The Roads Less Taken in Greece – Greece, Europe

When people say they’ve been to Greece, more than likely they spent a few hours in Athens, the capital, killing time before boarding a cruise ship on route to another European port. Or they tooled around on Greece’s famed islands, known for sun, sand and sin. Few travelers, I’ve discovered, have actually toured other areas of Greece, the archeological wonders outside Athens, the small towns known for their more reserved, traditional way of life. In other words, few people have actually BEEN to Greece.

What a pity. Greece has a lot more to offer than the congested bustle of Athens and the sun-drunk laziness found on such islands as Crete and Santorini. It seems the people who visit Greece either flood the islands for weeks at a time, or they high tail it back to their cruise ship after a few hours in Athens. There seems to be no in-between.

It was that in-between I was searching for in Greece. If I wanted lazy days spent beachside, I could’ve gone to Cancun, or the Bahamas, or the Jersey shore, for that matter. And similarly, if I wanted to spend my time maneuvering never-ending streets and dodging noisy traffic while ingesting toxic car fumes, I could’ve easily gone to LA. But let me be clear: While I didn’t visit any on this trip, I find nothing wrong with escaping a hectic life with a lazy vacation on a Greek island, and I absolutely love Athens: traffic, fumes and all. All I’m saying is that I wanted more out of my vacation – more culture, more diversity and more traditional experiences to point my camera at and to fill my travel journal. Athens and islands weren’t enough.

What I did find enough of were hawk-eyed Greek men staring unabashedly at anything that moved while suggestively fondling their worry beads. I discovered this right away upon clearing customs in the newly renovated Athens International Airport – otherwise known as Eleftherios Venizelos. Every Greek male (and there were a lot of them) was watching me, or so it seemed, as my husband John and I made our way through the sterile white terminal, over the white marble floors of the lobby and outside into the white sunlight beyond. It was a little unnerving, but I had expected such behavior: nearly every guidebook I read mentioned the Greek staring problem. Well, us Americans would consider it a “problem,” a rude gesture suggesting a certain unwelcome-ness to the country. The Greeks consider it more of a hobby. They’re just curious people, liable to look at anything of interest, whether it’s a fly on the wall or a pasty pale girl from Pennsylvania. They mean no offense, really. Once you move beyond the confines of Athens (exactly where I was headed) you’ll notice that the residents hardly give you a second glance. Ironic (and surprising), considering the areas of Greece outside Athens are the places where tourists are scarce.

Like Corinth, for example. It’s the first area you’ll encounter – and the area most people drive right through – as you travel west into the Peloponnese, a large peninsula connected to the mainland by a skinny neck of land called an isthmus. The 75-foot wide Corinth Canal was carved through the isthmus in the late 1800s to shorten the trip for ships from the Adriatic Sea to the mainland port of Piraeus. In this age of container ships, most vessels are too large to pass through, so the canal is now obsolete. But small vessels can occasionally be seen squeezing through, so it’s worth a stop. Or a high jump off a long bridge. A bungee jump, that is. To up its hipness quotient, the canal has been turned into a roadside attraction of sorts, offering brave souls the opportunity to bungee jump off a bridge into the canal below. I didn’t see any volunteers the day I visited, though. Perhaps it was too early in the morning for such an adrenaline rush. Or maybe it was the thought of dying on vacation that scared people off.

Temple of Apollo in Corinth
Temple of Apollo in Corinth

For those who like to keep their feet firmly planted, the real attraction is Ancient Corinth, once a famous trading center, and Old Corinth, the tiny village that surrounds its excavated ruins. In its heyday, Ancient Corinth featured shops, fountains, shrines, public buildings and the Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest temples in Greece, dating from sixth century B.C. Even the Apostle Paul must’ve recognized its importance: he whooped it up here in the first century A.D. during Roman occupation to preach to the libidinous population about Jesus. His words would live on to comprise the Corinthians verses of the Catholic Bible.

The city is mostly in ruins now, but life still exists (I think) in Old Corinth. By way of introduction to the Peloponnese (and indeed, the rest of Greece outside Athens), Old Corinth showcases a more traditional way of life, where the pace is slower, and every Greek you encounter is a hand-drawn caricature of the ancient gods. I have to believe that tourism revenue from Ancient Corinth and its on-site archeological museum is what keeps Old Corinth operational because, aside from a few old women hanging clothes out to dry and cats lounging in the hot sun, I didn’t see many signs of life, let alone any evidence of commerce. Indeed, the village is so sleepy it’s nearly comatose.

To be fair, there are still some roadside shops and an occasional taverna. Other than that, though, you’d be hard pressed for things to do. Its commercial relevance as one of Greece’s largest and wealthiest cities has been overshadowed by New Corinth, a large modern seaport constructed four miles to the southeast in the 1800s when a series of earthquakes and rebuild attempts left the land of Old Corinth useless. But its historical relevance is still intact.

That is, of course, part of its allure. What better way to wile away an afternoon than in a dusty old town slamming back hardcore booze? It’s so Old Wild West. (Be forewarned: if your Ouzo comes with a small glass of water, don’t use it as a chaser, as I did. This licorice-tasting national drink of Greece is so powerful that water is necessary to dilute the drink before consumption. I was unaware of this, and nearly fell off my rocker after several sips. Oops!) Sure, you could eke out a slice of solitude (and intoxication) like this on a Greek island, if you search long enough, but why? Here, there are no swarms of tourists in your way, only the friendly locals, luring you into their establishments with a wave of their hand and a glint in their eye. And some incomprehensible garbled Greek.

If not for the “extras” to be had, the same could be said of Arachova, a small town perched on the summit of Mount Parnassos, 62 miles north of Athens on the Greek mainland. The streets are just as narrow and the pace just as slow, but the area does offer a little bit more: skiing in the winter, beach swimming in the summer, walking and hiking trails…and very few crowds. And, of course, there are tavernas on hand to offer traditional food and a warm welcome once you’ve put away your ski boots, beach towel or hiking gear. It was in one of these tavernas where I tried rabbit for the first time, during a short layover before climbing the ancient religious site of Delphi, a mere five-mile drive west. Chopped into chunks and stirred into a thick vegetable stew, the rabbit meat itself was brown, sweet, and moist, like the dark meat of a Thanksgiving turkey. Umm, Wabbit Stew is good eatin’.

For the non-sport enthusiast, the town itself offers much in the way of shopping. I bought a pair of wool-lined leather gloves, and could’ve easily bought all my family gifts from this town alone. I paid 15 Euros ($18.50) for the gloves, which sounded like a rip off at first, until I realized they were hand-stitched, with extreme care, by the owner’s wife. After seeing her gnarled knuckles as a result of years of hard labor stitching stuff for tourists, I took pity and bought the damn things. Nah, I’m sure it’s not quite like that, but I can tell you that just about all the stores in Arachova offer handmade items, including lace tablemats, hand-woven rugs, and hand-sewn leather bags. And they’re worth buying. With luck and some gentle nudging, you’ll even be able to knock the price down a few Euros.

But despite the slight nods to commercialism, albeit an old-fashioned one, Arachova has not forsaken its ancestors. For three days each April, a festival is held in honor of Saint George, the patron saint of Arachova. The residents don traditional costumes, and dance, drink and eat. A contest is held to see which brave male can scale the hill of Saint George the fastest. A tough task, no doubt, reminiscent of the rather simplistic ancient Olympic games for which the events required much strength, but little skill. But there’s no gold metal or laurel wreath crown for the winner; he is treated to a roasted lamb feast, with a chance to reclaim his title the following year. Whoopee!

Indeed, the town of Arachova is so steeped in tradition and the pursuit of cultural preservation – whether consciously or not, since perhaps their high altitude has affected their brains – I’d venture to say that even Zeus himself would shake his head in awe at the steadfast loyalty to Greek heritage. And, just as the residents of Arachova hosted pilgrims en route to the nearby Oracle at Delphi centuries ago, so too do their relatives now welcome travelers with the same openness and friendliness.

It could be said the old and the new peacefully coexist in Greece, but that would be both an understatement and an overstatement. In the smaller towns, both on the Peloponnese and the mainland, residents depend on their cultural heritage to help maintain their traditional way of life. But in the larger towns, like Athens, modernity has sprung out of antiquity, creating a constant tug of war.

But what could correctly be said is that Greece is a county of contrasts and contradictions. Greeks love to eat, making every meal a two-hour, five-course event, but only a small percentage of the population is overweight. And they love their liquor, especially Ouzo, but water is the staple beverage at every meal. In Athens, traffic is a tangled mess of cars, buses, taxis and scooters, but you’ll hardly ever see an accident. Wait, it gets better. You may snap all the pictures you want of the Acropolis compound, but once inside the on-site museum, posing for the camera in front of the ancient objects is off limits. I don’t get it, but whatever. And despite the fact that Greece depends heavily on the tourist industry, road and highway signs are often hard to find or read, attractions are poorly marked, and labyrinthine streets make it overwhelmingly difficult to find your way.

But this was, after all, what I had been searching for: villages where life creeps, tiny towns where tradition heaves, the roads less taken. The country seems to be constantly at odds with itself, and at times is damn near backwards. And talk about your contradictions: it was both everything I wanted, and nothing I had anticipated. But at least I can say I’ve BEEN to Greece.

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