My wife, Jackie, has worked at Syracuse University since 1987 in the Study Abroad office. As a student at SU in 1978, she spent a semester abroad in London, and now, as an employee, she helps current students realize the same great experience.
One of the great perks of her job is that she and her fellow employees take turns escorting student groups to SU programs in London, England; Madrid, Spain; Strasbourg, France; Florence, Italy; Beijing, China; Santiago, Chile and several other exotic locales. As a result, we have been to London (twice), Florence (twice), and, last fall, took part in a traveling seminar throughout Germany, Poland and Austria. Jackie has also, on her own, been to Madrid and China.
This year, we are traveling as part of group who whose ultimate destination is a semester in Florence, Italy. But before that begins, they embark on an intensive 9-day traveling seminar of the Greek Isles and mainland where they will see, firsthand, the ruins of ancient temples, palaces and – in some cases – entire cities. We are along for the ride.
The seminar is designed and led by a former director of the SU Florence center and current professor, Alick McLean. Along with being the fastest walker in Europe (pant!), McLean is knowledgeable on nearly every topic we will encounter, and is a gifted and energetic teacher who – in action – is a sight to behold. On the seminar he is ably-assisted by an SU/Florence graduate assistant, Jean Chapman, and a native Greek tour guide, Rhea Skourta of HERC (Hellenic Education & Research Center).
Each of the 23 students have had the summer to complete extensive reading assignments, conduct independent research on a related topic of their choosing, and prepare an oral presentation that will be delivered at the various sites we visit; in effect, the most amazing classrooms ever!
Day One: Travel to Chania, Crete
I’ve always maintained that my two trips to Japan with the Flashcubes in 2002 & 2012 were the most arduous I’ve undertaken – until today. We left Arlington Ave (my home in Syracuse) at 4:00 a.m., for a 5:30 flight to NYC. We then had a 9-hour layover there (SU takes no chances on not having their escorts on site in time to check in all of the students), before flying to Rome, Italy, which took about 8 hours. After another 4-hour layover in Rome, we flew 2 hours to Athens, Greece. With yet another 2-hour layover in Athens, we took one last one-hour flight to Chania, Crete, our ultimate destination. With 28 straight hours of travel, we could’ve flown to Japan from NYC – AND BACK – in that time! This was a level of fatigue I didn’t even know was possible.
We arrived at our hotel around 6:00 p.m. Crete time, checked in, unpacked, and had to meet in the lobby 30 minutes later for a quick walking tour (yeah, I really want to walk now) of the area. Chania (pronounced Han-ya) is the site of so much ancient Greek history, and an important port on the north shore of the island of Crete. The city is built around the port (Il Porto de Crete), and resembles Portofino Bay in Italy, with colorful shops and restaurants packed tightly in a ring around the bay. The city walls, built many centuries before, are still visible in places. Also prevalent are several churches and mosques, all – seemingly – peacefully coexisting.
Our evening’s main and final activity will be a group dinner on the Port, at a very authentic Cretan restaurant. The meal is served family style with dish after dish arriving, including Greek salad, veal meatballs, roasted chicken, cheese and eggplant wrapped in bacon (is there anything that can NOT be wrapped in bacon?), stuffed mushrooms, and numerous other dishes. Really good! We made our way back to our room stopping for gelato along the way (VERY good), and finally called it a night at around 11:00 p.m. Wow!
Day Two: Exploring Chania
When you travel as long as we did yesterday, you always fear that evil jet lag thing where, despite immense fatigue, you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep; didn’t happen! Slept the sleep of the dead until 7:00 a.m.
Following a quick breakfast in the hotel (with fresh squeezed orange juice, wow!) we headed out to our first stop, the Chania Museum of Antiquity. The students are doing a unit on Minoan Culture, which ended around 1450 BC, and this allows them a first-hand look at the remains of that civilization. I’m not a big fan of wall after wall of old vases, but there were some very interesting things including incredibly-ornate marble figurines and smaller-than-a-dime gold coins that were placed in the mouths of the dead to pay safe passage of their souls to Charon (in Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly-deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron, that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead).
After a few hours there, we walked (our major form of transport) about a half mile to the Nautical Museum of Crete where we saw the actual ship that sailed the Aegean Sea in 2004. It is a recreation of a ship from Minoan time, that was built as an experiment to prove that – with primitive tools and materials – the Minoans could have travelled throughout the Mediterranean Seas. As a kid, I loved Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, where he did much the same thing, constructing a boat using ancient methodology, and sailing it from South America to the South Sea Islands to prove how that area was settled. So, for me, this was fascinating to see!
With a quick break at a local market (that included the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever had!), we walked back to our hotel to regroup and ready ourselves for an afternoon expedition to Knossos, the ruins of a great Minoan Palace from 12 BC. It is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. Some of the palace has been rebuilt (no more than 20%, standards dictate), to help visitors imagine what it was like when intact. It is an impressive place, to say the least, with majestic stone staircases, a now-visible subterranean water system, and a grand stone outdoor amphitheater, also still intact. The hardest part of the day here though, was the combination of heat and fatigue. Pretty substantial on both counts.
We made our way back to the hotel in the afternoon, with about an hour to pack and get on the bus for a 2-hour ride to Heraklion. The drive was stunning as we hugged the coast, heading east to our next stop. With endless blue sea to your left and mountains to your right, it was like Big Sur on steroids. The most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen.
After a quick check-in at our new hotel, we headed out for another group meal. This one was even better with Dacos (a tasty Greek version of bruschetta), Saganaki (fried Cretan cheese), and stuffed peppers (with a very creamy cheese). The Greeks, like the Italians, like to eat late, and long. Our dinner began shortly after 7:30, and we finally made our exit at 11:00; and we were the first to leave. We found out the next morning that some in our party stayed until after 1:00 a.m, as the restaurant owner kept bringing out more wine and desserts. Wow!
Day Three: Heraklion, Crete
We left the hotel on foot (again!) at around 8:00 a.m. to be at the Heraklion Museum of Antiquity when it opened. This was more impressive than the Chania Museum with a very large collection of vases, weapons, household goods and frescoes from ancient times. Some really interesting things to see.
After two hours there, we walked back to the hotel and boarded our bus for our second palace in ruins, Festos (Gr: Phaistos). This one had not been reconstructed, but was still very impressive to see with the outlines of grand stone rooms, stairways and colonnades. The sun was unbearable, so I retreated to the shade as often as possible.
Our reward for all that dusty heat, was a trip to the most spectacular beach I’ve ever seen at Matala. The beach is ringed by stone walls that are dotted with natural caves that one can climb to and explore, which we, of course, did.
The place was rocking with many end-of-summer tourists and locals, alternately drenching themselves in the pristine waters and baking in the sun.
We also had lunch w/Alick, Rhea & Jean at a beautiful Greek family restaurant that sat atop the far west cliffs, overlooking the beach with a very dramatic view. The food was wonderful with Briam (Greek ratatouille), fresh salad (Greek tomatoes are unparalleled) and spinach pies. After copious amounts of food and drink (white wine) we made our way back down to the beach to meet up with the students at the bus, and head back to the hotel.
The evening was a rare free night, so Jackie & I wandered the market area on our own, shopping, people-watching and grabbing walk-away crepes, which are deliciously-filling, and available everywhere!
Day Four: Santorini
My oldest brother, Bob, was a writer, researcher, a self-avowed old hippie, and an avid world traveller. On one of his many treks, he connected our family to lost relatives in the Netherlands. He had been all over Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Northern Africa, but always maintained that the most stunning place on earth was the Greek island of Santorini, where he had vacationed with his bride-to-be Hanya, in 2005. In late 2006, Bob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in early 2007. We had many long bedside chats when he was ailing, and, on one very memorable one, he told my other brother, David, and me, that we HAD to see Santorini before we died. It was a very special place to him, and he wanted to share that with us.
Eight years later, when this trip became a possibility, I scanned the previous year’s itinerary to see if maybe Santorini was on it; alas, it was not. But when Jackie came home in early-August with the updated itinerary, Santorini had magically been added. My heart leapt! Because of the expense of accommodations for 27 people in what is still the high season for tourism, it was prohibitive financially to stay overnight there. So what we ended up doing amounted to the tourists’ version of a drive-by shooting: we boarded a ferry in the port of Heraklion at 8:30 a.m., and at 11:00, landed on Santorini. Just 4 hours later, we would be boarding another ferry away from Santorini and headed for mainland Greece, our next destination.
Until you actually see it, Santorini is almost impossible to describe. The original full-size island was destroyed by one of the most massive earthquakes in the history of the world in 1,500 BC. What was left was a ring of mountains and mini-islands, surrounding a deep sunken bay where the ships come in. If you saw the aerial view, it would look like a donut with a bite taken out of it! But to get up to where the towns are, you have to drive up the steepest, most treacherous mountain road I’ve ever seen. How our bus driver, Nikos, managed to steer our vehicle back and forth around the hairpin turns required to scale the mountain was a thing of beauty; honestly, like something out of a James Bond movie.
When you finally get to the top, there are sun-bleached white buildings, narrow roads, and acres and acres of ground grapes that can grow flat on the field – as opposed to being trellised – because of the volcanic soil, and produce a very fine white wine (more on that later).
The reason Santorini is on the itinerary is that it is the home of Akrotiri, one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the world. It is a complete city, like Pompei, that was discovered in 1967, and is still an active dig. Our time there was brief, but the place is truly unforgettable. It has been set up with bridges and walkways that run throughout the site and allow the visitor to traverse the entire roofed-over area. You could see streets, houses, the town hall, storage rooms, and even frescos – still intact – on some of the walls. After three ruins in three days, this was my favorite. Just an amazing place to see.
We left after just over an hour, and bussed into the main town, Thiera. Perched on the very highest terrain (1,000 feet above the port where we arrived), it is the main tourist mecca of the island. It seems that every home, shop, restaurant and hotel is the same sun-bleached white, with narrow cobblestone streets and a spectacular view that simply boggles the mind. All along the main drag, restaurants, hotels and homes are built into the cliffs that overlook the bay – what seems like – miles below. The view of the water and the cliffs below is – I’m told – unmatched anywhere in the world. Hard to disagree.
We wandered through several narrow alleys to a little eatery that Alick had found on a previous visit, Restaurant Nikolae, where the owner greeted us warmly. Our wonderful meal included stuffed zucchini, Imam (eggplant with tomato), lamb with lemon, and our (now) usual appetizers of stuffed peppers, Tzatziki (yogurt dip) and Saganaki (fried cheese) – along with two cold carafes of their locally-produced white wine (delicious). When we asked Nikolae if he took credit cards, he replied, “Cash only; our banks are in the toilet.” A brief, but accurate, summary of the current economic problems Greece is facing.
We all reconvened at the bus for another harrowing ride, this time down the steep hill where we boarded a ferry again at 3:30 for a 5-hour ride to the port of Athens, Piraeus (and yet another bus ride to Nafplia, where we would check into our hotel near midnight).
As the ferry pulled away, I couldn’t help looking back at the cliffs of Santorini, and thinking of a promise fulfilled to my brother, and a memory that will last a lifetime for me. Thank you, Bob.
Day Five: Mycenae
We began what would be the the longest day of our trip with a visit to the Treasure of Atreus, a remarkably intact tomb that looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. The tomb is built out of stones, but built into the side of a small hill. From behind it, you are not even aware of its presence. But, from below, there is a grand entry after a long passageway of large square stones.
That leads into the door. Once inside, it’s an immense domed structure that takes your breath away. Measuring 44’ high and 47′ in diameter, you can’t help but wonder how something this grand in scale could’ve been built in such comparatively primitive times. In fact, the large lintil stone over the entryway is the largest one in the history of all architecture, weighing over 120 tons. It is a mystery still how it was put in place. Kind of like Stonehenge.
From there we moved to the Palace of Mycenae with its grand entrance that features the Lions Gate, a huge black stone carving that is now part the logo for the film company of the same name (producer of the high-grossing Twilight & Hunger Game’s film series).
Like many of the ruins we visit, Mycenae is high on a hill, and to reach it you have to scale a seemingly endless string of rising, winding walkways that take you to the top of the site. An arduous trek to say the least, but worth it to see the remains of such magnificent palace grounds, complete with its own burial site.
Today is a triple header, of sorts, as we are actually visiting three great sites, the third being Epidaurus, which was a great spa and medical facility in ancient times. Also on the site is huge stone amphitheater that was built in the 4th century BC, and is now – again – a working theater that seats 14,000 people.
We are, in fact, holding tickets for tonight’s performance of the great Greek tragedy, Orestes, by Euripides. While it was not the picture of comfort sitting on stone for several hours, the experience of seeing this great Greek tragedy, in this setting, is absolutely unforgettable.
Day Six – Bassae & Olympia
Another VERY long day on an excursion jam-packed with them. Our hotel wake-up call was for 6:30, and we downed a quick breakfast (all the hotels offer continental breakfast), and loaded all our bags onto the bus for a 3-hour drive to Bassae and the Temple of Apollo. The shrine is perched high in the Peloponnesean Mountains and, to get there, nearly two hours of our trip was spent zigzagging our way up impossibly-narrow mountain roads; the use of Dramamine was prevalent!
When we arrived at the very peak of the mountain, there, shrouded in an immense tent-like structure, was Apollo’s temple. Our host for the day was the head archaeologist, Konstantinos Papadopoulos, whose resume included many years working on the Acropolis in Athens. He and his wife, also an archaeologist, are leading a team of workers who are restoring what Papadopoulos calls “the most unique site in the world.” It is unique because, despite being rediscovered in ruins in the 1700s, nearly all of the pieces are there. The restoration team has built an ingenious infrastructure of cranes and hydraulic lifts around the temple to facilitate lifting and positioning pieces of walls, flooring and columns that weigh many tons each, into place. It amounts to assembling an epic-scale jigsaw puzzle. As it appears now, the temple appears to be maybe 75% in place. But the work that Papadopoulos and his team do, moves very slowly.
The visit begins with two student presentations, and an extensive overview from our friendly site manager. As part of a hands-on workshop, we are invited into a large, modern outbuilding where most of the small scale restoration is done to the component pieces before they are put into place. Cracks are filled and corners are refashioned (using synthetic marble), and the process is utterly fascinating to behold. We are invited to use pick axes and chisels to remove the waste from the processing on actual pieces that will be used in the temple. Our clothes get a little dusty in the process, but no one is complaining after such a one-of-a-kind experience. Papadopoulos is a warm and wonderful host who is clearly passionate about his work on the Temple of Apollo. After his inspiring speech about the work they are doing, and about the achievements of the early Greeks, one of the students was overheard remarking, “He could be a motivational speaker!”
We left Bassae around 2:00 and headed a little ways down the hill to a small town with a very authentic village restaurant. The entire small dining room was ours and we were served plate after plate of delicious Greek food – and locally grown sweet wine – by the owner (who spoke NO English) and his sons (who, thankfully, did). Towards the end of our extended luncheon (seems ALL Greek meals are extended). I saw the owner go over to one of the tables of kids and raise his glass to toast them all. He then issued a visual challenge to one of the guys to “down” his just-filled wine glass in competition with him. As everyone laughed at the idea of it (it was really strong, more like sherry, than wine, and certainly better for sipping) the owner drained his glass in one quick swig! The student, accepting the challenge, took a few tentative sips, but then, too, downed his entire glass, much to the uproarious appreciation of his friends.
We said long goodbyes to our friendly restauranteurs, and boarded the bus for our next stop, Olympia, the birthplace of, yes, the Olympics. We arrived at our hotel at 6:30, and had to be back in the lobby by 6:45 to walk (again, with the walking) to the Olympia Archaeological Museum which housed an amazing collection of Greek sculpture, more than we have seen anywhere else on our trip. We were there until closing at 8:00, and then had a few hours for dinner, before reconvening for yet another outing; but this one was truly special.
Every year, on the date of the August full moon, the town of Olympia plans a celebration with an outdoor concert in the park (featuring traditional Greek music), and the entire site of the ruins is open until 1:00 a.m. to allow visitors a unique once-a-year look at the site under the light of a full moon. And this year, it fell on the only day we were there; really magical! After two more student presentations, Alick arranges one last unique event, a footrace for the students on the site of the first Olympiad, all those centuries ago. After this longest of long days – clearly – no one is at there best, but it is a spirited event, nonetheless, and a fitting end to another very memorable day in Greece.
Day Seven: Delphi & Athens
We started again very early this morning, boarding the bus in Olympia for a 2-hour ride to Delphi. Along the way, we made a rest stop at what Alick extolled as one of the finest bakeries in all of Greece, with the best Baklava he’d ever had. It did not disappoint. The display cases were packed with all manner of Greek honey-drenched sweets, laid out buffet-style for you to put in boxes and pay by weight – always a dangerous situation. We found that out first-hand, when our three small boxes of goodies ran to 21 euros. Yikes!
Back on the road, we made our way, winding up unbelievably-scenic mountain roads, to Delphi about two hours later, arriving around 11:00 a.m. This is another mountaintop ruins, partially restored, with a mostly-intact treasury building and an amphitheater that sits high above the rest of the sight; reputedly the second greatest amphitheater in all of Greece, after the one we saw the play at in Epidaurus, two nights previous.
After two student presentations, we boarded the bus for a short 20-minute drive to Arahova, a quaint little ski town – yes, they ski in Greece – perched so high on the mountain that it almost takes your breath away to look down from the edge of the main street. We ate at a streetside cafe that had a running fountain fed by spring water from Mount Parnassus, where we dined on Greek Salad, Saganaki with Sausage, and Roasted Wild Boar. Our water pitcher was refilled several times with the spring water from the fountain; so refreshing!
Another two hours on the bus provided ample time to catch up on lost sleep and recharge for our first evening in Athens, the final leg of our journey. We arrived at 6:00, with instructions to be in the lobby by 6:30 for a group trek of about a mile to the Acropolis museum, which is situated just south of the site of the Acropolis, widely considered to be one of the most significant archaelogical sites in the world. The Museum houses many of the artifacts found at the site, and does an excellent job of creating context for the evolution of Acropolis and the surrounding area.
At 7:45, we left the museum, making a mad dash – a speed walk, Alick called it – for the big rocky hill adjacent to the Acropolis. People regularly gather there to watch the sunset, which is spectacular. Unfortunately, we missed the actual setting by about 10 minutes, but still were able to experience something wholly unique, sitting high atop the city, with pink skies coloring the white buildings below, for as far as the eye could see all the way to the ocean.
We declined Alick’s generous offer to join the group for a meal, on SU’s tab, opting instead to take a leisurely walk back to our hotel, shopping along the way and stopping for gelato before turning in a little early; a real rarity on this trip!
Day Eight: Athens
We heard at our 7:00 a.m. breakfast that last night’s group dinner ran until almost midnight. I think we made the right decision to not go, as another long, hot day awaits, with temperatures expected in the mid-90s.
We walked en masse to where we had been for sunset the night before, and entered the Acropolis as it opened at 8:00 p.m. All of these archaeological sites we are visiting are set high on hills, this one, right in the center of metropolitan Athens. It is the original center of the area and the entire city spreads out around it, always looking UP at it.
We had only been on site about 15 minutes when we heard chanting and marching coming from below. Gradually, an honor guard of about a dozen young Greek soldiers ascended into the Acropolis carrying the Greek flag and suddenly breaking into song. Being unaware of their National Anthem, I can only guess that’s what they might’ve been singing. They proceeded past us to the west end and – in what is probably a daily ceremony – raised the Greek flag over the sight. Very cool to see.
There are several buildings of note but the most famous one, and maybe the most famous palace in the world, is the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena that gives Athens its name. Built in the 4th century BC, it is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece . With its immense perimeter of doric columns, it is the prototypical Greek temple.
After a student presentation at the base of the Acropolis, we proceeded around the perimeter of the base to the Theater of Dionysus, yet another ancient stone amphitheater, not, however in usable condition like the one in Epidaurus. It was just after noon by then, and the sun was blazing hot.
Luckily, relief was on the horizon in the form of a lavish group lunch at yet another, utterly charming, authentic Greek restaurant, with our tables on the sidewalk, shaded by lush olive trees. The lunch was courtesy of HERC, the travel agency run by Rhea Skourta, who arranged so much of the trip for us. She is a lovely woman from Athens who clearly enjoys her job, and is as knowledgable about all things Greek as she is charming. She accompanied us on many of our stops throughout the tour, and this was her way of saying goodbye to the group.
The meal consisted of the usual Greek salad & Tzatziki, along with chicken souvlaki (kebabs), veal meatballs, and the most savory cheese pie I’ve ever had. Along with the white table wine, also now a staple, a few surprises. A rich dessert of Mosaiko, which was essentially dark chocolate fudge sticks interspersed with biscuits and pistachio nuts. Truly unique and maybe my new favorite dessert. The last treat – not offered to the students – was a mandarin orange liquor that was the perfect finish to a perfect meal!
We had one more stop on our itinerary, so it was back out into the heat for another sweaty, group walk to the Agora, which was the meeting place and shopping center of olden Greek times. After another student presentation at that site, we were cut loose for some free time, which we used to shop for souvenirs and some much-needed down time in our air-conditioned room.
We all reconvened for a group dinner (our second group meal of the day, a rarity) at Taverna Platanos, another classically-authentic Greek eatery where we – again – ate outdoors. We had been told by Rhea that this was where many of the movers and shakers in Greek politics and the media gathered for evening meals. Every table was full of locals, and they all stayed for hours, as did we. One thing I’ll add about Greek food: much is made of the so-called Mediterranean Diet, and with good reason. In our nine days in Greece the only obese people we saw were tourists. By all appearances, the native Greeks are very fit people, in spite of all the cigarettes.
Day Nine: Athens & Sounion
Our last day in Greece began like nearly all the others; early! We were out of the hotel by 7:30, and at the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens when it opened at 8:00. This is where most of the statuary, frescoes, and artifacts found at the Acropolis now reside. A very impressive collection that we had far too little time with. One of the highlights for me, was the painting of “The Spring,” a fresco painted in 1,500 BC. We had heard about this while visiting Akrotiri on Santorini where it was found. It is one of the oldest intact paintings in existence, and a wonder to behold!
From there we boarded the bus for a one-hour ride to Sounion, home of the Temple of Poseidon. While most of the temples and palaces we’ve visited are usually situated on higher ground (Delphi & Bassae were on mountains so high, one can only imagine how they were ever built on such treacherous terrain!), this one topped them all for setting.
The temple sits on a cliff, over looking the Aegean Ocean. Very appropriate, given that Poseidon was the God of the Sea. Our final student presentation takes place here, and then we take a quick bus ride down to the shore below, to wade in the ocean one last time before heading to the airport for our flight home.
After ten days away from home, I am DEFINITELY ready to get back, but I will truly miss Greece. Despite the fatigue of so many long days, and so much walking and climbing, I would do it again in an instant. Greece is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. With over 8,000 miles of coastline, it seems that every drive you take includes stunning views of mountains, dotted with silver-leaved olive trees, falling into azure blue seas that stretch as far as the eye can see. There are bleached-white buildings with red terra cotta roofs at every turn, carved into hillsides and crowded around every picturesque bay and port.
Despite Greece’s recent economic woes, the country we saw seemed to be thriving. Restaurants and shopping areas were teeming with customers, and every public area we visited was clean and well-maintained. And the people were as friendly as could be: warm, good-natured, inviting and – ultimately – very proud of their beautiful country.
But all good things must end. Greece has been like a dream, and reality now beckons. Family calls, jobs and gigs await, and the dog needs a walk. Life will go on, but with the memory of Greece never too far away.