Everybody in Greece speaks at least some English, and many were perfectly fluent, much more so than in Italy. A Swedish couple I ate lunch with on my tour to Delphi explained it like this: like Sweden, Greece is a small, unimportant country. Nobody wants to learn Greek, so the Greeks have to learn English if they want to communicate with anyone. I was extremely pleased about this fact and also the fact that important signs and so forth are in both Greek and English - my ancient Greek was of no practical use at all. Oh, it was very interesting to note the similarities and the differences and to be able to pick out roots in certain words, in a nerdy sort of way, but it was no help in navigating the city. Knowing the alphabet was helpful, but they even transliterate things like street signs.
Most people say Athens is a terrible city, a dirty, traffic-filled concrete jungle that the tourist should see as quickly as possible and move on. I disagree in the strongest possible terms. Yes, it is very urban and sprawling, and the air pollution is absolutely ridiculous. But it is possible to ignore that and see its charms. After all, the air is clean enough at ground level, and I saw more people in uniform cleaning the streets than in any other city anywhere. Athens is a city of contrasts - the fast-paced life of the cars streaming by Syntagma Square and the evening spent drinking coffee in the Plaka and watching Athens go by, the ancient city represented by the Acropolis towering over everything and the archaeological sites scattered over what is actually a remarkably small area compared to the modern city, which is itself such a contrast to Italy. No stucco in Greece! As much as I love Rome, the modern city seems very dull compared to Athens, which is so alive. Maybe that has something to do with the time of year. They say that Athens in the height of summer is chock full of tourists and goes absolutely nuts; it also seemed much busier during the day on Saturday. Still, there is absolutely nothing like sitting a table on the sidewalk at a little restaurant in the Plaka or Monastiraki and enjoying life and watching the world go by. It's so much more intimate than Rome. Yes, that's it exactly - Rome is imposing, with huge piazzas, gigantic churches, grand boulevards, while Athens is smaller and more intimate, with squares that are small, yet exactly big enough and intended for people to sit and gather there (completely unlike the big Italian versions, meant for cars), Byzantine churches that are small and comfortably enclosing, not cavernous (even the main cathedral of the whole city is tiny), lots of pedestrianized streets in the historic quarters so you can really get to know the place.
Of course, the whole place is a construction site, due to the Olympics in 2004. The Greeks are really proud of that, I think, and are doing a huge amount to spruce up the city. Of course, it kinda sucks to be there now, and who knows when they'll finish all these projects, but in five or ten years Athens will be a much-improved and modernized city. I really hope that doesn't take away from its charm - I truly fell in love with the place in hardly any time at all. Athens is the only place I can remember that I decided so easily that I would come back someday - it just wasn't a question at all. I really am a city person at heart.
So as for my trip, I did all the main archaeological sites in Athens, the Acropolis, the Agora, and so forth. The Acropolis is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, almost a spiritual experience. Still, you can do all the sites in the city in a day, and several of the museums were closed. I wandered around a lot (my feet are currently a blistered pulp from all the walking, despite the best hiking boots) and climbed several local hills with excellent views and good sunsets. And I left the city on day trips. I went on a tour to Mycenae and Epidauros. Mycenae was a city of the Mycenaean civilization (Greek, but separate from the classical Greeks) from about the 15th to 12th centuries BC. It's one of those places that you study a lot but never expect to actually be. I think it's been built up by legend into a lot more than it actually is (this is the city where Agamemnon was supposedly from) but even so, the legend gets to you. And Epidauros is the largest and best-preserved (or best-restored, at any rate) Greek theater in Greece. I've been to several other Greek theaters in various places but compared to this one they're all small and insignificant. The view is better in some places, and the history of the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis is more grand (that's where all the famous Greek tragedies and comedies were first performed, but I thought it was disappointingly small and poorly preserved), but the sheer size and the marvelous acoustics were absolutely astounding.
And I took another tour to Delphi, which was enormously different than I expected, though no less spectacular. I had expected a small, secluded valley, far from any large road, temples surrounded by trees on all sides, a generally peaceful sites. Instead, it's an enormous site stretching over half a mountainside. And when I say stretching over a mountainside, that's exactly what I mean. You enter at the bottom and the ruins stretch what must be 500 feet or more above you. You climb towards the top passing mostly foundations of small buildings and bases for statues and other small monuments. Eventually you get to a point where you can see the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle was located. It consists of maybe half a dozen columns broken off at various heights and a platform for the floor which should be perfectly rectangular and flat, but which is actually very irregular and seemed to have a lot of the stone blocks missing. A spectacular view of the valley, and absolutely well worth seeing, but not quite what I expected.
I also went to Aegina, which is an island about 40 minutes from Athens by hydrofoil ferry (that's probably 15-20 miles or something) which is supposed to count as my Greek island experience. There was a reasonably nice temple with a spectacular view (although the view was back towards Athens which took something away from the whole Greek island thing) but mostly I just sat on a very secluded (almost empty) beach, which I absolutely needed. The other group that I almost went with ended up spending five days on a beach in Santorini (a real Greek island, much farther south) which would have bored me to tears, but I needed a bit of a break in my heavy schedule. I have a feeling I may regret not relaxing more sometime this week, but in the long run I'm definitely glad I did what I did. Travelling alone was not really a problem. In fact, I actually enjoyed it…seeing and doing the things I wanted to see and do, at my own pace, without worrying about what anybody else wanted to see and do (or not see and do, as the case may be). Dinner was a little lonely, so I tended to rush through it, and it was weird to not speak full sentences in English very much (or even talk at all). Still, a fabulous trip. Bring me back there any time.