also part of the scene are gracefully arched stone bridges built just wide enough for a loaded donkey to get by -- the measure for determining the width of most "roads" in Greek villages.
The main activity in Zagoria consists of finding enough green patches for the voracious sheep and goats in the rocky terrain. For the natives, who still speak a derivation of Latin, shepherding has been a way of life since Roman times.
Shepherding, of course, isn't for everyone. In Grevenition, where we stopped for a Coke, we met a young Greek man who'd just returned from a stint in Salt Lake City. Demetrius had come home to visit his parents and complete his military obligation after launching a career as a medic. Like many youths, he had sought a fortune overseas but returned to his village roots. On the way, he had picked up the obligatory used BMW in Brussels, center of Europe's auto trade, to impress the villagers. For most young Greeks, Odysseus lives.
Our own odyssey brought us down the western coast, but not before visiting what Homer called "wintry Dodona," site of the oldest Greek oracle, just outside Ioannina. Here were remains of a large Greek theater with some Roman "improvements." This Greek-Roman mixture became a common theme on our travels.
Near the coast were the purely Roman remains of Nikopolis (Victory City), a planned community of 300,000 established by Augustus in 31 B.C. Mosaic church floors, possibly where Paul wrote his Epistle to Titus, lie exposed to the elements near extensive walls and huge arched gates.
Not far offshore is much underrated Lefkada (a k a Lefkas), where the poet Sappho is said to have jumped to her death from a cliff. We took the ferry over and found the island somewhat over-touristed in late August -- for good reason. Nowhere in Greece is there a nicer, sandier beach than at Kalamitsi, on the west coast. Stony beaches are much more common in Greece. And that's what we got, at a nice hotel on the eastern shore. No matter. The island's medieval fortresses, Bronze Age tombs and fishing villages were enough to captivate us for several days. Note for the star struck: Just offshore is Skorpios, the super-private isle of the Onassis clan.
We were sorry to move on, but the road beckoned and we headed for Kalambaka -- our next base. We didn't realize we would be driving over the highest mountain pass in Greece -- 5,600 feet at Katara. There were breathtaking views in all directions, when we dared to take our eyes off the winding road.
Meteora, outside Kalambaka, is bizarre, with its 600-year-old monasteries perched atop vertical rock formations; the largest, the Great Meteoron, soars 1,700 feet into the sky. Begun by religious hermits in the 14th century, some of these crow's nests became self-sufficient with compact gardens and secret wells. They were perfect refuges from the Turks, Crusaders and other prowlers. Residents and supplies used to be winched up by rope. Now bridges, stairs and roads make the monasteries accessible for hardy visitors.
Our first real taste of Greek filoxenia, or hospitality to foreigners, came in the city of Trikala, 12 miles east of Kalambaka. We went there to see the ruins of what is believed to be the first asklepion (ancient health clinic) and to visit a Greek couple who had befriended us in an Ioannina restaurant. Through a haze of basic Italian and Greek, we had become friends within minutes. When we visited them in Trikala, we were surprised and touched by the elaborate luncheon they'd prepared for us. It was the first of many such welcome gestures we encountered.
From Trikala, we decided to take some time off from driving and caught a bus for the five-hour ride to Athens. We wanted to collect mail, check in at the U.S. Embassy (as we'd been told to do) and roam through the National Museum.
About half an hour before reaching the Greek capital, the endless acres of tobacco and cotton turned into an industrial strip, with plenty of American-style clutter and traffic. We were entering Tobacco Road, Greek style. The highway was walled for miles on both sides by billboards hawking Camels, Marlboros and other U.S. cigarettes. These, more than Greek brands, are today's badges of sophistication for many Greeks, especially the young.
Tobacco Road leads to Pollution City. Like Los Angeles, Athens sits in a natural basin that collects fumes from factories and vehicles until a favorable wind blows. Even though half the city's cars have been banned from downtown streets on alternate days, we found that the heavy smog and searing sun made the city unbearable in September. We headed for cooler spots, vowing to return when the weather was better.
On the way to Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, we spent two weeks visiting ancient sites, including Dion, a well-preserved community in the shadow of Mount Olympus that dates to the 5th century B.C. This mixture of classical Greek and Roman ruins includes theaters, homes, public baths, a shopping mall and a public latrine.
We also got a taste of why Mount Olympus was held in awe by the Greeks for so many centuries. Once the legendary home of Zeus and his frequent-flier family of gods, it was forbidden territory for all but wild animals and bandits until its 9,454-foot peak was scaled in 1913. We drove several miles beyond Litohoro, the base for hikers, up a gravel road toward a mammoth crevice, but heavy mist and ominous clouds forced us back.
Driving north and west to Vergina, we found Philip's tomb covered by corrugated metal because of continuing excavation. But a number of other royal Macedonian burial temples of the 4th century B.C. are both accessible and awesome, and contrast sharply with the ordinariness of the rural village.
Unfortunately, most tombs were looted long ago, but others such as Philip's have yielded exquisite bronze, gold, silver and ivory artifacts. It is not unusual for valuable relics to be scattered; yet it is doubtful that the location of relics affects the travel plans of many people.
Certainly not for us. One of our greatest thrills was seeing hundreds of 3,000-year-old grave mounds, many untouched, lying in open fields outside Vergina. Another was getting a feel for this home of kings at the nearby Palace of Palatitsa with its exposed mosaic floors still intact after 2,000 years.
Still another was to walk into temple-tombs where virtually nothing has changed in 2,300 years. The Greeks built things to last, with art and design still to be admired. We thought of a 25-year-old school recently leveled in our Chevy Chase neighborhood because it was thought to be not worth renovating. Contrast that to the nearly 2,500-year-old school where Aristotle was said to have taught the young Alexander. After many inquiries and wrong turns, we found the site in the woods near a spring, not far from Naoussa. There were a small stone theater, some rooms cut into a rock wall and beam cutouts in the cliff for buildings.
From the soaring gods of Olympus and the Greek temples in their honor, we were about to enter the early Christian era, when some gods became saints and temples became churches. Greece was on the front line of this spiritual confrontation as the great evangelist Paul fervently pleaded his cause throughout the country against his equally fervent opponents. The first churches, in the oblong (basilica) style of temples and later cruciform, domed Byzantine, are especially numerous in northern Greece.
No community has more of the latter per person than Kastoria, an isolated town near the Albanian-Yugoslavian border. And few Greek communities are better off financially. For centuries, it was de rigueur for each family to mark its blessings by building a church; some are nearly 1,000 years old. There are 75 Byzantine beauties in a community of 20,000 people.
The houses also are distinctive, featuring stone and mortar walls for the first two floors, which are for animals and storerooms; the third floor, where the family lives, is smooth stucco with brick and timber supports topped by red-tile roofs. Many are large, with overhanging windows and balconies.
The reason for all the wealth and worship: Kastoria is a key center of the world's fur trade. The city, whose name means "beaver" in Greek, does more than $100 million in business a year with merchants in New York, Milan, Frankfurt, Montreal and Melbourne.
What makes Kastoria succeed is the secret of piecing together fur scraps into complete garments. For generations, almost every soul has learned the trade, down to the youngest; streets and sidewalks are filled with each family's rudimentary fur coats drying on sandwich boards in the sun.
Yet tourists are scarce. That fact was dramatized for us when we dutifully tried to find the "tourist police" to register as aliens, as the tourist literature advised us to do. After following several blind trails, we wound up in a room blue with cigarette smoke and police officers. Despite our best Greek -- and later English to a translator -- we realized no one knew what we wanted, so we left. Kastoria is a healthy rarity, a Greek city that survives without tourists.
So, to a great extent, is Thessaloniki. Tourists who come here usually are on their way elsewhere, though the city's charms are many, including a long waterfront lined with cafes and parks. We spent a week seeing the city's Byzantine churches, 4th-century walls and wonderful archaeological museum -- one of the best in Greece.
Driving into Turkey through the region of Thrace is to shift from Western to Eastern culture. During our three-week journey down the western coast -- from "windy Troy" (to use Homer's words) to Bergama and on to Izmir with its huge bazaar, then Ephesus, Kusadasi, Priene, Miletus, Didymi and picturesque Bodrum -- we were struck especially by the contrasts in clothing, architecture and environment. We also made a side trip to the offshore Greek islands of Lesvos and Khios.
At the southern end of Turkey's western coast is the lovely port of Marmaris, where we caught a ferry to the island of Rhodes, one of the most heavily visited places in Greece (largely because of its superb beaches). But after a brief stop to see the 14th-century walled city and the village of Lindos -- which had wall-to-wall tourists in late October -- the encroachment of winter sent us to the milder weather of Crete.
Whatever you seek, you can find it on Crete, even in winter: fields of wild poppies and anemones, orchards of luscious oranges ready for picking, snow-capped mountains and a variety of weather conditions, from cold rainy days to afternoons warm enough to sunbathe and swim. There were so many 3,500-year-old Minoan palaces, unspoiled villages, fine beaches, Byzantine churches and spectacular scenes here that even in four months we were unable to do everything we wanted to.
And nowhere did we find the spirit of filoxenia stronger. A simple request for directions would invariably lead to coffee and ouzo in a private home, sometimes even a meal or a personally conducted tour of a historical site.
In March, it was back to the mainland, where we circled the Peloponnese, making sure to take in the annual "mardi gras" at Patrai and the glory of ancient Olympia. In April and May, well before the big tourist crush, we toured the Cycladic islands and squeezed in a week-long trip to Istanbul.
We also returned to Athens, which became our base for several months as we explored the ancient city, as well as the broad area between the lonely temple of Sounio in the east and the colorful cathedral of Ossios Loukas near Delphi. During this time we lived at shore resorts not far from the capital -- Xiropigado, a thoroughly Greek resort south of Nauflion, and Voula, an upscale coastal town half an hour from Athens.But these cities and sights, lovely as they were, aren't what we remember most about our Grecian odyssey. What struck us the most was the pervasive friendliness and hospitality we encountered almost everywhere we went.
We'll never forget the hotel bellman in Sparta who, upon seeing us unable to pay for our room because of a lost credit card, lent us 5,000 drachmas (more than $30) from his own pocket. Or the Cretan widow who handed us much of her winter supply of walnuts as we left her dirt-floor hovel. Or the wonderful family in Voula who invited us to a baptism, strictly a family affair.
In Greece, such things are not surprising. Xenos, their word for "foreigner," also means "guest."
WAYS & MEANS
American visitors to Greece need only a passport to enter the country for stays of three months or less. Those staying longer are advised to apply to any local tourism office for an extension. Other things to consider:
RENTING YOUR HOME: List your property at local universities or government agencies, where there are always potential renters, usually beginning in the fall. We found our renter through the National Institutes of Health, which handled all details except the contract (available at stationery stores). Our house survived in good shape.
When you rent, remember to change your homeowner's policy and to shop around: Rates vary considerably. We found a company with rates similar to what we'd been paying for a regular homeowner's policy.
You also should arrange for someone to collect rent, forward essential mail, pay bills the renters are not obligated to pay, take care of equipment breakdowns and check on the tenants.
MAIL: The Postal Service will forward mail for a year to another address. So the best solution is have it sent to a relative or friend; they can weed out the junk mail and forward bills and personal mail to collection points en route. Mail can be sent to you at Poste Restante in any city, where it will be held for your arrival.
PHONE CONTACTS: Our first brief call home cost $32. After that, we avoided making calls, except to make contact and request a return call: Rates are much cheaper from, rather than to, the U.S.
MONEY: The essential credit card for us was Visa, for charging meals and rooms, paying for gifts and obtaining cash everywhere there was a commercial bank. We learned the hard way that a separate account for each person is best: The loss of our joint card blocked use of the duplicate for weeks.
GETTING AROUND: Instead of renting a car, we bought one in Europe and sold it before flying home, spending only 15 cents a mile for use of the car, including gasoline, or a total of about $3,000. We could have saved more by buying a used car but chose a new one to avoid the hassle of breakdowns (we had none).
WHERE TO STAY: Our secret to controlling hotel costs was not to reserve in advance. We would pick an area we liked, then drive around until we found an affordable hotel. We also chose places where we could stay for a few days or a week. Our rooms were low in amenities -- no washcloths, shower curtains, bathmats, decent towels or good reading lights -- but they were clean, had character and rarely cost more than $20 double a night, including breakfast. In places where we spent a month or more, we rented a villa or apartment for less than $10 a day.
In each large city, we always stopped first at the office of the Greek National Tourist Organization (GNTO to us, ETO to Greeks) for brochures, maps and hotel information.
WHAT TO EAT: Restaurant prices are quite low everywhere but in large cities, and portions tend to be large. Sharing a salad and even a main course can save money: In Ioannina, a dinner of Greek salad, bread, trout, fries and beer cost about $8 for two, including tip. We did tire of restaurant menus and much preferred to shop for groceries and cook in our rooms when we could.
INFORMATION: Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022, 212-421-5777.
Arthur E. Rowse is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase.