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Athens, Santorini and Crete: It’s all “Greece” to me. (See what I did there?)
Ever since I was an art student in college, I'd really only wanted to visit four exotic places: Egypt, Athens, Rome and the Playboy Mansion. Naturally, I was psyched when some friends of ours invited us to go along on their trip to visit relatives in Greece. This was an especially rare opportunity since one of them actually spoke Greek. In hindsight, had we gone to Rome with someone who spoke Italian, we might still be welcome there today.
So without hesitation, we took them up on their invitation and, before we knew it, we were on our way. Thirteen uncomfortable hours later, we stumbled out of the airplane, and into the past.
SATURDAY, JUNE 10th
Athens, the capital city of Greece, reminded me a lot of Los Angeles in that it's a huge metropolis, spread out over a large area with cab drivers who don't speak English.
It's also a lot like Rome in that the city's infrastructure is -- and I say this without the slightest hyperbole -- freaking ancient.
Still, there's a real discontinuity between the ancient and the modern here. For example, while Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) are strictly forbidden, almost everyone smokes. Not only that, but cars and mopeds pump out more deadly toxins than Keith Richards during a blood transfusion. In fact, fruit from the city's citrus trees is so polluted you'd be better off eating a chunk of sidewalk.
But the key point to remember is that Athens has been a major city slightly longer than LA has--about 2700 years longer.
So you have to cut Athens some slack in certain areas -- like indoor plumbing. Thanks to pipes that pre-date the wheel, you can't flush toilet paper without backing up the sewer system for two city blocks. Instead, you simply put your used TP in a little covered garbage can.
And Athens' advanced age also makes trying to find your way around by car an act of futility, and very possibly, insanity.
Roads constantly change direction or name or both, without any advance warning. Street signs are infrequent at best, and misleading at worst. They either preempt intersections by such a large margin that you turn too soon. Or there's no sign at all and you miss the turn entirely.
Luckily, you can get around Athens without a car; most of the sights the average tourist wants to see are conveniently located within a few city blocks.
But walking around Greece isn't as healthy as it sounds. Tiny cars, mopeds and bicycles are everywhere, tearing through streets, alleyways, even driving on sidewalks. I almost got hit by a Smart car coming off an elevator.
Despite their small size, European cars are just as dangerous as big cars, maybe more so. Because big cars, you can see coming from a mile away. Whereas tiny cars look like they're farther away than they really are. Stay on your toes, or you'll get 'em run over.
Frankly, when you combine Athens' civil engineering schizophrenia with a citywide disregard for traffic law, you've got a powerful argument for public transportation.
Comparatively speaking, the Athens Metro rail system was the epitome of order and tranquility. It took us to all the major sights, restaurants and everywhere else we wanted to go, with a minimum of hassle, waiting or urine smell.
Outside many of the archaeological sights we visited, we browsed thousands of restaurants. To choose among them, our friends got restaurant recommendations from the locals wherever they could. And from those meals, we were able to make a few observations about Greek cuisine.
As the world's largest producer of olives, it's no surprise that the olive oil figures heavily in Greek dishes. And I do mean heavily -- we sucked up more oil in those two weeks than the EPA did cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez spill.
But olive oil wasn't the only thing flowing freely at meals. The Greeks don't skimp on the Ouzo, either. An anise-flavored liquor that supposedly dates back to ancient times, Ouzo is Greece's National drink, and they have it with every meal except breakfast (when they have beer).
Much to our surprise, Greek restaurants served, almost exclusively, foods grown and produced within their own borders. And while that assures that you get fresh ingredients, it also assures that you won't get a decent burrito.
Like In 'N Out Burger, the Greeks stick to what they do best. Menus consisted of pretty much the same 20 traditional items. Dishes like Moussaka, Souvlaki, Pastitsio, giant beans, feta salad, fried potatoes, and fried cheese, for example. All delicious, certainly, but if you want Szechuan or sushi, you're SOL.
MONDAY, JUNE 12th
We first visited Parliament building to see the changing of the guards. This periodic ritual is reminiscent of London's changing of the palace guards, only with fewer guards and much smaller hats.
In the Greek version, two guards do a slow-motion, goose-step towards their replacements, extending their fluffy, pom-pom-toed shoes high for all to see. On the surface, we weren't sure how all this pomp and circumstance provided any real security for government officials, nor how the 13-million surrounding pigeons figured into the ceremony.
But then, Greece is full of unexplainable attractions. Another such mystery we experienced was the "Lake of the Cave Valley," a weird natural spring surrounded on three sides by a sheer rock cliff 50 meters high.
The water is believed to have the power to rejuvenate the old, the infirmed and, judging from the elderly patrons, the obese, too. There is a roped-off swimming area, but no one really swims as much as they just soak and get all wrinkly. Okay, even more wrinkly, if that's possible.
Truly, the Greeks do things their own unique way.
TUESDAY, JUNE 13th
After a good night's rest, we made a beeline to the Acropolis the next morning. "Acropolis" in Greek means "high city," and it's where we got the term, Acrophobia, which means the fear of heights. Considering that the Acropolis rises 500-feet above sea-level and is visible from nearly anywhere in Athens, the term was well-chosen.
The Acropolis is, more importantly, where you'll find the world famous Parthenon -- considered "the most perfect Doric temple ever built." Completed in 432 BC and dedicated to the Goddess Athena, this epic temple was converted over the centuries into, among other things, a Christian church, a Latin church, a Muslim mosque, a Turkish ammo dump and, ultimately, a tourist attraction.
Sadly, this once-impressive marble marvel is no longer the testament to an advanced civilization that it once was. Mostly intact until a dynamite mishap by occupying Turkish forces, the Parthenon is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Its few remaining upright columns hint at an architectural genius and aesthetic style rivaled only by Las Vegas casinos.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 14th
From the Acropolis, we could see the nearby public square known as the Roman Agora. This public plaza provided citizens with a wide open space where crowds could gather to discuss issues of the day, such as what to call people who had a phobia about the Agora.
Of course, there's more to Athens than the many structures surrounding the Acropolis. To take in more of this timeless city, we hopped onto a Hop-on/Hop-off city bus and hopped off at a few other sights such as the National Archaeological Museum.
This comprehensive museum was overrun with significant sculptured figures, busts, vases, adornments, and tools from antiquity. Carved of everything from marble to gold. The art was more amazing when you consider that none of it was done with 3-D modeling software.
We could have spent a lot more time exploring this amazing city, but we didn't want to blow our whole vacation learning.
THURSDAY, JUNE 15th
The next morning, we caught a short flight to Santorini, about 200-kilometers south of Greece. This circular cluster of small islands peaking out of the Mediterranean Sea is actually the caldera of a now-dormant volcano. Essentially, it's what's left after four millennia of turbulent eruptions. So calling it an island is wishful thinking.
Our pilot managed to land safely on Thira, the largest land mass in Santorini, although that's not saying much. From the airport, we rented a Renault Scenic and drove to Villas Tholos up and down hills that made San Francisco seem like Kansas. Somehow, we arrived without killing ourselves.
Our room at the Villa jutted straight out from the steep cliff-side and offered staggering views of the entire bay and the so-called, "most famous sunset in the world." Frankly, we couldn't disprove it.
FRIDAY, JUNE 16th
But Santorini isn't just about scary landings and sunsets. Santorini is also the long-rumored location of Atlantis, the Lost City -- a highly advanced island civilization that, according to Plato, disappeared into the sea -- and it's easy to see why.
A few kilometers south of Fira, there's an archaeological dig site called Akrotiri. Centuries earlier, Akrotiri was a thriving Minoan metropolis and port. But one day, the volcano gods got ticked and went all Pompeii on the city, burying it abruptly in volcanic ash. There, frozen in time, the citizens remained undisturbed until 1967, when Akrotiri was rediscovered; perfectly preserved.
Considering that Akrotirians had only recently mastered walking erect, the city was remarkably modern. Archaeologists carefully dug out much of the city and unearthed evidence of a written language, artistic wall murals, a system of metrics and counting, running water, international trade and, to no one's great surprise, a Starbucks.
The excavations continue to this day, so it's only a matter of time before they find a TV set or a microwave oven.
SATURDAY, JUNE 17th
While basking on the black and red sand beaches of Santorini, we noticed that you can see other islands on the horizon in virtually any direction you look. So it's not surprising to learn that early Greeks were big sailors. The temptation must have been strong to explore the other 1400 isles, if only to see if there were single women on them.
We headed to Thira's port to explore other islands as well, but for entirely different reasons. A large yacht sailed us around the caldera, stopping at places of interest like the lava-ash-covered volcano in the center of Santorini. There, we trekked to the top, sucking in sulfurous gases that smelled like no one had changed the cat-box since the reign of Alexander the Great.
The boat also stopped to give guests the chance to swim up an inlet supposedly heated by the volcano. Billed as a "rejuvenating experience," it turned out to be just a trick to get human sacrifices for the angry volcano gods we mentioned earlier. Though, in fairness to the cruise operators, there weren't any eruptions during our entire vacation. So it kinda worked out in the end, at least, for us.
SUNDAY, JUNE 18th
We had to leave sooner or later, but we really could have stayed in Santorini longer. Leaving a paradise like this wasn't easy, but at least we did it in style. We went by hydrofoil to our next destination, the island of Crete.
From the outside, the hydrofoil is part-boat, part-airplane. And an incredibly fast one at that, which was good because while it arrived "early" according to Greek standards, it was 20-minutes late according to anyone with a watch.
Inside, the hydrofoil experience was much like an airline -- we had assigned seats, not enough overhead compartment space, unhealthy food options, and a toilet that flushed louder than a volcanic eruption.
Still, a mere two hours later, we came barreling in and did an E-brake slide into the dock at Iraklion, the capital of Crete.
MONDAY, JUNE 19th
Crete is the largest of the 1400 Greek Isles and was the birthplace of Zeus. Cretans say you can see his face in the mountaintops if you look hard enough, or drink enough Ouzo.
From 2800 to 1000BC, Crete was the center of arguably the most important civilization until that time -- the Minoans. Named after the human son of Zeus, King Minos, the Minoans were highly advanced in commerce, crafts, metalworking and art, among other things (see Pederasty).
The island of Crete is ideally situated on the crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe. As a result, it greatly benefited from interaction and trade with a wide variety of other cultures. In fact, the Minoans were the first culture to utilize character-based (as opposed to pictograph-based) written language as a tool to translate the languages of their trading partners.
Sadly, the 1400BC eruption at Santorini generated a tsunami wave that destroyed Crete's capital city and essentially spelled the end of the Minoan culture.
In the centuries that followed, Crete was occupied by an ever-changing string of cultures. The Mycenaeans first took over for a couple of centuries, but then the Romans showed up. The Romans held control until Constantine and the Byzantines kicked them out. The Byzantines eventually handed Crete over to the Venetians who then took off when the Turks came knocking. Crete was so popular that even the Nazis stopped in for a brief four-year stay. In the 1913, Crete petitioned to join Greece, most likely because they were tired of changing languages every five minutes.
Our first stop on Crete was the city of Knossos (NAH-sos). Between 1700 and 1300BC, King Minos ruled Crete and several other islands from the storied "Palace of Legends." Considering that it was built some 3500 years ago, this Bronze-Age structure was nothing short of astonishing in scope. It occupied over six acres, and was comprised of 1500-rooms over multiple stories. It was so mind-blowing that it inspired the Greek myth of the Labyrinth.
In the tale, our hero, Theseus (think Tom Cruise before he went crazy) volunteers to be one of the yearly human sacrifices offered to the ill-tempered Minotaur -- a half-man, half-bull with poor self-image. Theseus is sent into a maze-like Labyrinth to die, but manages to kill the Minotaur (bare-handed, no doubt) and then retrace his path back out of the maze thanks to a magic ball of thread he was given by the King's own daughter. Needless to say, the movie adaption did blockbuster numbers at the box office that year.
TUESDAY, JUNE 20th
After a few hours at Knossos, our jaws got tired of scraping on the ground, so we left and drove two hours to another one-time capital of Crete, Chania (HAHN-ya), and the Thalassa Beach Resort.
Chania lies at the foot of a mountain that is reportedly snow-capped during the winter -- a fact pretty hard to imagine considering we could barely walk on the beach without our feet bursting into flames.
But despite the heat, I didn't go into the sea the whole time we were in Chania. Mostly because I dislike any water that has too much of anything in it that isn't water -- such as salt, chlorine, or noisy children. Now, don't get me wrong, the salty Mediterranean Sea is far better for swimming than either the Pacific or Atlantic, but if you have an open wound, you might want to stick to the pool.
And so we did. Aside from a brief excursion into the hinterlands of Chania, we pretty much burned the last few days on Crete soaking up the sun. Before we knew it, it was time to return to Athens and fly home.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22nd
We had a great time in Greece. The country was beautiful. The food was delicious. The weather was close to ideal. And the people couldn't have been nicer (we asked).
Sure, there were similarities between Greece and other European countries we've visited -- their ancient culture; their tiny cars; and their obsession with the World Cup -- but language isn't one of them. While Italian can be deciphered through a cursory knowledge of Spanish or French (and vice versa), Greek requires a working knowledge of the Enigma decoding machine.
Regardless, Greece is its own country, rich with its own unique heritage, architecture, art and language. So it's easy to see why they'd be reluctant to forfeit all that in the name of tourism. Sure, there are easier European countries to visit, but certainly none more worthy of visiting than Greece.