ATHENS — Traffic in Athens is organic. Cars, buses, trucks and swarming motorcycles and Vespas are in no particular lane but ebb, flow and merge in the manner of a mighty river. "We're reaching our first circle. One. Two. Three. (I'm counting streets.) Turn right, now!"
Morning rush hour in Athens, and we had to cut across town to reach the toll road to Corinth. (Travel Tip No. 1: Make sure your maps have the Greek spelling as well as the English transliteration.) I glanced at my companion. Beneath his absolute concentration, Sean McLin was having the time of his life. We were in Greece, and the adventure had begun.
We had spent a long time talking about a trip to Greece, then narrowing the dream down to what seemed most idyllic: 10 days in the northern Peloponnese, the peninsula southwest of Athens that was favored by the gods.
We weren't looking for a group tour of Greece, but we did want some guidance for using our time and money wisely. Dogged research, along with tips from friends and colleagues, led me to what seemed the perfect arrangement: a customized, partially guided tour from Hellenic Adventures. The company would give us vouchers for hotels, arrange for the car rental and provide personal guides for our stops in Athens, Delphi and Olympia, plus lots of extras. The rest of the time we would be on our own--but with Hellenic's assistance only a phone call away.
Sounds ideal? Well, there were moments of anxiety. Everything had to be paid for in advance, and we, in Los Angeles, were dealing with a Hellenic agent in Minnesota. Ultimately we had to accept on faith that Hellenic would deliver what they promised. We were going in off-season (October), staying at hotels chosen by Hellenic, and driving a 600-mile loop from Athens to Corinth to Nauplia, then across the Peloponnese to Olympia, north to the ferry at Rion, then east to Delphi and back to Athens. It was to be our personally crafted journey on the back roads of Greek history. If it went bad, it would be very bad.
Our arrival at Athens airport was not a good start. Hellenic had arranged not only a driver and car but also a guide to assist in our transfer to the hotel. Our plane was late, and our guide was fuming; she had booked another job after us. As we rode toward the hotel, she said Hellenic had made some changes in our trip, but she couldn't remember what they were. She handed us a cell phone to call the Athens office. The phone was dead.
We were relieved to reach the hotel, the Acropolis Select, and to have our prepaid Hellenic voucher accepted. Our room was pleasant, with a private deck, modern decor and, oh joy, a full-size bed. (Travel Tip No. 2: In most Greek hotels a "double" means twin beds pushed together.)
The neighborhood, the Makrigianni district, is next to the south slope of the Acropolis and only a 10-minute walk from the Plaka, the old Turkish quarter, with its tavernas and night life.
We settled for a short walk, a light meal and an early bedtime. A Hellenic guide would be picking us up early for a morning devoted to the Acropolis, the hilltop compound of ruins that symbolizes Greece and the National Archeological Museum.
I wasn't enthusiastic about having a guide for the major sites along our trip. We are avid readers of history and archeology. It seemed to me that armed with our "Blue Book," which comprehensively describes archeological sites, we would only be annoyed by the prattle of a professional.
I was wrong. Eleni Petroutsou was passionate, intelligent and articulate. When we reached the Parthenon, she made us turn our backs to its brilliance and look instead at the surrounding hills, the harbor and ocean. "First consider the landscape and second the buildings placed within it."
This set the tone for an amazing five hours of discussion and reflection. We moderns are trained to look first at the physical evidence of the past--buildings, ruins, monuments. Through Eleni, we learned that this is the end point, not the beginning. When we did look at the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena and the exquisite Erechtheion, it was with very different eyes.
A "welcome dinner" our second night was in Symposio, a converted house in Makrigianni. It was part of the Hellenic package, and we girded ourselves for tourist kitsch.
How do I describe a dining experience that surpassed (in memory, at least) any meal I've had in San Francisco, New York or Paris? Do I mention the butter made by the mother of the restaurant owner, the olive bread? The wine, Katogi Averoff, rich, smooth and generous on the palate? A dish of stuffed sardines, complex but not overpowering? The fresh grilled perch on a bed of thyme and tomatoes?
The next morning, National dropped off our car, a Hyundai hatchback, at the hotel, and off we went. (Travel Tip No. 3: The best driving maps are "Greek Road Editions" and "Freytag & Berndt," available from travel bookstores.) Within 90 minutes we were across the Corinth canal and in the Peloponnese.