Thursday, March 29, 2007

Greece - Why We Went North


It's been a pretty quiet couple of months, but now that we're rolling into Spring and the Belgian weather is actually beautiful finally (I can hardly believe it's possible!), I thought I'd check in with you all. Before I tell you about my adventures, allow me to get on my soapbox for just one moment...

You may or may not know that the issue of what we eat and where it comes from is something that has been on my mind for a long time, and it's an issue that recently has been much more in the public consciousness. I just read an amazing book, one that was named one of the NY Times' best books of 2006, and a book that I implore you all to read. It's Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan traces three very different meals back to their sources, in a disturbing look at the sacrifices we are making in order to eat comfortably and cheaply. Although he and I ultimately disagree about the eating of meat, we agree that the system needs to be changed, and it starts with each individual. Please read this book. And if you are interested in further reading, I'd encourage you to start with this study that was just released, showing that cattle raised for food emit more greenhouse gasses than all forms of transportation combined. And if you are on the fence about eating meat, check out The China Study to see what it can do to your health.

Ok, I'm done. Hope I haven't lost you already. So the highlight of February was a visit from my friend Laura. We toured Belgium a bit and attended the annual carnival at Binche, famous for its parade. Apparently a few centuries ago the Belgians brought back some captive Incas from their visits to South America, and they paraded them through the town. Well, eventually the Incas died, so the people of the town made ridiculous outfits meant to resemble Incas, and now, once a year on Fat Tuesday, they parade through the town wearing these costumes, including gigantic ostrich feather hats, and lob oranges really hard at the crowd. Definitely a spectacle worth witnessing once.

The next exciting adventure wasn't for another month or so, when D. and I headed to Greece. What a great country. I was expecting a very European, expensive tourist trap, and parts of it were definitely that, but we both fell in love with this wonderful country, which, despite the mass tourism, is still a bit rough around the edges. We loved the attitude, the friendly people, and the food, and the language was fascinating as we started to get to know it a little bit. We were amused by the stray dogs that were sleeping everywhere, usually in the middle of the road or wherever you wanted to walk. And we did our best to do a tzatziki tour of Greece, sampling our favorite new sauce in pretty much every place we stopped.

On the plane on the way there, a fellow tourist asked us where we were going after Athens and I said "we're planning to go north." "North??" he asked, "why would you want to do that?" Well...

We arrived after midnight in Athens, rented a car, and managed to drive in circles the wrong way down one-way, pedestrian-only streets. Somehow we didn't kill anyone, and we finally found the hotel's recommended "parking lot" where the attendant spoke no English and finally got his son to come translate and parked the car for us. When we came back two days later (in the daylight), there were no other cars in the parking lot, the attendant's hut was locked shut, and the ground was littered with used condoms. I think we stumbled on something that wasn't really just a parking lot... At least the car was still there...

We spent one day wandering the streets of Athens in a bit of rain, and we looked at lots of ruins. The next day we headed north to Delphi, which was what I had most been looking forward to. I was always into mythology, so I wanted to see the home of the famous oracle. There's not too much left, but you can still see several standing columns of the temple and the altar (outside the temple, actually) where they sacrificed the animals before approaching the oracle.

Continuing north from there we arrived at Meteora, a collection of monasteries built high onto the cliffs in the mountains. Quite a sight to see, they only carved steps to reach them in the 1920s, and before that they used to haul monks up to each monastery in rope nets. The monasteries were built as long ago as the 14th C, so the most amazing part is imagining those monks climbing the cliffs 600 years ago and building the monasteries with their bare hands. We visited 5 of the monasteries and climbed up many, many stairs that day.

After Meteora we headed west into the mountains to visit the Zagoria Villages, a collection of tiny white-stone villages built into the mountains surrounding the Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world (or so they claim). The villages are very un-touristed, at least by non-Greek folk, and they were extremely quiet and beautiful. We hiked around to see the gorge a little and ate fantastic food, including wild local mushrooms grilled with olive oil. We stayed in Megalo Papingo (twin town of Mikro Papingo), and there were at most 2 other tourists there. A great place we'd love to return to in summer time.

A long and winding road took us out of the mountains (and through a snowstorm!) to reach Vergina, in the northeast. Vergina is the site of the uncovered tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Amazingly, the tomb was not ransacked, so the solid gold burial boxes and crowns of golden leaves and everything that was buried with Philip is well-preserved and presented in a great museum there. Definitely worth the detour.

From there we passed through Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, with some very well-preserved mosaics, and continued on to the ruins of Ancient Dion, at the foot of Mt. Olympus. This is where Alexander the Great stopped to sacrifice to the gods before setting out on his conquest of the known world, and there are ruins of several temples and theatres to be explored, plus an entire city, including a sewer system and public baths with a quite technologically-advanced heating system. It's quite amazing how much the ancient Greeks knew how to do, and how much we had to learn all over again after their civilization was destroyed.

From here we headed south to the Peloponnese, with a brief stay in pretty (but uber-touristy) Nafplio. We stayed in the house of a very funny American-loving Greek guy who quizzed D. on the capitals of about half of the states of the US before we managed to get out of there. Mainly we were in the area to see the ruins of Mycenae, a fortress that was the ancient capital of a major city-state of the same name. Most impressive were some architectural innovations that can still be seen in the remains of the building. We took a bit of a detour up into the hills of the surrounding countryside near Nemea, some of the best wine country in Greece, and visited a winery, where we happened to get lucky and get a tour and a tasting only by happy coincidence. We stopped by the Corinth Canal on the way back, and ended our tour of Greece in Athens.

We ended up there on Easter Sunday, which meant everything was closed. So we took a trip down the coast to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, which was also closed. However, the sunset behind the temple was still gorgeous, a sight that apparently enthralled Byron when he came to visit many years ago. Our last day in Athens was spent seeing what else but the Acropolis and ancient Agora, a sight that really requires no explanation. Quite an amazing thing to see in person - it's even bigger and more impressive than I imagined it to be.

Well, I've gone on, as usual, so I doubt many people have made it this far. But anyway, the point is that we loved Greece and would love to go back and spend a lot more time there. The north, despite our fellow traveller's skepticism, turned out to be our favorite part of Greece. Getting off the beaten path really was as rewarding as we had hoped.

Next weekend we're heading to Italy for a four day break. Planning to visit Parma (parmigiano cheese), Modena (balsamic vinegar... and Ferraris for D.), and the Cinque Terre (hiking). I'm brushing up on my Italian, but it probably wont be too necessary. Gotta love those European low-cost airlines. There are definitely some perks to living over here!

Adventure map for 2009...