Northern Greece, Albania & Macedonia: Ancient Lands of Alexander the Great
We had visited southern Greece in 2001 but had not visited the northern portion. As a history teacher and professor I had always been so impressed with Alexander the Great. This trip would fulfill a wish to personally explore his home territory and see the museums that lauded his travels and conquests. We were not disappointed.
As we had traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) twenty-six times before, we knew what to expect. Their itineraries are intense; full day experiences that are established for travelers and not tourists. For the most part this continued to be the case.
Anna Zika was our Tour Director (TD) and she is to be highly commended for keeping the trip lively and interesting. Every day, from the beginning to the end of each, she provided us with her knowledge and understanding of the areas and enriched each day’s learnings with different experiences.
Because we had so many free afternoons Anna provided additional activities for those times and again accompanied us on these as well as all of the Optional Activities. She frequently provided local foods and allowed us to try many traditional foods as starters in our included meals. Anna was especially helpful in trying to teach us the Greek language, phrases, and the alphabet on our bus time.
Even on the last day, Anna got up at 1:30 am to see us off and verified our transportation to the airport.
Since we first traveled with OAT in 2003, the company has changed their daily schedule to include city/area/national guides. This provided the traveler with a great depth and understanding of the region. Ilir in Albania and Bobi in Macedonia were excellent local guides. They were knowledgeable and knew about speaking to a diverse audience. They were very well organized and receptive to questions and extra activities. Excellent!
The local guides in Greece were very robotic. They walked us through museums and churches pointing out minute details and talking about every display case. There was way too much standing and listening as opposed to action and learning. One can only spend so much time in an enclosed area before people start walking off on their own. Guides need to read their audiences.
Our drivers were very good; the buses were comfortable although on past trips the drivers worked hard to clean the windows for better views or even opportunities for photos. Tasos did a good job of taking us to the locations we were to visit and all on time. Our only concerns were the above-mentioned windows. The windshield and side window were streaked every day. The passenger windows were never cleaned during the trip.
The meals were plentiful to a fault and we appreciated that the starters were served family style. My wife and I were able to share a main meal as we have continually said OAT overfeeds us - having said that several on this trip did not have any problems with cleaning their plates!
The pacing of this trip seems very easy to us, although to several members of the trip, it was too strenuous as they either had to stay on the bus, take a taxi, or not take part in the activity. The included walks/hikes were fun; we saw so much of the natural aspects of Greece, Albania, and Macedonia. The pacing was never even moderate as listed in the OAT brochure, but then as we have addressed, our experiences with the activity levels on OAT trips have changed for the more touristy trips over the years.
The home visit in Albania was OK - a walk thought the garden and animal pens. The Day in the Life was better than some we have had. Helping to cook was a good way to get to know the village people better.
The donkey ride was pretty contrived although the handlers were very nice and exceptionally friendly. Half of our group did not ride; one person fell off, and most just went along for the walk. The hike along with the donkey ride seemed like a hike to kill time while lunch baked.
The optional tours were OK. The gondola ride and lunch and the later walk through the bunker were good - having an optional of that cost including a meal made the cost worth it. The rafting trip was problematic because the river was so low; we were able to get a physical workout avoiding the rocks in the river. Parts of the raft trip were a float ride; the rapids were more paddling to not get stuck. The cost was pretty steep for the hour-long boat ride.
We believe that the OAT trips in general have changed in the 12 years we have been traveling with the company. There are not as many truly adventurous activities and other passengers are not as inquisitive, vibrant, or able to participate in the hiking and even the walking.
The itinerary of this trip was good, but would be better if varied more. Again, there were too many churches and way too many guided tours through museums and each display. A brief introduction and then time on our own to go through the museum at our own pace would be preferable. We are all educated travelers and can read on our own. The archaeological sites are an important part of the countries and the culture, but standing and listening and waiting were a bit too much.
The least enjoyable aspects of the trip were the winery and wine tasting, as we had no actual information about the process or walk through. The Icon Factory was a walk through the workshop with the owner but no employees and we could not see people at work. The school visit was the shortest in our time with OAT with little interaction.
We do not like to have free time for ourselves. We pay premium dollar for our trips to be active and engaging. There were eight days on the itinerary where the words "The rest of the day is at leisure" are listed.
In the last two trips with OAT, we have had many more "afternoons at leisure" and shortened days. Thank goodness for our Tour Director Anna, who suggested alternate activities for those times and actually organized the free afternoons, went with us, and provided these at no extra costs for us.
An aspect that we wish OAT would stress would be to provide opportunities to get to know the real people of the country we are visiting. It is a trait we appreciate from our Top Ten Tour Directors. Perhaps challenge us to get out and meet real people instead of only the home hosted and day in the life. Maybe this should be a future consideration by OAT.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS:
Monastery of Varlaam - Number of visits to these on the rock formations above Meteora
Rock Formations of Meteora - What beautiful sight from our hotel and all around.
The Tomb of Phillip II - Vergina - The royal tombs of the Macedonian kings.
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Just before we were to go on our first journey of 2020, the COVID-19 virus hit and the world shut down for travel and adventure.
We have been working around the house, cleaning and sorting, and we replaced our deck. But the love...