On the plane coming home, I overheard an American girl describing her trip: "We flew into Athens, then went to Santorini and Mykonos."
That, unfortunately, seems to be how a lot of people "see Greece."
Dodging volcano ash, strikes, and occasionally violent demonstrations, we accomplished our long-planned two-week trip to the birthplace of democracy almost without a hitch. Of course, two weeks could only give us a sampling of the varied geography and multilayered history of the country, but you can do a lot more in a fortnight than island-hop to tourist-jammed beaches. Besides, we're not beach-vacation people; we're tramping-through-historic-sites vacation people. Hence, Greece.
Delta (a Greek letter) offered a nonstop flight from New York to Athens, something hard to find. But that meant our trip commenced with a nine-and-a-half hour bout of claustrophobia courtesy of the airline's jamming its rows of seats so close together you can't even lean forward to give yourself a break from sitting back. Nor can you stuff anything significant in the magazine pouch any more—your knees need that room; at least they do if you're 5'11".
To compensate: free beer and wine. In coach. That's right, free beer and wine in coach. Was I ever surprised.
Peaceful demonstrators march by Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), Athens. Yes, that's a McDonald's in the background. The deadly firebomb incident happened a couple of days later.
The second surprise: transportation within Greece was efficient, professional, and on time, both the public transport and the for-profit boats. Maybe we just got lucky, but it felt like we were in Germany, not the sleepy Mediterranean bastion of debilitating welfare-state excess Greece is stereotyped to be.
The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora, Athens.
Of course, we did have some luck in our timing: a strike a couple of days after we arrived closed the airport. And we picked up our rental car on the day of another strike which would have prevented us getting out of Athens any other way.
Like poor weather conditions on the slopes of Everest, a strike also kept us from climbing the Acropolis on our first attempt. Athens' most popular historic site closed early the day of our arrival because some protests had gotten violent. For us, it turned out just as well: the first day of a trip to Europe is always marked by late-day exhaustion as you battle jet lag trying to stay awake through the evening. With our body clocks seven hours behind, we weren't in the best frame of mind to appreciate the Parthenon.
A peaceful moment outside the Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles at the Ancient Agora, Athens.
We did see the more manageable Ancient Agora that first day, where everywhere you look there's a sublime site from one millennium or another.
And we would have another chance at the Acropolis. Click here for Part 2.