Edited July 2020
Greece, islands, churches, and unexpected beauty
Please check with the Greek government information about current travel restrictions as you start to plan your trip to Greece. The country is welcoming visitors from a limited group of countries but concerns have developed about a rise in Covid-19, especially among people crossing the northern border. As a result, restrictions have been extended for some neighboring nations.
History books introduced us to Greece and those lessons are remembered with a picture of the Parthenon, standing proudly upon the rocky hill with the rest of Athens surrounding it. For many, a trip to Greece is a quick stop in the capital and then a ferry ride or cruise to an island resort. Greece is so much more than that: it is great food, a rich history since its "Golden Age" that tells a story of people who have learned to deal with adversity and find joy in the moment; and, yes, if you make it to the small towns of this beautiful country, you will meet people who are kind and generous and wise. You will also meet the cats (and dogs) who freely roam and will often join you for a nibble at dinner time.
I have learned to start my travel research by looking for festivals. Fortunately, one significant festival in Greece, in June, is on the island of Hydra, and with the Miaoulia Festival as one of the events that was key on our itinerary, we built a 23-day route that started in the capital city and then headed south to the Pelopponese Peninsula, along the Gulf of Corinth, north to Meteora, and wrapping up with a weekend on the island of Hydra. We wondered if we were making a mistake by not including the islands of Santorini and Mykonos, but as we had dinner on the Plaka our last night in Greece, we agreed that the trip had been so much more than we expected and that the drives through the Peloppenese Peninsula and up to Meteora were good choices for us, older active travelers who wanted to see the ancient cities of this country and discover a culture that was a bit different from what we experience in the US.
Stories we heard about Athens cast a negative image of the Greek capital; listen with a little skepticism to that advice. The place we visited while staying in hotels near the Plaka, was friendly, charming, and worth more than the quick stop most travelers recommended. It is, of course, a big city with the issues of desparation and frustration that big cities encounter; and at the time we arrived, it was just adjusting to the austerity measures imposed upon it by the rest of the EU. With advice to avoid certain areas at night, we chose hotels in the heart of the tourist districts and felt safe, even after the sun set.
We planned 3 nights in Athens following our arrival; the first to get our bearings after the long transatlantic flight, then a day to see the National Archaeological Museum,and a day to visit the Acropolis and other historic sites in Athens. Our plans included 2 more nights, one after the drive back from Meteora before we took a ferry to Hydra and the other after we returned from Hydra to fly back to the US. If we had more time in the city, we could have filled it, but our time was enough to get to the most famous spots in Athens.
We are not, by nature, museum goers, but there are a few museums in the world that are worth a visit. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is definitely on that list, and was well worth the time we spent wandering through the exhibits. Located in an area that was better visited during daylight, we grabbed the subway not far from our hotel and rode to the station closest to the museum, which was a long, but not difficult stroll, from there on a summer day that was not oppressively hot.
The museum, as our first place to visit, helped us orient ourselves to the country and get a better sense of the how the ancient towns we planned to visit related to that history. Filled with jewelry, tools, weapons, statues, and pottery, as well as the first computer known to man, the richness of the collection is hard to describe. It was overwhelming to try to absorb and put in perspective.
With so much on display, it is definitely a place to allocate three or four hours (students of Greek history will consider that blasphemy) for the casual museum-goer. It is hard to summarize all that it displays, but in addition to seeing statues and other pieces we had seen on television and in magazines (we are of the generation that had those things), I was struck by the Greek restoration strategy, which repaired statutes and pottery with neutral-toned material that let you see the item intact but made clear that the item had been damaged over time. That strategy was common throughout Greece, in other museums but in the ancient buildings and town we visited where had occurred.
To be honest, a good deal of our time in Athens was spent eating. With a delicious breakfast buffet at our hotel that introduced us to olives for breakfast, we probably could have skipped lunch, but there were interesting smells and menus with words we couldn't pronounce. How could we walk past that? We found a number of tasty, reasonably priced places to eat, had a three dinners in the Plaka over the 5 nights we were in town and were only disappointed by one little mom and pop place that had no other customers...the surest sign that we should have walked a bit further. Most of our meals were delightful, surprising blends of new flavors, lots of lamb, fish and fresh vegetables prepared by inventive chefs. But after discovering a fast food place in Monastiraki, Oven Sesame, we did a couple meals looking up at the Acropolis while drinking fresh fruit drinks and chomping on the well-seasoned, healthy, goodness they stuffed into a crisp sesame seed-covered shell, worth a stop even if you aren't trying to give your wallet a break.