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December 18th 2015
Published: December 20th 2015
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After missing our 0430 flight to Athens, which we were one hour early for (don't ask, I'm still furious and awaiting a refund) we arrived in Athens in the late afternoon. We quickly got our rental car and were off to drive northwest into the mountains to visit Delphi and Thermopylae.

Dennis wanted to visit Greece during this trip to see some historical sites, mainly Sparta and Thermopylae. I think the only reason he agreed to this trip was that I humored him for a 3 day Greek tour to see what he wanted to see. I had briefly visited Athens 20 years ago on Mediterranean cruise with my Mom and grandparents, and looked forward to returning both here and Istanbul.

We drove for about 3 hours and arrived in the town of Delfoi after dark and checked into Hotel Lefas ($30). We could immediately see what a charming European village it was, complete with lovely Christmas decorations and small quaint shops and restaurants lining the streets. After spending the last 2 1/2 weeks in Middle Eastern Arab countries admittedly it was very refreshing to be somewhere relaxed and so lovely.

The town consisted
of 2 main roads that were perched on a steep mountainside with breathtaking views of the Corinthian Gulf. We walked around the streets, bundled up with all our warm clothes we had brought and still were a bit chilly in the mountain air. We had passed a ski resort before reaching Delphi, so we knew that this area got a fair amount of snow and some of the mountain peaks in the area were over 8,000 ft.

We got an early start to Delphi, and were the only visitors there during our stay. It was raining and cold but it added something to the ambience and certainly kept the tourists away. The location of the oracle perched on a rocky cliff side overlooking the sea was magical, and it was easy to recognize why the ancients revered this place. The Oracle at Delphi is a famous ancient location that Zeus believed was the center of the world. There was a hole in the ground that emitted noxious hallucinative vapors which female seers would inhale and then utter prophesies. The Oracle was famous throughout the ancient world and people would visit ranging from Alexander the Great asking if he was going to gain world domination to an average citizen asking if they were choosing the right spouse to marry.

We didn't go out of our way to see Delphi for any particular reason beyond that it was a convenient location to spend an overnight to visit Thermopylae from, however it was the most beautiful place we saw during our short stay in Greece.

We drove an hour and a half north of Delphi to Thermoplylae, traveling over high mountain passes in the rain and for a brief time snow. Thermopylae is the location of the battle of 300 as detailed by Herodotus, the father of history. Herodotus wrote of the battle between Sparta and the Persian army. The Spartans only had 300 trained soldiers versus the 10,000 plus Persians who were pushing south towards Athens. The Spartans were able to hold off the Persians for 3 days in a narrow rocky pass. It was essentially a suicide mission, but the Spartans were able to buy enough time for messengers to carry word to Athens about the impending attack. This story is often cited as the single most heroic military action that has ever been.

The original site of the battle is somewhat changed from 480 BC, with the ocean receding approximately 1 mile or so. The high rock cliff on the one side of the pass is still visible, as is the hill where the final Spartans fought to the death beside their slain King Leonidas. All over the area are hot springs, which gave the nickname to the area as the "hot gates."

There is a nice interpretive museum on the site as well as a statute of Leonidas and a few memorial plaques in the area. Dennis was beyond delighted with the area and what there was to be seen there. We drove south for 4 hrs past Athens into the Peloponnese to visit Sparti, the ancient site of Sparta.

Again we drove through high mountain roads, and TONS of expensive tolls to reach our destination. We arrived past dark again, but quickly found Hotel Dioscouri ($45) in the large, easy, grid patterned modern city. Our room was the nicest of the trip thus far, the staff the most helpful and the breakfast the most incredible. The reception clerk recommended a local restaurant named Tsipouradiko, near the town square which was decorated in festive Christmas decorations. We both immediately fell in love with the restaurant which was a traditional style Greek tavern. We ate a delicious traditional Spartan meal of mashed split peas and fresh winter greens along with a spinach pie and shots of Ouzo.

In the morning we headed off to the small Sparta museum, which disappointingly didn't really have much regarding Spartan military history. Afterwards we went to the ancient ruins of Sparta just on the city outskirts. Sparta is surrounded by large snow capped peaks to the west that apparently stay snowy until well into the summertime. The city streets are lined with orange trees that were surprisingly bearing ripe fruit this time of year. The hillsides were also filled with olive and citrus trees.

Some of the ruins of Sparta were in the process of being excavated, and there were numerous workers laying foundations to what appeared to be a future museum. We had the wild unexcavated ruins to ourselves and we crawled up, down and around them. Dennis was beside himself with glee being at the place he has read so much about. The Spartans were not renowned for their architectural accomplishments, and prided themselves more on the art of warfare rather than the traditional arts and philosophy . In fact the term laconic is derived from the Laconian people (the region around Sparta) because they were purely utilitarian people not only in practice but in speech as well.

We drove back to the airport, returned the rental car and took the bus into the Acropolis area, the Plaka, where we quickly found a hotel, the Athos Hotel ($45). Without much time to spare we quickly hit the streets for some sightseeing around the Acropolis, and Dennis did seemingly endless shopping looking for the perfect Spartan helmet. We enjoyed a delicious traditional meal at Aspro Alogo, directly across the street from our hotel. The restaurant was empty, but the owner Marco made us feel like family, providing us with an mountain of food, to include delicious fried anchovies, dolmas and fried eggplant. At the finish of the meal he provided us with free shots of ouzo, sweet liquor and dessert, as only the most traditional and hospitable restaurants will do in Greece.

We smuggled a few anchovies to give to some very lucky stray cats in the area. Earlier we had noticed that there were several dishes of cat food and water left around the streets that made us so happy to see that must be left by kind locals.

Even though we only had 2 1/2 days in Greece we were able to see all the sights we set out to see and got a good sense of what Greek culture had to offer enough to make us look forward to a longer return trip in the future.


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