Greece: Meteora, Delphi and Olympia

ancient columns in Olympia, Greece.
Ancient columns in Olympia, Greece.

Greece Highlights: Athens, Meteora, Delphi and Olympia

By Katie Cerezo

Ancient columns in Olympia.
Ancient columns in Olympia.

I've been fascinated by Greece since my parents bought me a Greek mythology book at the age of seven. As an adult, Homer's Illiad and The Odyssey were two of my favorite literary works.

Subsequent business trips to Crete only reinforced interest in the culture and the people and I was hungry to experience more. My dad was eager to reunite with old Greek friends, and we coordinated a ten-day trip--Athens, Meteora, Delphi, Olympia. The timing worked.

Ancient columns in Olympia.A presidential election year in the U.S., it seemed appropriate to pay homage at the cradle of western democracy. It also seemed fitting that with Brazil hosting this summer's Olympics that we should visit the place where the games had first begun.

Finally, we were amused that we had (unintentionally) scheduled the trip to coincide with a particularly special "pi" day, the only time this century that the day would be 3.14.16. All hail the circle.

"F--k the Crisis!"

I have always been impressed by Greek warmth and hospitality. This time I could also sense a palpable tension--they are a generous and compassionate people, but there is a great deal of concern about what the future looks like.

The sales tax stands at 23% and vendors and restaurants gently implore customers to pay cash. Most seem to be meeting the situation with stoicism or humor. More than a few restaurants cheekily display a "crisis" menu, and shirts outside an Acropolis shop advised people to "Stay calm and f--k the crisis".

Fried fish with lemon in Santorini, Greece.
Fried fish with lemon in Santorini, Greece.

Along with our excitement at being in the country was a sober awareness of the numbers of migrants arriving daily in Greece. It was impossible to turn on the television without hearing reports of growing numbers of camps throughout Athens.

Many Greeks we encountered expressed both compassion for the refugees and concern over the impact their arrival will have on the economy.

We were not blind to the fact that what is for many refugees intended as a stopping point was for us a holiday destination, or that the Greece we experienced is far different than theirs.

In light of Brazil hosting this year's summer Olympics, I was particularly interested in visiting Olympia.

As it was early March, the official tourist season not yet begun and our small group had little competition from fellow tourists. We, therefore, benefitted from being able to explore and learn about the history of the area at leisure.

amphitheater in Epidauras.
Amphitheater in Epidauras.

Interestingly, when the famed torch relay makes its journey from the Temple of Hera to Rio de Janeiro this summer, it will follow a tradition that dates back NOT to the ancient games but to 1936, when the Nazi party introduced the practice at the Berlin games.

And while the Olympic Games have in modern times become a symbol of international sportsmanship and goodwill, in 776 B.C. the games had a strong religious affiliation and participation was limited exclusively to Greek athletes.

The greatest athletes during the ancient games were presented not with gold, silver, and bronze medals, but vats of olive oil and perks such as being exempt from taxes for the rest of their lives.

The Temple of Zeus in Olympia

The statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and originally housed inside the Temple of Zeus, has long been destroyed.

Still, what remains of the temples of Zeus and Hera is so stately that one can easily imagine how much admiration and respect they would have received in their prime. Nowadays, olive trees, mint, poppies, chamomile and lush wildflowers grow among fallen columns and out of exposed ruins.

Temple of Zeus in Olympia.
Temple of Zeus in Olympia.

The overall impression of Olympia is one of harmony. As we entered the stadium where the original games we first held, my dad and I, both former high school track runners, found the temptation to do a lap the irresistible.

A fellow traveler from Japan seemed to have the same inspiration. Dirt flew as we admired his superb technique. We would later learn that our friend Yoshi had competed at the collegiate level in the 3000-meter steeplechase.

After visiting the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the monasteries of Meteora, we boarded the Blue Line Ferry for the seven-hour voyage from the Athens port of Piraeus to Santorini.

Santorini is well-known in travel magazines for its unique blue and white architecture overlooking volcanoes and picture-perfect islands.

Its spectacular sunsets help make it a favorite destination for honeymooners and well-heeled college students on spring and summer breaks, making my father and I an unlikely pairing.

Santorini

Meteora's clifftop monasteries are breathtaking.Nearly two hundred steps had to be navigated to get from our hotel room to the main road, with a whopping 624 stairs required to get from the base of the cliff (at the waterfront) to downtown Fira (Santorini's capital) to get wherever one desires and there is nary an elevator in sight.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that each step seems to be of a different length, width, shape, or material than the one that proceeds it.

The result is a fantastic workout. With one exception, we were happy to be the recipients of such wholesome activity. On that one occasion, we abdicated our fitness to Santorini's donkeys.

Judging from comments made on travel discussion boards, the use of donkeys to transport people up and down Santorini's steps continues to be a contentious one.

Some claim it is cruel to make a donkey repeatedly carry tourist girth up so many steps. Others said that the donkeys were poorly cared for, or that they had been terrified by their donkey's wayward attempts to throw them over the edge.

I will be the first to confess that I am no expert on donkey care, and perhaps the robust looking donkeys we encountered look different in winter than they do at the peak of tourist season after multiple trips up and down the cliff. But locals had used them for centuries to transport goods from the sea into town. Was my weight any different from that of fish or construction material?

Finding the Donkeys

Donkeys carrying bricks in Santorini.

We set off for the waterfront shortly after breakfast and easily found the path the donkeys would travel up based on physical and aromatic 'hints' that grew stronger as we reached the base.

As it turned out, we arrived far too early and the donkeys didn't arrive until just after eleven, bells clinking. I was surprised by the size of the donkeys, some of which were as tall as horses.

After handing over five euro each we climbed on the two selected for us and they began a swift ascent up.

The speed with which they move is impressive. I, too, was initially alarmed by the zig-zag fashion with which my donkey traveled up the stairs and disconcerted when my outer leg went OVER the outer cliff-facing railing. However, after a minute I realized that the donkey's motivation for doing so was not an attempt to hurl the tourist over the side, but for a very practical reason: the path zig-zags up the cliff, making the outermost edge of the step far wider than the inner side.

The donkey was, therefore, is seeking out the widest amount of surface area to place his hoofs.

Perhaps inspired by the donkey's stamina, that afternoon we decided to forgo the bus and walk from Fira to Oia, famed location for watching Santorini sunsets. Although the day was overcast and there was no chance of observing a sunset, we thought it would be good to explore the island and give our legs a nice stretch. There are no straight paths in Santorini--man had adapted to the geography of the island rather than force buildings and roads into lines it could not follow.

Donkeys on the way to Fira
Donkeys on the way to Fira. Katie Cerezo photos.

The result is that one navigates based on the general direction and fine-tunes the plan once the object is in view. As we began the 7-mile walk we remarked on how quiet the towns looked. We passed construction workers and painters applying the white paint that kept Santorini looking clean and fresh, but otherwise saw very few people.

The Path to Oia

The path to Oia is an enjoyable for its variety of scenery, now passing up rocky hills covered on either side by vibrant yellow gorse, now yielding to stunning views of nearby islands and volcano. At the top of one hill was a church, white ropes affixed to the three bells atop its steeple. As there was no one there--no cars, no humans in or out of the building, and no signs advising not to--I made like Quasimodo and joyfully rang the bells.

The Temple of Poseidon in Athens.
The Temple of Poseidon in Athens.

The Temple of Poseidon in Athens.We were famished by the time we reached Oia and had a late heavy lunch of salads, olives, anchovies, calamari, fish and wine before exploring the town. By that time the wind had picked up and the clouds that had been threatening rain all afternoon finally let it loose. We took the public bus back to Fira.

On our final day in Santorini, the sky cleared and we returned to Oia, now a blinding study of whites and rich shades of blue. We scampered about the town eager to find the perfect photo that would do justice to the beauty of the place. Rounding one corner we nearly had a head-on collision with donkeys laden, not with tourists, but brick tiles.

I again wondered at the role of a donkey in Greek culture. Not only are they able to transport supplies to places that are difficult for humans to travel, they may be unlikely ambassadors for beauty. At one shop I smelled something delicious and drew closer to a display of soaps.

"Donkey milk soap!" The proprietor smiled proudly. He offered a rose-scented bar for me to sniff. I examined the wrapper, which indeed bore the image of a donkey. I had seen many shops boasting about the wonders of their olive oil soap, but this was something new. What I had at first taken it as a gag gift--have some soap so you don't smell like a donkey--was, he swore, a wonderful way to hydrate the skin. My Christmas shopping was complete.

Sunshine and Memories

When I reflect on the trip, I remember warm sunshine and warmer people, the fragrance of eucalyptus, rosemary, and orange blossoms, the culinary joy of tasting thick wildflower honey drizzled on real Greek yogurt and baklava, the playful melodies of a bouzouki. Like millions before me, I marveled at the perfection of an ancient statue and the precision that has enabled temples and arenas to still stand today. I was mesmerized by Greece's natural beauty and architectural wonders.

Before departing Oia and beginning the journey home we stopped at a coffee shop for cappuccinos. My dad pointed to a sign on the bathroom and smiled. I like it because it seems to perfectly capture the Greek philosophy of living well and what it means to be present and engaged in the world around you. It wasn't a passage from Plato or Socrates, but its words were wise. It read: "No, we do not have Wifi. Talk to each other."

Katie Cerezo is a U.S. Naval officer who has lived in four countries and visited 37. In her off-time, she enjoys hiking, kayaking, and both self-propelled adventures and those provided by elephants, camels, and donkeys. She loves the educational value travel brings, and looks forward to experiencing many more cultures.

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