We were sitting in Ancient Olympia, on the Peloponnese, enjoying the cooling sensation of the misters attached to a street-spanning maple tree, hoping to stop sweating before our daily salads and souvlaki arrived to our sidewalk table. My shirt was soaked. Mistake number one was visiting the ruins during the middle of the day. Mistake number two — mine alone — was deciding to sprint the length of the ancient track. The 192 meter pebble-strewn dirt track dates back to the 5th century B.C. and begged to be ran. Clothed, shoed (barely), and unencumbered by neither shield nor sword nor cuirass, I managed to run the distance in 28 seconds flat. Not bad for a guy about to turn 40 who hasn’t sprinted in a decade; absolutely pedestrian for the 20-year old miler I once was. But yes, I timed myself. I allowed myself this display of mid-life foolishness in part because it was Ancient Olympia and it had to be done, but mostly because there was nobody there to see me embarrass myself.
We followed the Greek banking crisis very closely during our final weeks in Italy, hoping a deal would be reached before too long, that the banks would reopen, and that life for the common Greek citizen would return to some semblance of normal. Now, writing from Athens, I can report that the shelves are stocked, the banks are open, and the lines for the cash machines are back to normal, that is to say virtually nonexistent. The only thing missing are the tourists.
I was talking with a good friend of mine several years ago about Greece, during the last round of bailout worries. His wife wanted to visit Greece, but he was afraid of a possible run on the banks ruining their travel plans. Buoyed by the alcohol we were enjoying and the happiness I always feel whenever I see my old friends from New Jersey, I replied with a flippant, callow response: something about holding up his MasterCard and ordering another round of drinks.
Now, having been in the country for three weeks and talking with locals and visitors alike, I realize we both missed the mark with our assessments of how the situation might affect visitors. For starters, Greece is primarily a cash economy. You’re not going to get very far trying to rely on a credit card for the bulk of your every day transactions (though I have yet to be refused when trying to pay with a credit card in nicer stores and restaurants in larger towns). It was the same throughout Italy and in Morocco. We knew this before we arrived and brought a month’s worth of Euros from Italy with us into the country, stashed between multiple hiding spots in our panniers — shhh, it’s a secret! That said, like a visitor coming from overseas, we also prepay online for any planned hotel stays, if only to conserve our cash reserves. Tonight is our fourth night at a cheap hotel in Athens; I booked the stay two weeks ago online. As for the chaos a run on the banks may have induced, I suspect it likely would not have extended far beyond the major squares and government centers in Athens and a few larger cities. Part of the reason that 30 billion Euros have been withdrawn from the Greek banking system over the past few years, we’ve been told, is that many people throughout the country have already withdrawn their savings and hide the money at home, particularly those in the islands and the smaller villages in the countryside (much also fled westward in the pockets of emigrants). So, in a way, the run has already taken place. But, like my efforts on the track in Ancient Olympia, it was too slow to notice.
We spent two nights in Ancient Olympia, camping a few blocks from downtown, and making friends with two separate Dutch travelers we met, Mark and Joost, the latter so generously shared the homemade schnapps he picked up from a roadside vendor somewhere in Montenegro or Albania. Our route carried us into the mountains of the central Peloponnese where the heat didn’t abate and the mountains steepened. Planning one week at a time, and looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, I routed us south past Ancient Messene to the coastal city of Kalamata. Yes, like the olives. Our ride into Kalamata was turning into another one of the suffer-fests each of our recent blog posts have chronicled. I wasn’t sure the climb to the hilltop town of Ancient Messene was going to be worth the effort. This time I let Kristin make the call: she felt we’d regret passing it up if we straight-lined for Kalamata. And so we added another grueling, sun-baked climb to our collection, only to then wander amongst additional 4th century B.C. ruins. And it was worth it. Sort of. Maybe if we were in a car.
What I didn’t realize when planning our route into Kalamata was that the only way out of Kalamata was up and over a very steep mountain range. We wanted to visit the Byzantine city of Mystras, just a short distance outside of Sparta, but to get there was going to be brutally difficult. I spent an entire afternoon in Kalamata trying to plot a less mountainous route, but none proved tempting.
Though Kalamata itself has very little to attract the foreign visitor aside from the beach and cheap restaurants, we are so thrilled we went. For if we hadn’t, we’d never have ended up on the stunning Highway 82 that leads up and over the mountain to Mystras and Sparta. While much of the Peloponnese contains dry, barren mountain sides with periodic olive groves, the descent into Mystras on Highway 82 dives into one of the narrowest gorges we’ve encountered. The road corkscrews and hairpins downward so tightly, the GPS track on my Garmin resembled a bowl of spaghetti. I’d set up by the side of the road to photograph Kristin and see her enter the frame, on the next switchback, directly beneath me. I’d stand on a bend and see the same road twist in and out of the view three and sometimes four times from one position. Further down the mountain the road disappeared completely into a narrow rock tunnel, barely a lane wide and with a sharp turn. More cave than a tunnel.
We climbed nearly 5,000 feet in a short 37 miles that day, a ride that should have shredded our knees and tore our willpower to pieces, but it didn’t. The days off in Kalamata, after all of those grueling miles since leaving Rome, left us rested and ready to tackle anything. Finally, after a month of being back on the bikes, we were back in the shape we were in last December. Alas, no more tales of woe!
We stopped at a spring halfway up the climb to refill our water bottles and, while eating the leftover dinner we took with us from Kalamata, were approached by a pair of Dutch travelers. Our bicycles continue to draw attention everywhere we go and nobody ever hesitates to strike up a conversation. And nothing surprises them more — not our route, distance pedaled, or our time away from home — than the fact that we are Americans. For such a populated country as the United Sates is, spotting an American away from home continues to be a rarity for most other travelers. The Dutch, on the other hand, are everywhere. And we love encountering them.
Several hours later, grinning from the euphoria of that unforgettable descent into Mystras, we were camped alongside four bicycle tourists — a family with two teenage daughters who had been touring every summer since the girls were out of diapers. Dutch, naturally. We walked into the village square to get groceries a little while later and, while waiting for the store to reopen at 6 pm, we heard a call. The man we met at the mountain spring came running over, gave us great big hugs, and implored us to join he and his wife for a drink. A round of beers turned into a round of Tsipouro then, while dodging the first rainstorm we had seen in over a month, a round of Ouzo. Ans and Harry, well into their 70s and very well-traveled, then generously invited us to join them for dinner where we were drinking. Their treat, our great fortune. We got back to the campground sometime after 11 pm; vowing to never go anywhere without our camera again.
We unfortunately didn’t run into Ans and Harry while touring the Byzantine temples and monasteries of Mystras the next day. Then again, aside from the touring cyclist family and a small French tour group, there weren’t many people there at all. Everywhere we go, we hear the same lament: the tourists are staying away because of the banking crisis. The crisis dominated the news early in the summer when most travelers were making their plans. Italy is reaping the benefits, particularly from the German tourists who are largely boycotting Greece altogether. It’s a tough situation, the effects mostly being felt by those with no control. So it goes, as my favorite author would say.
From Mystras we continued northward to Mycenae, the 15th century B.C. archaeological site with mythical ties to Perseus, Cyclops, and King Agamemnon. It is here where Homer supposedly received much of his inspiration for writing The Iliad. And, in turn, where I’ve been inspired to try and read it without the forced supervision of a high school English teacher. My feat too shall become legend, if successful.
It wasn’t until we reached the Acropolis in Athens where, alas, the tourists have emerged in larger quantities. But even then, we bought our combo tickets at the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus and didn’t have to wait in a queue to get in. We spent our first full day in Athens with a group of three teachers from New York; the first Americans we’ve encountered in nearly 6 weeks of being back in Europe. The guide for the free tour that brought us all to Syntagma Square was a no-show so, armed with Jeff’s historical knowledge and my map-reading ability, we set off on our own and had a wonderful day together. From Hadrian’s Arch to the Theater of Dionysus to the Parthenon to the Agora, and ultimately to the miraculously preserved Temple of Hephaestus, we walked miles through the text books of our youth. So much of our Western way of life can be traced back to these very buildings we walked amongst! Math! Theater! Democracy! Kristin and I couldn’t help but sit in the Theater of Dionysus — a structure over 2500 years old! — and feel the influence this theater’s design has had on every stage to follow, including our own beloved, modest, Taproot Theater in Seattle. The more we saw, the more amazing our being there in person came to feel.
Away from the Acropolis and the other major historical attractions, Athens suffers. A block in any direction away from a major site or upscale hotel lands you on pockmarked, graffiti-covered, alleys. The graffiti covers every surface, litter collects in numerous gutters, bus stops, and abandoned storefronts. And there are many of these abandoned storefronts in the immigrant neighborhood where our hotel is located. The sidewalks are in shambles. The facades of numerous buildings cracked and crumbling. It’s not an unsafe city; we remain comfortable even while walking across town at midnight. We’ve passed junkies shoving one another, a multitude of homeless sleeping in the shadows, and squatters clambering through a kicked-out window in abandoned apartment buildings. Outside our hotel, an elderly man smelling of urine and sweat shouts at the moon. But we are ignored, free to ponder the ubiquitous anarchy symbols while forever minding our step lest we step in a puddle that isn’t rainwater. Our presence in this neighborhood is, to use the Greek word, an anachronism but we move about as if largely unseen.
Nevertheless, the conditions of the city does weigh on one’s soul. Who can live amongst such vandalized beauty and not feel the effects? We see it in the hardened, dark eyes of the servers and bartenders; in the looks of the mini-mart clerks; and on the faces of the souvlaki slingers. It drains the soul. This is a city of monumental historic significance, a region of immeasurable natural beauty, but a country with ever-mounting financial and immigration hurdles before it.
August is the busiest time of the year to visit Greece but we find ourselves often seated alone in restaurants, tented amongst an array of empty campsites, and visiting world-renown archaeological attractions with just a smattering of other people. We hear this will change on the Aegean islands, where we head next, but that doesn’t help those here in Athens and across the Peloponnese or on Kefalonia where the hardworking, friendly people reliant on tourism would really like you to come and visit. And, unlike in Italy, you don’t even have to bring your own toilet paper.
Special Thanks: To Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continued support of our journey and to Ans and Harry for the wonderful meal and drinks in Mystras. We hope the rest of your travels were enjoyable.