Greece - Everything Old is New Again
Greece has had its troubles recently, but it isn’t that obvious to the visitor. The infrastructure improvements prompted by the 2004 Olympics and EU membership, like the subway and better airport facilities, are still in place. The trains running down the coast from Thessaloniki are operating on time and fully used. In Athens, the Parthenon still sits atop the Acropolis, surrounded by thousands of visitors each day. The Plaka, Monastiraki, and Syntagma areas in Athens are relatively the same, though spruced up a bit from what I remember in the 70’s, when all those Plaka shops were little holes in the wall, rather than the current impression of stalls in an outdoor mall. The wonderful smell of leather can still be found in the shops selling sandals, belts and purses. Even Thanasis, my favorite souvlaki place that I first discovered in 1973, is still selling the best take-away kebabs in the world for only 2.5 Euro.
The most wonderful addition to Athens, and the reason to go back if you haven’t been there since 2009, is the Acropolis Museum. It has added a whole new element to the Athens experience, essentially opening up the south slope of the Acropolis (with the Theater of Dionysus and Herod Atticus) and a warren of shops around the east side of the Acropolis that simply weren’t there before. While you can still visit the National Archaeological Museum to see architectural finds from around Greece, the Acropolis Museum was built to house every artifact found within the grounds of the Acropolis going back to the Bronze Age. In fact, in the process of excavating for the museum, an entire underground neighborhood was discovered, and has been preserved, under the Acropolis Museum Building. The “Excavation” portion of the Museum has just been opened in 2019 and gives evidence of what is likely below the entire city. Hints of this are evident in the main subway station at Syntagma Square, where there are displays of burial tombs and other artifacts discovered in the process of building the subway. But the walls and streets and stairs and gutters and windows and wells unearthed below the Museum are stark testimony to the previously hidden lives that existed before.
The Museum itself is striking in both design and presentation. Ultra modern, with clean lines and lots of open space, it highlights the statuary and artifacts recovered from the Acropolis area. From the smallest doll’s heads to the Caryatids (the famous six women – one of which was stolen and resides in the British Museum), you can get up close and personal to admire the amazing skill of the original craftsmen and well as the skill of the archaeologists that recovered them. (The Caryatids you see on the Acropolis are reproductions.) There is a section in the museum on antiquities (things even older than the Parthenon) and you can wander among statues of Alexander the Great, Hermes and Athena. The top floor is the Parthenon Gallery, where casts of what was believed to be along the top of the Parthenon are displayed in the same dimensions as the Parthenon. If you are lucky enough to be in Athens on a Friday, avoid the daytime crowds and visit on Friday night. The Museum is open until 10 pm on Fridays and a visit in the evening is much more enjoyable. It all seems more intimate, somehow. The Museum has a restaurant that at night literally glows with candlelight, with both inside and outside seating and a fantastic view of the Parthenon atop the hill. Quite a change of pace from the cacophony that Athens can be. Photos from the Museum and the Restaurant are displayed at the end of this article.
Any trip to Greece should include at least one island. I have been to several over the years,including Ios, Naxos, Amorgos, Mykonos, Paros, Antiparos, and of course Crete. They are each wonderful in their own way. However, I am always drawn back to Santorini.
There is something magical about Santorini that outweighs the crazy crowds that now overwhelm Thira and Oia and surrounding towns. I pity those that arrive on a cruise ship for only a day or two and see nothing but the horrendously crowded tourist kitschy streets, and then have to wait in line for hours to get back down the cable car to the ship. The sunset at Oia has become almost a parody of itself. But if you can escape the crowds and find a quiet place to just look out over the caldera, there is a mystery there that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. You are on the edge of a volcano that erupted 3,500 years ago, destroying a civilization (Atlantis?) and leaving only the still blue water behind. There is something very elemental and spiritual about it, and it’s worth dealing with the crazy tourists to have that moment.
Assuming you are actually staying on the island, not visiting on a cruise ship, I recommend staying anywhere but Thira or Oia, the two main tourist centers. The crowds and hubbub are just too invasive to find your Santorini moment (or you will be so exhausted by dealing with the crowds that you will miss it). There are many other options, though, which will likely be much less expensive. The public bus system can get you around the island, and of course rental cars and taxis. The buses have scheduled stops, but seem to generally stop for you if you flag them down. There are no beaches on the caldera side, but there are black sand beaches at Kamari, Perissa and Perivolos and a red beach up near Akrotiri.
Akrotiri is the archaeological site of a Minoan Bronze Age town on the outside slope of the island that was destroyed when the volcano erupted in 1500 B.C. A trading town with buildings that reached as high as three stories, it could see Crete (sixty miles away) on a clear day. It appears that the town had been abandoned prior to the eruption due to a series of strong earthquakes, so no human remains have been found, but the ruins show a fully developed town with streets, pottery, water systems, etc. The site, which was first excavated in 1967, was closed from 2005 to 2012 for repair and development and continues to be excavated. More discoveries are sure to come. But Santorini is not only history. There are also several wineries, and numerous opportunities to swim, sail, snorkel, scuba and kayak. Finally, of course it is a photographer’s paradise.
Santorini is trying to find ways to accommodate its masses of tourists. The airport is being expanded. New roads have been cut into the hills on the outside slopes of the island to route traffic away from the single road that used to run along the top of the caldera. More “traditional cave housing” is being built into the sides of the caldera. But much more needs to be done. In 2018, over 2 million people, excluding cruise ships, visited Santorini, an island of 25,000 people. There were days in 2018 when over 18,000 people arrived on cruise ships in one day. Like in Venice, this has led Santorini officials to try to limit cruise visitors to only 8,000 per day. Still, that’s a lot of people. The line for the cable car taking people down to the port to get back on the cruise ships in the afternoon can be extraordinarily long – think Disneyland, with no reward at the end. The cable car is designed to handle only 1,800 people (presumably both ways) per hour, so you do the math, with even only 8,000 cruise visitors. The only alternative is to walk or take the donkey path the 730 feet back down to the water. Serious questions are being raised about the infrastructure, and how much more growth Santorini can take. Water is always a problem on islands, and Santorini is no different, and one wonders how the septic/sewer systems can accommodate so many people essentially on land made of lava. Visitors are asked to put all waste paper, including toilet paper, in bins rather than in the toilet. (This is not unique to Santorini – most Greek islands ask the same.) Electricity did not even arrive on the island until 1974, so the electrical grid is being tested daily.
Still, the visitors keep coming, because there is no place like it in the world.