When planning a trip to Europe months in advance the last thing you anticipate is that the country will be on the brink of financial disaster and in danger of being kicked out of a powerful union. I mean, I had been to Greece 18 months before and everyone talked about the dire financial situation and unemployment bu, being removed from the European Union and going back to the drachma? Never would have crossed my mind.
But, it was on that earlier trip sponsored by a Greek travel commission that I discovered the reason for my return….no, not the men or the monuments but the wine and the food it makes better. I was invited by some wineries I had helped promote in Los Angeles and was looking at putting together high end wine tours to Greece (launching this Fall).
There were murmurs as we were preparing to head to Greece to visit two famous wine areas in northern Greece as well as Athens. Flying Premium Economy on Lufthansa and landing in the capital welcomed by Best Travel’s Mercedes limo is a good way to start but entering the city and seeing long lines at ATM machines gave a clue to what the week would be like.
The hotel we found through Hotwire, Athens Ledra, for $89, turned out to have some of the best beds I have ever slept in and a commanding view of the Acropolis from the rooftop pool. But, as I found out, most places in Athens have views of the famous hill and its classic Parthenon. At least the Ledra had a shuttle to the heart of the historic area.
We headed to the Acropolis and Acropolis Museum early, getting there by 10 AM, which was still too late with the hordes of tourists ready to spend 12 Euros just to walk around the ruins…well, they are some pretty incredible ruins and are so worth the walk and the people. On the way, I hit an ATM with no line and easily withdrew 150 Euros which turned out to be a wise decision given the fact that soon credit cards would no longer be accepted by most restaurants and shops.
After the Acropolis, head either to its Museum, or at least to the Museum entrance where you can look down into some excavated ruins. On the other side of the Acropolis, walk toward the Agora area where you can see even more ruins and some beautifully preserved sculpture. And then a Greek salad and some tzatziki in a charming taverna in the Plaka area can make anyone forget a country in turmoil.
Athens is the heart of the political action so there was buzz everywhere and opinions ran rampant. Any bar, restaurant or hotel lobby had Athenians tuned to the latest news as if there were updates on a minute-to-minute basis. The whole country was on alert and preparing for the YES or NO vote occurring on Monday, July 6th, everyone planning the pilgrimage to their home district for the historic vote. Vacations were canceled, spending was curtailed and worry lined the faces of older Greeks.
But, for tourists, food was plentiful and wine flowed. People were kind and did not trouble visitors with their concerns although happy to share their “no” opinion if asked. Heading to the wine country of Naoussa (via Thessaloniki), we found a wealth of unique family wineries that produce the rich, fruity Xinomavro wines that are as much fun to drink as the name is to pronounce. We ate well with lots of little courses call “mezzes” of chicken, beef and even goat, but restaurants were noticeably more empty than usual.
We then headed to another area where wine is plentiful called Domaine Porto Carras. Owned by a large Greek family that bought the vineyards and its five star resort out of foreclosure, they have brought the largest vineyard in Greece back to its vibrant life and have actually rescued and given re-birth to forgotten varietals like Limnio and Malagouzia. The all-female winemaking team manages a vast amount of varietals like Assyrtiko, and native and French blends across the board.
The stunning Porto Carras Resort was completely sold out when we arrived but most of its beachfront and marina-side rooms were occupied by foreigners unaffected by the crisis. Greeks visitors had been canceling a bit but business was brisk, restaurants were packed and cocktails flowed in between bottles of wine. Laying on the beach with a mojito or swimming in the crystal blue Aegean seems a far cry from closed banks, ATM lines and conference rooms in Brussels. Greece will remain historic and proud, their olives and wines unique and the warmth of the people unforgettable. The best we can do for them now is visit, eat, drink, spend money and enjoy sunsets, warm seas and history.