Greece Untour, Fall 2005
by Doug & Jean Cheever, Dubuque, IA
Untouring Greece in NovemberFour of us (2 couples) stayed in Dimitri 2 the first two weeks of November. This was our first Untour: we had a wonderful 2 weeks. Untours provides excellent support and advice; we were well prepared for our travels.
Greece in Early NovemberOur main concern was what the weather would be like. We had one day where it rained. Otherwise it was sunny most of the time; the temperature dipped to the mid 40’s and got up to the low 60’s. Sweaters and jackets were important as we moved from shade to sun. The apartment is designed to be cool in summer and it was cool in November; the space heaters provided took the edge off the temperature. Warm pajamas were appreciated.
There was no lack of fall color as some trees were dropping leaves. In the countryside, some hills were becoming green with new sprouts appearing; wild cyclamen were blooming on sunny slopes. Roses and other blooming shrubs provided additional color.
Our next concern was how much would be open. Most sites were open to 3 and some until 5 pm. The hours vary: times in guidebooks are only approximate. Calling ahead is a good idea if you are relying on access in the late afternoon. Shops also had a more random schedule than what is published or posted on the door: stay flexible. We had many of the tourist sites to ourselves: while we sometimes shared a site with a tour bus, they usually moved on quickly.
Driving in GreeceWe took day trips only. The main roads were well marked and the drivers were assertive but not highly aggressive. The best advice was that passing is a national sport: let people pass. Don’t be concerned that people will pass you no matter the speed limit or the passing lane indications. Plan to drive to the right side of your lane most of the time to allow passing. Drivers will be opportunistic and make full use of a road that can handle 3 vehicles side-by-side. We were never forced off the road. The drivers were a combination of aggressiveness and patience with confused tourists. Speed limit signs also are more random than a US driver is used to as is observance of them. 80 km/hour often worked on the two-lane roads in the country while a speed of 50 km/hr. was usually appropriate in populated areas (often contrary to what was posted).
We needed a full-time navigator to assist the driver. Even though there are numerous signs using the Roman alphabet we are used to, it was useful to be able to read the Greek letters. This also helped in shopping. A map with a large scale was important to track our progress and anticipate the next turn. The largest percentage of visitors to Greece come from Great Britain, English was widely spoken.
Day TripsWe traveled to both Tiryns and to Mycenae to see cyclopean structures: Mycenae has an excellent museum while Tiryns is fun to explore if you have a guidebook. When you walk about Nafplio, you will find some remnants of cyclopean walls that the walls of Akro Nafplio built on. If we had more time, we would have gone to the French excavations at Argos.
Ancient Corinth and Akro Corinth took up another day. They were out of guidebooks in English on the day we visited: we should have purchased one from the shops that line the way to the parking lot at Akro Corinth. The museum has much sculpture and architectural detail to look at. Akro Corinth has less explanatory material on the site than does Mystras and somewhat steeper climbing.
Both Epidaurus and Nemea have informative displays and good explanations in English in the museum to introduce the Classic period of Greece. Both sites provide opportunities to watch restoration proceed. The walking tour of the stadium at Nemea, which is remote from the temple and baths was more interesting than expected – buy the stadium self-guiding tour booklet at the museum shop. The signs in the Nemea restroom to “please flush the paper in the toilet” were a big hit. (Thanks to the University of California.) The museum at Epidaurus has much to see; we found it as interesting as the theatre. At both Epidaurus and Nemea, we appreciated having several hours to explore on our own.
The Byzantine sights of Mystras provide a switcbacking 2 1/2 hour drive from the Aegean shores over the first range of interior mountains (or you can cut almost an hour off catching the 120 km/hour 4 lane north of Argos to get to Tripoli). The best tip is that Mystras has an upper parking lot and entrance: park above if any in your party would prefer to walk down, not up. The driver can shuttle the car to the lower lot halfway through the visit.
We had hoped to spend a day on the island of Hydra, but the winter ferry schedule to Hydra was early in the morning or mid-afternoon with returns about 4 hours later. We did not want to drive much in the dark so we skipped the ferry. (Those who went for an overnight enjoyed their stay.) Poros was our island visit, it’s another scenic drive. The island is about 1 kilometer off the mainland; there are plenty of water taxis as well as a car ferry that ran regularly every half hour - even in the winter.
We did not get to Olympia, Delphi, Monemvasia. At our pace, these needed to be overnight stays. We found enough to do in Nafplio.
NafplioThe two local drives around Nafplio to Agia Moni (where myth had Hera renewing her virginity annually) and to the convent XXXX were pleasant diversions where we could just explore the countryside, smell fresh oregano, hear goat bells, and learn why Greek shepherds are good at running and throwing.
We made it a point to visit the Nafplio Saturday market that sets up just a quarter mile away. There is much local color, a chance to buy fresh flowers and nuts, fresh and dried fruits, and vegetables (the cabbage heads were almost as big as basketballs) and to see fresh fish and octopus. Clementines (small, easily peeled orange/tangerines) were in season, they were a great snack throughout our visit. The supermarket and bakeries nearby our apartment kept us well stocked for breakfast and light meals.
Favorite foods included fresh pears, red peppers, cheese pies from the bakery, eggplant salad, souvlaki, mousaka, big beans, tasty fruit juice (beyond the usual apple, orange, and grapefruit), crusty whole grain bread, Greek cheeses and wines, almonds, dried figs, and sesame seed bread sticks, pastries, and candy.
We enjoyed exploring Nafplio, walking the Old Town streets that lead up to Akro Nafplio, taking the seaside walk around the peninsula as well as checking the view from the Palamidi and Bourtzi fortresses. The Nafplio museum was closed.
With our apartment overlooking the square, we watched people gather and disperse for 2 weddings, a funeral, and a christening. The church bells are loud, but they weren’t rung every day.
AthensWe spent our last 2 days in Athens. That was sufficient. We took the bus. (Seat reservations were needed for the 8 a.m. bus; it was full before we got to Athens.) Athens traffic made us glad we rode the bus. We stayed at the Hotel Achilleas, which had clean, spacious rooms, helpful desk clerks, a buffet breakfast, and a convenient location halfway between the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum. We walked to both and discovered interesting shops, bakeries, and restaurants on the way. Seeing the treasures and finds from Mycenae and Tiryns on display after visiting the sites worked well for us.
We came away as fans of Untours. It was a relaxing, interesting, pleasant 2 weeks away. Untours personnel in the US and in Nafplio both prepared and hosted us well. In addition to our local host and the local Avis agency, the apartment had useful information left by previous occupants. The 12 of us in Untours apartments saw each other throughout the 2 weeks and passed on current information and tips. As we got to know our mutual interests and plans, we grouped together some of the time.