ISLANDS: Rhodes, Crete, Santorini and Naxos; PELOPONNESIAN PENINSULA: Nafplio, Mycenae, Monemvasia, Sparta, Mani, Areopoli, Kalamata, Koroni, Methoni, Olympia, Patras; MAINLAND: Nafpaktos, Ioannina, Lia, Meteora, Delphi, Athens, Thessaloniki

September/October 2001


In the autumn of 2001 we traveled through Greece for seven weeks. Despite its many pleasures - friendly people, beautiful islands and beaches, charming old Venetian port towns, ancient ruins, good food and music - we didn't fully "connect" with Greece. Part of the problem was that we had just arrived there when terrorists attacked the United States. We heard the news in Iraklio, on the Greek island of Crete. Joan was sitting on some steps with the backpacks while Lou bargained for a room at nearby budget hotels. He returned looking stricken, saying,




For the first days following the attacks, we were glued in disbelief to the few channels of information in English - CNN, the Internet and the International Herald Tribune - searching for in-depth analyses of the situation. The rest of the time, we wandered in a daze amidst throngs of carefree European beach-goers. When the U.S. closed its borders for a while, we felt as if we'd been stranded outside the castle when the drawbridge was raised. On the third day after the attacks, Lou was sufficiently recovered to visit the reconstructed Minoan ruins at Knossos (below), to have a glimpse of Europe's most ancient culture.

Still shaken, Joan stayed at the pension poring over newspapers. By the fourth day, she roused herself and joined him on a visit to Iraklio's archaeological museum - one of the best museums in Greece. Its relics of the Minoan civilization date from the second millennium BC and are astonishing for their artistry, imagination and elegance. One urn was shaped like a pregnant woman; another had a swan's neck handle with bull's head spout. The imaginative figurines included a flying acrobat, crowned goddesses with upraised hands, a man with elongated fingers playing a lyre and double-headed horses.

Despite a sense of dislocation after the terrorist attacks, Joan was willing to continue traveling but wanted to leave Crete. By this time we were in Hania (below) - a charming ancient Venetian port located less than four miles from Souda Bay, the only U.S. naval base in the region. Knowing it was well within range of Saddam Hussein's missiles and not knowing what might happen next, she wanted out of the area. Lou was more sanguine about the situation, but agreed to leave Crete for the island of Santorini.



Santorini is one of Greece's most heavily-touristed islands and we'd planned to avoid it. However, friends insisted that it was not to be missed. They were right. Santorini is a magical place. It's a hiker's and photographer's delight - with weird topography and starkly beautiful traditional architecture.

The ferry from Crete pulled into the Santorini harbor at 2 a.m.. We sleepily dragged our packs off the boat into a strangely lively dock scene. Hotel touts, souvenir vendors, buses and taxis crowded around the arriving tourists in the flood-lit arrival area. Above us in the darkness loomed the vertical cliffs of this crescent-shaped island, which was blown apart around 1650 BC in the most catastrophic volcanic eruption known on earth. Some people believe that Santorini is what remains of the lost island of Atlantis, whose high-level civilization supposedly disappeared beneath the waves without a trace. Whether that's true or not, it is certain that this eruption destroyed the major Minoan civilization, as well as the Mycenean civilization many miles away. What's left is a high, curving shell crusted with whitewashed villages perched precariously along its rim. Since earthquakes rumble through with considerable frequency, the islanders must enjoy "living on the edge."

From the port, we caught the ferry-bus into the town of Thira and carried our packs along the dark street to a nearby youth hostel, where we were given a private room filled with six bunk beds. The whispered conversation of young backpackers in the patio outside kept us awake until nearly 4 a.m. - making us wonder if we were getting too old for the youth hostel scene. The next day we traveled by bus to the charming town of O'ia, whose wonderful architecture, old windmills and spectacular sunsets are well-documented in coffee table books on Greece.

O'ia was a bit too touristy, so we headed two kilometers inland to the traditional village of Finikia..

Marika the donkey and her owner Georgio met us at the edge of the village and packed our gear through its crooked, cobbled lanes. (Joan's backpack is green; Lou's backpack is black; Marika's back is packing them.) Marika led us through a maze of narrow lanes, past charming pastel houses.

Finally we reached the edge of the village and climbed up to Pension Georgio - a cluster of blue-and-white buildings formed of lumpy, rounded stucco. We spent three days in the top studio apartment with its own patio and several cats lazing among pots of red geraniums. In the evenings we climbed the hill to a local taverna - Santorini Mou - to eat grilled lamb and eggplant and listen to the jolly owner playing Greek folk music on his bouzouki, which looks as if a tiny mandolin had mated with a tiny banjo!


From Santorini we carved a wide arc through the Aegean Sea - island-hopping by ferry from Santorini to Naxos and then to the Greek mainland at Pireaus, the main port of Athens.

A modern subway zipped us from Pireaus to the center of Athens. We decided to rent a car because of the lack of good public transportation in rural Greece and we were heading for a three week tour of the Peloponnesian peninsula and the mainland. The tiny car, a Hyundai, ended abruptly in back - as though it had been spanked on its behind as it came off the assembly line.

Joan drove through traffic-clogged streets for an exhausting two hours to escape Athens, because Lou didn't have a current driver's license on this trip. Fortunately, Greek roads aren't congested outside of the bigger cities and Greek drivers are far more predictable than the daredevil Turks.  More challenging were the road signs. We sometimes had to screech to a halt, back up and try to decipher them using our rusty memories of Greek letters. Let's see: sigma, beta, phi, phooey! Fortunately, most signs in Greek were followed a few yards later by those using the Roman alphabet.


After driving across the Isthmus of Corinth to the Peloponnesian Peninsula - which is both spectacularly beautiful and tremendously varied - we spent several days in Nafplio, a pretty town with elegant Venetian houses and narrow streets tucked between the sea and a hilltop fortified castle. We climbed around the castle, swam at a nearby beach and took day trips to the ancient ruins of Mycenae and Epidaurus. In the old Venetian town of Monemvasia, we dined like Shirley Valentine in the eponymous film - sitting at a beachside table, listening to the gentle rolling of wave-pushed pebbles and watching the full moon rise behind a gargantuan rock island. The superb ruins at Mystras (below) were set among fine walking trails, as were the fortified Mani tower-houses at the tip of the third finger on the four-fingered Peloponnesian "hand."

A 21-year-old Servas member met us for a seaside lunch in Kalamata (famed for its olives) and expressed her negative views of American lifestyle. We chided her gently as she'd never been to the U.S. and was basing most of her opinions of American values on Hollywood films. Her disdain for American consumerism, though, was harder to counter. It is true that Americans place a huge emphasis on working long hours to buy more and more things. Many Europeans put less emphasis on things and more on free time - on relaxed family meals, lengthy café discussions with friends and five or six weeks of annual travel.

We lingered for several days in Harakopio to swim and read at a nearly deserted beach. The autumn weather in Greece was  wonderful, but by the end of September we sometimes felt like the last Roses of summer as pension owners nailed up their shutters and boat owners winched in their dinghies for the winter. From here we headed north to Ancient Olympia. 


Like most major tourist sites, Ancient Olympia is best visited early in the morning before the swarms of tour buses arrive. (Lou's late stepmother Pansy once gave us this tongue-in-cheek advice about department store sales: "Always get there early - before the greedy folks!")

What an idyllic setting. The ruins of temples, priests' quarters, training facilities and stadium are scattered under a canopy of pines and oaks. We walked in silence - alone in the dappled morning light. The first quadrennial Olympic Games began here in the 8th century BC and continued for 1200 years until the 4th century AD. Modern games were reestablished in 1896. During the early games, the continually warring city-states were expected to stop knocking the hell out of each other and compete in wrestling and boxing, discus and javelin throwing, chariot and horse racing, and running and jumping. Only free Greek males (no slaves allowed) could compete, and the paintings and sculptures we saw in the Olympia Museum indicate they participated naked. Women were not allowed to watch; if one sneaked in, she was hurled to her death from a nearby rock. So much for good sportsmanship.

The Olympia Museum has everything from jumping weights (jumpers released them in mid-air, believing their distance would be lengthened by carrying them partway) to sculptures donated by athletes caught cheating. This precedent apparently did not apply to Emperor Nero. In 67 AD he entered the chariot race with ten horses, while restricting his competitors to four. In spite of this advantage, he fell and lost. The prudent judges awarded him the victory anyway.  In the photo below, Lou is crouching (fully clothed) at the starting line on the ancient track - ready for a "pretend" Olympics.

We drove across the top of the Pelopponese to Diakofto where we rode a rack-and-pinion train up into the mountains, then hiked back through a gorgeous (pardon the pun) canyon along seven miles of railway tracks. We had an exciting moment when - just as we were about to enter a long, totally dark and very narrow tunnel - the returning train burst through it. (After the train went by, Joan clung in mock terror to the rocky wall of the tunnel; if Lou can pretend to be an Olympic athlete, she can pretend to be a damsel in distress! If you squint, you can see her in the photo below.)


Eleni is Nicholas Gage's deeply moving account of his heroic mother's struggle to save him and his four sisters from the Communist guerrillas during the Greek civil war of 1945-49. For planning the daring escape of her children from the village of Lia, Eleni was imprisoned and tortured. Eventually she was given a quick trial, forced to dig her own grave and shot. Gage was only eight when he saw his mother for the last time. The children were successfully evacuated to America, where Nicholas eventually became an investigative reporter for the New York Times. Bothered by reports that the Greek communists were attempting to revise the history books by claiming there had been no tortures or summary executions, Gage quit his job and used his investigative skills to oppose the revision and try to track down his mother's murderer. (The book has a surprising ending.)

Because of Eleni's impact on us, we went out of our way to make a pilgrimage to Lia, hidden in Greece's northwestern mountains five miles from the Albanian border. The hour's drive from Ioannina to Lia led through autumn-stippled clusters of oak, pine and plane trees into rugged mountains where the air was cool and crisp. We slowed for black squirrels, red foxes, and herds of bell-clanging goats tended by bent, black-clad crones. At the general store on the Lia village square, a half-dozen grizzled men (perhaps husbands of the hard-working goat herders) were intent on a game of cards. Outside stood the old plane tree that had witnessed so many of the brutal events uncovered by Gage - the coming and going of the Italian army, the ravaging of the area by retreating Nazis and the abductions, tortures and murders carried out by the Greek communists. We found the Holy Trinity Church where all the mothers of Lia were assembled in 1948 to hear about pedomasoma - the communist program for taking all children ages 3-14 away from their parents to training camps in countries behind the Iron Curtain. (By the end of that year, they had taken 28,000 children out of Greece. Many never returned or saw their parents again.) We found the old school house where villagers suspected of collaboration with the Greek fascists were tortured. Gage described the brutalized prisoners tumbling down the steps before a crowd of stunned villagers.

It took us another half-hour to find Eleni's home. Finally, a cheerful man who identified himself as Eleni's cousin pointed down the hill to the overgrown stone ruins of Nicholas' childhood home - still shaded by the old mulberry tree (photo below). Much has changed in Lia in the last half-century: footpaths have been replaced by paved roads and new buildings constructed. But it was exhilarating to explore the village where that courageous woman gave her life for her children.


In Monodendri we lodged in a traditional Zagorian pension, and Lou hiked for five hours - he was all alone on the trail - through the spectacular Vikos Gorge. Joan is shown at the beginning of this hike in the photo below. She couldn't hike with him, because she had to drive three hours round-trip on deserted mountain roads to pick him up at the end of the hike.

Meteora has phantasmagoric rock formations - more massive than those in Capadoccia (Turkey) and gray instead of pink. Many are riddled with holes like Swiss cheese and several are topped with monasteries. This forest of rocks has been a refuge for monks since the 11th century. To ensure their isolation, the monks were raised and lowered in baskets! Today, tourists visit the monasteries via bridges.

Driving south, we visited Delphi where the ancient oracle groggily dispensed her prophecies under the influence of fumes emerging from a fissure in the earth. The museum here is filled with fascinating sculptures, including these of a chimera (note her webbed feet) and a bull-headed man. (Aren't they all? wonders Joan)




Back in Athens, we were the first visitors to the Acropolis one morning and were greeted by a special ceremony. Ranks of white-skirted Greek soldiers wearing red pompoms on their shoes performed maneuvers, while a military band played and the United Nations flag was raised in celebration of the 50th birthday of the U.N. A few moments later we watched the sun's rays bathe the Parthenon in pale golden splendor and escaped just as the hordes of "packaged" tourists arrived. 

While in Athens, we stayed three days with a wonderful Servas family of four. We sat around the dinner table and discussed the reasons the terrorist attacks occurred, with highly educated people who are basically sympathetic to the U.S. but who have a more complex and historically-grounded view of U.S. foreign policy than most Americans. (We noticed after returning home that Americans have become much more interested in trying to understand world affairs since September 11.)



The Greeks have had a tumultuous political history for millennia. Greece's Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, was at the center of political controversy for some twenty years beginning in the late 1960s. On the bus between Thessaloniki and Istanbul, Lou talked with a Greek economic journalist about Papandreou, who was one of  Lou's economics professors at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Three times in succession Papandreou failed to keep an office appointment with Lou, and the professor's apologies were so smooth and convincing that Lou felt embarrassed for even mentioning the broken appointments. With such verbal dexterity, it's not surprising that soon after that he became a successful politician in his home country. The journalist told Lou about Papandreou's primary political slogan: "Greece has an appointment with history and I will take you there!" After the politician's terms in office were finished, political humorists joked that Papandreou's appointment was not kept. Lou could have predicted that.


Greek food was good, but not (at our budget level) great. Lou enjoyed the large doses of olive oil in Greek dishes, though he missed the peppery heat found in some Turkish foods. Joan wanted a greater variety of vegetables and less emphasis on meat (read: g-r-i-l-l-e-d l-a-m-b) in both countries. The fresh fish was delicious, but too expensive for us to eat very often. We never tired of Greek salads, which are simply the addition of salad dressing to the Turkish breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese. The sweet tap water is safe to drink almost everywhere in Greece, whereas in the surrounding countries we needed to filter it or buy bottled water. Greek coffee, like Turkish, is muddy - the last half-inch is sludge - but at least in Greece you can get good espresso; in Turkey you're stuck with powdered Nescafe or tea. Greek wine is excellent and cheap; Joan even liked the pine-flavored retsina.

Toilets in Greece are mostly of the European sit-down variety, rather than the hole-in-the-floor type found throughout much of the Middle East. Ferry schedules are notorious for middle-of-the-night departures and arrivals, and are often disrupted by bad weather during the autumn and winter. Our return ferry to Turkey was cancelled because of a storm at sea  so we had a 20-hour bus ride back to Istanbul. Many Greeks speak at least a little English; it's a fairly easy country for language-challenged Americans to visit.


The whole point of travel for many people is to take a relaxing break from routine. They want to see beautiful scenery, visit interesting sites, rotate their bodies on a warm beach, take a sunset cruise and enjoy good food. Because Greece offers all this in abundance, most tourists rate it very highly. Greece is a comfortable, reasonable, non-threatening country with a tremendous variety of things to see and do. But one of the primary reasons we like to travel is to experience cultures very different from our own. Greece seemed a bit too familiar. We were more fascinated by Syria and Turkey than good old Greece.

Also, in developing countries we usually meet many fellow backpackers interested in exploring the local culture. But such travelers are less common in Greece, where most tourists seemed to be on guided tours to ruins, on plane-hotel packages to beach resorts or just cruising the party scene. And it was more difficult for us to meet the local people in Greece than it was in either the Middle East or Southeast and Central Asia. For one thing, we used a car much of the time instead of the inefficient Greek bus system and this isolated us from everyday life. Also, unlike developing countries, Greece has had many years of swarming tourists. (We heard so much German being spoken we sometimes thought we were in Germany!) As a result, the Greek people seemed less outgoing towards visitors than, for example, the Syrians, Cambodians or Turks. At least, that was our experience. Despite these caveats, we had a good time in this great country.



GUIDEBOOK:  Greece (Lonely Planet)

FILMS:  Never on Sunday; Zorba the Greek; Shirley Valentine

(2001 Prices - in low season)

HANIA (Crete): Monastiri Pension. Former monastery; double with bath and ocean view $21/night.

FINIKIA (Santorini): Our favorite lodging this year! Georgi's Apartments. $28/night; charming apartment with patio, cooking area.

NAXOS TOWN (Naxos): Hotel Anna - great location. Double with bath and cooking area $23/night.

ATHENS: Hotel Kouros in the Plaka district - convenient to sights and restaurants. Our high-ceilinged room was at the front; had a balcony overlooking trees and an old church. Bathroom down the hall. Under $40/night 322-7431.

VIKOS GORGE: Monodendri Pension & Restaurant, a charming traditional-style hotel. Double $19/night, shared bath

METEORA: Hotel France in Kastraki village, near Meteora. French-speaking owners. Double $27/night with bath, balcony with view.

SERVAS: This international non-profit, non-religious organization is dedicated to bringing together the peoples of the world. By enabling travelers to meet people of other countries in their homes, it helps break through the sterile travel pattern of going from hotel to museum to restaurant to shop. It promotes an open exchange of ideas. U.S. Servas web site: www.usservas.org




     Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net