Travel Journal: Greece
It's been rather quiet around these parts for two reasons. Reason number one is that I was traveling! My partner is working in Greece for the summer on an archeological dig and I had the opportunity to go visit him in the middle of his stay. (Reason number two is that since I've been home from this trip, I've been hard at work prepping Saltbox for its paper pattern release later this summer).
I had never been to Greece before. In fact, I'd never been anywhere in the Mediterranean (though I have done a bit of the pre-college backpacking in Europe thing). This was such an amazing opportunity to explore and I thought I would share some of my findings and reflections with you all!
I traveled with my dad and mother in law which made for lovely company. We were there for 11 days, joining up with J for 6 of them. We arrived in Athens after a red-eye to London, followed by a shorter morning plane ride. The travel was exhausting and I tried my darnedest to stay awake the rest of the afternoon to avoid jetlag. I managed to stay up until 7pm and slept straight through til 7 the next day. Success!
We stayed in a fantastic AirBNB in a very cool neighborhood called Psyrri which is adjacent to the Acropolis: a big hill upon which sits the Parthenon, among other amazing and super old things. Athens is in many ways a very metropolitan city. It reminds me of Manhattan set in the hills of deserty Southern California. Parts of it are very gritty, but aside from petty theft there isn't too much crime. There's graffiti everywhere. People are generally very warm and love to chat. There are stray cats all over the place.
I've been keeping up with the news about Greece and its economy, especially since J has been working there the last couple of years, not to mention its central role in the refugee crisis. Most folks I spoke to said that the economy was improving. I imagine that the economic state is more apparent when you get outside the city, even perhaps when you get outside the hustle and bustle of central Athens. Many of the areas we spent time in were full of tourists from all over and many of them from the US. I hope that, to some extent, this tourism is helping the economy.
Despite the economic climate, the shopping scene was quite fascinating. I can't help but be interested in commerce and manufacturing and how each country or area has its own culture surrounding it. One thing I noticed in particular about Athens, or at least the neighborhood we were staying in, was that aside from restaurants I saw very few chain stores. On each block, you'd find a collection of small shops, often open different hours. Some sold antiques (in fact, I believe we were in a sort of 'antique district' since there were many of these shops clustered around), others sold door & drawer hardware, metal items, cafe chairs, doormats, leather hides, sandals. There was even a sort of fabric district, which I was more that happy to peruse. While I wasn't able to find any fabric specifically made in Greece, I did come home with some lovely gems from some small, family run shops. Many of them were very busy, hopefully because folks in town were there to shop for their sewing projects!
If you're at all a shoe person - though I like shoes, I don't qualify as one since I tend to stick to one or two pair at a time - you'll loose it in Greece. There are shops everywhere selling a huge variety of gorgeous, handmade leather sandals. Though I can't be sure they're all produced ethically, it's very clear that many shops are concerned with the quality and how/where they are made. Often times, one family is at the helm. You'll find little shoe, belt, and bag shops all over Athens.
In fact, I encountered all sorts of craftspeople or purveyors of goods who cared about what they were making and were proud to make it in Greece. I found that both small boutiques and touristy shops alike had an emphasis on Greek made products and when speaking to folks in these shops, quality and craftsmanship was very important. Such a contrast to many other places I've traveled, where the 'tourist' areas are largely filled with items made elsewhere but emblazoned with the name of a country. I'm not much of a shopper, but I relished in the opportunity to support the local economy by picking up a few beautiful, well made pieces.
One of my favorite shops I visited was called Forget Me Not, which included a lovely selection of independent Greek design: clothes, books, housewares, and more. I also discovered a lot of awesome Greek indie fashion labels. One of my favorites was Heel.
Athens is a modern city that is absolutely packed with some of the most ancient man made stuff you can find. It's not surprising that their crafts are still appreciated...these are folks who know how to make things last. We of course ventured up to the Acropolis and I was most struck by how in-progress everything was. There were many people and machines actively restoring these ancient buildings. Throughout Athens, the juxtaposition between the ancient and the undeniably modern was astounding. There was even a tourism campaign touting this concept - A bearded hipster's profile artfully photoshopped over a picture of the Parthenon, subtitled with the word "Hipstorical" and its definition.
In the rather touristy Plaka neighborhood, one of the older neighborhoods adjacent to the acropolis, I discovered a narrow shop where a lady was selling woven tapestries. She had been weaving them for 35 years and they ranged in size and content, but mostly showed graphic scenes of Greece and the islands. She had yellowed newspaper clippings of her trips to Paris, Taiwan, and other places where she'd presented her craft. I purchased this lovely weaving of Santorini from Rita. I asked her, had she ever thought of teaching? Tapestry weaving is making such a comeback. She smirked and said she didn't like people very much.
Mid way through the trip, we traveled to Chania, a large city on the island of Crete (the largest of Greece's many islands) with a beautiful old Venetian harbor. Similar to Athens with its blend of modern amenities and 500 BC charm. It had many old, winding allies and small tavernas. We ate at an outdoor restaurant built into the ruins of an old building and watched couples browse the wares of a boutique across the street. And more stray cats, of course. You can even buy souvenir calendars featuring 'The Street Cats of Crete'.
One night, I stumbled into a shop because I saw what looked like cross stitch through the open doorway. The shop was packed with stacks of handwork: crochet, weavings, embroideries and more, lovingly organized into wooden shelves and cubbies or hanging from the walls and ceilings on department store pants hangers. Galatea, who ran the shop, specialized in traditional textiles made by craftspeople from around the island. I ended up purchasing a souvenir here too (can you blame me?) and settled on an embroidered piece created in a village called Meskla, near the island's famous gorge. Apparently, it was one of the few pieces left in this style and perhaps there might never be more. She seemed happy when I explained my keen interest in embroidery - continuing on handcrafts of past generations.
After Chania, we returned to Athens for a few more days amidst a rather intense heatwave, with temps nearing 105. We opted to spend the day in the archeological museum, which was air conditioned. The amount of objects collected and their age is unimaginable. (This is the case all over Greece. We even found washed up sherds of ancient pottery on the beach.)
One thing that was curiously absent on this trip was wool! I even asked around at local yarn shops and nearly everyone seemed surprised I would even be looking for wool from Greece. Though I know there are plenty of sheep, having eating quite a bit of their delicious cheese and yogurt. The shepherds mostly shear the sheep and dispose of the yarn, which I know is not unusual for sheep raised for dairy and meat. Perhaps the growing trend of 'multi use' sheep will spread to this part of Europe :) I wonder if the wool is being used for other things like insulation, felt, or rugs...
And since this is not a food blog, I will simply make one statement in regards to cuisine: The food in Greece is awesome. At one restaurant, the owner even showed us pictures of his farm in a nearby village on his cell phone, including the lamb we had the option of choosing from the menu.
And then, before I knew it, we were heading home. I'd love to have the chance to go back some day and explore further.