In 1983, near the end of the year, Kathy and I embarked on our first trip to Greece. Unlike travel for work, whose timing is dictated by job requirements, travel for pleasure usually enjoys a wider latitude. Over the years, we’ve learned that matching a vacation with the right social season and weather conditions is important. I might have learned that lesson in early 1979 when I took my mom to Hawaii during its rainy season. Apparently I needed a second lesson, though, and got it in Greece during the end-of year holidays, a family time when many hotels and restaurants close for the season and travel is restricted. Those facts, combined with our chronic fatigue made for the kind of moments we smile about only after having survived them.
We didn’t undertake Greece totally unprepared and without a plan. I had read Lawrence Durrell’s book, The Greek Islands, and an interesting volume entitled Winds of Crete by David MacNeil Doren. Crete was to be our principal destination, but we would first spend a few days in Athens and and a day or two at Delphi before exploring that large island. Before going, I don’t think I knew what I expected modern Greece to be like. There were many Greek immigrants in the United States so Greece or at least the idea of it seemed familiar. What we found in the Greece of 1983 was a country that had more in common with the Third World than the First. Greece forty years later feels quite different than it did then.
Our night flight on Olympic Air from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Athens was crowded. Passengers were returning home for the holidays bringing loads of stuff from America. I just remember how cramped it felt and how tired we were.
We arrived in Athens about noon and by 1:30 had checked into our hotel, the St. George Lucabettus on the Lebetticus hillside. We had been told by New Yorkers that this was an excellent place, luxury without pretension. That day, we slept for a couple of hours then went out for a walk to get a sense of where we were.
We made our way to the Plaka, the old Turkish neighborhood under the Acropolis where we peered into shops and glanced at silent men in kafenions manipulating worry beads. We bought shirts and enjoyed watching the passersby. We ate an indifferent dinner, thinking we must be careful choosing our eating spots. At the hotel we had been given a room just under its top-floor night club. The noise from the club in addition to our jet lag caused us to sleep poorly.
We were astonished to wake up at 1 p.m. Got dressed in a hurry and went directly to Gerofinikas in Pirandou St. near the hotel. It was a good restaurant highly recommended by a restaurant owner we knew in New York. Walked to the Acropolis and, although it was closed, the walk was wonderful. Winter sun and 60 degrees. Few tourists. That evening we saw Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass and ate fast food at a kind of drive in.
We began to understand that at Christmastime only certain stores were open – flowers, sweet shops mostly.
Christmas Day in Athens. We managed to have breakfast at 10 a.m. Kay stayed in the hotel while I walked in the public gardens, photographing families. I walked to the zoo and listened to a public concert.
In the afternoon, Kathy and I went up to the top of Lebetticus Hill in a funicular. My first impression of Athens was of its polluted air.
On Boxing Day we split up. Kay wasn’t feeling well and went to find a doctor while I tried to get to the port of Piraeus by public transportation and became involved in a taxi accident. The accident was bizarre but predictable. I had taken a bus or tram to Piraeus, but because of the hills I couldn’t see which way was the port. The streets were mostly deserted. Then I saw a taxi discharge a passenger ahead of me. I told the taxi driver where I wanted to go and he sped off without resetting the meter. Having been warned about the tricks of the Greek taxi drivers, I made note of the fare getting in and was determined to pay only the difference between it and the final amount. When it was time to exit I offered the driver only the amount I thought was correct, and he reacted angrily. He pushed me back into the cab and sped off, saying he was taking me to the police. The street was empty of traffic, but at a cross street a vehicle pulled out and my driver couldn’t stop in time. We crashed, the windshield shattered, and I bruised my shin. The two drivers were shouting at each other, as I took pictures with my still camera. The empty street began filling with people from the adjacent buildings. Someone asked if I were injured. I finally gave some money to the weeping driver and left to explore the port.
On the 27th of December, we checked out of St. George Lucabettus and drove north to Delphi, legendary in the Ancient World for its famous oracle.
En route, we stopped to look at the splendid mosaics in the Byzantine monastery at Hosios Louka. We lunched there in a peaceful taverna. Our out-of-season trip allowed us some quiet, leisurely meals in restaurants where frequently we were the only diners.
At Delphi we visited the upper ruins, the Temple of Apollo, the treasuries, and we admired the beautiful mountain scenery.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Varonos.
Back in Athens the following day, we took a night boat to Crete aboard a ship named Knossos. It had a cafeteria, and our second-class cabin was quiet and nice. We docked at 7 a.m. at the Cretan port of Iraklion where we sat at a sidewalk café until the Budget car-rental office opened.
We rented a tiny Suzuki automobile for a week and left to first visit Knossos, the ruins of King Minos’ palace, that had been the center of Minoan civilization in the 2nd Millennium BC. In Greek mythology Knossos was also the Labyrinth inhabited by the monstrous Minotaur killed by heroic Theseus.
We were delighted with the colorful ruins. Their wall murals are like nothing we’ve seen since. After a lunch of octopus and stuffed vine leaves, we drove into the mountains to the Lasithi plateau to see the windmills director Jules Dassin restored for a film location.
On the way, we passed peasant villages with some remarkable-looking characters. We spent that night at the pretty seaside town of Agios Nikolaos.
On The last day of the year our destination was the island’s northcoast town of Rethymno. On the way, we found ourselves at noon in the market town of Mirer.
What faces! Mountain people and peasants come to buy and sell. Men in jodhpurs and Cretan boots sporting great wide mustaches. We ate peasant food, a lunch of fava beans and boiled potatoes. In the restaurant Kathy made it known that she needed to use a toilet. A crone dressed in black walked her to another building where there was a modern one. The fava beans came, swimming in oil.
Rethymno, which we reached at close of day, was shut up, and we wondered where we could stay the night. We spotted a bar with its lights on, and upon entering I found a woman cleaning. She said that all the hotels were closed for the season but that we could stay in one of the vacant holiday apartments upstairs. She opened a door on a dark corridor, revealing a room that had been unoccupied for weeks. The mattress was rolled up against the wall. Once we were brought bedding and towels, our lodging was set for the night.
The next question was where we could eat given that all the restaurants were closed. Again the woman came to our rescue, directing us to a place on the outskirts of town. Although it was officially closed, the proprietor was entertaining his family and agreed to fix us something. We dined delightfully on steaks with mushroom sauce, and considered ourselves very lucky.
On the morning of New Years Day we slept late then went in search of food again. The town, so busy during the summer, was shut up and silent. We finally found a taverna at the old port and ate red mullet and fried potatoes, all the restaurant had to serve us. As we ate, we were surrounded by a clutter of starving cats who made quick work of anything that fell from our table. Late in the evening we returned to the restaurant where we had dined so well the night before. The meal was equally good and served with the same warmhearted hospitality.
From Rethymno we drove to beautiful Chania where we spent a day in the old quarter exploring streets that date back to the era when the city-state of Venice ruled them.
From Iraklion we flew back to Athens and left the city for New York on the Day of the Epiphany.
Visiting Greece today, you wouldn’t think that forty years ago it was nearly impossible to order a cup of coffee that wasn’t Nescafe, or that on Crete, where there are orchards filled with orange trees, we couldn’t get fresh orange juice and had to settle for Tang. An indelible memory of the trip is of a peasant riding a donkey along a country road while his woman walked behind him carrying a load of wood. These kinds of experiences created a level of cognitive dissonance about a country unlike any we had experienced. Thinking back, the happiest memory I have of this trip is of the kindness and generosity of the people.