I, uh, failed to mention this before, but I kinda took a trip to Greece with my mom a couple of weeks ago. I'm not sure why I never mentioned it here. I'm guessing it's either due to sheer laziness or my inability to post entries that aren't rants. *g* Anyway, I've created a photo album online if anyone is interesting in taking a look:
I also wrote a mini-report for my uncle that I thought I'd include here. It's probably more boring than the photo album, but the scroll bar was created for a purpose so...
Observations on Greece
One trait I've noticed about the Greeks is that they're a proud and passionate people. They love their country and want to share their heritage. Many of the Greeks I encountered were also warm and friendly. They seemed to appreciate it when you made some effort to speak their language, so I tried to say kaliméra (good morning), geiá sas (hello) and, my personal favourite, efcharistó (thank you). With the last phrase, many people would say parakaló (you're welcome) in return. At least, it sounded like parakaló and not "Get out of my face, you stupid tourist" (not that I've learned the Greek for that). Okay, surely the nun in St. Stephen's gift shop said parakaló because, well, she was a nun.
For many Greeks, religion isn't something they just observe on a given day, but a guiding force in their lives. Take, for example, this ancient crone we found near the entrance of a Greek Orthodox church in the Pláka, the oldest inhabited area of Athens. She was dressed from head to toe in black and couldn't have been more than five feet tall. However, what she lacked in height she made up for in fierceness. She angrily chased a young woman out of the church when she saw that said visitor was wearing a tiny tank top and very short shorts. Some of the women on our tour had been reluctant to enter the church because they weren't wearing skirts and, while the little old crone didn't chase us out of the church, she certainly didn't seem very impressed with us either.
When our tour visited two monasteries of the Metéora, some of the women did wear skirts. The other women were given wrap-around skirts they could don over their shorts or pants. One man complained about having to wear trousers instead of shorts, but as he had asked me if my siblings were jealous because my mom had taken me to Greece, I had already dismissed him as an idiot. Anyway, I found our visits to the monasteries very interesting. As I'm not religious myself, I'm often amazed at the degree of faith many people possess. It's certainly hard not to observe this phenomenon when you see the hours of work and pure devotion that went into the artwork alone. In some chapels, there hardly seems to be an inch of space that isn't covered with Byzantine art and religious iconography. They'd even made use of the domed ceilings with the image of the Pantokrátor (Christ) in the center.
This might sound silly, but it was bigger than I expected. I mean, yeah, it's the Acropolis, so we all know it's big, but it was a lot higher and steeper than I imagined. When I saw Stonehenge up close (Well, as up-close as the roped barriers allow), I was surprised by how small it was. It always seemed gigantic in any pictures I'd seen. I guess sometimes you have to visit a place to understand its true scope. Sometimes you have to visit a place to discover some unexpected facts as well. While I wasn't completely surprised by the amount of scaffolding around the Parthenon, I hadn't expected certain parts of the Acropolis to be so…so slippery. Some marble stones were so smooth that you could have been walking on ice, especially those around the Propylaia. I assume that this is due to a combination of time and tourist traffic.
Unlike the Acropolis, I was surprised by the size of Olympia. After seeing a shot of the ancient stadium (e.g. that dirt field) during the 2004 Olympics, I pictured a much smaller area that resembled, well, a dirt field. Something along the lines of Culloden, with a lot less plant life, I guess. However, Olympia is full of beautiful ruins and I was captivated by the place. Yes, there was that dirt field, but there were also the remains of temples, the Palaestra (training centre), the Leonidaion (a kind of luxury hotel), a fountain, etc. Inside the Olympia museum, there were a number of statues and relics that had been found around the site.
Delphi was one of the places I'd been looking forward to seeing the most. I've always found the stories about the Delphic oracle really interesting and I wanted to see the place where so many prophecies had been made. I think the place had a kind of mystical appeal to me. In any case, I wasn't disappointed. As with much of Greece, it was a little steeper than I expected (being situated in the mountains), but I was fascinated by everything. I know that some people don't understand the appeal of walking around ruins, but whenever I think of the history such places represent I feel humbled and awed. Despite earthquakes, and the passing of thousands of years, these places still survive.
It's hot. Really hot. Okay, not August in Greece hot, but still pretty damn hot. You need light clothing, sunscreen (like SPF 45), a hat and sunglasses. Unfortunately, in my case, my sun protection was a little too good. Yes, on her return from Greece, Pale Face was just as pale as ever. One co-worker demanded to know where my tan was. Another co-worker asked me when I was leaving for Greece then looked at me sceptically when I explained that I had already been there and back. I had to explain (once again) that I don't tan and only have two complexions -- pale and sunburnt.
Another must in Greece is water. Lots of water. Always make sure you have at least one bottle on you. And buy a bottle if you hit a kiosk (even if you aren't getting low) because trust me -- you'll need it. Even with the water, I was usually dehydrated, which was good during long bus trips because I didn't need to go to the bathroom as often. As the average washroom seems to only have two toilets (which may or may not have seats or working locks) and 20 women lined up outside, I only used them when I really had to. Of course, the worst W.C. we came across was in a monastery (I've forgotten which one) in the Metéora. It was a hole in the ground with places to plant your feet. Even Mom the adventurous traveller wouldn't use it!
Before I left for Greece, I had lost at least 25-30 lbs. I think I must have gained at least some of it back during this trip because the food was delicious! My mouth still waters when I think of some of the dishes! There was moussaka, souvlaki, egg plant shoes (e.g. stuffed eggplants) cheese pie, spinach pie, baklava…Oh, how I miss the food! Strangely enough, Mom and I weren't as wild about real Greek salads, which basically consist of a bowl of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, herbs, feta cheese and maybe an olive or two. Of course, we didn't learn that you had to ask for lettuce specifically until almost the end of our trip.
It's very easy to spend money in Greece. I think I might have spent 20 euros on postcards alone. However, even with the three tiny museum reproduction statuettes I bought, I didn't spend nearly as much as some of the more serious shoppers on the tour. Some women were laying down hundreds, sometimes even thousands, on jewellery. That isn't to say that it wasn't beautiful jewellery because Greek artisans can do wonderful things with silver and gold. However, as tempting as some pieces looked, they weren't in my budget. Maybe I should have tried buying jewellery at Pegasus, a store in the Pláka that specialized in jewellery and art, for it was in this store that I learned how to haggle.
Before the trip, I read that haggling was only common practice outside Athens (except for some markets), which is why I was surprised that I could bargain in Pegasus. Another, even bigger surprise, was that I was capable of haggling at all, though, to be completely honest, I didn't actually say a word. It was the art of haggling without even trying. What you do is show some interest in an object and then walk away. Then you return to the same object and study it some more, as if you aren't sure whether you want to buy it or not. That is when an eager and helpful storeowner might offer the item to you at a lower price. At Pegasus, I got a discount on everything I bought simply because I was being indecisive. Now, I should probably warn you that this trick doesn't seem to work on female merchants. On Hydra, I spent a long time studying this statuette of a bull, but the ladies behind the counter remained cool and calm. They didn't make any offers, so I paid full price.
Cats & Dogs
Many cats and dogs roam freely in Greece. At Delphi, I counted three or four cats. During a lecture by our tour guide, Mellena, a one-eyed cat came and sat in my lap when I beckoned to him. He seemed happy enough to stay there until Mom pulled out her camera to take a picture. She managed to get the back end of him and the funny expression on my face when he suddenly disappeared. On the island of Hydra, there must have been at least a dozen cats hanging around the port. Although they appeared to be strays, people had provided cans of food for them. In Athens and other areas of Greece, I saw a number of dogs running around without leashes or, for that matter, owners. However, they seemed pretty tame and well-fed, so I assume they had homes.
Greek drivers are insane but very very brave, especially motorcyclists, of which there are many. As cars are very expensive in Greece, the motorcycle seems to be the vehicle of choice -- at least in Athens. Given the number of steep narrow streets, I'd also say it was a smart choice. Nevertheless, I found myself holding my breath several times when a motorcyclist rode too close to our tour bus. I even saw one motorcyclist ride between our bus and another bus.
There are a LOT of them. Mom read that two-thirds of Greece is covered by mountains, so I guess this shouldn't be a surprise. After all, the gods made their home on Mount Olympus. Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn't really understand why. Then I visited Greece and realized that you can pretty much see some mountain wherever you turn. I think maybe the gods couldn't see the heavens for the mountains, so they ended up making Olympus their base of operations.
Because of all the mountains, I discovered that I definitely get motion sickness. Although Kris was an excellent bus driver, he couldn't control how much the bus swerved and swayed on all those mountain roads. I reached the point where I had to sit in the aisle and stare out the front window, and even then I felt it. In a way it was good because it prevented me from counting the number of little boxes with crosses we passed on the journey. Mom and I both speculated on what their significance could be. Then the tour guide explained that these represented people who had been in accidents. If there was an image of the Virgin Mary in a box then it was someone giving thanks for a loved one who'd been saved. If there was an oil lamp inside then it was to be lit in someone's memory. I saw more of the latter kind than I would have liked.
As I said above, there are a lot of mountains. In fact, parts of Greece almost have a barren look about them. However, there are also parts of Greece that are far from that description. When the bus was driving through the Peloponnese, we saw stretches of white beaches and vividly blue water. And it turned out that the water was just as blue up close, as we discovered when we sailed around the islands of Poros, Hydra and Aegina on our last day. Add to it Mediterranean-style houses (the white ones with dark blue accents) and you have your own Greek postcard. Being the land of the olive, there are also several vineyards that dot the landscape. In Athens and other areas, we saw orange trees and palm trees, though the palm trees were shorter and thicker than the kind you'd find in the Caribbean. In Aegina, we saw pistachio trees, something I'd never come across before.
Well, that's my report on Greece. There's probably a lot more that I should say, but I think I've covered at least some of the basics. Efcharistó and antío!