Greece: Athens and the Peloponnese, May 28 - June 7, 2021
Like most everyone, we haven't seen much in the way of travel or far-away family during the pandemic. We're fortunate that Emily is nearby in Berkeley, though she's also spent time in Togo, West Africa, where her research is being used for Covid-related economic aid distribution. Tim is still living in Zürich and is newly married, or rather "newly" when the pandemic hit -- he and Clara continue to plan their much-delayed stateside celebration. We last saw them a year and a half ago, on our 2019 winter holiday trip.
So once all of us were vaccinated, Alex and Jennifer cleared their work calendars for Memorial Day week, hoping to pay a visit to Switzerland. As the time approached, Switzerland remained closed to travelers from the USA, even vaccinated ones. So we combed the globe for a country that would let all of us in, wouldn't require anyone to quarantine in either direction, and had the type of outdoor adventures we all enjoy. Greece! Delicious food considered a bonus. Since guidelines kept changing we didn't finalize the trip until a few days before departure, certainly a first for us.
We last visited Greece at the launch of our 2007-08 year of travel, exploring Athens and spending the rest of our time in the islands. We again visited Athens -- Clara hadn't been there, and a memorable restaurant from 2007 beckoned. We weren't disappointed by the city, or the restaurant. The ancient sites of Athens are justifiably world famous, though simply being out and about in a foreign country was a pleasure after those endless months at home.
Our original idea for the remainder of the trip was to head by car to the northern mountains and coast, including a possible climb of Mt. Olympus. But the weather forecast was a bit dismal for that region, and there was still snow on Olympus. So we decided instead to visit the Peloponnese Peninsula. It was a great choice.
Tim has become quite the travel planner (taking after his mother, perhaps?), so he took charge and picked three villages in different parts of the Peloponnese: Dimitsana, Kyparissi, and Kardamyli. Then he planned fantastic all-day hikes in each one with a few sightseeing stops on the drives between them. At the end of the trip we tried to choose a favorite among the villages, or a favorite hike, but none of us were able to because they were all so different and so great!
Dimitsana itself is a lovely village tucked in the mountains. There, as well as in Athens and everywhere else we went, there's no question we benefited from Greece having just opened up and tourists only beginning to arrive. It felt like we were the only foreigners in places that otherwise might be crawling with them.
Our next town, Kyparissi, has been called the most beautiful village in Greece (though to be fair many Greek towns probably claim that title). It's also notable as a favorite vacation spot for George H.W. Bush and Prince Charles, interesting company. In any case, the setting was indeed beautiful, fantastic for hiking, and a haven for rock climbers, including Tim and Clara.
(Don't worry there's a rope - just not easily visible in the photo)
Our final town, Kardamyli, also had great hiking, and a feature we all agreed was a best of the trip: a modern Airbnb posing as an old stone house among olive trees in an incredible location.
Our Airbnb in Kardamyli
In addition to hiking, rock climbing, morning runs, and tasty meals every day, we visited a wine region, and outside of Athens our favorite ruins by far were Mystras (overlooking the city of Sparta), another site that would normally be chock full of tourists but we had nearly to ourselves.
Greece is one of the first countries in Europe to welcome non-European visitors, in part because of its tremendous economic dependence on tourism. So far there's been no discernible effect on Covid rates, fingers crossed. The Greeks have endured a series of strict lockdowns during the pandemic, including on some occasions 6:00pm curfews and movement restricted to under a kilometer. The country opened up on May 14, not that long before our arrival. So while tourists were relatively scarce, the Greeks themselves were out and about in force, making up for lost time. Face coverings are mandatory including outdoors, with large fines for non-compliance, but, well, the Greeks aren't great on compliance and we were certainly glad for our vaccines. In other regulations, shops have capacity limits and dining is outdoors only, which are taken fairly seriously but neither affected our trip.
For the Covid protocol-obsessed or those thinking about international travel: Covid-related travel requirements were complicated, inconsistent, and a bit touch and go. For outbound, we relied on our airline's website (KLM), which boasts a professional-looking form that asks for departure, destination, nationality, and a few other bits of information, and out pops the requirements for your trip. For San Francisco to Athens, it stated in no uncertain terms that with our vaccines we were good to go. What the automated system didn't mention is that those requirements were for the hypothetical case that KLM actually flew nonstop San Francisco to Athens, which it doesn't. Transiting in Amsterdam, it turns out, recently added a Covid testing requirement. We ended up getting impressively expensive tests in the San Francisco airport, but at least we were on our way, and perhaps our insurance will cover them. For the return, we knew we needed Covid tests to reenter the USA, and (we now knew) for transit in Amsterdam as well. Luckily, the Athens airport offers same-day test results, and we'd be arriving in the afternoon to overnight at the airport hotel before our flight early the next morning. Mid-trip we decided to check what exactly "same-day" means; it turned out to be code for 24 hours! Luckily, we were able to get truly same-day tests in the city of Kalamata, which we happened to be passing through at just the right timeframe prior to departure. (And yes, we sampled the olives while we were there.) Whew, complicated but it all worked out.
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