“An indispensible companion for anyone searching for the soul of Greece.”
—Phil Cousineau, author of The Olympic Odyssey
The land of gods and goddesses, myth and history, known as the “cradle of Western civilization,” the birthplace of drama, philosophy, and democracy, and the origin of the Olympics, what country is more pulsing with historical resonance than Greece? Also a region of stark whites and piercing blues, a gorgeous, never-ending coastline, exquisite hospitality and sumptuous food, what country is more enticing? Travelers’ Tales Greece: True Stories of Life on the Road provides close-up encounters with the myriad delights of this rich culture, its wonderful people and its breathtaking landscape.
If this book inspires you to take that trip to Greece visit the Greece travel guide, with information about the popular destinations in mainland Greece and the Greek islands. Just looking? Compare prices on cheap flights to Greece.
For those of us in the Western world, Greece is a lodestone, a wellspring, an idea as grand and compelling and romantic as the Iliad
and the Odyssey.
This idea of Greece is also simple: Greece represents the zenith of enlightened civilization.
Classical Greece provided the empires of Rome and Byzantium and all future Western systems a model of civic mindedness that inspires to this day. Thus who could not want to “return home” to the cradle of democracy, to the source of our political and moral philosophies, to the land that established the foundations of our civilization and spawned the myths that for centuries have provided us an intellectual and emotional compass? It is a legacy that cannot be ignored, and a force that pulls us to visit this hallowed land, if for no other reason than to walk in the paths of gods and heroes who preceded us.
We might say that it is just about every child’s dream, upon hearing the adventures of Odysseus, to explore the islands he visited, the seas where he sailed, to see and conquer the Cyclops, to negotiate the razor edge of Scylla and Charybdis, to hear the Sirens’ song and to return home a stranger but later to be recognized as the hero we all wish to be. Who could resist strolling the lanes where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle pursued ideas for their own sake and laid the foundation for 2,400 years of political thought? Or walk in the footsteps of Philip of Macedon or Alexander the Great?
There are so many icons from Greece’s rich history still here to explore: the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens; Delphi, where the Oracle dispensed wisdom through maddening riddles; Mount Olympus, abode of the gods; Ithaca, the island home Odysseus sought for twenty years; Lésvos, home of the revered poet Sappho; Crete, site of the sophisticated Minoan civilization that preceded classical Greece; and countless archaeological sites on just about every island strewn throughout the archipelago.
Greece is, of course, more than an idea or a collection of ancient sites bearing memories of the glory that once was. It is breathtaking seas, rugged islands, exquisite coastlines and beaches, arid landscapes, dramatic mountains. It is orthodox monasteries, hidden forests, traditional villages offering legendary hospitality from people genuinely happy to open their lives to visitors. It is also chaotic cities and tourist resorts overrun during high season so there is more northern European than Greek experience to be had.
This contrast is Greece’s burden: it is a modern country with all the attendant challenges, but one with the weighty baggage of much ancient honor. How does that past color the present? How do modern Greeks view their predecessors, their own place on the historical timeline, their nation that is home, not a series of stops on a cultural tour?
The answers lie in the stories that follow. In “The Land of Light,” Lawrence Durrell explains how Greece’s magical light sets the country apart from other Mediterranean lands. Susan M. Tiberghien, in “Yasas!,” uncovers poignant hospitality and a desire for connection through an encounter with an old man in Crete. Robert D. Kaplan traces the genesis of the modern myth of Greeks’ earthy passion in “Teach Me, Zorba,” and probes the darker side of the Greek soul in “Farewell to Salonika.” Paul Theroux’s “Taunting the Oracle” is a critical look at modern reverence at Delphi. Emily Hiestand explores the taverna as a metaphor for the Greek way of life, and Patricia Storace finds the secret to all things Greek in the cuisine. Garry Wills probes the reality behind the Arcadia of the Romantic Poets while Katy Koontz goes to the ends of the earth, and her wits, to get married in the Greek isles. Tom Joyce’s pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Laurie Gough’s strange dream-time encounter with a crone, Robert Peirce’s confrontation with rebels and Nicholas Gage’s heart-rending search for the truth behind his mother’s death during the Greek civil war broaden the portrait and pull the reader into a vital, multihued world. Lastly, Donald W. George explains why it’s impossible not to be “In Love, In Greece, In the Springtime.”
The Greece that comes alive in these pages is the Greece that exists today: passionate, sensuous, slightly mad, dusted by the scent of sage and baked by the sun. It is a place that commands us to come, and go we must, if we want to close the circle back to our origins.
Part One: Essence of Greece
The Land of Light, by Lawrence Durrell
Marble Girls, by Patricia Storace
Yassas!, by Susan Tiberghien
Sappho’s Island, by Katherine Kizilos
Hector’s Bread, by Rachel Howard
Teach Me Zorba, by Robert D. Kaplan
Forever on Strike, by John Flinn
Taunting the Oracle, by Paul Theroux
Lessons from the Taverna, by Emily Hiestand
Sweat and Sage on Samos, by Pippa Stuart
The Soul of Greece, by Henry Miller
Part Two: Some Things to Do
Going to Hell, by Mark Jenkins
The Lions of Delos, by G. C. Kehmeier
God as Pâtissier, by Patricia Storace
Easy Rider, by Christi Phillips
The Real Arcadia, by Garry Wills
Climbing to the Gods, by Caroline Alexander
The Wedding that Almost Wasn’t, by Katy Koontz
One of the Twelve, by Don Meredith
Slumming the Pink Palace, by Rolf Potts
The Apocalyptic Island, by Alan Linn
Part Three: Going Your Own Way
The Ravens and the Virgin, by Tom Joyce
Naxos Nights, by Laurie Gough
A Breathtaking View, by Robert Peirce
The Marble Island, by Lawrence Davey
The Crones, by Emily Hiestand
On the Way Home, by Kathryn Makris
Embracing the Fates, by Joel Simon
Tongue-Tied and Bottomed Out, by Jim Molnar
The Mad Priest of Lesvos, by Patrick Pfister
Part Four: In the Shadows
Workers of the World, by Stephanie Marohn
Searching for Eleni, by Nicholas Gage
Farewell to Salonika, by Robert D. Kaplan
Part Five: The Last Word
In Love, In Greece, In the Springtime, by Donald W. George
by Susan M. Tiberghien
Two visitors experience the significance of a toast.
My husband stopped our car, and I leaned out the window to ask a tall and imposing Cretan the way to a small Byzantine chapel marked in our guidebook. Pierre and I were vacationing for one week, away from the children, with time for one another.
We were high in the hills on the southern side of Crete, where dittany and other wild herbs burst into pink blossoms in early spring. It was in these flowering fields where Zeus courted the beautiful Europa. We had gathered handfuls of the aphrodisiac pink flower, perfuming our arms and saving some to make tea during the cold winters back home.
Our impressive Cretan was dressed all in black high leather boots, wide breeches fitted at the knee, a hand-woven buttoned shirt with long sleeves. He stood very straight, holding on to a strong cane. He had thick gray hair and the strong noble face of Cretan men, the men Henry Miller described as the most handsome in the world.
I first tried in English, then in French to make myself understood.
“No Greek?” he asked.
“No Greek,” I replied with regret, but I held out the guidebook and pointed to the picture of the Byzantine chapel.
He nodded his head and motioned to the back of our small rented car, proposing to show us the way. I pushed aside the paper bag of black olives and goat cheese, the round loaf of bread and the bottle of Minos rosé. Our newly appointed guide folded himself into the little car.
He led us up a narrow dirt track, past a few farms and over a green hilltop, to another hilltop where he told us to stop and follow him on foot. We walked behind him into the grayish green olive groves. The gnarled branches were stooped with age. Worn nets were still spread out on the ground to catch the last tiny purple olives.
Our Cretan continued and we followed, bending to pass under the low branches, stepping carefully over the nets. He soon stopped and lifted his walking stick to point out the chapel we had seen in our guidebook. The red sun-baked roof was half covered with vegetation, and the white walls were almost buried in the ground. We walked closer. The door was open.
Inside the dusky church, candle wicks flickered in front of old icons, illuminating faded red and blue frescos behind the stone altar. Scenes of the Last Supper and of the Garden of Gethsemane wavered on the rounded wall. Earlier visitors had come before us that day, lighting the way.
Our guide found a thin hand-dipped candle in a tin can and placed it near the others burning in front of an icon of Mary, with the infant Jesus in her arms.
“The Panaghia,” he said, bowing his head.
Pierre and I followed his example, each taking a skinny candle, lighting it, and finding room for it in front of the Blessed Virgin. She was looking directly at us. The infant Jesus was looking at her. We stood together for a long moment in silence.
When we went back out into the sunshine, the white walls gave off waves of heat. We retraced our steps under the tangled branches of the olive trees. Our guide slowed his pace, asking us questions, using English words and Greek words. He nodded when he learned we lived with our children in Switzerland, that our oldest child was married and living in France, and that we were soon to be grandparents.
“Good,” he said. “For me, not good.”
“For you?” we asked.
“For me bad. The war. Dachau three years.” He held up his hand showing three of his fingers.
We continued walking. He used his cane to steady himself on the uneven ground.
“My one child killed here. The war. She fifteen.” He held up once again his hand, showing five fingers three times.
He kept talking. Slowly we learned that his village had once been large and prosperous. Then the Germans came and the fighting. Now it counted less than one hundred people all dispersed in small farms over the mountainside.
It was springtime and bushels of blossoming dittany rolled down the hills. But soon the pink flowers would dry under the hot sun, the green plants would turn brown and disappear under the hungry herds of goats and sheep. It would then be difficult to imagine it the blossoming love bed of Zeus and Europa.
When we arrived back near the car, our guide invited us to come to his home.
“Please, you come,” he said. “Friends,” he said, pointing back and forth to us, to him, to us.
We accepted and he directed us over another dirt track to the top of another hill, where close to the crest stood his house. The brick walls were whitewashed. The wooden beams and the wooden door were hewn and chiseled by hand. He managed to tell us that most of his house had burned during the war. When he returned from Dachau he rebuilt the gutted portions with fresh bricks which he made. The courtyard was swept clean, with a stone oven in the corner where he baked his own bread.
Inside there were two rooms, the kitchen and his bedroom. He said his wife died some years back. He lived alone. On the wall over his bed hung his daughter’s gun. She fought with the guerrillas against the Germans in the hills surrounding their farm.
Next to the gun was a blurred black and white photo of his young daughter. He wanted us to look at it. The glazed surface was cracked and uneven. She had a wide open smile and was wearing a school girl’s smock, checkered once in bright colors.
He spread out a clean white cloth on the kitchen table and told us to sit down. There were two chairs.
“Me, how old?” he asked.
“Seventy,” we guessed.
He shook his head. “Eighty-five!” He traced the numbers on my husband’s hand.
We watched as he put out plates, knives, forks, glasses. He gave each of us a white folded napkin, and with another he polished the glasses. Next he brought a dish of small red tomatoes and some feta, his own goat cheese still in a crock chipped with years. He got a bread board and cut thick slices of a loaf of brown bread baked in the outside oven.
Then he reached for a bottle of ouzo on the shelf by the window and filled our glasses. The aroma of the pungent aniseed spirit encircled us.
“Yasas!” said our friend, downing his glass.
“Yasas!” we answered.
Susan M. Tiberghien, an American-born writer, lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She is the author of Looking for Gold and Circling to the Center, and her stories are widely published in periodicals and anthologies in the U.S. and Europe. She teaches creative writing and edits the literary review, Offshoots, Writing from Geneva.
Larry Habegger, executive editor at Travelers’ Tales, co-edited the award-winningTravelers’ Tales Mexico and Travelers’ Tales Thailand. As a series editor he has worked on more than forty Travelers’ Tales books, winning nine awards for excellence. He is co-author, with James O’Reilly, of “World Travel Watch,” a syndicated column, which since 1985 has appeared in major newspapers in five countries. He lives in San Francisco, CA, with his family.
Sean O’Reilly has edited numerous Travelers’ Tales titles, including France, Paris, Hong Kong, The Road Within and Testosterone Planet. He has a lifelong love of Greece and the Greek classics. Sean lives in Peoria, AZ, with his wife and five sons.
Brian Alexander is the author of Green Cathedrals, and has written for numerous national magazines and newspapers including New York Times Magazine, Wired, Glamour, Details,and more. He lives in San Diego, CA.