First published in Neo magazine, New York City, June, 2008
By COLLEEN McGUIRE
Greeks find it strange that someone called Colleen McGuire has adopted Greece as a homeland. My name is Celtic to the core. When I announce that my maternal grandfather’s name was Oreste Spadafora, big smiles break out, “Oh, the namesake of King Agamemnon’s son is surely of Greek heritage.” When I add that the Spadaforas hailed from Sicily, an ancient Greek colony, I am then embraced as a true child of Ellas.
For my part, I feel I must have Greek blood because my attachment to this land runs so deep. I live minutes from the Acropolis and do not take that elegant monument or its surrounding ruins for granted. When I pass it or glimpse a few white marble columns from my terrace I experience a momentary sense of enlightenment. Indeed, even unheralded ruins excite me, like those a bulldozer once uncovered in a construction site behind the building where first I lived in the Thissio neighborhood of Athens. The antiquities authorities immediately issued a stop-work order and for the next year and a half I devotedly monitored the progress of a bona fide archaeological dig right in my backyard.
Rural areas are reservoirs of traditional arts, such as, weaving and wood carving, which also fascinate me. In these tourist-deprived regions I revel speaking my kindergarten Greek with elders who patiently wait for me to formulate my sentences, unlike unruly Athenians who jump in with the correct word or more typically revert to English which thwarts my earnest efforts to conquer this tantalizing language. Locals in rural regions tend to be proud people and they are flattered that you admire their customs and simple living. My preference is to explore the countryside and islands by bicycle.
I am somewhat of an anomaly in Greece because I cycle for transport, for pleasure, for exercise, a way of life. Although Greece is the home of the Olympics, paradoxically, cycling and physical activity in general are uncommon pursuits for the average Greek. This is a pity because a bicycle allows an intimacy unattainable from the seclusion of a car or the altitudes of a bus. Even a motorcycle shatters the serenity of village life. On numerous occasions villagers have told me that I was the first person in memory to arrive by bicycle. Through slow motion travel I have seen so many endearing sights in remote and untrafficked areas.
In the Peloponnese peninsula near Kalavrita I pedaled to a hamlet whose prized feature is a hollow tree so huge that it holds a church inside it. Honest to God. I walked through the carved-out door and sighed when I saw an altar and eight chairs in a circle. Religious icons hung from the inside bark and you could light a candle as you would in any other chapel. I almost genuflected on the spot.
One late May while mountain biking near Mt. Parnassus, I discovered wild strawberries clinging to a wall of earth. Sparkling from the morning dew and no bigger than a dime, they had a luscious sweetness way out of proportion to their size. The biggest treat in rural Greece is the abundance of fresh water springs that make store-bought water taste stale. Some sources are nothing more than rigged-up pipe spigots while others are more elaborate — fountains embellished with a lion’s head, the cold alpine water gushing from its roaring mouth.
Lesvos (a/k/a Mytilini) is Greece’s third largest island with an extensive road network of over 400 kilometers. On my first visit, I spent two weeks cycling on my own to just about every town and settlement accessible by asphalt. Despite its size, Lesvos is not a major tourist destination. This means there are plenty of beaches that render bikinis as useless as a parka in July. I have fond memories of my first evening when I pitched my tent near the adorable fishing village of Skala Sikaminias and walked into town for dinner at a seaside taverna. The highlight was watching the sun, plump and red as a fire engine, linger to the point of loitering on the horizon as if debating whether to set. The next morning I zipped open my tent, took three or four paces and—splash!—I was swimming in the sea, perky as a seal. More than half my camp sites on Lesvos were within spitting distance of the Aegean.
Greece has so many precious places that it is regrettable tourists predominantly flock to Santorini and Mykonos. These are gorgeous islands but I can name a dozen venues that vie in charm and allure, starting with romantic Hania in Crete, the indestructible mastica villages of Chios, car-free Skyros and the World Heritage Site of Meteora — all virtually unknown destinations to American vacationers. I once had the privilege to escort the publisher of National Geographic Adventure magazine and his family on their first visit to Greece and select their itinerary. They had never heard of Nafplio, but, like me, they instantly fell in love with this graceful and quintessentially Greek city.
Colleen McGuire formerly had her own housing rights law firm for sixteen years in New York City until Greece seized her attention. She now divides her time between Athens, Greece and New York City operating a bicycle tour company called CycleGreece www.cyclegreece.gr and a specialty tour company called Aegean Adventures www.aegeanadventures.com She is a contributor to Greece A Love Story (Seal Press, 2007), essays from 19 American women, with a story called “Siga Siga: Cycling in Greece.” Colleen bicycled solo from New York City to San Francisco with all her gear.