TRAVEL EDITION 2020: Greece
No matter where you travel, balance is important. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that demonstrated more clearly than the village of Fourni on the island of Crete.
At the top of an olive tree, a feeble-looking old man was balanced on a limb, swatting branches with his cane. Olives fell onto a blanket spread on the ground. An old woman dressed entirely in black looked on sternly.
Not much earlier, I’d seen the same couple in a small café where I was having tea. The man was warming himself by the same fire I was enjoying, when the woman came in, uttered some sharp words, and chased the man out. Later, when I walked past the olive grove and spotted the old man in that tree, our eyes met, and we both started laughing.
Capturing the essence
When I help people experience the Greece I’ve known and loved for decades, I want to strike a balance that captures the essence of such a rich and diverse land and culture. I don’t believe you can go to Greece without seeing wonders such as the Acropolis, the Corinth Canal, the Peloponnese, and some of the islands. I also think you’re missing out if you don’t take advantage of the expertise of people who can tap into knowledge of places and experiences you’d probably never find on your own—the island restaurant where the owner sets a table right on a pier as fishing boats bob on the turquoise waters of the Aegean; the mountain villages where time seems suspended across the decades; the joy of life coursing from a taverna where small dishes placed in the middle of a table are shared by everyone.
Discovering the joy of life in Greece can happen by accident, of course, but it’s better when you know where it lives, or travel with someone in the know. We are currently working with a former travel colleague of mine, Alexandra Petropoulos, to escort a special AAA Colorado 2020 autumn Greece trip that will combine the best of Athens, great ancient sites, rural mountains, and islands. Alexandra was raised in Thessaloniki, still owns a house on one of the Greek islands, and spends a portion of her year there when she tires of the Chicago weather. We will provide the type of experiences that can only be found with the type of intimate knowledge someone like Alex can provide.
Importance of cuisine
Octopus and other fresh seafood can be found throughout Greece. © Realy Easy Star/Tullio Valente/Alamy Stock Photo
My own discoveries in Greece started when I was a tour guide there almost 30 years ago. They included being introduced to unfamiliar foods that seemed wildly exotic to me at the time. Now, I try to replicate those culinary experiences when I’m at home. Maybe I’m grilling calamari tubes stuffed with a mixture of feta, chopped tomatoes, lemon, cayenne pepper, and oregano. As soon as I smell those ingredients, strong senses and memories come flooding back. Suddenly, I’m in Greece again, where I’ve had some of the most memorable meals in my life.
For me, food is more than just having a meal to stave off hunger, especially when I travel. So much of what defines a place is based on its cuisine; how its food is grown and harvested, how it’s prepared, how it provides a way for communities to come together in celebration or in solace. On the islands, I’ve seen fishermen coming in with octopus, which is one of those “exotic” foods I was unfamiliar with. In the islands it’s on the menu everywhere—octopus salad, grilled octopus with lemon, octopus marinated in vinegar. You see them draped from balconies to dry out, and dropped on cement piers to tenderize (the fishermen say it takes 50 drops to properly tenderize an octopus).
Another time, a friend and I were walking in a small mountain town when we saw an elderly woman with a large sack slung over her shoulder, struggling to carry her load to the top of the hill. My friend jumped into action, taking the heavy sack from the woman, and carrying it to the top of the hill. We weren’t able to communicate very effectively through language, but she showed her gratitude when she opened the sack and offered us handfuls of freshly shelled almonds. It was a cold winter day, but I’ll never forget the warmth of her smile.
The taverna culture is especially conducive to using food to soak in culture. Tavernas are different than restaurants. Often there’s not even a printed menu. The staff just tell you what’s available today and bring it to the table. I love the communal aspect of taverna dining that encourages engagement, conversation, and interaction. In Greece, a restaurant is just a place to eat; a taverna is a place where food fuels a great time. It can include impromptu music performances and traditional dancing that you’ll be urged to join. From my experience, you probably won’t need much encouragement.
That’s what I mean about balance when you travel. There are times when you want to cast aside your inhibitions and dance like nobody’s watching, in a place you’ve never heard of. Other times you want to walk in the shadow of world-renowned historical and mythological sites or indulge in a big-city shopping spree. City versus country, beach versus mountains, top attractions versus off the beaten path, restaurant versus taverna. The diversity of Greece means you can have it all, but traveling with someone who knows how to mix those ingredients together is what can make for the most memorable experience.
A boat takes tourists on a lake through the Melissani Cave in Cephalonia, Greece. © Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy Stock Photo
I’m not sure there is ever a bad time to go to Greece, but now is very favorable in terms of value. The current exchange rate between the dollar and the euro makes Greece very attractive, and with tourism accounting for about 20 percent of the country’s economy, Greeks are eager to please their guests.
When my wife and I went to Greece on our honeymoon, for two weeks I don’t think we put on anything more formal than shorts and sandals. It might not be practical to be quite that casual, but on trips that our team creates for AAA Colorado members, we try to stay away from anything overly formal—and Greece just seems to fit a more relaxed style of travel.
After all, you never know when you might have to climb an olive tree.
RECIPE: GREEK SHRIMP
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup chopped shallots
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup minced fresh parsley
2 cloves minced garlic
1 14.5-ounce can chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon dried oregano or 2 tablespoon fresh minced oregano
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Heat the oven to 400 F. Wash, peel, and devein shrimp and place in a bowl. Heat oil in a large skillet and sauté shallots, celery, and garlic until tender. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil.
Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add broth, wine, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes, then simmer for another 10 minutes. Add shrimp, and cook through. Add oregano, and move everything to an ovenproof casserole dish.
Sprinkle feta cheese evenly over the top, then bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese melts. Serve with a crusty bread loaf or garlic bread.
—Recipe courtesy of Joe Maloney