March 16, 2008 GMT
Spring at Last

8 to 15 Mar 08

A lot had changed in the 18 years since our last visit to Greece. The country we remembered was a bit of a backwater, friendly, quaint and a little clunky. The country we found has been transformed by its membership of the EU and monetary union. The place looks and feels prosperous, it has the beginning of a cosmopolitan culture (albeit one with central European bent), and all of the usual problems of a modern western market economy.

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One excellent effect of Greece’s booming economy is that folks have real jobs. We are never bothered by touts in the tourist areas.

The great news is that all of the things we loved then are still here, even if the prices are now in Euros. The food is great, the people straight-up and the country still rugged and beautiful. In short, everything we like about a place.

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Athens lacks the beautiful architecture of other cities, but in the prosperous area the town looks smart and clean.

Not that the Greeks themselves are fully used to the new face of their country. In one coffee shop, a fellow explained that the newcomers bring discrimination on themselves because they dress and act differently. We bit our tongues and didn’t say anything. We’re visitors here and, besides, we have heard enough talk-back jocks at home blaming the victim not to take the high ground.

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Don’t know about these fellows, but there were six of them sleeping around the same bank!

We arrived in Greece on the Friday of a long weekend for the celebration of Shrove Monday, also known as Clean Monday. As we rode into Athens on the Saturday morning a river of traffic moved in the opposite direction out of the city. We had wondered why the huge and almost empty hotel in Messolonghi had no rooms on the Saturday. We saw the reason pouring past us; a river of cars leaving town.

The Sunday of the long weekend is marked by a carnivale with big street parades. While the Brazilians are probably not in danger of losing their crown for the ultimate street party, the Greeks do a great job of parading in the streets dressed up in silly costumes and eating and drinking far too much. All of this in the name of piety mind you.

We spent the weekend in Athens staying in an area inhabited predominately by Romanians (don’t ask us). The unexpected upside of our visit was that the air, having been cleaned with recent snow and the Friday’s rain, remained as clear as crystal. The usual polluters spread their vehicle exhausts further afield in the provinces for three days. We put on our walking shoes (our only shoes) and made the best of the brilliant warm spring weather and the clean air in this traditionally smoggy city.

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On a rare clear day in Athens we look from Lycabettus Hill over the Parthenon and all the way to the Peloponnese. It is not often you can get a view like this.

Our reason for coming to Athens was to resolve some problems with our visas for Russia. In the end, we left without having a full solution to our problem, but the folk at the Russian Consulate were most helpful and we are hopeful that we will get our visas in the end. Without going onto excruciating detail, the following facts will allow you to fill out the problem(s) for yourselves:

• We are still 2400 km and seven countries away from our entry point into Russia and it will take us 60 days to get there. Our target entry date is 1 June 08.
• To get a visa, you need an invitation from an organisation inside Russia.
• Because we need a visa for three months (it’s a big place) and for multiple entries (we wanted to go to Mongolia as well) we have to have a business visa as the tourist versions are only for short visits.
• The organisation that is inviting us can’t apply for our invitation from the relevant ministry until 45 days out from our entry date.
• It takes 18 days to process our invitation request.
• Once we have the invitation (the original copy of which needs to be delivered to us somewhere, which will take a week) we have to apply for a visa at a Russian Consulate. These all operate separately and have different rules depending on the host countries. It takes 10 days for the Consulate to process the visas, during which time they have our passports.
• In the end, there is no guarantee that we will be granted the visa we need for the trip we want to do.

The current plan is to process our visas at the Consulate in Budapest in early May. We shall see about that! But, in the meantime, we stave off Alzheimer’s solving these problems on the road.

After Athens we headed south into the Peloponnese, that large southern protrusion joined to the mainland by a thin isthmus at Corinth. This is where you can find Sparta, Olympia, Kalamata and the village of Githio where Paris took some folk dancing lessons from Helen before stealing her away to Troy and starting a war.

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While we don’t intend to re-visit sites we visited in 1990, the theatre at Epidaurus was a short and interesting stop that we missed last time. This visit also gave us the chance to…

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…get a plumbing shot for Mike Russell!

In the Peloponnese you find those idyllic Mediterranean scenes with crystal clear water and beautiful villages that we associate with the islands. Here, however, we don’t have to travel by ferry.

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Your idyllic Greek scene! This one at the town of Nafplio, where we…

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…got our “codgercise” climbing 1000 steps up to the old Venetian fort above the city. I took this shot of Jo on the way down, and…

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…this one to show where we had been.

We rode through the rugged mountains over some of the most spectacular bike roads and enjoyed the spring weather with the Elephant.

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We were so high in the mountains when we stopped to take this shot near Kosmas, that….

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…there was still snow on the ground in some places.

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The mineral baths at Methana. Jo thought they called it that because if smelled like methane. They pump this foul smelling green stuff into the building and folks actually immerse their bodies in it. Pass!

Our week ended at a small village in the far south. At a taverna full of locals, we had a very traditional Greek meal of salad, grilled fish and octopus. We ate the same meal often during our last visit. This time, however, we walked a few blocks to an ice cream shop and wandered home licking a superb chocolate and chilli gelato. Welcome to the new Greece!

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The coast line just north of Githio. Not a tourist in sight.

Posted by Mike Hannan at March 16, 2008 09:07 PM GMT

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