My Big Fat Greek Vacation

Greenbean went to Greece, and it was amazing.

Mrs. Greenbean and I spent the better part of September in Greece with two of our friends. It was wonderful and I highly recommend going. But go before your knees and lungs give out, because the entire country is uphill both ways. The mainland is affordable, and if you do what we did and buy food in markets and eat a lot of meals on benches or on the balcony of your hotel, you can save euros. Let me take our trip in big categories. I’ll start with the places we visited.

Places

We landed in Athens on a Tuesday morning and spent that exhausting day walking around. Our hotel was in the Plaka neighborhood, which is near The Acropolis. On that day, we walked around Hadrian’s Arch and the ruins of Olympian Zeus. We were too tired to really know what we were doing. Our plan for fighting jet lag was to stay awake, eat an early supper, and go to bed. It worked for the most part.

The day we landed I found the Acropolis. Imagine how awful I smell. Just imagine.

The next three days we spent in Athens visiting The Parthenon, Mars Hill, the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora including the Temple of Hephaestus, The National Archaeological Museum, and a few other sights. Athens is a very enjoyable city, but the neighborhoods change suddenly and dramatically. My favorite part had to be visiting Mars Hill. To stand in that spot where Paul preached, with the Acropolis behind him and the city below, frames that famous sermon in Acts in a way my imagination could never grab.

We rented a car and traveled to Delphi. It was far more alpine than I expected. The remoteness of the Temple of Apollo highlights the effort and intention exerted by the ancients to visit the oracle. We only spent the day there, and drove on to Kalambaka where we visited the impressive monasteries of Meteora. Monks have lived on those rocks for over a thousand years. We visited it on a Sunday, and I lit the candles, wrote my prayers, and contemplated the call of Christ and the odd interpretation of the gospel that moves men and women to remove themselves from the world Christ died for. I do not understand that impulse nor do I agree with that mode of ministry, but I am in awe of their devotion and discipline.

Me sitting on Mars Hill. Notice the Parthenon/Acropolis behind me. When Paul preached here,
the Parthenon was already 500 years old.
The famous Lion’s Gate at Mycenae. So large, the ancients believed it was built by cyclops.

We drove down across the peninsula to the Peloponnese and spent two nights in Patras. It is a very young town full of life and energy. We used that as a base of operations for visiting Olympia and Mycenae. Both were impressive. We made our way south to Nafplion, which is a delightful seaside resort where we ate too much gelato and I bought a pair of leather sandals made right there on sight.

The Grand Meteora Monastery. There were six of them, we climbed up and visited four.

On our way back to Athens we visited the ancient city of Corinth and I was able to see with my eye the bema seat mentioned in Acts where Gallio judged the Apostle Paul. Again, standing here, and knowing that right behind (or in front, depending on perspective) was the giant temple of Apollo. The museum there was good, with pieces of ancient, Hellenic, and Roman origin. The picture below is me standing in front of the Bema and a zoomed out shot for size. It was definitely built to overwhelm whoever was standing in Rome’s judgment.

We returned the car at the airport and stayed at a miserable hotel at the airport before flying the next morning to Santorini. We stayed in Santorini four nights and five days. We cruised out at sunset and ate shrimp and swam in the Aegean, we cruised again to the volcano and climbed up the summit, swam, and ate at a very rustic fishing village, walked the seven mile hike around the rim, visited the Ancient Theran Museum which is amazing, swam at Red Beach, which takes a lot of dangerous pathfinding to get to. Santorini does not have good beaches. I am completely convinced, after visiting the island, that Santorini and the disappearance of the Theran people three and a half millennia ago is the root of the Atlantis myth.

We flew back to Athens and spent one final day shopping in the Monastiraki neighborhood, which is basically a giant flea market.

These blue domed white church buildings are all over Santorini. I estimate about six billion of them.
This one is in Oia, which we walked seven miles and crossed Mordor to get to.

FOOD

You know me, and food is an important part of any experience. I ate very well in Greece. I love the Greek salad — a salad without lettuce! They serve the feta cheese on top in a slice, not crumbled the way Americans do. Soulaki is a staple, and is basically just a k-bob. They grill mushrooms and serve a saganaki dish which is like a fried cheese. Very very good. Every meal seems to include tzatziki which is a yogurt mixed with cucumber and other spices. It is delicious with pita bread.

And the kalamata olives! I could eat my weight in those.

The seafood was so abundant and delightful. We ate calamari, octopus, and sea bass. On Santorini I ate a pandora fish, which I’d never done before. Also, they put French fries with everything, but do not put ketchup on the table. We asked for ketchup at one place, and what we got was not ketchup. I am still uncertain of what exactly it was, but it was good.

The leftover fish after our last dinner on Santorini

The only thing that was not good was the coffee. They push a lot of Nescafe in Greece. A Greek Coffee, as best I can tell, is just about a half a cup of Nescafe and hot water, unstirred. In the afternoons they serve a caffe freddo, which is iced coffee with milk. Its not awful, but its not that good either.

The water is fine to drink. No need to waste euros on bottled water.

The best food we had was at restaurant called Paramithi in Kalambaka. Kalambaka is very rural, rustic, and about a billion miles away culturally from Athens or Santorini. The food was fresh made just a few feet away, local, and a man who looked a little like Anthony Quinn in Zorba played Greek tavern tunes on his stringed instrument.

With the exception of a couple of breakfasts locations, every meal we ate was outside. I do not think this was COVID-19 protocol, for the buildings were structured this way. The Greeks eat outside. It is just what they do. It felt so wonderful.

We saw one McDonald’s the whole time we were there, and that was on Santorini. Other than that, I didn’t see any fast food restaurants. I saw tons of people, not tourists but Greeks, sitting in those wonderful cafes and taverns outside. It is not a bad way to live. I loved the Greek diet, and the times they eat — lunch around 2PM and a really late supper around 9PM.

People

There is not much to write here, other than to praise the Greek people as wonderful souls. Every one we met was kind, generous, and very understanding and helpful. They were also talkative. They love their country and their culture, and are proud to share it with you. It seemed to me they loved the fact people from other countries value their history, culture, and heritage.

Just about everyone we met had some working knowledge of English, and most of the signs are written in Greek and English. Language and communication was never a problem. Many of the people we met had lived for a while in either The United States or England. Some used us to practice their English — especially in Patras where they don’t get many American tourists. Some will want to tell you about their region, and one man pulled up a chair and wanted to talk to us about the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, because he was a big NBA basketball fan.

The only words in Greek you need to know is ef-charisto — a variation of the New Testament word eucharisto, which means thank you. The other is parakalo, which means both thank you and please. That too is a New Testament word. W.C. means water closet, which is the bathroom. Most are clean with a women and men’s side but a public hand washing sink outside both.

The Greek people are hard workers. They hustle for business and to make the customer happy. I never encountered any kind of snobbery or laziness.

The people in Athens dress very casually — t-shirts, jeans, and comfortable shoes. They dressed a little more formally in Patras and Nafplion. On Santorini everyone dressed up quite a bit. The narcissism was on full display there with selfies and people getting the perfect social media picture. Lots of fancy dresses. Also lots of skin. People dress very modestly on the mainland, but on Santorini it is scandalous.

The tourists we met were mostly good as well. We saw a Russian man propose to his fiancé at the top of the Acropolis, cruised the caldera with a Nigerian/Brit, talked about business with a pub owner from Manitoba, Canada, and swam with a couple from Long Beach, California. We heard lots of people speaking German, many Russians, and a lot of Americans and Brits. There are more Americans on Santorini than Greeks, I think.

A couple of fashion notes. The only long beards I saw was from the Greek Orthodox priests. Most of the men had a kind of five o’clock shadow beard and a heavier mustache, but not like a Magnum P.I. mustache. And because it is me, I was noticing the watches people wore. The Greek people have not adopted the smartwatch. They all had nice analog watches that matched what they were wearing. Only tourists wore hats.

The people who ran the museums were the meanest we saw. They kept blowing whistles at us. We were those people. We may have touched things we weren’t supposed to. And by touch I mean walked around in closed off areas. Maybe.

Our last meal in Athens before we came home.

COVID-19

This trip was taken in the midst of the rise of the Delta Variant of COVID-19. When we planned it, we figured the pandemic would be behind us. We were wrong. There were three major inconveniences to us in this regard. The first was wearing a mask on the airplane. Crossing the Atlantic and changing planes in Chicago meant wearing that mask for about twenty-four hours nonstop. That was pretty rough, not for my mouth or nose but my ears. The second was the required COVID-19 test to get back. I confess I was a little anxious as we all stood outside the pharmacy on Santorini waiting for our results. The third was that we had to show our vaccination card to get into most of the museums and archaeological sites. These were minor inconveniences, though, and did not hinder the enjoyment of the trip.

For the travel parts, the American Airlines Verifly App made it very easy. Once the airline cleared us on the App, it was just normal passport issues at customs. Here is a protip — don’t smile at the customs officers when they check your passport picture. They don’t like that.

Greece takes masks seriously, and anything indoors you have to mask up, and most of the shops, not restaurants because they are outdoors, but the shops, markets, banks, and post offices have limits on how many can be inside at one time — usually only three or four people. But once you get into the rhythm, it wasn’t that big of a problem. Again, only the long air travel seemed to be burdensome.

Misclleaneous Items

If I ever go back, I want to visit Mykonos, Crete, and Rhodes, perhaps Thessaloniki and Philippi. The world is big and there are lots of places I want to visit, so I don’t know if ever I will make it back, but if I do, I know I will have a good time.

How expensive is it? It could be done a lot cheaper than we did it, but it is cheaper than Disney World. I know that from experience. Disney is about five or six days, and for less money we spent nineteen days in Greece.

The flight is about nine and half hours from Chicago going and ten and half coming back. I crossed several things off my bucket list on this trip, and one of these was flying on the 787 Dreamliner. Great airplane. Also, if you can leave from an airport other than O’hare, do it. That place is a dump. We traveled on RyanAir to Santorini, and that was just fine — they flew these nice Boeing 737s. You can see just how dotted the Aegean is with islands as you make the thirty minute flight.

There is a whole lot more I could say, but this post is already far too long.

Summary

Go to Greece. Take cash — and I mean euros — because lots of places don’t do cards. Bring good walking shoes. Eat delicious food. Take pictures. Talk to people. Swim in the sea.