Friday, November 23, 2012

A Piece of Greece - Nafplio, Athens, and Sifnos

May 30, 2012
It is my third foray to Europe. Like the last two trips, I am traveling solo. The first time, it was because I couldn't find a travel buddy. Now, it is by choice. There is something special about venturing off on your own... It’s pure excitement the moment I buy my overseas ticket - It’s definite! I’m going! But as the departure date gets nearer, little twinges of anxiety creep in. It’s sometimes challenging to travel alone, especially in a foreign country with a foreign language. So, when I arrive at the airport, I’m excited, but nervous, too.

I haven’t even checked my bag, yet, and I learn that flights are delayed due to weather conditions in Dallas. So, chances are I’ll miss my connection in Dallas. Which will cause me to miss my connection in Madrid. Which will cause me to miss my bus from Athens, Greece to Nafplio, where I made arrangements to couch surf. Which will mean I have no where to stay my first night. My first bump in the road. For a moment I wonder why I’m embarking on this crazy trip, why I’m not just spending lazy summer days by the pool. It would be so much easier. And so much less fun, less exhilarating, less potential.

By the time I touch down in Dallas, I've assimilated to the uncertainty, the challenges, the inevitability of things just going wrong. And I've rediscovered my strength to handle anything that happens. I've noticed this mini transformation every time I embark on an adventure - it’s amazing how travel transforms you. You can find so much of yourself. So the nerves are gone, the jitters have faded, replaced by enthusiasm and a smile. I’ll ride along, and go with the flow, ‘cause I know it’s all gonna turn out fine.

I arrive in Madrid at 11:30 am, but there’s not enough time to catch my flight to Athens. I approach the first counter, and a woman directs me to another counter around the corner... except it’s not there. I have no idea what she meant. So I go to the area where I was supposed to board my flight to Greece, which is in another terminal. I wait a long, long time in line at another counter to be told that I need the American Airlines counter, which is in the terminal where I began. When I find their counter, hidden among the rows and rows of other airlines, the metal window is down and no one’s there. I was told that I need to speak to an American Airlines representative, but no one’s here to talk to me. When I inquire, a woman explains that they’ve left for the day because they have no more flights out. At my third counter, in as many hours, I’m overcome with confusion and helplessness, so I do what I always do in these situations - I start to cry. A few tears spill out before I’m able to regain my composure. The gentleman at this desk suggests I try calling American Airlines, but I can’t figure out how to use the European payphone! (It’s in Spanish, give me a break.) I try seeking assistance from Iberia, the airline I was supposed to fly from Madrid to Athens, and I eventually end up at their help desk. After many long minutes, I finally, finally receive tickets that will get me to Athens. So what if I have to fly up to Geneva, Switzerland first? At least I’m getting the hell out of Madrid.

A little past midnight, I arrive in Athens. While waiting in Dallas, I managed to contact another couchsurfer in Athens that’s willing to let me stay the night. It’s after 3:00 am when I finally fall asleep on his couch, and I sleep like a rock.

June 1, 2012
I have my first taste of ouzo, the Greek liquor, and it tastes just like black licorice. Which I hate. My Greek host has never heard of this candy, so I wonder what they’d think of alcohol-flavored candy. Would it create future alcoholics just like some claim bubble gum cigarettes create future smokers?

June 2, 2012
In the early morning heat, I arrive in Nafplio. Before it gets even hotter, I make the trek to the fortress dominating a tall cliff overlooking the city. It requires some stair climbing - 912 stairs, to be exact. (No, I didn’t count. Someone else already did that and kindly marked every hundred.) Whew, it’s a good leg workout, and being the exercise addict that I am, I completely enjoy it (even though my pretty summer dress is basically drenched in sweat by the time I reach the top). It costs money to enter the fortress, so I don’t bother, but I do rest a minute and enjoy the view.

Back down in the Old City, I wander down narrow roads and narrower alleys full of flowering trees, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It’s quite small, so it really doesn’t take very long. A day is more than enough to visit the town, the fortress, and the castle perched on another cliff overlooking the sea. 

In the evening, complications arise with my host (no need to go into that story), so I’m sort of left stranded in Nafplio. There are no more buses to Athens, so it looks like I’ll be spending the night. This is when I realize the advantage of having a “Plan B” - and I’m discouraged that I don’t have one. Well, I shouldn’t say I didn’t entirely have one; bursting into tears seems to be my back-up. The poor man at the bus station had no idea how to help me (and not speaking each other’s language didn’t make it any easier). He fetches his friend, a waitress at the cafe next door, and she comforts me, walking me to the nearby pension (hotel) that her friend owns. Thankfully, they have a room for me at a reasonable price - thirty euros. Before you laugh at my complete regression to a whimpering child... in my defense, it’s a whole lot scarier when you don’t know a place or the language and have no phone - it’s much more overwhelming! Maybe not the best excuse... but there it is. And I learned a valuable lesson - travel with a Plan B! Count on fickleness and unpredictability. In my situation, I need to know other sleeping options if one falls through. And I also need to learn to stop crying - it really doesn’t help anything.

June 3, 2012
Without signs, I miss the bus stop at the metro station, so I ride the bus all the way to the station, where there is no metro connection. A taxi driver will bring me there for ten euros, but I manage to find the bus (and a girl on the bus who tells me where to get off), and this only costs 1,40 euros. Take that, taxi men! I will struggle with public transportation, walk long distances, plod through rain, to avoid the taxi drivers that prey on tourists with their escalated prices.

I take the metro to the heart of the city and wander through the Plaka. The Plaka is the old city, but it’s basically become tourist-central, bustling with people perusing the shops and sampling traditional Greek cuisine. The Acropolis sits atop a bluff overlooking the city, and I wander up but don’t go in because it’s already closed for the day.  I wander beyond the imaginary line separating the old from the new, and I’m honestly a little disappointed with Athens. It’s kind of ugly. The buildings hold no warmth or charm. Maybe I failed to walk the proper street or find the right neighborhood, but the Athens I discovered isn’t one that interests me. 

One thing I love about all cities, though, are the street vendors, and Athens doesn’t disappoint. I purchase some cherries from one and a Greek pastry (a bread ring sprinkled with sesame seeds - but this one’s filled with chocolate!) from another for lunch. 

While searching for my souvenir magnet in one of the many kitschy shops back in the Plaka, the owner, a hefty old man, invites me to watch how Greek coffee is made. I squeeze past the counter into the little space behind and watch him spill his Greek coffee all over the floor. With another pot heating, he says, “I have to tell you something,” and motions to come nearer so he can whisper in my ear. I lean in, and instead of words, I receive a friendly kiss on the cheek. I can’t help but laugh. We chat, and he invites me to sit in the garden behind the shop. The women who works with him joins us and we relax together, sharing stories (or trying to - none of us speaks the other’s language very well). It’s pleasant to sit and hear stories of living in Greece, how the economy has changed their culture, to learn how the woman can’t find a decent man in Athens. It’s fun to talk. When I leave, it’s as if we’re old friends, and we hug and kiss each other goodbye. This is an experience you would never find on a tour, would most likely not happen if traveling with someone else, and that I wouldn’t trade for either. A city is more than a place - it’s people, too.

June 4, 2012

Today I travel to Sifnos, one of the Cyclades island off the eastern coast of Greece. Greece has so many islands; one of the trickiest things was figuring out which to visit. I settled on Sifnos for a few reasons. Greece has three island chains, and I first narrowed down to the Cyclades because they are easy to access from Athens. I purposely chose a small, never-heard-of-before island because I wanted to go somewhere less touristy (I’m sure Santorini is beautiful, but I wanted a different experience). There wasn’t much information available to help choose amongst the small islands, so maybe it was a little arbitrary. I know some people island-hop, but I wanted to stay in one place for a few days. If you’re looking for another smaller, less touristy option, I’ve read good things about Naxos, too. Also, when traveling to islands, keep in mind that the tourist season doesn’t begin until May, so many businesses may be closed/have reduced hours if you visit during the off-season.

Sifnos is stunning. All the buildings are white - apparently it’s illegal to have any other color because they decided to stick with tradition. Most of the doors and window frames are blue, but so many varieties of blue, and there are some splashes of purple or green or yellow, too. Something that attracted me to this tiny island is that it’s known for its footpaths that wind between homes and fields, connecting the small towns. I’m staying in Apollonia, the main town of Sifnos, and from here I walk the footpath to Artemonas, a village known for it’s beautiful homes and gardens.

In the evening, I walk along Steno Street, a winding street with shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars. Don’t bother visiting until later in the evening because many of the businesses are closed during the day.

June 5, 2012
I couldn’t find the footpath, so I end up walking along the road to Kastro. Thankfully, it’s not a busy street, and the long, winding road slopes downward the entire time. 

Kastro is village that sits on a coastal hilltop, and the view overlooking the sea is magnificent - turquoise and deep blue water shimmering calmly beneath a clear blue sky. Pure beauty. I have a frappe - a frozen coffee drink that they love on the island (but it’s different than an American frappe) - at Dolci and wait for Alex, my host,  to join me. 

We drive to Faros, a fishing village with a small, quiet beach. Sifnos’s most famous
church is a short walk away, but we are starving and turn back before we reach it. 

At lunch I fall in love with beetroot salad, chunks of beet covered in minced garlic. We are both eating chops, too, and Alex tells me the Greeks say it’s okay to use your hands for three things - lamb chops, chicken, and women. 

June 6 2012
Today I go to Kamares Beach (near the port) with Sophia, whom I’m spending my last two nights on Sifnos with, and some of her friends. They introduce my to a popular beach game in Greece; basically, you’re hitting a tennis ball back and forth with large, wooden paddles. It’s quite fun, and I’m grateful for their patience with my wayward hits that frequently land the ball in the water.  You see people - children and adults alike - playing this along the entire span of the beach. I think it’s great, but my Greek companions say it gets rather annoying hearing the thump, thump, thump of a ball all day long. That doesn’t stop them from playing an hour at a time.

In the evening, we watch Alex’s basketball team play against a neighboring town. We sit in the stands, with talking, shouting, and laughter echoing out into the night - and I don’t understand a word. It’s so obvious how much  they’re enjoying themselves, and I wish so much I could be a part of it, but the language barrier is definitely in effect. It’s very strange to be surrounded by people, but still feel alone.

June 7, 2012
I swim in the calm, clear blue water of the Aegean Sea. The bottom is soft sand, the water is cold, but not too much . There are barely any people in the water, and it’s so nice to just swim and swim in any direction. I relax in a lounge chair, soaking up the sun. Sophia is with friends, so her conversation and activities are with them, of course in Greek. With hosts, it can vary; some like to interact and form friendships; others just are giving you a place to stay. Both types have their advantages, but the latter can leave me feeling lonely at times.  Today, it makes me miss my friends, miss Nick, miss being around people who care about me. But I focus my gratitude on the opportunity to experience and understand the feelings of a solitary outsider, so that I might be more compassionate toward one. I focus my attention on the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, the peacefulness of gliding through the sea. I focus my heart inward and be my own friend.

June 8, 2012
It is my last day on Sifnos, and I have enjoyed the quiet island. People are friendly, always saying “hi” when you pass on the footpaths or street. Many speak at least basic English, but the younger adults seem to know it better (so approach someone young when asking directions!). The footpaths are a fun way to explore, winding between white homes, churches, flowering gardens. It’s always up or down; Sifnos is an island of hills. The roads curve through and between towns and villages, from hilltops to the coast, varying in degrees of steepness but never flat. Sometimes you’ll see a donkey plodding on the side of the road, an elderly Greek sitting in the saddle or leading the donkey carrying a load.

We drive up one of the steepest roads I’ve ever experienced, a narrow street that drops off on one side, to a church that sits on one of the tallest hills. The church is similar to the many dotting the island, but the view is amazing - farm lands, towns, the sea, the nearby island, Serifos. A shimmering expanse of blue. It’s beautiful. 

Reflections on my time in Greece...
I’ve discovered that I’m more interesting in the living, breathing city, the current culture, with a few historical stories thrown in for intrigue. Without a plaque or story of explanation, a ruin is not much more than some impressive stonework to me. As far as I can tell, the best reason to visit mainland Greece is to visit the numerous ruins dotting the landscape. If you’re not into ruins, then the islands are where it’s at (in my opinion). Comparing cities that I’ve visited, Athens is at the bottom of the list. The island beaches are much more beautiful than the mainland beach in Tolo. When I planned my trip, I didn’t want to dismiss the mainland out-of-hand, but now I understand why people skip it entirely. Of course, my experience was extremely limited, and I have heard good things about Thessaloniki and the western side of the country, but with a limited amount of time to explore a country, I believe visiting a couple islands would be the best use of a traveler's time. Next time I visit Greece, I’d like to spend a week exploring Crete and a few days on Santorini. As far as when to go, June is a good time to visit Greece. It is hot, but not like July and August. It cools down at night. It is the very beginning of tourist season, so everything is open, but it’s not crowded, yet.


I found this blog to be very helpful when planning my trip to Greece:

In June 2012, a bus ticket from Athens to Nafplio cost 13,10 euros.

A shopkeeper recommended Vasilis on K Stakopoulou for lunch, claiming that it’s one of her favorite places to eat in the Old City. The bread served before the meal is good and dense, and my glass of white wine is good and cheap. :) I order moussaka, a traditional Greek dish. It’s delicious - ground meat on the bottom, a layer of aubergine ( a vegetable similar to an eggplant) and a thick top layer of a cream and cheese mixture. There are many different variations, but this is the real deal. When I’m finished, the waiter approaches, smiles graciously, and proclaims, “something from Greece.” He places a small shot glass on the table. Ugh. Ouzo. Never one to be ungrateful, I pour it to the back of my throat and swallow quickly. Blech. 

I’m excited when I finally stumble upon a bakery. I choose a sweet dripping with honey, a smear of apricot jam and three almonds on top. I think cinnamon is between the layers of pastry. It’s sticky, sweet, and good. I have a feeling many Greek sweets taste similar, with honey and nuts a major ingredient. To get here, take a left from the bus station, then a left on the street across from the Greek flag and monument. The bakery is few blocks away on the left corner, near the Alpha Bank, and has a sign that looks like this: “KABAAAPH” (but in Greek letters).

Pension Acronafplia - I stayed here one night, and the cost was 30,00 euros. It’s clean and basic. The room I stayed in had a shared bath.

Student and Traveller’s Inn - The room is clean - and really, what more could you want? - and I share it with three others. It’s my first time staying in a dorm-style room at a hostel, so I’m a little apprehensive at first. It turns out to be quite fun, though, as I end up wandering around and eating dinner with two of my roommates. We find a restaurant with outdoor seating that appeals to us (I do not remember the name or street, but I do know we tried to wander far enough to be away from the most touristy restaurants in the Plaka). We share three Greek appetizers - tzatziki with pita, fried cheese, and a fish egg spread (not a fan). We all have a pork gyro for dinner - it’s big and cheap (2,20 e) and good. If you’re looking to eat cheaply in Greece, gyros are definitely the way to go. At a bar near our hostel I try Retzina, a Greek wine, but I don’t find it good at all.
Address: 16 Kydathineon, Plaka, Athens, Greece 105 58

In June 2012, the Aegean Speed Lines Speedrunner ferry from Piraeus (Athen’s port) to Sifnos cost 48,00 euros and the return trip cost 39,00 euros.

The port of Sifnos is in Kamares, and there are plenty of restaurants along the street to choose from. I had a crepe at the Kathodon Cafe that was good.

There’s a bakery that’s around the corner from the entrance to Stetno Street (the main street with lots of shops, restaurants, and bars) with plenty of Greek sweets to choose from. I get a slice of cake with a thick, syrupy bottom and some cookies that are a bit try for me. A typical quick and easy meal in Greece is pie - a pastry dough surrounding a filling of cheese, spinach, meat, or some combination. You can get one almost anywhere, but this is where I tried their version of fast food - it’s good.

Honey balls are a traditional Greek dessert, and there is small storefront on Stetno Street that serves them. The little fried donuts are swimming in honey, and we have ours topped with cinnamon and a scoop of ice cream. 

Hotel Anthoussa has an attached confectionary selling traditional sweets and a cafe with a nice front patio for sitting outside and enjoying the sunny weather. I tried a sweet made of crushed almonds, flavored with rose water, and rolled in confectioners sugar (there are also many nontraditional variations available) and melopites, a honey pie.

“Gonia” is a small gyro shop around the corner from the entrance to Stetno Street (but the Greek letters look more like “TWUNIA” to me). It’s very popular with the locals, and my sticks of pork souvlaki are absolutely delicious.

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