Long before our “Greek Life”, since our sons were teenagers and opted to go skiing on their own, we used to take off and visit a couple of European cities over the Christmas holidays. We found that it was a wonderful time to go, because no-one else did! The museums and restaurants were quiet, and the hotels always welcoming.
When we moved to Greece, we continued our winter “city breaks”. However, for the last couple of years we found chaos at airports, long delays, and huge queues at museums in Paris, Vienna and Madrid. It seems that others had suddenly realised that Christmas is a good time to travel and discovered the many excellent value package deals available.
So last year we decided to explore mainland Greece instead. As one of the places on my wish list had long been Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, we decided to make this our first, and main, destination. The area itself is so steeped in history, as well as beauty – it deserved top spot. On the way, we spent a night in Corinth, where we watched the impressive spectacle of a very large boat being guided the 6km distance by tugboat through the towering rock on each side of the canal. With a width of only 23m, we felt sure that someone standing on the deck could have leaned out to touch the sides.
Setting off the next day for Olympia, we deliberately chose a route that took us through the wine-producing area of Nemea where we saw all the acclaimed Greek wineries and vineyards.
We found everything tightly shuttered-up for the winter, however, and so “uncommercial” we could hardly believe it. When we stopped to ask villagers about the winery of Palivou, known throughout Greece, they just shrugged and said they didn’t know when or if it would open, or even where it was; it was like visiting a time where everything stood still in the winter and nothing had changed in the last fifty years. Each family had their own farm, their own wine-making area, and most did all the work themselves.
All along the roadside we saw elderly couples, sitting side-by-side on rusty carts, the ladies covering their heads with dark scarves to keep out the wind and the men with pleasant weather-beaten faces after years of hard work. Occasionally we’d spot a more modern vehicle driven by one of the sons; it made no difference to them that it was the Christmas period, work still had to be done in the fields. This made me think of the tribal tendency, or inter-dependency, in the Greek character, how the family unit binds together no matter what the circumstances and how much I admire that attribute, and how it has been broken down so completely in most modern European societies.
We drove through unimaginably beautiful countryside, high hills in the distance covered with snow, and some patches of thick dense forest and vegetation. Water was cascading down from the hundreds of mountain springs and sparkling in the bright sunshine. The roads became more narrow and the villages became prettier and prettier, just like those you see in coffee table picture books, with small communities that bonded together and celebrated together, attending name day celebrations, weddings, baptism and funerals.
After what seemed like hours of winding roads and small bridges we finally found ourselves in Ancient Olympia. The town itself is just one street, but filled with everything you could need, a fournos at each end of the village, two or three tavernas, small shops, and – of course – the church. The hotels are up high above the village itself and ours – the Best Western – boasted truly magnificent views and was situated at the very top, built from stone in traditional style and recently completely renovated to make a very attractive and comfortable hotel with hospitable and friendly owners. We found it great value for money, with very large rooms, a wonderful atmos-pheric bar and large traditional Greek restaurant with 360 degrees views.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and we spent a memorable morning wandering around the ancient site walking in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks. We sat on the marble columns where centuries ago the dignitaries and celebrities had been seated to watch the ceremony of the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE, and the pentathlon events, including the 200 metres. We marveled at the luxuriant green all around us, and recognized where they now light the Olympic torch every four years. In the spring it must be full of poppies and other wild flowers – no wonder it is a spectacle that is televised all over the world.
The Olympia museum has been completely renovated and the masterpiece of the 4th century Parian marble statue of Hermes by Praxiteles is breathtaking. Everything is well displayed and we could spend as much time as we liked there, with only twelve other visitors!
On Boxing Day we drove down to Kalamata – an easy drive, made even more pleasant by our discovery of a wonderful café and deli with fresh local goat cheese that had only just been delivered. As luck would have it, we had our cold box with us, so we were able to stock up on some of the most delicious cheese we have ever tasted.
Our hotel in Kalamata was nothing like the rather dull picture on the Internet (that is the only drawback to traveling in winter; not many places are open and you do have to spend some time researching and booking before you go). Located right at the end of the waterfront, and with a daily rate of just 65 euros including full breakfast, the “Elite” was the best find of the year! The beautiful hotel bungalows were part of a complex which included a purpose-built conference centre that at weekends was transformed into a dinner and dance restaurant. Every weekend throughout the winter the hotel boasted a cabaret performance by a five-piece band playing European and Greek music until the early hours of the morning. The place was absolutely packed – there were probably 200 people there that night. How we wished we had something like that here on Paros!
Kalamata is the second-largest town in the Peloponnese and has a cheery, bustling atmosphere. There are lots of parks and the town is surrounded – of course – by the famous Kalamata Olive groves. We bought oil and olives to take home and set off again on our way up the west coast to the archaeological site of Messene. Unfortunately it rained that day, so we were unable to explore the site, but the treasure house of the museum more than made up for it. Much of the collection is from the Asclepion and there are two very fine statues of Machaon and Podaleiros, the sons of Asclepius, and also a statue of Pelagia, the protector of sailors, in wonderful condition.
We drove on up the coast through numerous olive groves – most of them hundreds of years old, the trees moulded and twisted by the prevailing winds over time, under dark skies and very ominous looking clouds. The roads were so quiet we wondered where everyone was, the villages almost deserted. We found a wonderful bakery and stopped to picnic by a lake in a forest with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, relishing the last of our goat cheese and grateful to modern technology for cold boxes and hotel mini-bars that gave us a chance to refreeze the ice-packs!
Our next hotel was booked in the fishing port of Kyllini, not a very well-known town unless you are traveling by ferry to Cephalonia or Zakynthos, but famous fifty years ago for its spa. My late father-in-law used to come all the way from Alexandria in Egypt to this remote part of western Greece for treatment, so we wanted to include a visit there. We were the only guests in an 80-room four star hotel which was very reasonably priced and offered a breakfast buffet that could have fed twenty – an extra bonus for traveling in winter! We dined on delicious fresh cod at the only taverna open and the owner put on all his radiators for us and treated us royally.
After ten days of meandering around at our leisure, enjoying so much peace and tranquility in these quiet towns, with majestic scenery, forests, mountains, olive, orange and lemon groves and wonderful coastal views, we finished off our trip with a very lively New Year celebration in Arachova. This is the ski resort north of Athens, known as the “winter Mykonos”. To reach there we crossed the fabulous new Rio–Antirrio (Charilaos Trikoupis) Bridge over the Corinthian Gulf, which at 2,880m long is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, and can be seen for miles around.
Would we travel around Greece at Christmas again? Definitely yes. There is so much beautiful scenery and so many interesting places to explore – ancient sites, museums, mountains, lakes, snow and sea, and, maybe we were lucky, but throughout our journey we were blessed with blue skies, kind people, excellent service, good food and a lot of fun.
CITY OF DREAMS
If you have children and are planning to see more of the mainland over the holidays, make sure Drama in northern Greece is on your itinerary. The town is hosting the largest Christmas fair in the country from 3 December 2009 until 3 January 2010 and everyone is invited!
During this time the town’s public gardens and main square will be transformed into “Oneiroupoli” (City of Dreams), a place where Santa Claus and his elves would feel at home. Drama has been hosting the Christmas gathering since 2004 and by now it has become a major annual feature of life in the town. Interactive games and educational programmes will be on offer for kids of all ages.
For more information contact the PR office of Drama at 25210-31999, 25210-33555, or email email@example.com
(Municipality of Drama)