We’re in Greece!

We have been desperate to hit the road again, but it was not an easy decision to travel internationally during Covid. Canada still has non-essential travel advisories in place, which means if things flare up and borders close, we are on our own. Travelling by plane carries an element of risk, as does staying in hotels and Airbnbs. We are decidedly in the higher-risk age group. And yet…

Greece has maintained very low Covid numbers and when cases started to climb recently, officials clamped down immediately with curfews and hefty fines and jail time for egregious offenders. The government has put strict protocols in place in all public spaces, and will cover costs if tourists should become ill. With tourism down by 70%, this is a small window for travelling in Greece without being besieged by hordes of other tourists. Social distancing is actually possible. So is getting a table at a restaurant.

Once we discovered that a company called MediPac offers travel insurance that covers Covid, we were in. We flew quite seamlessly with Air Canada from Nanaimo/Vancouver/Toronto/Athens. If only flying was always this pleasant. No crush of cranky economy passengers waiting to board. No middle seat companions on any of the flights and since the Toronto-Athens flight was just one-third full, we each grabbed a full row to stretch out and sleep.

Upon arrival in Athens, we zipped through customs in minutes and walked through this empty airport to catch the metro to downtown.

Travelling by metro was also easy, although with reduced seating, we stood for the 45-minute ride. Seats are cordoned off for distancing and everyone wears masks. I’ve never thought of Greeks as being particularly compliant people, but boy, there is no fooling around here. Mask-wearing is non-negotiable and is required in all public indoor spaces – period.

We are in Greece for six weeks; beginning our trip with a few days in Athens, then flying to Crete for 18 or 19 days. We’re playing it a little by ear from there – planning to visit Santorini, then back up to the mainland to drive around the mountain villages and seaside towns, with a brief stop in Hydra before heading home again.

It feels wonderfully normal to be travelling again, although we have noticed two distinct differences from past trips. Fellow tourists are almost overwhelmingly a) European and b) young. So far we have not fallen into an easy banter with anyone except for bored waiters. Tourists are keeping to themselves.

Athens is much nicer than we had imagined – cleaner, quieter, less chaotic and very walkable. However, with the exception of a very few parks, there is a noticeable dearth of green space.

We’re staying at an Airbnb in the Plaka neighbourhood, which is a charming older area close to the Acropolis, with twisty narrow lanes, bougainvilleas and tons of cafes and tavernas.

Our first night in town, we were feeling spacey from 24 hours of travel and grabbed the first tourist-y restaurant we saw, lured in with the promise of “drinks on the house.” Most restaurants will give you something complimentary – ouzo, dessert, fresh fruit – which I find touching and remarkable in cash-strapped, tourist-hungry Greece.

We kept it simple with a Greek salad and souvlaki and for a tourist restaurant the food was surprisingly good. It was lovely to sit outside and let it wash over us that we were in Greece.

We were fading fast and when we asked for the check, our waiter appeared instead with two more drinks. “On the house!,” he announced to my rather ungracious, “oh no“. ( We did manage to finish them.)

We discovered that central Athens is compact, made up of several fascinating neighbourhoods and is extremely walkable. This sweet little part of town, called Anafiotika, is just up the road from our place.

It is a cluster of about 40 whitewashed homes that lie right in the shadow of the Acropolis. It is just beautiful and unlike the rest of Athens – more reminiscent of buildings found on the islands. Although it is touted as a tourist attraction, I felt a bit uneasy walking through such a small, intimate neighbourhood. These are people’s homes and we were walking within inches of their open windows.

We spent the day exploring and enjoying the many contrasts of Athens. It is a city steeped in history, but also shaped by modern influences.

Greece is famous for its many stray cats – this little one lives around the corner from us, and is obviously well-fed.

The Monastiraki Flea Market is what I wish I could find back home. Every conceivable treasure, piece of junk or genuine antique can be found here, although many vendors appear to have lost their mojo.

Just around the corner from the dusty old relics of the flea market came high fashion.

A Gaga-worthy gown for the alternative bride.

The neighbourhood of Psirri is known for its lively atmosphere and sense of style. We stopped for lunch at a cafe which had hung laundry across the street as a design feature.

Our lunch was made all the more memorable by Stephen’s gusher of a nosebleed, which is off-putting at the best of times, but particularly troublesome during Covid. Stephen is prone to nosebleeds in altitude and extremely dry air, and we think that all the plane travel with a mask on, combined with a sudden drop into 30+degree heat, may have brought it on.

Our server handled us with great tact and empathy, providing yards of paper towels.

If you look carefully at the photo below you’ll see my friend, clutching an ice pack.

We came upon this crazy sight – a “Mary Poppins” tea party/fantasyland cafe embellished with an eye-watering amount of fringe, flowers, and froth.

Athens has a significant street art scene, and although we did not make it to the more bohemian neighbourhoods, we still stumbled upon some notable examples.

An upscale shop sold curated pieces – tea towels, mugs, T-shirts – with quotes from famous Greek philosophers. I’m not sure that I agree with any of them, especially Socrates. “I know nothing?” What a distressing realization to come to – surely a few things have stuck by now? Still, they bear discussion, and beat the heck out of talking about Trump.

A typical example of the little architectural surprises that lie tucked away down side alleys.

Our friend Joe has a keen appreciation for ancient Greek history, and he advised us to brush us a bit before our trip, as it would be otherwise overwhelming. – very good advice indeed. I am woefully ill-educated about Greek history and mythology, and so will not attempt to give you any background on ancient Greece. There is such depth of info available elsewhere – I’m bringing you our experiences and observations.

Obviously the Acropolis and numerous other sites in Athens are the whole point – they hold a command post from many vantage points in the city and inform the tenor of the town. It is decidedly a cool thing to walk in modern-day Athens with the juxtaposition of the Hadrian’s Arch against a flow of cars and motorbikes.

This morning we sat in a shady cafe with our iced coffees and looked out over the Roman Agora. The metro tracks run right in front.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, tucked in from a major thoroughfare.

Yesterday we devoted to the Acropolis Museum in the morning and the Acropolis in the afternoon. The museum is sensational – filled with hundreds of statues, many of them almost intact, and thousands of pieces saved from the excavation at the Acropolis. The exterior is all the more remarkable because it had been fully excavated, and then it was decided to situate the new museum on top of the site. Giant round concrete pillars were carefully placed and the excavation site was then filled in with gravel and sand to protect it while the building of the museum took place.

We took our time trekking up to the Acropolis; even at 5:00 p.m., it was still hot and sunny. We passed the Theatre of Dionysus on the way up and had the good fortune to listen to an orchestra warming up. We’re not sure if there was a performance later – it seems unlikely, although there would be lots of room to distance theatre-goers.

On the last leg of our trip up the hill, we followed behind a gregarious and chatty Frenchwoman, who carried on a steady commentary.
As we reached the summit, she announced, “Et voila!”

The Parthenon is the focal point of the Acropolis, and it is in a steady state of restoration, which distracts but does not take away from its grandeur.

Lesser sites include the Temple of Athena Nike:

The 360 degree views from the Acropolis are stunning and the Parthenon is such an iconic image; it would be impossible to come to Athens and miss seeing them.

But both Stephen and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; we were more taken by the juxtaposition of ancient ruins like the Agora while wandering around the city than by the Acropolis itself.

I have to confess that I have a very short attention span for tramping around ruins in scorching sun, or for admiring ancient exhibits in a museum. I stare and stare at crumbling rock or pottery shards and I just cannot conjure up images of life thousands of years ago.

Tomorrow we fly to Crete for at least a couple of weeks and we are so looking forward to experiencing that side of Greece – the mountain villages, hiking trails through gorges, the olive groves and the amazing beaches.