Getting Cultured

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 21, 2006


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Monday, July 17, 2006

Here's a big reason why I hate planning ahead on trips like this. Back when I was in Ios, I booked a flight on the 19th to Berlin, so I had a deadline to get out of Greece while seeing as much as possible. In the process of planning, I miscalculated and wound up whirlwinding through my tour more than I needed to. I could have easily spent that extra day I wanted in Santorini without being any worse for wear. I can't regret it though, thinking along the lines of the "butterfly flapping its wings" theory. It was the same thing that allowed me to get over the disappointment when I realized (again, too late) I didn't have to rush through my time in Asia as much. Had I spent the extra day in Santorini, I never would have, for example, met the crazy Belgians who were on my boat from Paros who kept feeding me beer and food AND offered me a place to crash in Brussels. I also wouldn't have met Kiwi Lee and Anne from Copenhagen (more on them later), so I guess the point is, I can't have it both ways. Also, since leaving Ios, my body clock has done a total 180. For the last week or so, I've been waking up at around 8 and been in bed by 12 or 1. In Ios, I was going to bed, potentially at 8, and heading out, fresh from a siesta, at 12 or 1. The detox effort has also been in fine form. But don't worry, Berlin and Prague come in a few days and the effort will be finished. Anyways, on to the recent adventures.

My time on the Greek mainland started drowsily. I arrived in the Athens port town of Piraeus at 2 and it was 5 before I could catch a bus anywhere (and I wasn't prepared to pay for transportation into the city AND a hostel at that point), specifically to the bus station where I could get out to the Peloponnesian peninsula. Two quick sidenotes, I'm not sure if public transportation is free in Athens, I doubt very much it is, but that doesn't change the fact that I got a free ride. Also, the Greek bus system (intercity I'm talking now), might be the stupidest institution in history. I present this evidence to the jury -- my journey started in Olympia. To get to Olympia -- a tourist hotspot -- I had to get a bus to Pyrgos -- a town that gets no mention in my Lonely Planet aside from "Olympia is also accessible from Pyrgos" and also happens to be 24 km west of Olympia on the same road. To make matters worse, I had to backtrack the next day to Pyrgos to go to Sparta. Now, to get to Sparta I had to after going from Olympia to Pyrgos, go to Kalamata. Kalamata is a mere hour from Sparta, but halfway through, we had to switch buses. Why? We were crossing state lines. Imagine getting a bus from NYC to Newark, crossing the Holland Tunnel, then getting off and having to wait for a new bus to go the rest of the way. The Greeks make Southeast Asia look world-class by comparison (one more sidenote -- while waiting for that final bus, I got caught in a rainstorm, my first legitimate one since my last day in Koh Pha Ngan). Anyways, I staggered into Olympia bleary-eyed at 1 and checked into the "Youth Hostel," and from the looks of it, the owners put as much effort into making it a nice place as they put imagination into the name. No matter, at that point, a bed was a bed. Olympia, the site of the original Olympics (like thousands of years ago) is exceptionally touristy and exceptionally ruined. I'd rank it somewhere in between Sukhothai and Angkor Wat in terms of feeling the importance without getting overwhelmed by the packs of tourists. What Olympia has going for it over those two places is the ruins are old, really really old. Like, pre-Jesus old. Heck, most of the structures there were built before he was even a twinkle in Big Man's eye. The highlights: running through the tunnel onto the original Olympic Field and walking on the Temple of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Quick, name all seven. Bet you can't. It's like the seven dwarves. The stunning thing about Olympia -- wait till 5 and it's a ghost town. Once the tours are done oohing and ahing, the place is deserted.

The next morning, I was on to Sparta to check out the old town of Mystra. It was in Kalamata (you might've heard of it, it's home to olives) where I met Lee and Anne, who have basically been the only people I've had a legitimate friendship with since leaving Ios aside from the Stoners and Casey, the nightwatchman at my campground in Paros. Meeting them turned out to be fortuitous because the only remotely cheap place to stay in Sparta was a campground -- one that didn't rent out tents. Fortunately, they had one, so I slept in the tent and they slept in the one cabin, which was really the reception office, complete with wedding pictures and other bizarre memorabilia. The next morning we checked out Mystras, an old fortified town that's a mere 500-700 years old. Amateur hour compared to Olympia. My only complaint (beside it from being viciously hot by 9 am and having to climb a mountain to get from the base of the settlement to the castle at the top) was that it has been so heavily restored it was next to impossible to judge what remained intact and what has been redone. Half the fun of looking at ruins is that they're ruined. That being said, running around the castle was great, and the views were absolutely amazing. I would trade one day being conquered to wake up to that view every morning. Behind the town was nothing but mountains. In front of it, a valley covered in olive trees, with more mountains lining the horizon. Absolutely stunning.

Later that day, it was another four-bus special (with needless transfers) to get to Nafplio, a charming town that seemed to have influences from the mainland, the islands and Venice (quick observation -- the churches in the island are that famous white washed with the domes painted in blue. You've seen the pictures. The Peloponnese churches are stone with red shingled roofs. Just thought you'd like to know). Sadly, though, it is also home to absolutely substandard gyros. It's also home to the quirkiest, most bizarre pension owner I've ever met. Calling Dimitri Bekas eccentric wouldn't even be the tip of the iceberg. I spent my morning in Nafplio (after going my separate ways from Anne and Lee) climbing the ridiculous amount of steps to the Palimidi fortress which sits atop the town. Again, the views from the top were spectacular, looking down on the town, mountains all around, and the Gulf of Corinth out to one side. Also, running around a fort is much better than when you're five and just playing fort. My one gripe (since it seems I always have one) is that there was absolutely no information supplied. For all I knew, it could've been built two weeks ago to dupe 2 euro out of tourists while supplying them a nice view and an old-timey fort. The only way I know it was built in 1711 by the Venetians (in case you were wondering) was by asking the women at the ticket office as I left.

From there, it was yet another four-bus day. I had to go to Delphi, but wasn't quite sure how to do it. I started by going to Isthmos, and while at the station, watched the disgruntled ticket lady kick a package from her window all the way to the exit, and then as I purchased my ticket for the seconds from departing bus to Patras, was urged to rush. Maybe if she hadn't been doing her best impersonation of Ace Ventura I wouldn't have had to sprint after the bus with my rucksack on (easier said than done). At Patras it was a windsprint across town to the other terminal to get the first of two buses that would deliver me to Delphi.

The effort was well worth it. Delphi has a spectacular setting, more BC ruins (better preserved) with a spectacular mountain backdrop. The highlights of the actual site -- the temple of Apollo, which still has five towering pillars, and the theater, still in perfect condition. Climb above the theater and you can look down on it, with the temple right behind and the mountains and valleys past that. The most beautiful aspect though is the Sanctuary of Athena, which you don't even have to pay to visit. How beautiful is it? They use its picture on the admission ticket, yet it's not even on the admission grounds. What's left is three circular pillars, all still connected, with the small temple in front of it. It's set against the mountains, even more strikingly than the oracle. I'd also like to add the museum at Delphi is well worth the admission, I didn't walk away from Olympia feeling the same way. The problem with both places -- Delphi provides several opportunities to photograph other people's beautiful wives and children while you try and save your own memories. The museum, well, you've got to sharpen your elbows if you want to see anything.

One last question that I pondered while walking the sanctuary. I was enjoying the serenity and the relative emptiness when a bunch of French dickheads came in and started running amok, and it got me thinking. Is a dickhead who comes to a place like Delphi less of a dickhead for at least acknowledging the significance of places like that, or more of a dickhead because he can't suppress his dickheadedness for even a few hours to show the location -- and the people there -- the proper respect?
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