Exploring Athens & Beyond

Find out why Athens is Peggy’s new favorite city in Europe. 

 A majestic view surrounds us on all sides. Purple mountains border a blue sea, and golden sunlight sparkles on the water. Peter and I are standing at the edge of the earth—at least it feels that way. We’re exploring the ancient ruins of Hera’s Temple on a rocky peninsula jutting into the Sea of Corinth, and we’re all alone. Here in this tranquil spot, it’s so quiet I feel like I need to whisper. 

There’s something magical about walking among ancient Greek ruins with no one else around. To me it feels holy, suffused with spiritual energy. Connecting with the past is easier when there aren’t hordes of tourists milling about, taking selfies and getting in the way of your photos. 

Late fall is an ideal time to visit Greece. Peter and I are here to do a little sightseeing, but mostly we want to soak up the Greek culture, past and present; taste its food and drink; learn about Greek history and traditions; and sit on as many terraces as we can—weather permitting. 

For travel shouldn’t be about busy-ness: running from this ancient ruin to that. It should be a slow journey, one where you engage all your senses, one that allows time for reflecting and relaxing, just being. Our leisurely path through Greece starts in Athens, my new favorite European city, and then follows the coast along the edge of the Peloponnese. During our final week we embark on an amazing three-continent cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

Come join us as we discover the heartbeat of Greece.

Alternative Athens Offers An Amazing Food Tour

Learn about High Phenolic Olive Oils at Malotira

While we’ve been to Athens twice before, I still feel somewhat lost in its maze of streets. We sign up for a food tour with Alternative Athens to get reacquainted with the city and, of course, to learn more about its food pathways. The tour convenes at Constitution Square, and our guide, Andreas, leads the group to a nearby baklava shop for our first treat. 

Andreas reminds us that many Greek dishes share their heritage with other countries around the Mediterranean. Baklava is the perfect example. We sample a Turkish version, swimming in honey, a perfect balance of textures and flavors. Yum.

The tour continues with an olive oil tasting at a gourmet shop called Malotira. We meet the owners, Maria and Erika, who say theirs is a business of passion. They love teaching customers about local products, including, of course, olive oil, a major component of Greek cooking. Recent studies have shown that olive oils with a high phenolic content have health benefits. A tablespoon a day keeps the doctor away! 

“Pungency is a sign of good olive oil,” says Maria, who’s a scientist. We taste a few oils and learn to recognize flavor profiles, like spicy, bitter, and fruity. A burn in the back of the throat? That likely means it’s high in phenols. We also sample an assortment of other foods, like goat cheese, olive tapenade, sea fennel, and marinated tomatoes—mmm. I want to buy everything in the store.

Our tour winds through trendy neighborhoods as we taste Greek coffee, sesame rings, and the Greek version of a cheese Danish: light, fluffy, and so, so good. Then we sit down to a meal: plates of moussaka, tzatziki, fava dip, veggies, and Greek salad with lots of feta. It’s a feast! Andreas says sharing plates is normal in Greece: “We like to nibble in the middle.”

Athens’ food market is fun to explore, but the meat section is not for the faint of heart. The seafood area is a collage of reasonably priced fresh fish, octopi, oysters, prawns—but you have to watch your step. One slip and you’ll smell like fish the rest of the day. 

The spice shops at the market’s edge lure us in with aromas of oregano, cinnamon, and bay leaves. I buy a few bars of olive oil soap, my favorite Greek souvenir. The tour ends with delicious loukamades and finally souvlaki. Peter and I won’t be eating dinner tonight, that’s for sure.

So we stroll Athens’ shopping street and discover a rooftop bar adjacent to Monastiraki, where we sip on drinks and enjoy an extraordinary view of the Acropolis. After dark descends, we find a lively street near our hotel full of cafés with lights strung among the trees. The early December weather is mild, and the terraces are full of locals, eating, drinking, and playing backgammon. 

At Svoura, a cozy café which means spinning top, Peter and I settle in for some people-watching at a table on the sidewalk. Along comes a Greek man who overhears us speaking English. “Good evening,” he says and we chat a bit. He tells us he’s traveled all over the world, but “This place, this is paradise,” he says. True, that!

Check Out the Healing Waters at Loutraki Thermal Spa

Watch the Sunset at Loutraki Lagoon

Athens, like any large city, can’t be explored in a weekend or even a week, So Peter and I just dip our toes in the water and see what we can. The National Archaeological Museum with its collection of ancient artifacts is a must. I like the kouros, statues from the 5th-8th c. BC of young men in rigid poses, said to symbolize perpetual youth, eternal beauty, and the power, hope, and bliss of life. 

Representing a later period (circa 150 BC), a bronze statue of a defiant young boy astride a horse dominates a room in the museum. More lifelike than the kouros, the Jockey of Artemision was discovered in a shipwreck in 1926 and pieced back together. Another favorite is the Mask of Agamemnon dating to the 16th c. BC. Stories of Agamemnon, a king of Mycenae, appear in Greek epics and tragedies and remind us that dysfunctional families have been around since the beginning of time.     

Peter and I visit the Acropolis, which is undergoing restoration, and enjoy a brief tour of the new Museum of the Acropolis. But looking at artifacts and ancient statues gets old after a while, and we return to the colorful streets and find a favorite café, where we relax and enjoy the waning sunlight before dining in a tavern that evening on more delicious Greek food. 

The next day we rent a car and head to Loutraki, a seaside town near the Corinth Canal. I had read about its thermal springs, famous since antiquity, and wanted to learn more. Turns out back in ancient times, the town was known as Thermae, its name now synonymous with healing waters that come from deep in the earth. 

Today a beautiful spa welcomes guests to enjoy the refreshing waters. Loutraki Thermal Spa’s main feature is a huge pool area with water features—think waterfalls that gush over your shoulders. Pools range in temperature from warm to freezing cold, and guests follow a circuit that also includes a sauna and a steamroom. I’m a big spa fan and love the way I feel after my regimen. 

Of course, what’s a spa without a massage? I try a body treatment that starts with a scrub, created with local Greek herbs, followed by a rinse and then a massage using a unique product called mastic, which I learn is a sap that comes from the mastic tree found only on the Greek island of Chios. The Greeks believe mastic helps calm an upset stomach. My therapist, Helena, also says mastic essential oil is good for wrinkles, so I vow to buy some before I leave Greece. 

After my relaxing massage, I meet Vana, the marketing director for Loutraki Thermal Spa. She shows me around and tells me about the history of the town and how it attracts people from all over the world, who come to heal skin issues and health ailments by “taking the water.” 

Peter joins Vana and me, and we visit the public fountain where a constant flow of this special water is available to drink. “One glass of this water a day keeps you healthy,” says Vana. People plagued with kidney stones might be directed by the spa’s physician to drink more water, which is said to resolve the stones, Vana tells us. I kneel down and get a cup of the water to drink, and it tastes a little tingly, but not unpleasant. 

That evening we sit at a table on an empty beach, overlooking a lagoon near Loutraki. The sun is setting, and deep gray clouds are moving in. But a brilliant swath of orange floats above the horizon, just enough light to see our plates of salty anchovies, feta, and fresh cucumbers doused in olive oil. These complimentary bites came with our drinks—ouzo for me and tea for Peter—and we’re blown away by the fresh flavors. 

Even though it’s getting darker and chillier by the minute, we order fried sardines, and our server brings a plate piled high with golden fish. We eat until we can’t eat any more. Then we sit by the silent lagoon and watch the darkness crawl in on cat feet.

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Next month - Pt. 2 of our adventures in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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