Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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When exploring Greece, I’ve always been enamored with the fierce and desolate Mani Peninsula. (Please pardon the wind noise on this video, but that goes with the territory.) I hope you enjoy these clips illustrating the peninsula’s wild and romantic Mani charm.
I’ve just spent a few days in the far south of Greece. I’ve always thought you get plenty of Greek Island charm without leaving the mainland if you head for the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It’s all within about 3 to 4 hours by car from Athens. Over the next few days, I’ll share video clips taking you to some of the remote wonders of this corner of Greece.
The tomatoes aren’t as tasty as my Greek travel memories — a lesson in going with what’s in season. But the oranges are incredible. What more could a traveler want after a long day of exploring than a sunset from his hotel balcony with three fine oranges? This photo is from Hotel Anniska in Kardamyli.
Just as you’ll find more life in the desert than you’d expect (when you know where to look), little vestiges of traditional Greece survive in the Peloponnese — if you know where to look. At Mystras, once a leading city in the Byzantine Empire, the population is down to seven nuns. And, in these economic hard times in Greece, they survive by selling their handicrafts. Dropping by here, I was greeted with more warmth than I expected, as this nun brought me a sweet cake and some holy schnapps. I was told that these sisters, thankful for the groups we bring by with our tours and the individuals who drop by with my guidebook, include my guides and me in their prayers each day.
Monemvasia is considered “the Gibraltar” of Greece. A few days ago, I saw a postcard featuring an aerial view of this fortified town on a rock under a castle. It looked so otherworldly I thought it was a computer-generated fantasy. But no, it’s actually Monemvasia — one of the most striking fortified towns you’ll see anywhere in Europe. In this photo, you get a sense of how the dizzying trail plunges from the stony citadel to the town.
Greece feels depopulated in general as in recent generations young people have migrated to Athens in search of jobs. But since the current economic crisis started the flow has reversed, with lots of people (jobless in overcrowded Athens) heading back to the villages. But the ghost towns of the rugged Mani Peninsula, in the far south of Greece, are forever barren — alive only with the wind rustling through the towers of long-gone warlords and the tales of bloody vendettas. Pictured here is Vathia.
Any love affair with Greece is made sticky in part by honey. All over the countryside we found groups of beehives as beekeepers shuttled them from wildflower patch to wildflower patch in search of the sweetest action.
A fun thing about travel is reaching “the end of the road.” England’s Land’s End, Cape Flattery at the Northwest tip of Washington (my home state), and Cape Sagres in Portugal. Here in Greece, it’s Cape Tenaro at the end of the Mani Peninsula, where ancient Greeks understandably believed the dead met the masters of the underworld. What is your favorite “end of the road” spot?
One of my great treats is being literally all alone (with a fine local guide) at some of our civilization’s greatest sights. With this clip, you’re here with me — late in the day when it’s silent and cool — at Epidavros, the most amazing theater surviving from the ancient world. After visiting so many museums here in Greece, I couldn’t help but notice how my guide, Patty, actually has an “archaic” smile — perfectly matching the enigmatic little grin you see on the statues from Greece’s Archaic Period (500 to 700 B.C.), before the Golden Age came and saddled us with reality.
For several years, I’d pass the time on the flight home from my annual summer trip making a crude one-page frieze summarizing my trip. On my best trip ever (in 1973 with Gene Openshaw — who co-authors many guidebooks with me to this day — making our first trip without parents), Gene and I alternated scenes producing this pictorial review of the most memorable events of our 10-week “Europe Through the Gutter” trip, which we kicked off the day after our high school graduation.
Reviewing these scenes, laced together by our beloved Eurail transportation, we: Flew from Seattle’s Space Needle to Germany where we stowed away in lofts, slept in barns in the Alps (notice how for impoverished 18-year-old vagabonds, mere survival — eating and sleeping — is a huge part of this trip…on which we spent literally $3 a day plus our flights and rail passes), stumbled upon a street party inaugurating a new public toilet in Geneva, got kicked out of the casino in Monte Carlo, took the hot and slow-as-a-snail train across Spain, enjoyed flamenco and bullfights, delved into hot and scary Morocco (my parents made me promise to not go to Turkey… but they didn’t think to be concerned about Morocco), puked our guts out, purchased the horns after a bullfight (and kept them lashed to my backpack until they rotted and got infested with bugs), luxuriated in the art of Paris, stuffed our shrunken stomachs at an Indonesian rice-table feast in the Netherlands, slept on a dike, explored the sex shops of Amsterdam, stopped by Copenhagen on the way to my relatives in Norway (where we were fed lavishly and once again stretched out our “sandwich a day” bellies), dropped by Germany’s piano royalty (the Grotrian family, from whom my father imported pianos), were wowed by Hitler sites, climbed to castles in Bavaria (4 in a day: at Neuschwanstein and Ehrenburg), sampled Salzburg, soaked up Venice, ogled art in Florence, saw ancient sights and open-air opera at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, crossed Italy on the train (being repeatedly kicked off because we had no reservations…and hopping back on) to catch the Brindisi-Patras boat for Athens, slept in the rocks under the temple at Cape Sounion, camped out drunk at the Dafni wine festival, suffered through the endless train ride across Yugoslavia, sloshed through Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, and spent our last nights in Rothenburg before heading home for college (inspired to travel more…but still happy to keep it a hobby and pay for my trips by teaching piano).
It’s fun to think of the wonder created by being overseas, on your own, living on a shoestring, as a teenager. While Europe has changed, the impact of travel is still just as powerful.
Greece is a feast for the senses. While the country’s sunshine, amazing food, friendly people, and love of life leave a lasting impression on me, there are also the little, unexpected scenes I come across that tickle my imagination.
In Athens’ very fishy central market, you can bone up on your Greek letters with the help of some tasty-looking squid.
These tasty treats are so fresh, they crawl over their name.
I am hopeless with the Greek language. But that’s part of the fun of being here.
Kiosks here in Greece remind me of magnets and hoarders. And buried way in the middle of all that clutter is a tiny-looking person who sits there all day selling things. By the way, by law, a half-liter bottle of water cannot cost more than €0.50. Whether you’re at the fanciest rooftop bar or at the lowliest streetside kiosk, you can always get a cold bottle of water cheap.
Our crew is heading home after two busy weeks of filming (first in Italy, then in Greece — since Orthodox Easter was a week later than Western Christian Easter this year). Meanwhile, our second crew shot Easter festivities in Spain and Slovenia. Our challenge now is to squeeze all of the amazing footage we collected into 60 minutes. We’ll do it…and it promises to be an hour that informs, entertains, and inspires — as I hope you’ve come to expect from public television. Watch for it during Easter season, 2016.
When filming in Greece, our crew loves the Greek salads. The waiters respond with wonder when each of us orders a salad. When we asked our guide if we did something wrong, she pointed out that each salad came with serving spoons; they were designed to be shared. Remember: In Greece, most dishes are meant to be eaten family-style.
In Greece, Easter is not Easter without lamb roasted on a spit. Wandering through a village, it seemed every family was roasting an entire lamb. I’ll not forget watching the lamb go limp when our host withdrew the skewer. He then laid it across a chopping block, pulled out a big cleaver, and, in about two minutes, reduced the entire roasted lamb to two platters of meat — watch out for the bones!
The finale of Holy Week is celebrated the moment midnight strikes, announcing the arrival of Easter Sunday. The town square is packed, and the bishop spreads the “light from Jerusalem” as every candle is lit. He declares, “Christ is risen!” Deafening firecrackers light the square behind the silhouetted crowd, everyone shares the traditional “Easter kiss of love,” and — candles still flickering in hand — they all head home for a giant feast. (Impressed as we have been with all of this, the Greeks seem impatient with all the Easter-related rituals.)
Greek Orthodox services are very long if you come from a Catholic or Protestant tradition. And there’s little interaction. Father Dionysis explained, “We stand when we pray because when you stand, your entire body participates.”
Here’s my hardworking crew for the Greece shoot: cameraman Karel Bauer, our wonderful local Greek guide Patty Staikou, and producer Simon Griffith.
For me, a strong symptom of getting older is being thrilled with the thoughtful and transformational travels of young Americans. That’s one reason why I’m so excited about (and proud of) my niece, Nicolina, and her adventures in India. I’ve linked to Nicolina’s blogs in the past as she paints her love of life on distant and dusty corners of our planet. Currently she is storming the small towns and megalopolises of India with her “Hearts of the World” project. In humble places she brings poor children, who have little access to art, the supplies, tools, instruction, and inspiration necessary to spill their inner selves onto templates of anatomically correct hearts. After her adventure, she’ll share her favorite murals at an art show in New York City. She’s reporting from India now at nicolinaart.tumblr.com and, when you follow Nicolina’s travels, you’ll understand why India is my favorite country and why I’m so inspired by my niece. Please, follow along as Nicolina brings Hearts of the World to India.
Just before midnight on Easter Saturday, Nafplio’s main square fills with people. The bishop gives a blessing and declares that Christ is risen. Then the candlelight (which came to Nafplio from Jerusalem via Athens, as it does each Easter) is brought out and sparks a sea of flickering flames, as it spreads from candle to candle. At midnight, huge firecrackers make the square feel like some Middle East disaster before fireworks light up the sky. (Church facades in villages all over Greece are literally pockmarked with these celebratory Easter explosions.) Finally, everyone shares the traditional Easter kiss of love before heading home for a huge after-midnight feast. For weeks after Easter, Greeks will still be greeting each other with “Christ is risen!” (Christos Anesti!).
Filming little kids can be a wonderful experience. But for our crew, it’s never been quite as delightful as last week, when we shot a sequence with little Evalina with her godparents. Even with a strange film crew in the living room, she was perfectly at ease. And when we needed to repeat a scene, she did it exactly the same way.
In this video clip, you’ll see our guide Patty keeping the yelping dog quiet outside, while beautiful Evalina receives (for the third time) her Easter gift of a big chocolate egg and a candle. With this candle, she’ll join in the ritual lighting of candles at midnight as Easter Sunday arrives. The candles have nice little gifts attached — in this case, earrings.
Leaving their house, our hosts bid us Kali Anastasi — “Have a good Resurrection!”
Last week, I enjoyed filming Easter traditions in Greece for an upcoming public television special. Here are some of the vivid images that we captured.
By the way, many Americans are not traveling in Greece these days because of this country’s economic woes. I find this totally illogical. I’ve been here for a week, and let me tell you: The traveler is barely aware of the economic crisis. Rather, the main impressions I’ll take away from this trip are about the importance of health, family, friends, and embracing life.
In Greece, Easter eggs are dyed deep red, symbolizing the blood of Christ shed at the Crucifixion. You can buy packets of blood-red dye at any store. On Easter Sunday at the big family feast, loved ones will crack their eggs together. The person whose egg doesn’t crack enjoys good luck in the following year.
It’s a custom for godparents to have a little quality time with their godchildren at Easter. Why not decorate eggs? We filmed a delightful moment as this godmother lovingly helped her sweet godchild in the kitchen.
Even more than Western Christian churches, Greek Orthodox churches are slathered in symbolism. In our little Nafplio church, ostrich eggs hung from the chandeliers. Of course, eggs are a part of any Easter celebration — secular or religious. Easter is celebrated this time of year because it has pagan, pre-Christian, “end of winter, start of spring” roots. This ostrich egg may be precious, but like any old egg, it symbolizes how, just as life comes from an egg, life also comes with the Resurrection of Christ.
In our script, we mention how Easter is likely designed to replace the pagan spring festival of the fertility goddess Eostra. And Eostra’s sidekick was a rabbit — a very fertile critter, and the reason why we still have the Easter Bunny today. Here in Greece, I didn’t see a bunny anywhere, until I spotted these two guys on our last day.