Ants and Apollo

Ant scramble @ Acropolis

The Spanish word for ants is hormigas. Thao and I used this word with great frequency during our sightseeing stops because the sheer number of people clambering on / over / around the archaeological sites resembled an anthill. Always most apparent from a great distance or at a high elevation, sometimes you turn the corner and there is just a flood of them waiting for you. Yes it’s fun to share great wonders of the world with your fellow humans .. to a point. Please promise me if you yourself are a tourist you will go forward from this post with one important thing: respect. For other people, buildings, ruins, sites, guides, guards and just about everything. Behave yourselves! Travel karma is a witch.

Delphi has it’s own fair share of ants. We start early but are still hounded by the tour groups. We start at the museum which is full of votive offerings and other statues uncovered from the site. Eavesdropping on tour guides we learn a bit more than what is offered by signage and entrance pamphlet. The signage here is very text heavy and our eyes are crossed before long. Drifting from statue to statue we make our way to the Charioteer – the most famous piece in the collection. This is the remnant of a sculpture which was previously a man on a chariot drawn by four horses. All that remains are several pieces of the legs and the statue itself, with a handful of reins. Apparently he was buried and preserved over the years – from approx 467 BC to 1896 when he was discovered on site.

The ruins are beautiful, but I think half of the appeal is the natural surroundings. The columns of the Temple of Apollo are striking with the mountains in the distance and the valley below. The stadium is simple, and after the long trek uphill I admit to being slightly disappointed. The theater pales in comparison to the one we saw at Epidavrus, and now that we’ve seen several we move on without much interest.

We take our bagged lunches from a local shop down to the Temple of Athena, parking the car nearby for a quick departure. The Temple of Athena is populated by several Spanish tourists demanding photos and a photogenic black and white cat who poses gracefully in front of the temple’s columns. She looks over her shoulder as if to say, I don’t know who the hell you people are but this is my place and you are blocking my sunlight.

Leaving Delphi at 1 p.m. we arrive to our hotel in Athens at 5 p.m. We drive past a whole collection of random things while traveling on the old national road (secondary, toll-free). These include goats climbing on a car, a tree decorated with water bottle ornaments and strange exits and forks in the road that appear to lead to random lots, not to Attica. When we finally spill into Athens after another stressful drive, we are ready to pass out. We try to motor through the afternoon powered by ice cream and souvenir shopping. Once again we turn to shrimp saganaki for dinner and rely on our food coma to get us through an evening full of church bells.

Thursday morning I wake up to the sound and smell of someone mowing the lawn and am temporarily disoriented. The sun is shining and for the first time in days it is warm enough to walk around outside. We have decided to forgo Sounion and will spend the day in Athens. Unfortunately our morning is not nearly as stress free as we had hoped, as we spend over an hour looking for the Cocooun Urban Spa in Exarhia. Despite several phone calls to the staff, we walk approximately 1-2 kilometers in the wrong direction and end up taking a cab back. Even the driver doesn’t know where we’re going, so Thao puts him on the phone with the salon. We can’t tell if Greek is angry or just loud (like Spanish) – but we ultimately end up on a small side street in front of the spa, 30 minutes late. They honor our appointments for signature facials, and we unwind for awhile.

After finally coming back into the center of Athens, we descend on a French bakery called Paul’s for lunch. Our chicken curry baguette, cold vegetable pizza and mille fiuele are served with a nasty attitude that is only surpassed by the tastiness of the food. We post up at the Numismatic museum (aka old currency place) – where a small garden cafe gives us a table in the sun and two cappuccino freddos. We spot a fellow diner who looks like he’s wearing the fake nose / black mustache / thick glasses disguise .. but he’s not. Our hotel has a rooftop terrace, so we haul our dessert to the top and sit in the sun, deciding to take the metro down to Piraeus to explore and ultimately to locate a fish taverna for dinner (always thinking of food, as you know).

The tracks take us past the Olympic Stadium (“Peace and Friendship”) and deposit us near the water. We watch a chaotic entrance / exit of a giant ferry accepting / depositing both cars and people. The smart cars zoom in first and the scooters careen onto the ship without killing anyone. But the trucks haven’t even exited the boat yet .. does no one have any patience? The pedestrians are storming the gate as though the ferry will pull away at any minute, and cars filled with Easter presents and suitcases line the dock waiting to make their approach. We walk out past the cruise ships that are larger than buildings and once again walk farther than we originally intended. Today we will take 3 cabs, the only ones we’ve taken during the entire trip. One, to the spa. One, to rescue us from the wrong end of the port. One more, to take us back to the metro stop after dinner.

Zea Marina is a posh area full of yachts and well to do Greeks. We stop at Flocafe for wine and beer before moving on to a fish taverna whose name we can’t pronounce. Intimidated by fellow diners with numerous plates on their tables we commit to several dishes: Greek salad, stuffed grape leaves, shrimp saganaki with ouzo and grilled stuffed squid. Fat and happy we slump into a taxi after dinner and head to the metro stop, listening to a Greek mass on the radio. Once on the metro we forget that we need to switch trains and sit quietly while the train starts to travel in the opposite direction. Correcting our mistake we hop out at Syntagma Square and take a brisk walk home past skateboarders and cops, passing out in the midst of putting in my earplugs.

Friday is my last day in Greece, and I am headed for the airport around 3pm. It is Good Friday and the cathedral bells have been chiming all morning. Thao’s Greek friend picks us up and takes us to Mount Imitós over 3,000 feet above the city. It is easily one of the most serpentine roads we have driven on, but the view from the top is worth the nausea. The city of Athens spreads out before us from sea to mountains and everything in between. It is outrageously beautiful, and we stand there shivering quietly while the wind whips around us, trying to take it all in.

We enter the city again in hopes of finding a kebab but fail miserably. Chocolate sorbet saves the day, and we make a trip through Ermou street so I can pick up some airplane food from the street vendors. Later in flight I am grateful for the sesame ring and coconut stick. Is a layover such a bad deal if I get to have gnocchi for dinner in Rome? It is when they switch our gate at the last minute and then delay our flight anyway. Arriving in Barcelona at midnight I am exhausted and anxious to find a place to sit for the five hour layover I have ahead of me. I would love to photograph the kid at the ATM who is wearing a backpack and carrying a sombrero, pushing every button possible. It is part of the concert of late night airport noises: whirring floor cleaner, security guard’s squeaky sneakers and quiet chatter in other languages.

Saturday dawns with my approach to Sevilla, and I am back at home and in bed a few hours later with almost 600 photos to upload. Greece is already a memory and I am looking at the calendar wondering where the time went.

If you’re interested in seeing our route, here are the basics. Photos in the next post, I promise!

P is for Photographs not Parking

Tuesday we are bound for Delphi. Our evening at the Hotel Metropolis is a Goldilocks type of experience. The bed is too hard and I’m far too tall for both bed and shower. Don’t get me started on showers in Europe…

We buy another map and buy breakfast at another bakery (are you following the theme here?). The cashier gives us a slice of Easter bread to try and tucks an olive loaf into our bag for free. We buy a sesame ring with cream cheese and it is the first semblance of a bagel I’ve had since September. It only seems fair that we take a box of cookies for the road.

Over cappucino freddos we review a local spa menu and lament our aching bones. The hotelier is happy to call the spa and speak some Greek for us so we can book an appointment for Thursday. Sitting in Athens traffic once again, this small fact makes us smile and roll our sore shoulders in anticipation.

We spend most of the drive in shock over our surroundings as they include soaring mountains with snow capped peaks and deep valleys full of olive trees. More than once I catch my breath when we take a sharp turn and the landscape leaps out into view in our windshield. We stop at more than one parking site to take photos and stretch our legs. It becomes impossible to photograph all of these views and we continue to wind our way westward.

En route to Delphi is the tiny ski town of Arahova. We find a parking spot on a small side street and settle into a taverna with a beautiful view. The menu is full of some of our favorites but we try several new dishes, all traditional Greek. The most interesting is Tarahanes (sp) soup made of milk and semolina, served warm. My eyes glaze over after I taste a pumpkin, feta and gruyere pie and I contemplate proposing marriage to the chef, sight unseen. There are filled potatoes that pack a punch with garlic and spices, and baked leg of lamb with lemon. We are fit to bursting when the waitress trots out a complimentary dish of Greek yogurt. In a beautiful terra cotta pot and hidden under a layer of the thickest honey I have ever tasted, who can refuse? All this for just 28€. The only sour note is the indoor smoking which has plagued us at nearly every restaurant. Even though I repeatedly open and slam the window shut, the girl continues to puff away in our small terrace enclosure.

Back into the fresh air we explore this quaint and beautiful town, scaling huge staircases and admiring expansive gardens. The view from the courtyard at the top cannot be beat, and we stand with our faces to the sun taking it in. Even the birds are singing loudly and who can blame them? The air smells like chimney smoke and our attention is drawn to the occasional doorway bearing ashes in the shape of the cross. Two small boys slowly pass a soccer ball back and forth, mimicking their grandfathers walking with their hands clasped behind their backs. At another overlook, the wind picks up and the temperature drops among the pine trees. It has been cold and windy here but we are blissfully without rain.

We counted a whopping 124 roadside shrines (kalakynades) from the Ochomenos exit to Delphi. Later google uncovers an article about the nature of these miniature churches, claiming they are placed at the sites of lost lives. They remind me of travelers shrines that appear along the paths of pilgrimage like Tibetan prayer flag or othe markers. Lost life or otherwise, someone thought enough to put them along the route and we point them out at each curve.

Delphi is adorable. We drive up and then circle back down to find Hotel Hermes. Room with a view is an understatement! Standing outside on our balcony I see a tiny Greek lady tending a shrine, our #125, just below. It is a relief from the rowdy underage school groups parading through the streets with beer bottles in hand. We find pashminas with the Greek key design and skip dinner in favor of two cups of hot chocolate. Tomorrow, its an ascent to the navel of the world and the site of the oracle.