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March 14, 2017, Greece

Greece for all seasons

Even in winter, the country remains sunny and a delight to explore, discovers Leong Phei Phei

Leong Phei Phei

I AM not a fan of group tours — imagine rushing through 10 cities in as many days, mandatory stops that are tourist traps in disguise, and spending a week or more with strangers you may not get along with.

Been there, done that — so I swore I would never go on a group tour again.

That is, until I received an invitation to join Trafalgar’s Best of Greece Country Explorer Trip.

Two things made me reconsider my position on group travel: 

First, Greece, or rather, the Greek Islands were on my bucket list. Everyone I know who had been to Mykonos and Santorini had fallen in love with these picturesque islands.

Second, my last group tour had been almost a decade ago and maybe it was time to give it another chance.

So although I later discovered that the trip — a work assignment — did not include the famous Greek islands, the itinerary more than made up for the omission.

I would be visiting the historic sites of Delphi, Olympia and Mycenae, among others.

As if my schedule was not packed enough, I toyed with the idea of adding a day trip to Santorini on my own. But, after a few e-mail exchanges with my travel director Susanna Paakko, I decided to drop the idea.

She advised: “It is winter and many shops are closed in Santorini. I think it is better that you stay with the group.”

Different folks

Our big group of 38 comprised young and old couples, two octogenarians and 10 solo travellers from all over the world. Almost everyone I spoke to had flown more than 10 hours to get to Greece.

Quite a number of them had chosen a guided tour as they felt safer travelling in a group, in light of the ongoing debt crisis.

We were in good hands. Susanna, who has been in this profession for more than a decade, was a knowledgeable guide and competently handled all the logistics.

Additionally, we had local specialists at every stop — tour guides based at specific locations who enriched our journey with their insider knowledge and excellent story-telling skills.

Athens and the Acropolis 

Our tour started with an introduction to the city of Athens in the comfort of a heated coach.

Although it was February, the temperature hovered around a cool 10 deg C.

While summer can be blazing hot in Greece, the Mediterranean winter is mild and pleasant and it was sunny for most of the week.

Home to one-third of Greece’s population, Athens is modern, crowded and cosmopolitan but also cherishes its legacy as the cradle of Western civilisation.

Our first stop was the Acropolis, a sprawling complex on a rocky outcrop above Athens that showcases the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks.

Acro means “high” and polis means “city” in Greek.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Acropolis is home to several ancient buildings that were built during Greece’s golden age around 500BC, the most famous being the Parthenon.

An easy hike took us to this magnificent temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, which is one of the world’s greatest architectural and cultural monuments.

We also visited the Agora — an ancient assembly area below the north-west slope of the Acropolis — the Royal Palace (presently the Parliament House) and the Temple of Zeus, still majestic with its 16 surviving columns.

Treading the same ground where important decisions were made and heated debates took place aeons ago was an awe inspiring experience.

In the afternoon, some of us went on an optional tour to Cape Sounion at the southernmost tip of the Attica Peninsula, about 69km from Athens.

The cape is noteworthy for the rugged beauty of its coastline and the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon, built around 440BC.

I marvelled both at the breathtaking views as well as the architectural prowess of the Greeks, who perched this structure — dedicated to the god of the sea — almost 60m above the surrounding Aegean Sea.

Travel back in time

We were on the road every other day, ticking off one Unesco site after another. All in all, we covered six out of 18 Unesco World Heritage Sites in Greece on this trip.

Mycenae in the south was one of the major centres of Greek civilisation around 2000BC.

Its fortified palace complex was excavated by amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1874, and is one of the earliest examples of sophisticated citadel architecture.

Here, we saw the Beehive Tombs, the Treasury of Atreus, the Lion Gate and the remains of Agamemnon’s Royal Palace.

We next drove to the small city of Epidaurus in a valley in the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

It is home to the Temple of Asklepios (the god of medicine), its nearby tholos — a circular building or smaller temple used for worship — and the theatre, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Greek architecture.

Built around 400BC, the theatre is famous for its exceptional acoustics, which enable spectators, regardless of where they are seated, to hear spoken words from the stage area. Apparently, you can even hear a pin drop or a match being struck centrestage.

I was most impressed with Olympia, where the first Olympic Games were held in 776BC. I listened intently as local specialist Nike recounted how top athletes (men only) representing their hometowns or city-states would train for a year before gathering in Olympia for the competitions.

We walked through the ruins where athletes trained and ran in the ancient stadium.

Next, we visited the adjacent museum, home to several important treasures including the sculptured ornaments from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which housed the famous statue of the god that became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the statues of Hermes of Praxiteles and Nike of Paionios.

Be my guest

On the same evening, we had dinner with the Karabelas family — Ms Franca Magrini and her sons Alexis and Francesco Karabelas — at their olive farm, Magna Grecia, in Olympia, as part of Trafalgar’s Be My Guest experience.

Our host, Ms Magrini, greeted us at the door and personally served us freshly baked pies and the local aperitif, ouzo.

This was followed by a sumptuous home-cooked dinner where we were introduced to authentic Greek cuisine.

Amid the revelry and cheers of “yamas”, we raised our glasses in a toast to Canadian travel mate Raymond Tushingham, who had turned 50 that day. In fact, we celebrated three birthdays and a wedding anniversary during the trip, making it a very special one indeed.

Majestic Meteora

On the second-last day, we visited Meteora, an awesome place whose name means “suspended in the air”. Rising up from the plain of Thessaly were huge boulders and immense monoliths, the highest reaching up to 550m.

Incredibly, there are monasteries dating back to the 14th century atop some of these pinnacles.

As much as I was inspired by the majesty of my surroundings, the “can do” spirit of the octogenarians in our group enlivened me more, when I saw how they struggled (with good cheer) up dozens of stairs to reach the entrance of the largest monastery, The Grand Meteora.

It was a timely reminder that wanderlust has no expiry date.

When I grow old, I want to follow in their footsteps and continue to explore the wonders of the world.

The writer’s trip was sponsored by Trafalgar.

GuideLines

I flew from Singapore to Athens on Emirates, with a transit at Dubai International Airport.

Sleek and classy were the first words that came to mind when I stepped on board for my Emirates Business Class flight. Business Class travellers are assured of a great experience with flatbed seats, gourmet cuisine and the chance to catch up on the latest blockbusters. I was also pleasantly surprised to receive a stylish Bulgari amenities kit on my long-haul overnight flight.

Good news if you are travelling on Emirates. The airline’s loyalty programme members and their guests can use its luxury lounges at Dubai International Airport for a minimal fee. Visit emirates.com for more information.

■ Wear comfortable walking shoes as you will be on your feet a lot and there are many steps to climb at most of the ruins, which is easy enough if you are relatively fit and healthy.

■ In summer, tourist sites are filled with visitors, so if you do not want to jostle with the crowds, winter is ideal for those travelling to Athens and mainland Greece.

■ While my trip did not include the Greek islands, Trafalgar has other tour packages that include island hopping in summer. Visit www.trafalgar.com or www.visitgreece.gr for more information on Greece.

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