Travel: Greece, past and present |

Travel: Greece, past and present

A close look at the Parthenon in Athens reveals the amazing detail in the temple built for the goddess Athena.

ISLE OF CRETE, Greece – I turn the first page of Zorba the Greek, the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, as my flight to Europe takes off from O’Hare International, and find myself there – in Greece – even if I’m still a day’s travel away.

The book is set on the isle of Crete, with all its inhabitants as extras in a story of two men who, despite every difference in the world, develop deep friendship and love for one another.

Our vacation is also set on Crete, a destination far enough away to escape the work and people and expectations that script our lives at home. We seek in Crete an experience that is unfamiliar, similar to the way the narrator, a well-heeled intellectual, first describes Zorba, a working man whose orientation goes no further than the present moment: “Zorba was the man I had sought so long in vain. A living heart, a large, voracious mouth, a great brute soul, not yet severed from mother earth.”

Anne and I travel to Heraklion, the most ancient of capitals in Europe, site of the legendary Palace of Knossos, home to legendary King Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa, and site of the mythical Labyrinth that held the Minotaur.

Knossos was one of the cultural and commercial centers of the Minoan civilization. Its ruins have been extensively excavated and reconstructed, giving visitors a good sense of the strength of the Minoan culture, which dominated Greece, Asia Minor and North Africa for approximately 500 years, from 1900 to 1400 B.C. The 60 Euros we spend for a guide at Knossos is worthwhile, giving us our first dose of ancient culture in a vacation that promised to be full of antiquities.

Modern Heraklion is built on the foundations of bygone eras, of the Byzantine era, the Venetian era, the Ottoman era. Cobblestone streets open into small public spaces. Religious structures span two millennia. Historic buildings are partially composed of ruins from a preceding era. Various urban designs clash abruptly.

There is a giant wall that was built around the city by the Venetians, who ruled Crete from the 13th to the 17th Century. It was originally designed to keep invading Ottoman Turks at bay, and was quite successful in that purpose.

Today the wall divides older neighborhoods from new ones, and its top has become a swath of open space that curves through the heart of the city, with trails and benches along the way. A walk atop the wall offers a voyeuristic peek into civic life and views of the Aegean Sea beyond. About halfway around, there is a modest monument at the gravesite of Kazantzakis, modern Crete’s greatest public figure.

The cafe culture, a signature feature of Greek life, is exaggerated in Heraklion. Boys and girls, young and old, drink and talk and play backgammon and chess for hours on end. Outside at a table under an awning, the air fills with the din of gossip and chatter. It’s easy to forget that the Greece is at the center of a financial storm that has captured the world’s attention.

Driving in Greece is a chaotic adventure compared to the scripted, between-the-lines affair that we’ve legislated in America. It requires a day or so to get a sense of people’s mannerisms and expectations, but once we do it all makes sense. Our Peugeot is fashionably small and has plenty of zip. We fit right in as we travel due south from the capital to a small tourist outpost on the Libyan Sea.

Our destination is Matala, a place on Crete’s south coast that Joni Mitchell sang about leaving in her song “Carey,” after mixing for a few weeks with the hippies who occupied the caves that overlook the cove and town below.

Matala in May is a godsend. Days are sunny and not too hot. Evenings are cool. A table can be found at any restaurant. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available. The water is cooler than I had imagined, but then I had no idea what I was getting into until a wave splashed over my feet for the first time.

The best things about Matala are the stone beach right in town and a red sand beach a 20-minute walk away, up and over a rocky saddle south of town. The red sands are covered with a sprinkling of people, some nude, some not, lying in the sun and being served drinks by a stocky, dark-haired waiter out of a small, ancient-looking bar and coffee stand.

The next best thing was the patio outside our second-story room. We had complete privacy there, and were able to practice yoga under the morning sun, between our first cup of coffee and the hard-boiled egg, bread and olive oil we had for breakfast.

Matala serves as our base camp for adventure. One day we climb the cliffs and explore the caves above town. On another we hike a ravine along the E4 trek, which runs from one end of the island to the other, over three mountain ranges. We spend a day driving through the villages in the valleys and along the south shore, stopping for a walk, chatting up four German women on a motorcycle ride, climbing the ancient streets of Ano Viannos to a tiny chapel built in the 12th century, taking in the frescos of Christ and Mary and the view from this small city on the side of a mountain above a valley filled with olive groves.

For antiquity’s sake, we spend time at the ruins of Phaestos, a palace that is equally magnificent as Knossos, and explore the more intact ruins at Gortyna, one of the most important ancient cities in the Greek and Roman eras. Gortyna, which is mentioned by Homer in the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad, rose to particular prominence in the years leading up to Christ’s birth. The site includes the Gortyn Code, a set of laws written in stone – literally – in the 6th century B.C., that formed the basis for the Athenian and Spartan constitutions.

It’s amazing how quickly we are immersed in this distant place. Our cell phones don’t work. Internet service is spotty. Everybody and everything is Greek to us. History has been recorded here so long that time takes on a dimension of its own. Our most important decision each day is where to have dinner.

On the bus from the airport to downtown Athens, a young Greek man who works in duty-free talks nonstop about the problems with the city, from the immigrants who in his mind are nothing but trouble, to the collapse in real estate values that have left him with a worthless condominium, to the overwhelming debt that has squashed his hope for a prosperous future. He is angry. He wants to beat immigrants. To get the money back on his condo. To overthrow his country’s leadership.

Our apartment overlooks a busy intersection from the third story. Each night a platoon of cops blockade three blocks in the area to prevent further rioting, which occurred after the murder of a young father by a transient immigrant. The sound of silence we’d enjoyed on Crete has been shattered, completely. But that’s what we bargained for, and we’re happy to be here.

Walking our first day in the city through the streets of Omonia, a massive neighborhood north of the seat of government in Syntagma Square, has the feel of New York City in the late 1970s. Junkies and hookers air their woes in the cool morning light, before the streets fill up. Buildings are covered with graffiti. Storefronts are shuttered behind steel curtains. Nobody smiles.

We reach a massive flea market that looks up toward the Acropolis. Everything you could ever imagine buying (and wishing you hadn’t) is on sale here. Before long, however, we walk away from the present and into the ancient Agora, the one-time commercial, intellectual and spiritual center of Greece, exploring the temples, viewing the art and architecture on display, imagining the place filled with buildings instead of foundations and partial columns.

Anne and I hike up the Acropolis surrounded by people from all over the globe who interpret Ancient Greece in a myriad of languages. Walking alongside the Parthenon, I must hear 15 different tongues. As memorable as the architecture are the people, for their diversity and their sheer numbers. The temple to Athena, built in nine short years and used over the centuries as a Christian church, a Turkish mosque and even a munitions depot, is today one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

We head to the beach on our second day in the city, using all available modes of public transit. The journey begins on a subway, continues on the tram, includes a half-hour walk (because we get off too early) and a fruitless wait for a bus that never shows, and finally ends with us reboarding the tram and riding it to the nearest beach. We end up on the shore with pristine waters. People chat in the sun. Groups of four are playing paddle ball. The water is shallow, warm and remarkably clean.

In addition to the Parthenon and surrounding antiquities, a few must-sees in Athens include the Archaeological Museum and the New Parthenon Museum. Both are organized brilliantly and contain jaw-dropping displays. My favorite was the coin section of the Archaeological Museum, which featured the stories of the gods to go with their figures on the coins. Zeus, needless to say, left quite a legacy of gods, goddesses and troublemakers.

In our four full days in Athens, we walk through a dozen neighborhoods, encounter all kinds of people, discover a yuppie neighborhood filled with hip bars and restaurants, befriend a jeweler and goldsmith who tells tales of his days as a mountain climber, and an artist who makes household goods from found items. We also seek and find the perfect meal, on our last night in town.

People, even those who appear financially secure, are nervous and discontented. Walking 30 blocks across Athens late one afternoon, I am struck by how often we find ourselves on streets filled with loitering young men, some throwing angry glances our way. I feel under threat. We are two weeks after a round of clashes between protesters and police at Syntagma Square, and two weeks before another round. If I were an Athenian, I’d be seething too.

The ravaged economy ends up taking a toll on our chosen restaurant for our last night in town. The place had closed, so we found ourselves hungry and a little lost about what to do for dinner. We walk into a boutique hotel that seems out of place in the neighborhood and ask two young men at the desk what to do. Half an hour later, we walk into Alexandras, a very Greek restaurant well off the tourist loop. Our table is in a small courtyard. The Greeks around us eat and drink at a leisurely pace. What makes the scene special to us is how normal it seems to be for everyone else. It’s one of a very few places where we saw Athenians let their guard down.

My trip ends with a Greek salad done the Greek way, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and a slab of feta cheese sprinkled with fresh herbs and olive oil. Eggplant souffle. And baked lamb.

The next day I sit down in the airplane and pull out the book. I’m near the end. Zorba is finally teaching his boss how to dance, on their last day together. They express their love and then they leave, each other and Greece, without ever saying goodbye.

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