“Zeus does not bring all men’s plans to fulfillment,” Homer notes in The Iliad. He did, however, manage to ensure that our 10-day trip to Greece went off without a single hiccup.
Okay there were a few hiccups. But we had an extraordinary time. The sort of time where every hour or so you look at the other and note how extraordinary everything you’re seeing, hearing, learning, remembering, eating, and drinking is. The sort of time where you just stop and hug because you don’t believe you’re there, walking where Homer’s heroes did, where bonafide ancient Greeks did, whose names we all still know–except for the one American tourist who asked “Who is Alexander the Great?” The sort of time where you just laugh because you don’t believe they actually eat that much yogurt and feta. But they do! Heaping plates of it!
Ten days here was like filling up only one plate at an enormous buffet. We are full. But we know there’s so much more to taste. And we will. In the meantime, I’m going to divide up our adventure into four parts. Here’s the first.
With our trusted Blue Guide of Mainland Greece in hand, we picked up the rental car from the Athens airport. By now you know how I enjoy upgrading at hotels. But when I rent a car, I always go with the cheapest on offer because I don’t care very much about cars. This meant we ended up with a manual Suzuki Celerio that I don’t think you can even drive in Canada because it’s a horse shit vehicle with a jack ass of a clutch. We needed a bigger engine for navigating those winding mountain roads with hairpin turns. Next time, we will upgrade. But we’ll skip the GPS. She was horse shit, too. Thanks gods we downloaded several offline Google maps the night before we left. (If you don’t know what this is, Google it. It saved our lives.)
First stop: Delphi, which was pretty much the centre of the world in antiquity on account of the sanctuary of Apollo and its oracle. The place operated continuously for over a thousand years–until a Christian emperor in the fifth century AD shut it down. Nevertheless, up there on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, with the sun shining dramatically through clouds, it still felt sacred.
The archaeological museum is home to some serious treasures, like the 6th century BC frieze from the Siphnian Treasury, which Herodotus mentioned as being pretty loaded. But the real treat here is the 5th century BC bronze charioteer. There are only a handful of ancient Greek bronzes that’ve survived. We know what many of the most famous ones, by guys like Polykleitos, Myron, and Lysippos, look like because the Romans copied them in marble.
Afterwards, we drove back down through the mountains and were overwhelmed by views of the Gulf of Corinth and, eventually, of the Ionian Sea. (Well, the Beast was. I had white knuckles because I was driving.) We had to make it to our hotel before night. We did, barely. It meant passing by beautiful beaches and picturesque towns. We did, however, stop at a roadside snack bar for a late lunch where we tried grilled feta for the first–but not the last–time. This was also the first place that gave us an enormous plate of Greek yogurt topped with fruit in syrup for dessert. We laughed at the size of the those fucking yogurt portions the entire trip. But oh boy, were they kind and generous to us.
We arrived at the Grecotel Olympia Riviera just as the sun was setting. It felt like we had the place to ourselves, perhaps because it was October. We got extremely drunk after drinking two bottles of white wine (Greek…we only drank indigenous variables, obviously) and woke up early to walk on the beach, eat breakfast, and then hit the road again.
Second stop: Olympia, home of the first Olympic games some 2,800 years ago, and home to our first fight. (We pulled up right in front of the site and it felt like I was driving where I shouldn’t be so I asked the Beast to ask the attendant where we could park and he said: “I don’t want to!” I was so mad for five minutes.)
The stadium and athletes quarters is neat but what really got us worked up was what would’ve been one of the largest temples in mainland Greece, the Temple of Zeus, which still lies in shambles, save for one enormous Doric column, after an earthquake in the 6th century AD brought it down. It was so odd to see those fluted columns splattered on the ground like fallen Dominos. And it was thrilling to imagine that the temple housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Phideas’ 12-metre-high statue of Zeus. While it no longer survives, we walked through the ruins of the work shop of the sculptor, who was also in charge of the sculptural program of the Parthenon.
The site is supposed to be the second most popular after the Acropolis. But again, it felt like we had the place to ourselves, which was especially nice in the archaeological museum, where we saw the incredible pediment and metope sculptures from the Temple of Zeus that tell well-known mythical stories, like the 12 labours of Heracles, the story of Pelos, and the battle between the Greeks and the Centaurs. That they’re in remarkably good shape and over life-size was astounding. So too was the Hermes by Praxiteles (it was found at the Temple of Hera in Olympia) that many consider to be the only surviving original work by the 4th century BC sculptor, who was the first to sculpt a life-size nude female, which males, probably cis, literally jerked off to because it was so realistic.
From here we wanted to see the Temple of Apollo at Bassae and the Theatre of Epidaurus but we realized I had over-planned. We ditched both sites, promising ourselves that we’d be back, and stayed on track to visit Mycenae, home, perhaps, to the Homeric king Agamemnon, and, without a doubt, a treasure trove of Mycenaean civilization. How did they build those Cyclopean walls? (So called because the limestone blocks were so big that only the Cyclops, not man, could’ve stacked them up like that.) And 3,500 years later, they’re still standing! The site was excavated in the late 19th century by the German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann, who also discovered Troy. He found Linear B tablets here! That’s the pre-cursor language to Greek. They basically added vowels to Linear B and Greek was born. Linear B was probably adapted from the Minoan Linear A, which still hasn’t been deciphered. Enough about all that. Take a look.
Lastly, we hit up Corinth, whose ruins and archaeological museum are pretty remarkable. I’d forgotten that Corinth was a real powerhouse in antiquity, and that Philip of Macedon invaded it, Rome sacked it, Pausanias walked its streets and Paul write those letters to the Corinthians.
We missed having a seafood dinner on the seaside of Isthmia because I missed a turn and we ended up on the highway headed back to Athens. That meant that we headed straight to the Sofitel airport hotel after returning the horse shit rental car, where we overheard a guy bragging up his Alpha Romeo upgrade.
It also meant that we had little choice but to have dinner at the hotel. We felt sad about this because a) our check-in had not been pleasant b) the hotel and our room lacked all the charm that had enchanted us thus far and c) dinner was mediocre and over-priced and our server made us feel like bandits because we had a couple of negroni cocktails before at the hotel bar and I wrote down my room number on the bill–LIKE I DID EVERYWHERE ELSE–but because our check-in was so disorganized they didn’t ask for my credit card so they thought we–WE!!!!–were trying to stiff them! Thanks gods, the Sofitel’s saving grace is that it’s literally 300-metres away from the airport, making it quite convenient for our 8:00 a.m. flight.
Anyway, we weren’t going to let our night at the Sofitel get us down. We’d driven 1,177 km around mainland Greece with some of the most extraordinary vistas we’d ever seen.
The next morning, we’d fall in love with Crete.