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Greece - August 11, 2000
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Yasas! That means hello in Greek. As I write these notes to later type into an email, the wind is blowing through my hair, keeping me cool, and I'm waving good-bye to Greece. I'm on a ferry headed to Turkey.

I finished traveling in Central America at the end of April. After that, I spent the month of May windsurfing with friends in Margarita, Venezuela, and then had a wonderful six weeks at home. I played tourist on my home turf and spent time visiting family and catching up with friends. It was awesome! Believe me, I know how spoiled I have been this year!

By mid-July I was ready to take off on a final nine week trip. I decided to spend this time in Greece and Turkey exploring and doing some windsurfing. The best news was that my brother Steve could join me for some of it. The next best news was that I could actually fit my windsurfing gear (harness, wetsuit, life vest, booties, gloves) into my backpack and sleeping bag sack - very convenient! We have just spent about three and a half weeks in Greece, but we feel like we have already seen and done so much. My memories of Greece will be long-lasting. These are notes from my journal...

IMPRESSIONS OF GREECE
Medieval towns cover entire hillsides
Crumbling stone castles, mazes of passages
Byzantine churches with intricately painted ceilings
Old monasteries perched high on sheer rock formations
Ancient monuments, immense marble columns
Museums packed with head-less, nose-less sculptures
Whitewashed homes, red-tiled roofs
Tiny white churches with blue domes
Priests wear long gray beards and flowing black robes
Narrow cobblestone streets cluttered with shops
Street vendors display crates of colorful fruit
Gray metal freezers with ice cream on every corner
Shish kabobs sizzling over flames
Cobs of corn browning on grills
Phyllo pies with rich fillings of spinach, cheese, ham
Outdoor restaurants line waterfronts with cute tables
Salads with crisp cucumbers and rich, juicy red tomatoes
Intense summer heat, bronzed skin
Stick-thin young women wear painted-on pants, skimpy tops
Serious, scowl-like expressions fixed on older faces
Voices seem harsh, angry, in normal conversation
Cafes full of people, young and old
Cats roam between legs and feet
Delicious foamy iced coffees
The sweet, buttery aroma of fresh pastries
Click-clacking of dice rolling on backgammon boards
So many shades of blue waters between the islands
Amazing views, rolling waves, long golden beaches
Boxy white homes with colorfully trimmed windows and doors
Mountains terraced with low stone walls
Olive tree groves throughout rugged hillsides
Sunsets splash orange-pink tint on oceanfront restaurants
Music floats down narrow stone streets
Laughter echoes in the clean cool air

It is interesting to travel in a country with such a deep history and profound influence on western civilization. Many of Greece's ancient sites and ruins are mind-boggling. I especially loved exploring the old ruins and castles in Peloponnese and the ancient site of Akrotiri in Santorini. The food is delicious and brought back wonderful memories of my grandmother's Armenian dishes and pastries. And, not only do the islands have some beautiful spots, but they are also full of history and quaint villages, making them fun to explore.

Traveling through Greece did have some challenges though. In the north we found people to be unhelpful and unfriendly, especially in the tourist offices and bus stations. I was especially surprised because everywhere else I've ever traveled I found the opposite - friendly people who would go out of their way to answer questions or help however they could. Even when I walked down a street or went running in the mornings, I'd smile, say hello and good morning (in Greek) and never receive a smile in return. I think the scowl-like facial expressions are a fundamental part of the language. One day I observed a fifteen year old girl speaking English to her American mother and switching to Greek when conversing with her Greek father. It was interesting how her facial expressions and tone of voice changed within the same conversation depending upon the language she was speaking! When speaking English she had a very soft tone and happy expression and when speaking Greek she looked and sounded quite angry.

Other travelers expressed having the same "not so friendly" experience in this part of Greece as well, but several also told us that when they rented a car and visited villages that weren't served by public transportation, the Greeks were friendly and hospitable. During this part of our travels the language barrier was also greater than we expected. Very little English is spoken in many places, and reading and speaking Greek is tricky! After seeing so many Greek signs with no English translation we gained a full appreciation for the saying "it's Greek to me!"

As we traveled south to Peloponnese and then to the islands, this changed. The people became much friendlier and more helpful. The only difficulties we encountered there were related to traveling in the height of tourist season. Getting ferry tickets to where we wanted to go was difficult and sometimes finding a place to stay at a reasonable price was tough.

All in all, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to travel in a country with such an amazing history and strong culture. Although it is impossible to avoid a lot of other tourists, I especially recommend travel in Peloponnese. For great night life, relaxation, or playing in the waves, the islands are fun. Santorini has an amazing archeological site and spectacular views, Lefkada and Paros have good windsurfing, and my overall favorite island is Naxos for its beautiful and lively port town. Below are the details of the places we visited.

Athens
Seeing the Acropolis and Parthenon was awesome. They also offer excellent views of the city and a true appreciation for the extent of Athens' urban sprawl. The National Archeological Museum is huge and has an amazing collection of sculptures and artifacts from all the major sites, unfortunately with very little explanation of their history. I wish we would have had a guide. We also visited the stadium that had the first modern olympic games in 1896. I think it will host the opening ceremonies for the 2004 summer olympics. The city's pollution was bad, although not quite as bad as I had expected; I had no trouble taking an early morning run around the Acropolis.

Kalambaka, Kastraki and Meteora
From Athens we traveled by bus northwest to Kalambaka, a cute small town lined with outdoor restaurants. Kastraki, two kilometers away, is a charming village with red-tiled houses. Both make convenient bases for visiting Meteora, but Kalambaka is more lively. Meteora is beautiful. It has massive, sheer columns of rock with 14th century monasteries perched on top. Five are still inhabited and open for visits. We took a bus to the top of the hill where the largest and most impressive monastery is located and then worked our way back to Kalambaka on foot (only six to seven kilometers) visiting others along the way.

Ioannina
This is a pretty city because it sits along Lake Pamvotis. The most interesting part of the city is its "old town" inside the massive fortress walls near the waterfront. It is quiet and removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, has two museums in a beautiful setting, and winding streets with traditional Turkish houses. We also took a boat ride to the island in the middle of the lake, which has four old monasteries, cute cobblestone streets and several small restaurants.

Lefkada
From Ioannina we traveled by bus and ferry to Lefkada, one of the Ionian islands off of Greece's west coast. We didn't do much exploring but heard that there are some pretty beaches and very friendly small villages. We spent three days windsurfing in Vassiliki on the southern tip of the island. The water was cold due to a recent storm, but the wind howled in the late afternoon. Club Vass, where we sailed, is a well-run, and really fun windsurf center. They also offer excellent instruction for sailors of all levels. The deep blue waters were a beautiful contrast against the mountains on either side of the bay. The locals were very friendly and relaxed in this town - a wonderful change from our previous travels.

Corinth
We didn't actually make it to Corinth, but our attempt to get there is one example of our travel challenges. The whole story is long, but I'll share the short version. We traveled from Lefkada to Patras and then connected to a bus to Corinth. We confirmed twice before getting on our bus that it was really going where we wanted (this became our habit since there were no English signs and people usually just pointed and grunted when we asked questions). Even though we were assured that it was going to Corinth, the bus driver never stopped there. By the time we realized we had passed Corinth (he never even turned into the town), we had to go all the way to Athens. (No apologies from him whatsoever.) A woman we were talking with told us we weren't missing anything there anyway and that we should just take a bus from Athens to Nafplio since that was where we planned to go next.

Nafplio and Epidaurus
Twelve hours after leaving Vassiliki in Lefkada, we arrived in Nafplio. The tiredness of the long, hot day quickly dissipated. Nafplio's old quarter was the prettiest town we had seen so far. It was worth the long journey. It had a gorgeous main square, narrow cobblestone streets filled with cute venetian houses and tons of outdoor restaurants and shops. The pension we chose there was nice and had more character than any other place we stayed in Greece. The next morning we climbed the 1000 steps up the hill to the Palamidi Fortress and enjoyed exploring the ruins and the views of the water and the old town. Also very worthwhile was the forty minute bus trip to Epidaurus to see the huge, well-preserved ancient theater, with excellent acoustics. We wished we had been there on a weekend to see a concert!

Sparta and Mystras
A slow bus winding through mountains with pretty scenery brought us to Sparta. Modern Sparta isn't an interesting town, but we enjoyed it because many of the people were friendly and young. The ancient ruins are not interesting either. There is very little to see, but Mystras, seven kilometers from Sparta, is awesome. Mystras is an entire hillside of palaces, monasteries and churches from the 13th to 15th centuries. It was too hot for us to spend the entire day exploring, but a full day would have been ideal as these ruins are beautiful and cover a large area. Many of the buildings are very well preserved and the overall setting is spectacular. We enjoyed this even more than the fortress in Nafplio.

Monemvassia
Through more winding mountain roads, further south on the eastern coast of Peloponnese is Monemvassia, a cute, friendly waterfront town. Separated by a causeway, one kilometer away is a huge cliff with yet another medieval castle surrounded by massive walls. Above it is an entire hillside of town ruins. I found this to be the most beautiful castle we had seen so far, with cobblestone streets and a very complex network of stone houses. There are now parts that have been renovated into nice accommodations with television and air-conditioning. It seemed like an interesting place to stay for non-budget travelers. On the summit of the cliff is a gorgeous 13th century church called Agia Sophia. It is supposed to be the prettiest of the Poloponnesian churches. The views from the church and hillside above are spectacular.

Paros
We arrived in Paros by ferry at nearly 1:00am and stayed the night in the cute, still very awake town of Parikia. The next day we took a bus around the north and east sides of the island, passing through a few cute towns. The island has terraced hills and very dry desert-like terrain. We stopped at Golden Beach and were lucky to not only find one of the few rooms available in that area, but one at a beautiful place on a hill overlooking both Golden Beach and New Golden Beach (Tsardakia). These are two of the best windsurfing spots on the island (there are eight!). This area is gorgeous. The contrast of the dry, brown island against so many different shades of blue water is spectacular. The buildings are all boxy and bright white, trimmed with ocean-blue doors, shutters and railings - another fantastic contrast against the deep blue of the ocean in the background. The water is scattered with colorful windsurfers and the windsurfing is great with very strong side-offshore wind and flat water.

Santorini
Sometime between 1600 and 1400 BC, a huge volcano on Santorini exploded, leaving an extraordinary landscape with stunning views. Santorini also has unique architecture, hundreds of churches and unbelievable evidence of a very advanced society living there 4000 years ago. It is also the best island to go to if you want to pay almost US prices, get bumped around in narrow streets overcrowded with tourists and peruse expensive souvenir shops. All of the above is why I loved and, let's say disliked, this very popular tourist destination. Everyone I know that has been to Greece told me I must go to Santorini. I now understand why and I'll pass the same advice along.

I found the ancient site of Akrotiri to be the most fascinating part of exploring this small island. Excavations started in 1967 to uncover a well-preserved Minoan settlement that is 4000 years old and was destroyed by the volcano. Although archeologists believe they have only uncovered three percent of the town, they know it was a very advanced civilization. It is mind-boggling how advanced. They had two and three story homes with painted walls and an underground sewage system. They domesticated animals, farmed, fished and traded throughout the Agean and Mediterranean. They made decorated pottery for both functional and ritual use, much of which was exported throughout the region. The site itself is interesting and the new pre-historic museum is excellent, displaying partially recovered wall paintings, all kinds of pottery, tools, etc.

We walked up the volcano which was uneventful, but the views were awesome. We also visited Oia, a town on the northern tip of the island with colorful buildings built into the cliffs. It's a popular spot for watching the sunset, which I did from a rooftop restaurant. It was beautiful watching the sun slip behind the tiny island of Folegandros.

Naxos
I liked Naxos as soon as I stepped off the ferry and within a few hours it was my favorite island. Naxos town, right along the waterfront, is pretty and very lively. It has narrow alleyways with hidden restaurants, shops and music coming from all directions. The "old market" is a further exaggeration of this with even narrower streets, winding around like a maze. This town has personality!

A ten minute walk brought us to St. George's Beach, a wonderful long golden beach packed with restaurants and sunbathers. My morning run also took me south along the coast where I saw other quiet, gorgeous beaches with rolling, breaking waves that are beautiful. On the far end of St. George's Beach I found windsurfing! The wind wasn't ideal in the bay there so I didn't go out, but I enjoyed watching several expert sailors navigate the breaking waves nearby. We also toured the island, which is very mountainous and much greener than the other islands, although more of a desert-green. Filoti, in central Naxos, is a very charming traditional town where I wish I could have spent more time. Apollonas, in the north, has a beautiful coastline with volcanic rock and clear blue water.

Samos
We wanted to go to Rhodes on our way to Turkey, but all of the ferries and flights were booked so we settled on Samos. We had the pleasure (eye-roll, Greek scowl) to take an all night ferry from Naxos. What a treat. It left after 1:00am and was already packed with people it had picked up in other islands. Upon boarding they pushed us outside to the deck telling us it was too full. It was quite cold out in the night ocean air. We talked our way into a very full room of people and found the last bit of floor space. At least my wetsuit and life vest made a good pillow. We planned to stay in Samos for at least one night but our first impression was that it wasn't all that unique or interesting. Fortunately we didn't see any evidence of the terrible fires that have been there. Our guidebook more or less confirmed our impressions so we went ahead and took a ferry to Kusadasi in Turkey. We were both very excited about getting to Turkey. And, if our stay in Turkey turns out to be anything like our first 24 hours, we will be thrilled. So far the people are fantastic!

Well, my fingers are tired of typing on a keyboard that seems to have the keys in all the wrong places so I'm signing off for now. Surely if you have read this far, you are probably more tired than me :-) I hope you all are having a fantastic summer!

Karen

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