Julie Horton Tours Greeceby ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Travel means adapting quickly to change
ExperiencePlus! Specialty Tours, Inc. has a generous policy to send each employee from our Ft. Collins office on one tour a year. It’s a fantastic benefit, and it’s also tremendously helpful to our customers who have questions. When you ask how to get to the hotel from the airport, or how difficult the ride or hike is, it’s quite likely you are speaking to someone who knows from experience. This year, because of various time commitments, I had a small window of opportunity and had to find a tour that would run between May 15th and June 15th. I quickly narrowed my choice to Cycling Sardinia, an island off the west coast of Italy. The more I read, the more excited I became. Sardinia has it all: a stunning coastline, mountains, and, being part of Italy, I knew the food would be good. I began to scheme – I would plan my arrival early to take advantage of snorkeling opportunities. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed when, for various reasons, Sardinia in 2005 was not meant to be. My "consolation prize" was Bicycling through Classical Greece: Athens to Olympia – consolations like this are one reason people envy the employees of ExperiencePlus!
Let the research begin
I quickly adjust and clear the next big hurdle, finding a seat using frequent flier miles from Denver to Athens! Ticket in hand, I begin planning in earnest and started looking through the reading list and perusing the web for used books. I find Dinner With Persephone, a wonderfully descriptive book written by Patricia Storace. There is also an abridged version on cassette – it’s great fun listening to Jill Eikenberry do a wide array of characters, and helpful hearing the correct Greek word pronunciations. A poet, Ms. Storace tells the story of her year-long travels throughout Greece, with vivid images of tavernas, streets, festivals, and taxi drivers; recollections of conversations with friends and strangers; and musings on Greek myths of death and rebirth that haunt this country’s literature, religions, and dreams.
"D" as in departure day
Departure day arrives, and I prepare by packing some special treats to help ease the pain of the worst part of any trip, the flight. Aside from my luggage being lost, a near crash landing, no vegetarian meals on board, and missing my connection from Rome to Athens, the flights were all uneventful! I arrive at the Hotel Philippos in Athens just a few hours late. I have often told customers that the hotel is located 100 meters or so below the Acropolis, yet still I can’t quite believe THE Acropolis is right there!
With all this to see and do who has time for jetlag?
I take a quick shower and head up the hill towards the Plaka, or old Athens, bustling with cafés, shops, cats, people and birdsong. Amazed to be passing beneath orange, lemon, fig, and pomegranate trees, I marvel at the bougainvillea and geraniums that seem to be a necessary feature in every garden. Eager to try my first authentic Greek salad and horta (boiled wild greens sautéed in olive oil with fresh lemon) I go to Eden, a vegetarian restaurant I’ve read about. The waitress mentions it’s her first day on the job. She’s very friendly and patiently answers all of my questions about the menu. Her English is impeccable; her timing for delivering the next course perfect.
Now where did you say we’re going?
Time gets away from you in Athens and before I know it, it’s time to gather at the rooftop garden to review the tour itinerary and meet the rest of the group over a glass of ouzo, the popular Greek beverage. The setting is perfect, 360 degree views of the city, including the Acropolis, and the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Parthenon provides a superb backdrop as our tour leaders describe the plethora of archaeological sites we will encounter on our ride from Athens across the northern Peloponnese to Olympia in the west. Of course, any Greek itinerary has to include a few islands, so we will also venture to Poros and Zakinthos, both famous for their beautiful white sand beaches.
So can you narrow it down to a few highlights?
Surrounded by pine forest in a lovely rural setting, the world-renowned theater of Epidauros was built in 350BC, and it’s so well preserved that you can still see performances there today. The acoustics are perfect: a coin dropped on center stage can be heard distinctly from the back row. Our tour leaders post the following notice at our hotel desk:
Wanted: One enthusiastic and charismatic ExperiencePlus! customer who can sing. Keeping in tune a plus though not a requirement. Deadline: Auditions will be held while cycling around the island of Poros on Day 2. Why you will embarrass yourself: an international audience, possible fame, perhaps a few coins thrown from the crowd. . . .
Day 5: What’s love got to do with it?
As we ride through olive, orange, and lemon groves on our way to the ruins of Mycenae, I am told a different version of Mycenae’s King Agamemnon’s victorious return home from the Trojan War. Our ExperiencePlus! day sheets refer to his wife Clytemnestra as "treacherous." After hearing her side of the story (first imagined by the playwright Euripides), I have to disagree. Sure, she took Agamemnon’s rival as a lover while he was off fighting the Trojan War. OK, the two of them murdered him in the bath upon his return. But consider that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis for personal gain without consulting Clytemnestra. Not only that, he returned with a mistress, Cassandra. Is this when the expression, "all’s fair in love and war" came into being?
Day 6: All in a day’s ride
The steep, short ride up to the ruins of Akrocorinth is as beautiful as it is challenging. As I struggle up the road, I’m not convinced that just because this fortress controlled all trade between Northern Greece and the Peloponnese that it was worth the effort of invasion. The Romans, Byzantines, Frankish Crusaders, Venetians and Turks all felt differently, and they didn’t have a nice paved road or the option to ride to the top in the van!
From the highest point in the area, Akrocorinth, we descend and ride along the Corinthian Gulf foregoing many a fine looking restaurant; we wonder hungrily what makes for a perfect lunch spot in a Greek tour leader’s mind. We eventually discover that it has to have the obvious things like a swimsuit changing area, shower, lounge chairs, umbrellas, but also trees, perfect water conditions, and, of course, a taverna up to a local’s standards. Today’s spot is extraordinary. Taking a delightfully cool dip in the calm aquamarine water of the Gulf of Corinth is as relaxing as it is refreshing. And what a lunch: Greek salad, fresh bread, and a café fredo (iced coffee drink with milk). Dessert is tart apples sprinkled with cinnamon – yum, who knew something so simple could taste so good?
Day 7: Did we make a wrong turn?
Everything feels fresh this morning, and we enjoy an easy ride along the coast, stopping at bakeries and feasting on fresh picked apricots. Just after lunch, we start an optional climb to Kalavrita, passing by olive, orange and lemon groves, cherry orchards, and then, best of all, cheers of encouragement from locals on their porches, or in passing cars. Suddenly, it seems, the air is cooler, and we are in a fragrant pine forest with towering rock formations that bring Utah to mind. This is a Greece I never imagined. We start our descent, and on the left is a monastery literally built into the rock wall. I must still be in Greece. Our final destination, Kalavrita is reminiscent of a Swiss mountain village with its flower boxes and surrounding snow covered peaks.
Best tour leader story:
ExperiencePlus! is just about the only company offering cycling tours in Greece, so seeing other riders, Greek or otherwise, is very uncommon. The Greeks are curious about who you are, what you are doing, and, when told we are riding from Athens to Olympia, wonder who is forcing us to do this ride! One of our tour leaders, Manolis told us a story from the first ExperiencePlus! tour in Greece. He was riding through a small village, marking the day’s route with our easy-to-follow, much-loved chalk dust arrows. Wearing typical cyclist garb, helmet, sunglasses, and bike shorts, he looked very much the alien in that rural setting. As he passed by an elderly woman, dressed all in black, he heard her mutter, "Satan in a helmet." A few hundred feet later, he glanced back and saw her dumping a bucket of water on the "devil’s marks" and scrubbing furiously to remove them. Manolis rode back, took off his helmet and sunglasses, and gently explained that there were tourists from abroad coming to see their beautiful country and visit her village. Persuaded, she promised to leave the arrows. The following year, the woman came out as Manolis marked the same route and asked when the tourists would be coming through so she could be sure to greet them.
So in conclusion…
I had an image of what I thought classical Greece would be: white-washed buildings perched on cliffs next to a shimmering turquoise sea. Though beautiful, I need more variety than that on a 13-day tour. I have traveled extensively and was a tour leader for 12 years before coming to ExperiencePlus!. This was truly my most memorable tour experience so far. The islands, ocean, coast, mountains, bird song, farms, flowers (wild and cultivated), archaeological sites, fresh food, tour leaders, combined with incredible rides and interactions with the people of Greece make this trip impossible to beat. (Though I certainly look very forward to trying….)