We burned our last 2,000 Albanian lek in an overpriced Tirana airport bar and caught a one-hour flight to Athens. It was after midnight by the time we made it through passport control, met up with a friend near baggage claim, picked up our rental car, and drove to our hotel on the edge of the city.
An animated old Greek woman welcomed us at the front desk.
“When are you headed to the islands?” she asked eagerly, assuming we would be seeking out the nightlife of Mykonos or the iconic cliffs of Santorini.
“Actually, we won’t make it to the islands this trip,” we told her. “We’re driving out to Delphi and Olympia tomorrow.”
Our host was aghast.
“O-Olympia??” she stuttered. “Three young guys, and you’re not going to the islands? I don’t believe it.”
Perhaps our host was right that we should have been looking for beaches and nightclubs instead of ancient ruins. Maybe Daniel and I are boring. But for history nerds like us, the Peloponnese was anything but.
We started in Delphi, the famous ancient sanctuary that served as home of the oracle. For centuries, Greek city-states would tithe from the spoils of battle to build monuments in Delphi, commemorating victories and the sage advice of the oracle. Excavations in the late 19th century revealed thousands of treasures, sculptures, and structures, including the Treasury of Athens, built in honor of the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon.
Our next stop was Olympia – famous, of course, as the original home of the Olympic games. We had been told to keep our expectations low for Ancient Olympia, but we were pleasantly surprised by the number of ruins and relics, especially in the excellent Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
Shifting historical time periods by a few thousand years, we drove south to Mystras, near ancient Sparta. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the fortified city was among the largest in the Byzantine empire and served as capital for the Byzantine Despotate of Mystras.
Driving across Greece was a breeze, and not just because we were coming off a week in chaotic Albania. The country’s system of freeways – apparently mostly built before the 2004 Summer Olympic Games – are in excellent condition, well-signed in both the Greek and Roman alphabets, and largely devoid of traffic.
The scenery continually reminded me of the rugged beauty of California’s central coast, and for the first time, I started understanding why my native home state is sometimes described as “Mediterranean.”
We enjoyed a long scenic drive around the rustic Mani Peninsula, the southernmost tip of mainland Greece.
Our next stop was Monemvasia, a fortress town situated on the side of a small island just off the east side of the Peloponnese. The old town is an interesting mix of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman architectural influences – all in a surreal setting.
Heading north from Monemvasia, we stopped to explore the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the centers of Greek civilization from 1600 BCE to 1100 BCE. A thousand years before Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, the Mycenaeans were living and building with unbelievable sophistication. The Lion’s Gate entrance has stood just like it does today since the 13th century BCE. The following week, we would see many of the excavated Mycenaean treasures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
We spent two nights in the coastal city of Nafplio, where we visited multiple Venetian fortresses and took a short road trip to Epidaurus (Epidavros), famous for being home to the best-preserved ancient theater in Greece.
By September, we had fully reached shoulder season, and sites like Epidaurus were almost empty. We bypassed football stadium-sized parking lots and walked right in.
We ended our three months in Europe with eight nights in Athens. A week in Athens would be more than enough time for any fast-moving traveler, but we enjoyed taking our time and getting to know the city.
Formerly one of the dirtiest and most polluted cities in Europe, Athens has made some progress toward becoming more tourist-friendly – but whatever the city lacks in charm, it easily makes up for in fascinating history.
One of the highlights of our entire trip was walking up the steps of the Acropolis toward the Parthenon, marveling at the ancient people who traveled the same road thousands of years before and the scale of human achievement in front of us. I was nearly moved to tears.
There’s little doubt why Greece is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. We loved every minute of it.