Monday, November 15, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 2

We were going to be in Greece for two weeks. Given that there is so much to see and do in that part of the world an obvious first decision was where to spend our time. It came down to a choice between bouncing around from island to island or staying on the mainland. Then, once we decided to save the islands for another time, we had to negotiate an itinerary. And it definitely was a negotiation.

I was interested in some out-of-the-way places in the Peloponnese and the northwest Epiros area. Sandra was focused on Nafplio, the old stones of Mycenae and Delphi, plus Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city up in Macedonia. I liked the idea of Nafplio, and was willing to say OK to Mycenae and Delphi. Even though I’d visited them on my first trip in 1965, I didn’t remember much. In the end I agreed to forego the west coast of the Peloponnese, Sandra gave up on Thessaloniki, and we included the Zagoria area in Epiros and Meteora in Thessaly, which we both wanted to see. I’m always surprised at how quickly days on the calendar get eaten up when you sit down to finalize a schedule. Our Greek itinerary was no exception.

Nafplio is a small town with a big reputation. From the Lonely Planet:

Occupying a knockout location on a small port beneath the towering bulk of the Palamidi Fortress, Nafplio is one of Greece’s prettiest towns. The narrow streets of the old town, graced with elegant Venetian houses, gracious neoclassical mansions with flower-bedecked balconies, attract visitors in growing numbers.

Our hotel, the Aetoma, was one of those elegant Venetian houses, dating to the 18th century. If there is an archetypal boutique hotel, the Aetoma is it. It is an architectural jewel situated in a small square, St. Spyridon, next to a church of the same name built in 1702. The interior is immaculate, tasteful and welcoming. There are five guest rooms in the Aetoma. We stayed in the Fourousi Room (I have no idea what Fourousi means.) And the service is impeccable. The hotel is run by the Panagiota family. A son, a college student, and his mother manage the Aetoma. They spent time with us – letting us know what to see and do in Nafplio and, of great importance, where to eat.

It was not far from the Aetoma to the waterfront. Since the weather was warm and clear and the sea was calm, sitting next to the water to drink a glass of wine, a beer or an ouzo (or all three) was exactly the thing to do. And that’s what we did.

We also had dinner that first night at Savouras, a restaurant next to the water. Once we were seated (outside of course) we were taken inside to choose the fish we would eat, freshly caught and arranged neatly on ice in a refrigerator. Sandra and I chose different fish (I can’t remember their names, but they were similar to snapper or bass) that were grilled to perfection. Wonderful. The fish were preceded by an octopus appetizer and followed by baklava.

This had been a really full day. We began with the challenge of leaving Athens and ended with dinner on the Argolic Gulf. We slept very well.

Our room had a small balcony overlooking the square. We ate breakfast there (delicious of course) and watched the people of Nafplio go about their business. Behind the square, high above us on a hill, we could see part of the Akronafplia Fortress. The setting was quiet, idyllic. Memorable.

We didn’t have a lot of time in Nafplio – two nights and one full day. Rather than climb up to the old Citadel/Fortress or visit a museum, we spent our day wandering around, enjoying the ambience, reading, eating and drinking.

My impression of Nafplio was very positive. The setting is beautiful. The view from the hill that overlooks Nafplio – down at the town and the sea beyond – is picture perfect for a postcard. And that’s the only downside. It is a magnet for tourists, which means that the economy of this small place (population about 16,000) is dependent on tourism. Which means that kitsch and crowds could easily undermine its charm.

We were in Nafplio past the height of the tourist season, so crowds weren’t a problem. There were many visitors, but we didn’t feel inundated by them. Kitsch? Yes, quite a bit, but contrary to my usual response I wasn’t annoyed by it. I think that’s because 1) I didn’t pay any attention to what would offend me, and 2) it did not exist in such profusion that it overpowered the innate charm and beauty of the place.

Said most simply: We just enjoyed being in Nafplio. If we were redoing our itinerary we’d add a day – especially if we’d be able to extend our stay at the Aetoma.

On Sept. 21 we drove to Delphi, with a stop at Mycenae, not far from Nafplio. The ruins at Mycenae more than qualify as old stones, since they date back to something like 1600 B.C. That’s based on the historical record, where there is evidence that between 1600 and 1200 B.C. the kingdom of Mycenae was the most powerful in Greece.

If you choose to believe the mythology about Mycenae (as written by Homer) it was founded long long ago by Perseus, son of Zeus, whose most heroic deed was killing the hideous, snake-haired Medusa, who was then overthrown by Pelops, etc. etc. For this account I’ll stick with demonstrable history.

Like most of these ancient sites, there’s not much left to see, so you need a good imagination to visualize how it was back in its day. What we know is that the key structure in Mycenae was a large fortified citadel with a settlement surrounding it. Archaeologists have been unearthing artifacts – jewelry, pottery, weaponry, vases and stone tablets – since the 1870’s. Several thousand items have been found, many of which are on display at an on-site museum and at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The guidebooks say the citadel had a palace, a great court, large cisterns, a treasury, tombs, a throne room, etc. I’ll take their word for it. What doesn’t require a leap of faith is Lion Gate, the entry to the citadel. It is constructed of massive stone blocks, protected by two huge lionesses. For me the mystery is how the Mycenaeans could have built the gate. Those old stones are really heavy.

The drive to Delphi was less than 200 miles and not particularly difficult. We traveled along the south coast of the Gulf of Corinth toward Patra, crossed a stunning new bridge, and then drove along the north coast of the Gulf to Delphi. Traffic was light. The views were lovely. We were surprised at how rocky and mountainous the countryside was and how few small towns and villages there were. Most of the population centers were at the water’s edge.

I was also surprised at how civil and sane other drivers were. It’s all relative, of course, but my previous experience driving in Europe, especially in Italy, was quite different. I expected super high speeds, impatience, blaring horns, and generally insane risk taking. That’s not the way it was in Greece. Even in the cities, where traffic was heavy, driving behavior was less aggressive than I expected.

It’s possible that in rural areas we were the beneficiaries of less traffic and more civility because there were very few large trucks on the highways. That statement is slightly inaccurate. There were many trucks on the highways. They just weren’t in motion. They were lined up bumper to bumper (if they had bumpers) on the side of the road. Going nowhere. By the hundreds.

Every 10 or 20 miles we’d see the scene repeated. At first we couldn’t figure out what was going on. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the stoppage. Then it dawned on us. For months Greece had been experiencing strikes – unions and other organizations protesting austerity measures that the government was taking to deal with the country’s dire financial crisis. Greece was virtually broke and required massive support from other European Union countries, primarily Germany, to survive. In turn the Greeks promised to cut back on expenditures. So people would be fired. Wages would be cut. Whatever was necessary to get their financial house in order.

And many people didn’t like it. Certainly the truck drivers didn’t like it. So they parked their vehicles on the side of the road and didn’t work. A predictable response that wasn’t going to help. What it was doing was creating hardships for small business owners who needed goods to fill their shelves and consumers who were running short of basic necessities. As we continued on our travels we were told more than once how people were hurting. A woman who owned a small hotel told us she couldn’t get what she needed at the grocery store. A man who owned a restaurant told us how much his business was off. Apparently a few weeks earlier there had been a major petrol shortage.

At one of the museums we visited workers were demonstrating outside. They had signs and were yelling slogans, but they weren’t unruly. I kept a handout they were distributing:

It is titled: 30September2010 – 250 Employees of the Hellenic Culture Organization are being EXECUTED with the excuse they are not productive!

Below the title are images of people being used for target practice. Bullet holes are in the targets.

The text goes on:

However, they are the same employees, who, over a period of nine years, planned, organized, implemented and promoted:

500 Events

11 Museum Shops

9 Cafeterias

200 Publications

2500 Cultural Products

16 Digital Projects

4 Portals




At the bottom:








We only talked to a few people, so our sampling wasn’t exhaustive. The consensus was that the government had to act decisively. There was no getting around it. But the consensus also was that the burden should be borne by others. Not me. One man told us that he supported the austerity measures, even if it hurt him. How many people do you think feel as you do, we asked. About 40%, he said. They’ve got a long way to go.

End Part 2


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