Tell Me More, Tell Me More

15.2: Kalambaka, Nafplio, and Kythira

A Hellenicuva Time

Just as the days aren’t always picturesque, neither are they all spent visiting ancient temples, amazing basilicas, and stunning scenic overlooks. I mean, lots of them are, sure, but not all. I spent part of my second-to-last full day in Greece arranging flights, getting a PCR test, a visa, finding accommodations, completing Personal Locator Forms and so on. I then spent part of my last full day sitting – as I have all too often, and how I never thought I would at the age of 55 – in a self-service laundromat wearing shorts, a short-sleeved button-down, and unlaced hiking shoes with no socks on a cold, wet and raw Athens day in an effort to maximize the opportunity to wash clothes that I have worn far too many times since the last time I sat in such a place. It’s like college all over again, but without the beer and weed.

I still managed to take long walks both afternoons, and have been taking simple pleasure in deciding that a 2-1/2 mile walk home in the cold rain isn’t really that far, especially when a taxi driver gives me the tourist price of 10 euro instead of the 5 it should cost, so I brush him off with the disgust of an insulted local and walk away trying to look nonchalant while struggling to open the bent and sometimes inverted $3 umbrella I bought from a street vendor a couple of days before.

“My friend! How about eight?” he calls out with a mouthful of loukoumades. “Eight euro! Don’t go my friend.”

But he is not my friend, and I did go, with a little extra pep in my step to boot, imagining I’d taught him a valuable lesson about trying to take advantage of me and my fellow compatriots – You’re welcome, America.

And then, well, then it began to pour.

In addition to my early visits to the Acropolis, its museum, Mount Areopagus, and Mount Lycabettus, I would add the Archaeological Museum and Agora and its remarkably preserved Temple of Hephaestus. I would walk through the National Park a few times, see the Changing of the Guard at Parliament, the Temple of Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, and so much more – the streets, neighborhoods, markets and cafés offering their own form of cultural entertainment and wonder.

But some of the things I saw in Greece that left the most indelible mark weren’t the sites, but the instances of human kindness I witnessed again and again.

The picture up top, for example, is of the blindest man I have ever seen. A weird bit of phrasing, sure, but this guy was like, I don’t know, “new blind.” Like, “first day with your white cane” sort of blind, which has to be a thing when you actually think about it, right? But that was something I’d never thought about before, until that very moment, until I saw him. He was navigating – and I use the term loosely – a sidewalk that was almost comically treacherous even for those with 20/20 vision – potholes, a building jut, an actual firehose pumping a river of water onto and across the sidewalk and into the street, garbage cans bolted to the building on one side, lamp posts on the other, motorcycles and mopeds. There were impediments literally every five feet, forcing him to zig and zag, haplessly and helplessly, forcing me to stop, turn, and watch it all unfold while contemplating the age old question of intervention. He was heading for a deadly three-way intersection at rush hour, and in Greece it seems that everyone believes they have the right of way. They wouldn’t run over a blind guy (I don’t think), but they certainly wouldn’t hesitate to swerve their way around him to continue on down the road. And yet, independence isn’t only important, some folks can be downright insulted when someone implies that their handicap makes them, well, handicapped.

By the time I’d decided to follow, survey the traffic, and make a judgment call at the curb, the other man in the photo, the one in the maroon raincoat and goofy little stride, had already taken the gentleman by his arm and was leading him safely across. When he returned, he was striding casually, eating a handful of peanuts, looking like he had nowhere to be, not a care in the world, and most certainly not like he’d just gone out of his way to lend a hand to a complete stranger.

“Hey,” I called out as he finally reach my corner. “I just want to say that that was very kind of you.”

“Oh, thanks man,” he said in broken English, a wide smile that still had a piece of peanut or two in it, and then he reached out for a covid-era-fist-bump.

No, I said. “Thank you.”

He shrugged like it was no big deal. But it was a big deal. Acts of kindness extended to complete strangers are some of the biggest deals of all, in fact.

A couple with their kids caught my eye on another street. Something was off. Maybe it was the weird floppy hat the scraggly-bearded, face-masked man wore, which led me to notice his well-worn overcoat, which in turn led down to his bare calfs and ankles sticking out from beneath, to his bare feet and the sandals he wore on this cold, damp and raw Athens day. And then I noticed the four foam rolls he had strapped to his back. He had his hands on a stroller with a child seated inside, with two more kids – young girls – standing by his side. It took me a moment to realize his wife was neatly dressed, a nice long winter coat with light blue, spotless dress shoes. She was removing sneakers from a plastic shopping bag and putting them on the ground before the man, who took a seat to put them on. The girls were eating bananas. The woman then pulled more food out of another bag for the kids to share. She wasn’t his wife, I suddenly realized, or the mother of the girls. She was feeding them, and making sure their father had proper shoes for the bitterly cold December night. I would walk for the next fifteen minutes trying to understand every element of what I’d just seen, the who, what, how, why, and wondering what it said about me and what I have done and could and should be doing to make more of a difference. The fight against homelessness often centers on the larger issue of mental health care. It’s too big and overwhelming a problem for people like me to solve by myself. Constantly being asked for a euro or two becomes quite annoying as well, to be honest, and besides, a euro or two is too small to truly make a difference to anyone but me if I handed them out to everyone who asked. But then, when a euro is too small, and addressing the real solution is too big, most of us simply choose to do neither.

This woman didn’t solve this family’s problem, but she made a difference in their day – and in mine – and it reminded me that when faced with the choice of doing something or doing nothing, always, always choose to do something, for something is never, ever too small.

My AirBnB hostess in Nafplio had a rather bleak outlook about the plight of the stray animals in her hometown. And it’s true that strays run rampant throughout Greece. As a result she always carries a bag of cat food wherever she goes and has seven cats of her own, all former strays. The latter part may sound kooky, and, well, she is kooky, but when you walk past dozens of them a day, and easily a handful of those are terrified, crying kittens that seem to be pleading for food and a warm home, the most surprising thing to me is she only has seven (and that I didn’t leave with three). But in Nafplio, Neapoli Voion, Kythira and Athens, I also noticed food and water bowls throughout, on stoops, in alleyways, outside of restaurants and shops, and often passed cats and dogs eating food left for them by passersby. My wonderful Athens host, Veronica, called them “the fat cats,” because she said the strays are all well fed and cared for by people in the community. And once she said that, I noticed that with very few exceptions, she was right. As for Veronica’s effort? The family dog that spent the afternoon sunning himself by my side on our rooftop deck was himself once a stray.

One of Athens’ Fat Cats enjoying a meal.

I’d arrived in Greece the day after Thanksgiving, coming ashore after a ten hour ferry from Brinidisi, Italy, into the port town of Ingoumenitsa, a somewhat nondescript town during its offseason, the vast majority of its waterfront a working one, the town itself a bit worse for wear. I didn’t have much of a plan beyond getting myself to Patras and using that as a home base to see a bit of the Peloponnese before making my way to Athens. But it was my friend Manos, whom I’d met in Galway, born in Athens, living in Bonn, who steered me in a completely different direction.

“Are you going to see the Meteora? They’re amazing.”

I’d never even heard of the Meteora, located in Kalambaka (or Kalampaka, or Kalabaka, depending), a few hours in the opposite direction of Patras. But Manos had included a link as well, and the cover photo was all it took. First thing the next morning I was on a bus that would take me half way there – I’d figure out the rest along the way.

“If you’re going to the Peloponnese, you should definitely see Nafplio. It’s my Dad’s favorite place,” said Stephanie, my old high school girlfriend and the very first love of my life.

“And of course, you should head to my island, Kythira, the birthplace of Aphrodite. Find a village called Logothetianika, find our family house, break in, and stay awhile! No one is there presently, except possibly some squatters!” she wrote.

She’d sent me a photo of a cute and quaint but otherwise utterly nondescript cottage, adding “there’s no address,” and writing that the last she was aware the key was broken off in the door, and the only way to get in might be through the goat door. And it had a composting toilet. And also, the electricity was off.

She didn’t really expect me to go, obviously. It’s not even an island that would fall on the radar of many first-time visitors to Greece. But then, not expecting me to do something is oftentimes all the incentive I need. And a photo with no address? Hello? Have we met? Did someone just say say treasure-hunt-adventure-challenge to a guy who’s taking a year to travel the world?

While Igoumenitsa during the offseason was nothing to write home about, I was treated like family by the mother of my AirBnB host, who welcomed me with delicious oranges and mandarins plucked directly from their trees.

Kalambaka

Atop those rock formations rising above the quaint little town of Kalambaka is the largest archaeological area in Greece, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Meteora Monasteries. Thanks to Manos, they would be my last-minute-first-destination after arriving on the shores of Igoumenitsa.
Monks built the Grand Meteora, pictured here, and twenty-three other monasteries (six of which remain today), all by hand, beginning around the 13th century, lifting the materials for many of them using ropes and pulleys. Stairs were not added until many years later. So how did the monks get up there? Initially they climbed and used a series of connecting ladders…
The Grand Meteora and the other remaining monasteries, while open to the public, are still in use today. One is a nunnery, while the other five are still occupied by monks.
The monasteries were uniquely ornate, each of them having beautiful churches (no photography allowed inside, unfortunately). This was taken atop Varlaam.
Vaarlam.
Holy Trinity Monastery (atop the left outcrop) with the snowcapped Pindus Mountains in the distance. Holy Trinity appeared in the final scenes of the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.
Some monasteries were easier to get to than others. This one – Holy Trinity – not so much.
Stairs were added to some of the monasteries years later by tunneling through the rock.
But before the stairs were in place, that hook was used (and still is)…
…to hold this net…
…and not only materials, but the monks themselves were lifted and lowered to and from the monasteries by rope and pulley.
(I dropped euros on that guy to see if the urban legend was true, but I guess it only works with pennies from the Empire State Building. That’s him yelling at me to stop it.)
Not for the faint of heart, so it’s probably best that this was reserved for those of great faith.
My lunch break view, with St. Stephen Monastery on the distant peak.
This view deserved better than my peanut butter sandwich.
This pic is just to upset Mom.
I took a bus up in the morning to hike the monastery roads, but took the gorgeous Agia Triada hiking trail back to town. The trailhead below is located next to The Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, which was built between the 10th and 11th century and is amazing.
I was first introduced to the problem of strays in Igoumenitsa. I had no idea until Kalambaka that the issue was country-wide. Even on the Meteora peaks I would come across dozens of cats…
…and just as many dogs.
The one thing that provided some solace about the strays was the overwhelming number of martyrdom renderings that filled every monastery. Execution after execution after execution. For all its talk about loving thy neighbor, religion is a very violent business, it seems.
Speaking of which – question for my religious friends. Say – hypothectially, of course – that a rendering of the execution of St. Stephen made a guy I know (you don’t know him) laugh out loud…
From the “cat who ate the canary” looks on the faces of the two guys on the right, realizing that being indentured servants might not be so bad after all, to the “whatever” look on St. Stephen’s face as a mason casually cements another stone in place…
…to the “Hey whattaya gonna do, he brought this on himself, there is literally nothing we can do” expressions of these guys, this rendering brought some sacrilegious amusement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the great people I met in Kalambaka. Eugene at Panellinio Restaurant, who gave me a tour of the wall of photos and shared some wonderful Greek history. Katerina, at The Hellenic Culture Museum, who gave me a truly fun and educational private tour on a rainy afternoon. And this is me working my Heatmiser hairdo with Chris – waiter, poet, rapper, MMA fighter, former soldier, but most of all, a sincerely decent human. I would give Chris a word (Hellenic) and he would free-associate-rap twenty lines on the spot. Great food, entertainment, and friendship, all in one lunch – not a bad deal – and now I can say I knew him before he was famous.

Nafplio

The Fortress of Palamidi, captured by the Ottomans in the early 1700s just before it was completely finished (well played, Ottomans, well played). It was then captured by the Greeks in 1822. While some sites claim slightly more, and others slightly less, by most accounts the stairway from Old Town to the top has 999 steps.
Whether 999, or more, or less, the view was certainly worth the climb.
Just watch yourself, that first step is a doozy.
Thankfully, Barry Gibb Jesus from the excellent Zournal Café was watching over me…
…while my AirBnB hostess was watching over the Strays of Nafplio.
The very appreciative Pipitopolous sitting patiently while getting his first grooming in…well…ever?
Climbing stairs to stunning scenic overlooks, risking my life for photos for Mom, feeding stray cats, brushing stray dogs, a hard day’s work deserves a delicious reward.

Kythira

Just driving along the road on the way to Neapoli Voion to catch a ferry to Kythira.
Snowcapped mountain horizon.
Walking along the service road from Diakofti Ferry Port to find a bed for the night…
I feel like I should call someone…
I’ll call later.
My host family, Eugenia and her two sons, both transplants from Kythira to Australia and back. I would learn that Greece has a very close connection to Australia, and on Kythira during the summer the Aussie accents are everywhere. It was pretty hilarious to hear the brothers talking to each other, mixing Greek and English but with an Australian accent. Eugenia was a blessing. Fifteen minutes after I checked in she was at my door with a tray of hot Greek coffee and cookies, and the entire family could not have been more kind.
The Two Peters. A couple of hours after my arrival, Peter from Panayotis Car Rental was knocking at my door – courtesy of Eugenia. When I told him what had brought me to Kythira, he exclaimed “Nicholas!” (Stephanie’s father). “He is my client and friend!”
“I was told this AirBnB had wifi and a pool!”
It took a while, and some help from a kind and sociable neighbor, Theodoris, but much to Stephanie’s surprise (she didn’t know I even went until I sent this pic) I found the House With No Address.
Should I drink it? I feel like I should drink it. I’m going to drink it.
Driving hilariously narrow and hair-pinned-turned roads high atop cliffs with no guardrails was an adventure in itself. The payoff was even better.
The afternoon view from Milopotamos, on the island’s west coast.
On the drive to Limnionas Beach.
Myrtidion scenic overlook..
Triple-Lindy Time.
View of the castle from gorgeous Kapsali Beach.
The beautiful and peaceful Mirtidia Monastery.
“Until we meet again, my friends.”
My ride back to Neapoli Voion…
…would get a little dicy. “The seas were angry that day my friends.”

I would stay a couple of nights in Neapoli Voion at the waterfront Aivali Hotel. My host (another Theodoris) was exceptionally kind (including when I ate an olive oil-soaked meal nearby that did not quite agree with me), and his wife made the most spectacular breakfasts, including homemade jams and marmalade. I would then drive back to Nafplio, take a bus to Athens (where my Greece blog entries began) and then fly off to Istanbul.

Greece was full of unexpected surprises, in places I hadn’t even planned to visit, because I received excellent advice from friends old and new. It’s a gorgeous country and was a spectacular adventure, full of great food, very kind people, and of course, amazing history and sites.

The only thing left to do before moving on to Turkey was to figure out what to do with all these peanuts. This is what happens when neither you nor the street vendor speak each other’s language, so you hand him four euros and say “that much.” I would take a page from the earlier woman’s handbook, however, and choose to “do something,” though when I handed the bag to the homeless guy sleeping by the metro, even he gave me a look that said “Dude I can’t possibly eat all of those.”
Giving is a process.

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