Revelling in good food, fabulous weather, languid afternoon and all-nighters in one of the world's oldest civilisations, JAMIE KHOO and friends find the idyllic Mediterranean paradise of Greece a historical and cultural wonderland bursting with life.
THREE weeks in Greece left my head reeling from too much sun and my soul spinning from an overdose of culture. I guess I couldn’t have expected much less from a country known for having one of the world’s oldest civilisations and the most beautiful beaches but I still flew out of Athens feeling exhilarated and trippy.
Everyday in Greece felt like a mini adventure in itself. Back in England, where summer this year was just as miserable and rainy as it was in winter, I started to wonder why I wasn’t still in Greece.
A close friend had invited several friends and I to Greece for the summer. Eleni is Greek-American but still has family in Greece, a strong command of the language and a familiarity with the country. It was the best opportunity to visit Greece and see it properly. For once I wouldn’t be an arrogant tourist, all ready to colonise the country with my own ignorant interpretations of the world.
We booked our tickets in February, out of sheer desperation to get out of the cold weather. We mapped out our trip to start off in Athens before travelling down to Stoupa in the south of the Peloponese. We would then travel back up to Nafplion in the north, the first capital of Greece in the 1800s after liberation from Turkish rule. We planned to finish in Cephalonia, the island where Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed (and set). That way, we would get to see a good mixture of the country’s history, culture, and of course, the Mediterranean sunshine.
Starting off in Athens was a big shock to all of us. Trekking about the congested, tightly built-up streets of Athens in 40-degree heat and swirls of dust was a struggle; we could only gape in amazement at the procession of perfect Athenian girls marching along the shopping district, decked out in the most immaculate of fashions.
We were only going to spend three days there so we made the most of it by visiting as many of the ancient sites of the Acropolis as possible. Things were badly sign-posted – the Greeks take the Acropolis as part of their backyard and apparently do not see the need to mark it as a tourist attraction. Never mind, we found our way there anyway.
It really was amazing to see how well preserved these sites are, and to wander around what used to be the political centre of ancient Athens, built about 400 BC. In preparation for the Olympics next year, many of the buildings were being restored and full of scaffolding, but from what we could see, much of it was still intact and well preserved.
Apart from the Parthenon, a large temple built in honour of the Goddess Athena, patron saint of Athens, situated within the Acropolis, we also visited the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Hephaestus, and several ancient theatres, all located within walking distance of the Acropolis.
The wonderful thing about Athens is that amidst the bustle of the city and the constant blare of traffic everywhere, can be found these gems of history, all standing unmarked and understated as if it were just another building in the background.
This came to be a characteristic of all the sites we saw in Greece, and although initially surprised, we really came to appreciate this aspect of Greek culture. It was a way of seeing the historical sites as an intrinsic part of a country, accepted as so much a part of Greek lives that they don’t feel the need to flaunt them in the face of tourists. George Seferis, a modern Greek poet, even frowned upon the idea of lighting up the Acropolis at night. He said if it is indeed regarded as part of Greek history and tradition, it needn’t be embellished to draw attention to it.
After this brief dose of intellect and stifling heat, we were quite ready to don bathing suits and flip-flops and pose as beached whales by the sea! I’ll speak of Stoupa and Cephalonia together since what we did in both places were fairly similar.
Getting to Stoupa from the main city of Kalamata (also in the South) was an hour’s drive through tiny winding lanes that cut through rolling green mountains. When we finally got there, we found that we were sandwiched perfectly between a mile-long stretch of beach in front of us and sleepy mountain ranges behind us.
We stayed at our friend’s family beach house in Stoupa, located just several metres away from the sand and right in the centre of the beach with one mile of beach stretching away on either side of us. It would take us an hour to get anywhere or do anything so it was to be a week of idle bumming on the beach, sun rays and lazy afternoon siestas. Within two days, I had stopped bothering to wear my watch or my contact lenses and started napping far too many times a day.
We lapped up the typical life of the Greeks – everyday started with a slow breakfast on the balcony overlooking the beach, followed by a swim, sunbathing or canoeing until it got too hot. Lunch was whenever we felt hungry which, coupled with the overbearing heat of the afternoon, would soon send us into delicious siestas for three hours. A bit more lounging on the beach in the evenings (because the sun didn’t go down until 10) and people-watching from our balcony before we headed out for dinner as late as midnight.
Even in a tiny little beach town like Stoupa, tavernas (traditional Greek restaurants) and cafes stayed open until the early hours of the morning, and streets were busy throughout the night. The lifestyle in Greece is laidback and cheerful, and wherever you are in the country, evenings are always alive and buzzing with people.
All nightclubs in Greece don’t even open until midnight and don’t fill up until about 3am. Life here seems to be pushed back about three hours from the rest of the world – you can take your time wherever you are with whatever you’re doing and it’s just fine.
Unfortunately, Stoupa was “discovered” by hordes of British and German tourists, so we hardly saw any Greeks when we were there. However, Greece is a well-loved holiday destination among the Europeans and we were thankful enough that Stoupa had not yet been discovered by the crude, over-sexed, drunken youth that pack other Greek holiday destinations like Kos or Faliraki, (in)famous only for sleaze. Stoupa was just full of naked German kids and hopelessly sunburnt, middle-aged Europeans – harmless, mild entertainment for us.
Cephalonia, on the other hand, was full of Greek-Americans and Greek-British, all back to visit their family hometown for the summer. It was often like being in California as well as Cephfalonia, giving me two holidays in one. We were there to sunbathe, club and have a good time and the place was perfect for that. It’s a lively island, full of happy, beautiful people, gorgeous beaches and jolly Americans all ready to don party hats.
We spent a lot of time in Argostoli, the island’s capital which boasted plenty of great restaurants, cafes and the best ice cream in the world. After clubbing till four in the morning, we’d sit in a cafe and eat crepes while dodgy Greek men tried to chat us up. Oh yes, the Greek men. The hot-blooded Mediterranean stereotype rings true – they would slow down in their cars, lean out of their window, stare unabashedly at us and catcall or beep their horns. We never did decide whether it was flattering or disconcerting.
As for the beaches, have a look at the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, because that’s what it’s like. I’m the biggest fan of our Malaysian beaches but Myrtos beach on the island takes the cake. It really is the most beautiful beach I have seen. We didn’t have time to actually swim there, but went to several other smaller beaches which were more fun (and put less pressure on us to be as glam as Penelope Cruz in the movie). And anyway, we couldn’t really ask for more than any beach which had ice cream stands, banana boats and deck chairs.
Also worth mentioning was a monastery we visited there, named Agios Gerasimos (pronounced Ay-os Yeh-ra-si-mo), after a saint from the 1600s. Today, 400 years later, his body lies intact in the monastery; even after rebels tried to steal and burn it, it remained intact and turned black only from the smoke. Miracles do happen, and we got to see one.
Big Greek families
Lastly was my trip to Nafplion, formerly the capital of ancient Greece, which I visited between my trips to Stoupa and Cephalonia. It was taken over by the Venetians in the Middle Ages so the city is wonderfully quaint and styled in the Venetian way. Situated along the coast with a castle looming above it on a hill in the background, Nafplion is a most enchanting city, full of tiny little streets peppered with beautiful balconies and trellises.
We spent an afternoon poking around the castle (known as Palamidi), climbing over 1,000 steps to get to the top! We rewarded ourselves by having dinner in a taverna in one of the cute crooked streets, and coffee by the sea. If you could paint little people into one of those impossibly pretty postcards, I would have been one of those people: it really was idyllic.
Nafplion is also close to two other major sites – the Mycenaean ruins and the ancient theatre of Epidaurus – which I visited on my own on two separate days (the afternoon heat and irregularity of buses made it impossible to do them together).
Mycenae was the main centre of the Mycenaen civilisation between the 16th and 12th century BC. However, excavations in 1847 have found artefacts and creations that date as far back as 1900 BC. It is difficult to fully envisage what the whole area must have looked like, but there is still a significant number of the monuments’ foundations in place – incredible, considering they have been there for almost 4,000 years.
Epidaurus, too, dates back to the Mycenaen period and was better known as a sanctuary of healing. Not many of those monuments are intact, but the ancient theatre there (which isn’t actually Mycenean itself) has been considered one of the most perfect and well preserved Greek theatres where plays are still staged today. Built in a semi circle rising in graduated levels, ancient Greek theatres are renowned for their amazing acoustics. No need for fancy technology and microphones for even the softest whisper onstage can be heard by an audience sitting on the topmost step, furthest away from the stage.
Nafplion was most fun though, for the time that I spent with Eleni’s family where I got the chance to see Greek culture as its best. Family dinners were lively and loud, it was like being in a scene straight out of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I had no idea that such big families could be so close and actually enjoy being with each other! The Greeks are an incredibly welcoming people. Even though I spoke no Greek, going out to dinner with them was fun and warm, and they were passing trays of food back and forth to me like I was part of the family.
And speaking of food ? it’s ALL meat and a big shock to my vegetarian self! In all the tavernas we went to, meat formed the entirety of the menu. Vegetables just figured as side dishes and waiters look at you oddly if you only order a salad. Vegetarianism is not comprehended there – when Eleni told her grandmother that I didn’t eat meat, she said: “Ok, we’ll get chicken!” I survived on Greek salad and feta cheese for three weeks and can't bear to look at another tomato ever again.
Having said that though, I am told that the meat and seafood there are cooked simply but superbly. Pork or chicken souvlaki, grilled meat on skewers, is a popular favourite – my friend ate that every night for three weeks. Everything is drenched in olive oil, which is deliciously Mediterranean, and oozes with freshness. “Organic” vegetables aren’t sold in a separate section of supermarkets there because everything is already so fresh. This could even be the reason why the Greeks look so vibrant, alive and full of vigour.
But then, it’s not surprising: good food, fabulous weather, plenty of siestas and languid afternoons, and the backing of one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations – you’d be basking till dusk everyday and dancing till dawn every night too.
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