My big fat Greek vacation - a blog, in 1000 Words or Less
Anyone who says 2020 and 2021, “…weren’t all that bad…” is living in the land of perpetual sunshine and pink bunnies, but as with everything in life, if a person looks, he can usually find bright spots in dark spaces. When pandemic restrictions eased this spring, my travel plans were already made: two years before, my wife and I had picked our destination and researched what we wanted to see and do.
This spring, we finally followed through.
Armed with phones filled with boarding passes and various Covid paperwork (all of which I had in hardcopy as a backup), we flew from the west coast of Canada to Athens, Greece. Masks remained a requirement every step of the way and the possibility of being randomly selected for a Covid test upon arrival loomed large. Fortunately, Greece’s version of the ArriveCan app actually worked, and we were waved through customs in Athens with friendly, almost dismissive ease.
After a forty-minute ride into the city, we checked into a boutique hotel and then found a nearby restaurant. With spotlights highlighting the Parthenon as a backdrop, we sat down for a late dinner. At the time, Greece had similar Covid restrictions to Canada. We were required to wear a mask into the restaurant but once seated, removing it was permissible. We also had to show our vaccination passport. This became a bit of a laugh over the two-week vacation: our Canadian QR code wouldn’t scan in Greece. No matter. Simply displaying the code was enough. Our Greek hosts knew we couldn’t have left Canada without being fully vaccinated and after a two-year drought, they were pleased tourists were returning to their city. They weren’t about to turn away hungry customers.
With the formalities out of the way, we ordered a Greek salad that included a slab of fresh feta cheese the size of an iPhone (rather than cheese crumbled out of a supermarket container), a shared appetizer called tiropita (cheese pie made from flaky phyllo pastry and ten million calories), and finally, an entree meant for two that included chicken and beef souvlaki as well as lamb and pork gyro, all piled deep on top of a layer of French fries, and of course, warm pita bread with tzatziki, and…well…for all the fame and chatter Italian cuisine garners, it doesn’t hold a candle to authentic Greek food.
After we’d eaten all we possibly could and the waiter had cleared the table, he returned with two small glasses of complimentary raki, a Cretan liquor obtained from the press residue of fresh grapes. The taste made me shudder and reach for a glass of water. Even the double distilled version, which should be smoother, leaves a blazing trail of blue fire going down. However, the raki digestif is a symbol of friendship and a sign of social communication. It’s considered bad manners not drink it so, when in Greece…
As it turned out, I had to get used to raki. A small glass ended up on the table after virtually every meal.
The next day we took a historical walking tour of Athens, which included Greece’s greatest architectural and artistic complex, the Parthenon. The centuries old temple to the goddess Athena, sits atop the rocky outcrop known as the Acropolis. Dating back to 447 BC, the Parthenon has served as a treasury, church, mosque and unfortunately, an armory: the building was severely damaged in 1687 by Venetian bombardment during the siege of Acropolis. It has subsequently suffered from centuries of pollution and military action. Today it is being meticulously restored using as much of the original stone fragments as possible, a project that is an obvious archeological challenge as well as being incredible costly, which partially explains why much of the scaffolding and equipment surrounding the building is rusty and shows little use.
Other than tourism, Greece doesn’t have any significant revenue streams. In 2010, after years of liberal welfare policies designed to keep voters happy, the government ran out of money; it had borrowed more than it was able to make in revenue through taxes. In order to prevent Greece from defaulting on its debt, thereby threatening the viability of the entire Eurozone, the European Union loaned the country enough money to continue making its required payments. Today (according to our guide), sixty percent of the revenue Greece earns is earmarked for debt repayment, which will run through 2060. There isn’t a great deal of money left over for the ordinary government services we all take for granted, never mind expensive restoration projects. When I asked why private money wasn’t being used to restore the Parthenon, I was told that the people and organizations tasked with the job, don’t want a building of such historical significance being associated with a corporation that might use it for advertisement purposes, i.e. “The Parthenon, brought to you by Vodaphone, Europe’s most extensive 5G network,” or some such thing.
Interestingly, Canada’s abysmal financial position today resembles that of Greece’s before the financial crisis, thanks to the “leadership” of an individual who admits he doesn’t think about monetary policy. According to an article in the Financial Post, “Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio in 2021 was approximately 109 per cent, the same percentage as Greece, just a few short years before it was bailed out. In other words, the amount Canada owes is more than we produce in goods and services.” Fortunately, unlike Greece, Canada has more revenue streams than tourism alone, as much as our incompetent leader wants to deny them, so we’re not as financially vulnerable or likely to experience the austerity measures forced upon Greek citizens.
After Athens, we traveled to Santorini, the Mediterranean island known for its whitewashed buildings, blue domes, and vivid sunsets. Spectacularly beautiful, Santorini is also known for massive crowds but since we traveled in March, we were a couple of weeks ahead of what is traditionally considered tourist season. Only thirty-five square miles in size, Santorini is small. The roads, originally designed for donkeys pulling carts, are so narrow there isn’t enough room for the vehicles the locals require for construction purposes as well as hordes of tourists. That means projects must be started and completed between October 1st and March 31st, and it explains why it’s not unusual to see buildings under various stages of construction; it can take as many as four years to build a house. When construction season ends, tourist season begins and the men and women involved in construction transition to jobs catering to tourists.
I preferred the empty-ish streets and the ability to take photographs without having to duck and dodge hundreds of out-of-control selfie-sticks, over the convenience of open restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Our Air B and B had a fridge and a sink, along with a spectacular view…ideal for homemade evening cocktails that were significantly more potent and far less expensive than they would have been at a touristy bar.
We spent the final week of spring vacation in the city of Chania, on the Greek island of Crete. Chania can be divided into two parts: the modern city and the old town. Situated next to the Venetian harbour, Old Town is aptly named. There’s evidence the area was inhabited going back as far as the Neolithic era. Today, the old town is densely packed with Venetian, Ottoman and Neoclassical buildings, all of which contain taverns, bars, coffee and pastry shops. Restaurants featuring Cretan specialties sit beside art shops and monuments from different periods of history.
Perhaps unwisely, Old Town is where we chose our hotel.
Our navigation system directed us in a confusingly erratic manner from the airport to the hotel. I figured out the reason for this a few days later but before that happened, I had to find parking in an area that wasn’t built with vehicular traffic in mind. Between inconveniently located construction zones, one-way streets, narrow alleys, and a local resident with a flat-tire, I was quickly penned into Old Town with literally no way out of the labyrinth except via the main pedestrian square. This of course, was the inevitable moment when two police officers arrived on motorcycles. I wasn’t acting (much) when I let my desperate tourist confusion show. Thankfully, the officers took pity on me and guided me back to our hotel, where they handed me off to the hotel manager. He suggested I follow him to a public parking lot. He rode his bicycle. I followed, driving reverse down a one-way street. Apparently, that’s how it’s commonly done: rather than driving forward in the wrong direction on a one-way street, you drive the car in reverse.
Over the next several days we explored the countryside surrounding Chania, driving on often poorly maintained roads (austerity measures), maneuvering through compact villages and navigating tight one-eighty switchbacks high in the mountains, until snow prevented us from proceeding farther. It was here, while searching for a recommended restaurant, where I realized why the GPS continued to struggle with getting us from point A to B... The Greek alphabet looks sort of like the alphabet we use in Canada, if a person squints and holds her tongue just right. Translating an address into our alphabet isn’t difficult, but the ensuing translation is frequently spelled differently between one form of literature, map or guide book, to the next. There are usually several iterations of an address and therefore, no guarantee the GPS database holds the same information as that which someone might type into a search field.
We eventually found the restaurant, an informal ramshackle sort of building perched on the side of a mountain. With panoramic valley views and chickens pecking and scratching in the scrubby brush on the side of the road, the ambience was undeniably interesting but I confess, it made me suddenly skeptical of the recommendation. Once inside, the proprietor asked in broken English if we knew what we wanted to eat. When we answered, “No,” he nodded and walked away, presumably for menus. Instead of menus, he came back with pita bread. Then a bowl of assorted olives. Then salad. Then rice. Then lamb in a steaming, savory sauce... He kept returning every few minutes, each time with a new dish until eventually we waved our hands in surrender and begged him to stop. He did of course, but not before he brought two pieces of semolina cake, a traditional Greek dessert which falls under the category of "Siropiasta," which means "syrupy Greek dessert," something I considered a welcome change to raki.
This late lunch, high in the hills south of Chania, summed up the entire vacation for me: another new and wonderful experience, an incredible meal cooked and served by a friendly, hospitable man, one among many people we met, from the young lady who guided us through dark, graffiti thick alleys we wouldn’t have dared wander into as tourists (she assured us they were perfectly safe, even at night), to the owners of our Air B and B, who walked us to the front door of the grocery store because most of the Santorini restaurants were closed, to the ex-special forces parachutist, now a guide and the owner of a Sprinter van, who took us to a distillery, a cheese factory and a church built in a cave on the side of a mountain, who wanted to know about our lives in Canada, to almost everyone we met who felt the need to apologize (needlessly) for the unseasonably cold, wet weather.
With such limited space, it’s impossible to describe a two-week vacation in any great detail, especially when there were so many highlights, the least of which was being permitted to go in the first place. With far fewer Covid restrictions today compared to March (Canada being the notable exception), it is ironic that travelling is more difficult now than it was four short months ago. Covid the disease and Covid the response became divorced of each other early in the pandemic. As time passed, the divide grew wider. Today we’re seeing those panicked, poorly thought-out responses manifest themselves in well-publicized airport chaos. Compared to the catastrophic financial devastation that is also taking place, not to mention long term physical and mental health concerns (cancelled surgeries and debilitating anxiety, for example), airport chaos could be considered minor. That doesn’t make it any less unnecessary or annoying for those of us who want to travel, whatever our purpose of travel might be:
crossing the province with a camper trailer to attend a jazz festival,
crossing the country through the hell that is Toronto Pearson, in order to connect with an elderly parent, or
crossing an ocean to enjoy previously unknown people, history, culture and yes, food.
I can’t wait for my next vacation, a trip I expect will be a physical challenge as well as a once-in-a-lifetime emotional journey, but aren’t these just two more reasons to travel? I hope you’re looking forward to your next vacation with the same kind of anticipation that I’m looking forward to mine!
This was a long one, folks. Sorry about that.
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