I am writing this on the train, travelling north from Athens to the mountain town of Kalampaka, also known as Kalabaka, on what is my first official Interrail trip. Travel time is 4 hours 11 minutes; the 07:20 train is the only daily direct train.
Why Kalampaka? Because like so many scripted women and evil geniuses, I cannot say no to James Bond. I’ll explain in a bit. First back to where I left you last time—prepare for a long post heavy with holiday pictures…
So I had newly arrived on European soil. No message arrived from the authorities to notify me of the coronavirus test result, so I have assumed I’ve got a clean bill of health thus far. Free to roam around, I spent 3 and 4 September getting a taste of—and developing a taste for—the Greek capital.
Athena has struck me as an incredibly vivacious woman, who manages to combine excited activity and laid-back tranquility using, it seems to me, geography if nothing else. Serene squares are tucked away in the back alleys of a thrilling centre that is encircled by a busy motorway filled with frantic traffic. The main streets are busy too, verging on being crowded, and that is even without the usual tourist droves, of which there are none. Blessed are we who travel in times of corona, for time and space befall us at every otherwise beehive-like sightseeing stop. The people peopling the city are Greeks, therefore, which means that in Athens I have heard mostly Greek and only occasionally French, German or English.
But once did the dulcet sound of my native Dutch pour its sweet nectar into my ears, when “Godverde kutzooi!” resonated against the 2,500-year-old structures of the Acropolis. This from a Dutch girl in her early twenties, presumably university-educated, who expressed her grievance that the Parthenon was still not exclusively hers and she had to wait a full five seconds before her equally fiery-mouthed friend could take her picture without any other tourists in it. Blessed are we, but sometimes we forget to count our blessings, don’t we.
The Acropolis, then, the Roman Agora, the ancient Athenian Agora, assorted stoas: I walked where democracy was conceived, where Stoics strolled and Socrates accosted his fellow Athenians to ask them ostensibly no-brainer questions about life, the universe and everything. I was acutely aware of this direct connection, the immediacy between myself in this modern age and those who had laid the groundwork for what we call philosophy, science, politics, civilization. My feet trod the grass where once the ancients had browsed their libraries and shopped for sandals. A humbling sojourn among Western fundamentals.
All this, I want to emphasize again, with such modest numbers of fellow tourists that I think all of us felt humbled and privileged. Overall, everyone behaved calmly, affably and courteously, choreographed by cleverly indicated walking routes and many a warden who instructed us how to follow protocol. Generally speaking, whereas I experienced the Greek clerks at post offices and hotels as stern and “Just a minute, I will tell you in what order we are going to do this transaction”, shop assistants’ attitudes were usually friendly and often downright convivial. I found that the natives of Attica didn’t take long to grow on me. Strangely, too, the longer I roved around the city, the more and more I saw handsome men everywhere. Possibly I may have to return to Pallas’s stamping ground for a closer inspection.
The Greeks have been wearing face masks in all indoors public places, taxis, shops and so on for three months and nobody seems to object to them. Staff at restaurants and cafés usually wear ingenious models with clear plastic spit screens in front of their mouths from which their smiles can still be broadcast. Many people don a mask for the streets, too. There are countless types and models, colours and materials around so that it has really become an accessory, not just a mandatory nuisance. This in temperatures of upwards of 30 degrees Celsius, may I add. No protests, no aggression, no rioting. Civil behaviour and civil obedience because the last thing the country needs is more infections and yet another blow to the already crippled economy. Conversely, as for social distancing, I have not observed this anywhere.
I felt bad for the Athenians, the Greeks in general, who seemed to me to be working hard in hot weather for few rewards. Even when I was one of perhaps three diners at a restaurant, I was greeted and treated with professionalism, good service and a minimum of chagrin. I say a minimum because I believe I could perceive, and quite readily understand, a weariness, a modicum of moroseness here and there, a quiet desperation on the faces of so many restaurateurs who have against their will been idle for far too long. Lockdown closed their places of business for months and when they were allowed to reopen, on the condition of investing heavily in anti-covid measures (reduced seating and service, disinfectants, face masks, protocols…), the much-needed mouths to feed were not there. In an economy that appears to depend largely on profits generated in the tourism industry, that is one supremely sour grape.
You will understand, then, that compassion compelled me to suspend my dietary principles and have plenty of desserts. All for the cause.
Having rented a car (for the amazing sum of € 103 for seven days!), from Athens I drove through about twelve toll gates to the south-west tip of the Peloponnese for my week of Proper Vacationing, at the apartment with the private pool in the hamlet of Kamaria.
There I spent a lovely time in and by the lovely unchlorinated water, occasionally visiting a citadel, convent or palace, mostly though simply relaxing with an ebook, an audiobook or just my breath and the sound of crickets. Very few birds, strangely; I soon realized that I missed the many and variegated animals of Wudangshan, as I did the food.
This is going to be a theme, I believe: I no longer seem to enjoy the food I used to eat all the time. The bread, the dairy, the European flavours…they have neither made me happy nor even satisfied. What a shock that is! I used to be all about the cheese, the yoghurt, the flour—fresh bread with good butter or cheese was enough to put a smile on my face. Now it just makes me feel bloated, heavy and sluggish: tired, too. I miss the Chinese creativity with vegetables, the spicy seasonings, the noodles and the simple rice. Felix, the host at my holiday apartment, did prepare a fine breakfast every morning consisting of fruit and vegetables and eggs done in a variety of ways. This was clearly what I wanted. I left the bread he added on the tray and poured rice milk or soy milk over the pieces of peach, banana, melon, apple, then added walnuts and honey: delicious.
Back in Athens, I had the most fun chatting with the waitress at a Chinese restaurant; it felt like I was home for a spell: the smells, the Chinese chef in the kitchen, her stories of trying to visit her family back in China but so far not succeeding… I said “thank you” in Mandarin and her eyes lit up, she stopped in her tracks and asked me with the biggest smile if I spoke Chinese. I replied, in Chinese, “a little bit” and we both laughed and were instantly connected.
So I have decided I am going to try and find Chinese, or at least Asian, food on my Grand Covid Tour of Europe as often as possible. Just for the helluvit.
After a week on the Peloponnese, I was back in Athens for a few more days. I met up with Kurt, we ascended the Acropolis again and talked non-stop for a day and a half until my throat hurt, but had a wonderful time. A Dutch couple taking pictures of the Erechtheion told us this was their 28th visit to Athens; the man had a cool tattoo of the outline of the Acropolis circling his right biceps. Kurt and I drank a Corona beer and enjoyed dinner at a tiny but very good noodle restaurant.
The next day, we rented a car for a trip to Delphi, where we did taiji and qi gong between the oracle in Apollo’s temple and the ancient stadium, much to the bemusement of the sprinkling of fellow visitors. The historical Delphi site struck me as having an unusual, powerful energy about it, amplified by its geography in the wind-swept crook of a massive mountain range. To imagine what happened there thousands of years ago…
On Tuesday Kurt and I said goodbye, he to fly to one of the Greek islands for a week at the beach and I to sort out hotels, trains and such for the next few days.
Back then to where I am now, having arrived at Kalampaka, because Felix and Maria, of the Kamaria apartment, recommended I visit the Meteora monasteries. These are situated on pillar-like mountain tops and quite a sight to behold, they said.
Meteora means something like “between heaven and earth”, apparently, which reminds me of Wudangshan. What persuaded me to travel up here, however, was the added remark from Felix and Maria that these monasteries were used in a James Bond movie—For Your Eyes Only, I looked it up.
I have always been a devotee of all things 007, so count me in.
Here for a day or two, then I’ll bus it to Igoumenitsa, arrange passage on a ferry and sail to Italy.
I need to get tested for COVID-19 again, which the Italians require from anyone who’s arriving from Greece. But having learnt from the Beijing/Greece coronavirus test experience, I have decided I am just going to Italy sans test. Chances are, between now and then the requirement will be dropped again; if not, they can test me in Italy.
I will leave you with a hint of one more lasting memory from Athens. Guess what experience this refers to:
Toodle-pip, ευχαριστώ and 再见!