The Contiki tour

Well, technically, I’ve already mentioned the start of our 4-day “Spotlight on Greece” Contiki tour – in the post below. After touring the Acropolis, and passing many camera-friendly sights as we drove out of Athens in our coach, we headed west across the man-made, very impressive Corinth Canal, into the Peloponnese region, which looks a lot like the Cape Winelands. Lots of vineyards and olive groves!

Our first stop was the acropolis of Mycenae – in mythology the home of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces in Troy. In reality this Bronze Age fortress was inhabited from around 2000BC onwards, and was reportedly never taken in battle – understandable when you consider you’d have to sprint up a steep ascent wearing 25kg of armour in the Mediterranean heat. For the record it didn’t rain once in our 2 weeks in Greece, and at Mycenae it was a dry, hot 32°C.

At the site we entered one of the mysterious Beehive Tombs, with its massive lintel over the entrance, and domed ceiling. Then we climbed the path to the palace, entering through the site’s highlight feature: The Lion Gate. With the major excavations dating back to the late 19th Century, there’s not much to see in the fortress grounds now. When we were back in Athens a week later we got to see some of the site’s most famous finds, now housed at the National Archeological Museum. This includes the Gold Death Mask.

After lunch at a nearby taverna we headed further west for our next destination, and stop for the night: Olympia. During the 3 hour drive we did the “introduce yourself” thing (we did out bit for “cautious” South African tourism), drank ouzo and watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Casino Royale on the coach’s DVD player.

After rocks and shrubbery closer to Athens, this part of Greece is lush, hilly and full of pine forests. It’s also the area that was worst affected by Greece’s recent forest fires, and we saw plenty of black hillsides, with just the leafless spines of trees left.

Anyway, we arrived at the literally one-street town of Olympia late in the afternoon. I actually think it was my favourite place on the tour. You wouldn’t believe that the whole place nearly went up in flames a month or so ago. It’s cool and quiet and fresh and green.

The hotel where we stayed, the Hotel Amalia, served the most amazing buffets (dinner included a pork roast, complete with piggy head still attached!). We didn’t go clubbing with some of the Contiki-ites after dinner but we caught the bus into town for some exploring and shopping (I bought a T-shirt and some Erotic Ancient Greece playing cards)… after which we made the 20 minute walk back to the hotel in the dark. Again, something you just can’t do in good ol’ SA!

The next day we had an excellent, very witty tour guide for our tour of Ancient Olympia, home of the original ancient sporting competition. Out of interest, they still light the Olympic torch there every 4 years, with the Beijing flame set to be ignited in a traditional ceremony early next year.

Some other facts about Olympia:

1) Its very ancient Temple of Hera offers a convincing argument that before Zeus and the Olympian gods, a Supreme Mother Goddess was worshipped.

2) The Temple of Zeus contained the giant gold and ivory Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

3) There was a row of statues dedicated to Zeus at Olympia, which were erected by Olympic Games cheaters who had to publically admit their “crime”. Yes, there were performance-enhancing drugs (bull’s blood and herbs) even then!

4) Ancient Olympic events included boxing, wrestling, no-rules fighting, discus, chariot racing, long jump and running… as well as a running event in full armour (I wish we still did that today ;))

5) The male-only athletes competed nude, covered in olive oil and dirt to protect themselves from the sun. The nudity was because the Greeks, obsessed with perfection of mind and body, wished to show the correlation between physical and mental strength. Apparently a while ago some tourists stripped naked to conduct their own race… and were promptly arrested.

In this photo, you can see how close the blaze got to the ancient racing track – less than 50 metres away.

The highlight of the nearby Olympia Museum is this Classical Period marble statue of Hermes holding baby Dionysus, the god of wine. It’s presumed Hermes was dangling grapes from his missing arm.

And here’s a very nice helmet collection.

From Olympia we headed back into mainland Greece, this time via the Rion-Antirion Bridge, which is one of the longest cable bridges in the world. It costs €10 (R100) for a car to cross it and €55 (R550) for a bus or truck to use it. That’s some toll road!

To get to Delphi, the site of the Ancient Oracle, we headed up into the mountains on some very windy roads – kudos to our amazingly gutsy bus driver and our 4-wheel-drive coach. Being Greece, of course, you have rugged mountains on one side and the Mediterranean Ocean right next to you. It’s very scenic. The 3-street tourist town of Delphi is quaint and rustic, positioned high on the mountainside, overlooking a valley that leads back to the sea.

In the late afternoon we enjoyed an optional activity with the Contiki Tour: wine and food tasting at a local store. Let’s just say we had more than our fair share of excellent Greek wines, tsipouro (an equivalent of Cane – which Aussies and Americans have never tasted, BTW), feta cheese (the national Greek cheese), olive spreads, fresh olives, honey and Greek Delight (AKA Turkish Delight made locally). After dinner we walked back through the town. Delphi is especially pretty at night with the streets all lit up, and the restaurants thriving.

The next day, Thursday, was our last day of the Contiki Tour and we started at the Delphi Museum before heading to the ruins. Highlights of the museum included an impressive towering sphinx (reminding me of the Neverending Story!), these 2 very famous, very old kouroi statues (which have a clear Egyptian influence) and this incredibly well preserved bronze statue of a charioteer, his stone eyes and eyelashes still intact.

If you’ve seen 300 then you’ll have a pretty good idea what the Oracle at the sacred site of Delphi was like. A young girl (the first called Sybil), or middle aged matriarch, would sit inhaling ethane and methane fumes released from a fissure in the earth, go into a state of ecstasy, and then tell ambiguous prophesies which the male priests would “decipher” for the pilgrims.

Delphi was also a sacred site for the god Apollo (he killed a serpent monster, the Python here), and that’s the remains of his temple I’m sitting in front of.

On the way back to Athens from Delphi, we had our best lunch of the tour at a mountainside tavern. I had a hunk of mousaka and Paul this mixed plate of goodies that includes fried zucchini balls, spinach pie, vine leaves wrapped around mince, with cheese sauce and 2 relishes, including Tzatziki again. In case you haven’t guessed, Paul and I really enjoyed Greek cuisine… before I headed home, I even bought a Greek recipe book.

Anyway, after taking this Contiki group shot, we headed back to Athens in the mid afternoon, where things ended rather abruptly. No real time for goodbyes. We grabbed our bags out of the couch and caught a Metro at the nearest station to Piraeus, Athens main port. Time for Mykonos!

For the record, Contiki was actually a great way to travel, and I’d definitely do another one of their organised tours. It was nice to meet new people of our own age (and engage in debates about how to correctly pronounce “Aluminium” and “Herb”), and the hassle-free approach to transport, entrance fees, accommodation and meals (the tour price included breakfasts and dinners) was great. It saved a lot of effort on our part. Particularly in terms of getting to places like Delphi and Olympia which might be a struggle to reach if you’re touring on your own without a hired car.

Most importantly there was no real shortage of free time for us to do our own thing. There was always a set period after guided tours to walk around the sites and museums ourselves, looking for good photo opportunities. And after check-in at hotels for the evening, the remainder of the day is totally yours.

I’m seriously considering doing another one of the MANY Contiki Tours of Europe in the next 2 years.


Interesting facts and observations about Greece (Round 2):

In touristy areas, the standard of English is generally better, making communication a lot easier.

Something you’ll see outside of Athens is lots of little roadside shrines (literally the size of post boxes) containing crosses, photos and flowers, in dedication to lost family and friends. Greek cemeteries are similarly well cared for and visited.

If you didn’t guess it from the above comment, the Greeks are a religious nation. There are churches and chapels everywhere!

Flash photography is forbidden of statues as the heat can damage what little remains of the statues’ original paintwork – all Greek statues were painted in primary shades of red, yellow and red.

It is forbidden to pose with statues as it is considered disrespectful.

If you have a chance to do a guided tour (or at least eavesdrop on one happening next to you) of an ancient site or museum, do it! They really add a lot of value to your experience; much more than if you were just continually consulting a dry guidebook.

Theatre at Delphi


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