Sunday, May 18, 2008

Backpacking in Greece: Attica, Peloponnese, Northern Greece, Islands (Part I)

What do you need to know before you go?

[First things first. I'm a Classics major and my area of interest is ancient history, especially Early Roman Athens.
Holy Moly, that's the Acropolis.

So I centered this trip around most of the big archaeological sites and museums. The price of admission to these can mount up to someone traveling cheap, but I had a free pass (later discussed) so I visited every one of these I could. This may depart drastically from any kind of trip your going to take, so keep this in mind. I still hope this travelogue can be of use. Oh yeah. Though I'm used to going over my writing with a fine tooth comb, or rather having a professor grill me for not doing so, this site is not for scholarly publication. If you find a spelling error or
some bad grammar, well... deal with it. If you don't like some of the things I recommend or say, that's your problem too. But from the e-mails I get each week, I think it's going pretty well so far.

Sorry for the tirade, now enjoy! ]

Sure things to take:

(1) Plenty of insect repellent (don't go overboard on this though). Mosquitoes were public enemy number one during my stay in Greece, keeping me awake every night. See, they don't know about
screens in Greece. Never saw one in 5 weeks time. But I did learn to sleep, entirely covered up with the sheet except my mouth, no matter how hot I was. I did get bit on the lips a few times, but
I just wish I had known how bad they were going to be. Also, the noise they made was enough to drive someone mad.

(2) A Blue Guide to Greece, edited by Robin Barber and published by WW Norton (now in the 6th edition), provides you with the most cultural, historical, archaeological, and interesting information that you can find anywhere. I found it very helpful everywhere I went, though it is not made to provide you with information on restaurants and hotels. Pick up some other guide for that (Rough Guide to Greece is very helpful, and Frommer's Greece on $45 a day is good also, though for a single student it can be even less than $45). For those picture-book lovers out there, the Eyewitness Guide for Athens and the Mainland as well as the volume covering the Greek Islands are really a treat. But I can't say enough about the Blue Guide. It is even good for those long bus rides where you'd like a topographical map with the highways so you can know what mountains and sites you are passing by. I wore mine out and I'm taking it back again. I am a map hound though, and if you'd like to see a pretty good topographical map of Greece, try here. There used to be a wonderful database of satellite photos of Greece (a Perseus site at Holy Cross), but they've taken them down and I don't know how to access them anymore. I still have some so if you really want them, e-mail me and I'll see if I can forward them to you.

(3) Anything you will need that, once there, you would have to buy as an import. I'm talking about an extra battery (the hard to find ones) for your camera, or even extra film (they do have it there, but it's just more expensive). To save on batteries (I constantly listened to my tape recorder and headphones) I took a small Renewal Energizer Recharger with 2 extra batteries. I recharged many times, of course, you'll also need an electrical outlet conversion set, around $20 or more on this side of the Atlantic. It's nice if you can find a friend who has one (unless they imported their house along with their car, they are probably not needing it) and borrow it. That's certainly what I did.

(4) A wallet (guys mainly) can be a liability in some ways, so I took a very small wallet (just enough for a cash pocket and to store ID's and ATM cards) and cut a hole in the strongest corner.

Then I took a good shoelace and tied it onto it. A rubber band (carry extra) to hold it tight together, and I've got a wallet no one can pickpocket since it's down my shirt all day.

(5) If you are a student, make sure you get an International Student Identity Card before you go. It might take a while to arrive so order it early. Museums and sites are usually half off with it. At the Acropolis and other biggies, it will save you a bundle.

What I packed

I took a friend's large backpack. Not the kind with the big metal bars, but I don't suppose one of those would have bogged me down too much. In the clothing department, I took three pair of shorts (and one pair of gym shorts), a good towel, one pair of well-used khaki's, about five changes of underwear and socks, around five t-shirts, one short sleeved polo shirt, a lightweight windbreaker, and a pair of sturdy tennis shoes (Nike Indestructs for me, but not new ones).

I had to buy some washing powder, clothespins, and a line so you'll want to pack this also (powder- not much, maybe in a Ziploc bag - take a couple) just be ready to possibly answer questions about the mysterious white powder! Make sure you take a cap, the sun never really seriously damaged me, though I did get slightly burnt a couple times. For toiletries, some deodorant, shampoo in a smaller bottle (one that won't come open!), soap, toothbrush/paste, comb (brush takes up more room), and a tiny thing of floss, tiny pack of Q-tips, a few band aids, a few Tylenol, a few actifed's (careful about medicine though-check the Greek drug enforcement policies), and possibly some Neosporin for cuts or such. I did have to buy some cheap flip-flops for the showers though when I got there, but in Athens you can get such items cheap. The electric razor I took of course needed the electrical converter.

I also took one small print (less room and thickness with more stuff) but thick book, the headphones/ recorder mentioned earlier with the Renewal Recharger and a few extra batteries. I am so glad I brought along some diverse music, but don't take a whole case! For myself, some pop, Greek music, Movie themes -very inspiring at many famous sites - as well as a mixed classical tape and a mixed tape was enough. A small flashlight is nice, a good travel clock, a pen, pencil, and a notebook or a travel log is good. Try to get a phone card (MCI was mine) with international access. In Greece you'll have a toll free number to call then you dial on into a number elsewhere (you'll still have to by a phone access card, but they aren't too high).

Planning ahead

It doesn't hurt to know where you're going ahead of time so you can know the bus routes, how often they run, how many stops, etc... MAKE SURE YOU PAY ATTENTION EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE RIDING THE BUSES!!! It is very easy to miss your stop, especially since some drivers don't announce the stop and some places don't have signs. Don't be afraid to ask the people around you either. You may get some strange looks but it's obviously more important that you don't miss those stops. Sometimes it's hard to find the local bus stations, but a Blue Guide helps. There are ATM's at most tourist towns, but it's good to take out enough when you're making a trip into smaller places. I had a credit card that withdrew from my checking account, but make sure it is a big name (like Mastercard). I had no problem with it, most places don't even charge the extra fee, but I didn't go to too many tiny towns. If you are, then take the cash
with you. Know the conversion rate for your money before you go so you'll know how much to get at the airport (be sure some of it is made into small bills or even change, since bus ticket booths don't always take big bills). You should also read up on the geography of Greece.

I know for me it was a big change coming from the low hills and bottoms of North Mississippi. Hopefully you can enjoy some of the natural wonders of Greece by doing some hiking or camping while you are there. You can see some great photos of mountains and plan a hike at this site on the Mountains
and related Lakes, Rivers, & National Forests of Greece

For Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology, or other related majors

You may be able to order a pass that lets you get into all the sites and museums for FREE! I waited till I got there to get mine, big mistake-5 day wait. Try to get it before you go. What you have to do: Bring (or send) a letter from your department head at school (on school letterhead) informing the National Museum and Cultural Ministry that you are a student of said major who is studying Greek History, Arch., etc. and that you would like to obtain this pass. You must also provide two passport sized photos of yourself.

Unfortunately the person who handles this job (one which involves dealing with foreigners daily) only knows Greek. I had to use a telephone relay to someone else while there. If in person, you must go to the back gate at the National Museum from 12-2 weekdays, and expect a few days' wait if it does get approved. It saved me a bundle though, so I'm still glad I got it. - Sidenote: It was taken (though often suspicously) everywhere I went except at the Museum at Delphi. It should have been taken there but one person who doesn't think you're on the up and up can throw the whole thing off. A stubborn witch at the museum was going to make me pay the expensive entrance charge (she swore I had faked the whole pass though all the stamps pointed out the correct dates), but finally some telephone calls to Athens got me in with apologies from the director and some free booklets. I didn't make a big fuss, but she was so furious at the thought of me trying to fake a pass that she brought the director's attention. I hope this type of situation doesn't happen
to you, but it wasn't anything to get too upset about.

Letters & Packages home

Since I was saving so much from not paying entrance fees, I bought quite a few tourist books. Stick with the nice gold and black ones. They have them for most places and you can usually find them cheap if you look around. They are not the most scholarly things and they tend to fall apart after a few years back home, but the pictures are usually really good and they are of some use. I had so many books that I sent them home in a package and to my surprise they arrived around four days later.

Please don't expect this when you go though. From what I've heard, this was an exception to the rule of items taking a long time to arrive.

The Language Problem

I really don't know much modern Greek, but if you know Ancient Greek it can still help you out quite a bit. Reading things is only possible if you know the Greek alphabet, so at least get that down. I would really recommend getting some language tapes and trying your best to learn some if your staying for more than a week and a half. Since I was there five weeks I tried to learn as much as I could but only got the most important stuff like "where does this bus go?", "where is a cheap hotel/room?", "do you speak English?" Though on a whole I was not impressed with the general behavior towards foreigners of most of the Greeks I met (and I know that will offend some people, but I can't say that I was around too many regular Greeks, just those tourist-hardened ones), it really will help their attitude to you if you know some Greek.

This is especially true in the mountains of northwestern Greece where few people know English! Also always remember if you really need someone who can speak English, ask a child. Children will invariably know English better than adults. You can pick up numerous phrasebooks, but Wicked Greek for the Traveler is particularly funny and under $4.00. Here is an example from it:

Divining the Hotel Rating System (Greek hotels are officially rated A, B, C, D, or E based not on qualitative issues but on amenities like running water and the variety of insects. Government-run establishments, known as xenones, are dull but reliable. More adventurous travelers sometimes choose domatia, which are essentially spare bedrooms in people's homes. No matter where you will want to stay, however, it's always wise to ask a few questions before handing over your traveler's checks.)
In English:In Greek:
Will I have to share my room with people / scorpions
/ snake-haired witches?
Thah PRAY-pee nah mee-rah-STOH to dhoh-MAH-tee-OH mue
me AH-lues ah-NTHROH-pues / skoh-rp-ee-UES / MAH-ghee-ssays pue AY-huen
FEE-dh-ee-ah stah mal-ee-AH?
Does it come with a plastic statue of Achilles, or must
I supply my own?
Thah AY-hee kay kah-NAY-nah plah-stee-KOH AH-ghah-lmah
tue ahee-LAY-ah, ee thah PRAY-pee nah FAY-roh to dhee-KOH mue?
Will I be sharing any walls with Pan / newlyweds?MEEH-pohs thah MAY-neeh oh PAH-nahs / TEEH-poh-tah neh-OH-neeh-mfee
stoh dhee-plah-NOH dhoh-MAH-tee-oh?
Is there an exciting all-night taverna on the premises?Eeh-PAH-rhee kah-MEE-ah eh-ndhee-ah-FAY-rue-ssah dhee-ah-nee-ktay-RAY-vue-ssah
tah-VAY-rnah stah PAY-reex?
Do you let lazy pagans lie in bed all morning?Ah-FEE-nayh-tay tues oh-knee-RUES eeh-dhoh-loh-Lah-trays
nah MAYH-nuen stoh kreh-VAH-tee OH-loh toh proh-EE?
Is there somewhere else to stay in this town?Ee-PAH-rhee kah-NAY-nah AH-loh MAY-rohs sah-FTEEN teen
POH-lee g-ee-AH nah MEE-nee kah-NEES?


Unfortunately I didn't care too much for the Greek cuisine. I've tried to make myself like it, but no matter how delicious some people claim that Greek food is, I don't think I'll ever be too fond of it. Whenever I decided to treat myself to a better meal, I wound up eating Italian.

You can get bottled water very cheap (it helps to always have some with you), and sandwiches at grocery stores or little shops are inexpensive also. I always kept something to snack on in my backpack since often you are nowhere near a place to buy anything, and it costs way too much at the little stands right next to the touristy places. Try getting a Coke (or even some water) halfway up the Acropolis and you'll see what I mean. In most restaurants (some great ones on Aegina were the ones I remember best) you actually go into the kitchen to see what there is to choose from. This is good since most Greek menus are notoriously inaccurate. To make matters worse, many of them are in Greek.

Questions to ask at supper from the Wicked Traveler:

What is this? An eggplant-related item? Lamb and lamb by-products? What mythical creature lurks beneath the surface? How recently was it captured/killed? I'll take one of these and two of those. Please remove the head/eyes/squid parts. Make sure I get absolutely none of that substance right there. Other meal-time statements for your waiter: Hey Hermes! Get those winged feet in motion! This fish is cold. Throw it back into the wine-dark sea. Bring us something hotter than room temperature. We'd like to eat before
the rosy-fingered dawn.

On the way back, you will probably want to get rid of all the change that you don't want to keep as souveniers since most exchange services will not take anything but bills. This is really not too
much of a problem since there's not much change with high value, but it will save you from having a lot of jingling as you walk through the airports.

Also you might even want to keep a few small denomination bills so that you can laminate them when you get back and make some nice bookmarks out of them. I've seen these for sale fairly high but if you find somewhere to laminate them cheaply (hello Walmart) you can even give 'em to friends. I waited till I got home to process all the film that I had used while in Greece. If you want some photos now, try this photo album of Rarely Seen Greece.

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