Many thanks to Bob (K4RLC) for the following guest post:
Field Trip to Greece: September & October 2023
A trip to Greece had been on the bucket list for my YL Alanna K4AAC and me for several years. In fact, we had to postpone the trip twice due to COVID. An opportunity arose to take a unique trip to Greece with the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, rather than a more touristy cruise. It’s always good to have fellow Tar Heels around, to share experiences.
This trip involved a few days in Athens, seeing the classic archeologic sites such as the Parthenon and the Acropolis, as well as exploring the packed downtown markets, such as Plaka and Monasteraki Square. Then the group would travel to the South of Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula staying in a fishing village called Gytheio, founded in the 5th Century BC, and port to the Spartan warriors. From there, there would be day trips to historic sites. These included a trip to Areopoli, where the Greek revolution against the Turks started in 1821. Another trip would be to Monemvasia, an island fortress founded in 50 AD. Other trips would be to Mystras (the last outpost of the Byzantine Empire) and ancient Sparta. On the return trip to Athens for departure, the tour would stop in Ancient Corinth, which had been civilized by the Greeks by the 8th century BCE and where the Apostle Paul preached ethics to this Sin City of ancient Greece.
As I had taken the KX1 and KX2 to various places overseas, I, of course, wanted to operate portable radio in Greece. Past treasured memories included enjoyment operating with the KX1 on Suomenlinna Island, in the Bay of Finland, and with the KX2 in various Caribbean sites, including St. Lucia in 2019.
One of the first things I did was to consult the SOTA Summits Database for peaks we might be near. In the Peloponnesian (PL) region, there are about 180 sites, many of which had never been activated. Once we got there, we found out why. The peninsula is extremely mountainous, with steep barren peaks up to 4000 feet, rising quickly from the shore. In fact, talking with Cristos, our guide in Areopoli and a local young man, he said that he and his friends would hike about 6 to 8 hours to a summit, then spend the night in a cave before returning home. Obviously, this would not fit in with our somewhat rigid tour schedule.
I was very excited to see that Mt. Mystras, where we would visit, also was a SOTA site (SV/PL-012), as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
I found it curious that Mystras had not been activated since 2017. I found the name of the last ham who had activated this site, and took a chance of sending him an email at his QRZ address. I was very pleased to get a nice reply from Cristos (a common name in Greece, named after Saint, or “Agios” Christopher), who said that he lived in the north of Greece some distance away and had not been back. I asked him if he had to seek permission to activate there. Cristos said they just didn’t ask anybody, but that I should be “careful of the guards” as I’m not a local.
I took his caution under advisement and reached out to the Greek Radio Union. I received a very nice email from Takis, Vice President of the Greek Radio Union. He advised me that my call sign on the Peloponnesian peninsula would be SV3/K4RLC/P. That is, in Greece the geographic location of operation still matters, while it doesn’t in the United States. And I also should use the designator P, identifying as a portable station. Takis went on to write that radio operation in many the archaeological sites is now “prohibited” by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Antiquities. I filed that away for consideration.
The tour was culturally enriching, taking in the incredibly long and complex history of each ancient site we explored. Just as memorable, we were extremely well fed with local cuisine, including fresh fish caught that day, especially eating by the water in Limeni on the West Coast of the Mani Peninsula. I have to admit we ate spanakopita at least once for 10 consecutive days (it’s even served at breakfast)!
The trip to Mystras also included a trip to ancient Sparta, civilized in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. We were fortunate to have an archaeologist who is currently excavating Sparta as a guide to the fascinating history here. On the trip to Mystras, three miles to the west of Sparta, the bus stopped at the tavern where we would return to eat later that afternoon, for a pre-tour bathroom break. Bathrooms are few and far between in ancient sites, and most of our group could be considered geriatric and needed proximity to a bathroom. Mystras is a 682 meter sharp peak over the town (see photo).
Greek history is one of war, with attempts at conquest and defense, as it is strategically located in the eastern Mediterranean. The peaks were settled as defensive sites. The peak of Mystras has a fortified Citadel built in 1249 A.D. We were fortunate that the Greek bus driver was brave enough to drive to the upper site, so that it was almost a walk-up activation. However, everything in ancient Greece involves lots of walking and an incredible number of steps, much greater than the steps at Keenan football stadium in Chapel Hill. In fact, our Fitbits recorded 16,000 – 17,000 steps a day, and multiple floors.
Even though Christos had warned about the guards, I was skeptical until seeing two Greek uniformed Civil Police at the entrance. As Alanna is a classic “bag lady” who never looks like a security risk, I got her to hide the radios in with all of her paraphernalia.
Fortunately, we were not searched. As it became quickly evident there was no place to set up the KX2 without drawing unwanted attention from the Guards, while out of their view I pulled out my trusty Kenwood THF6As. My plan was to contact locals over the Sparti (local name for Sparta) VHF Repeater and arrange simplex contacts with locals in the valley below. While I could raise the repeater, there was a bit of a language barrier over the repeater. Fortunately, as we had a ham in the group, we were able to arrange a 2m simplex contact, not enough for a full activation, but still a decent attempt from a beautiful archeological site.
The next possible attempt at portable operation was the unscheduled day we would have in Gytheio. From our hotel balcony, we could look out on the Laconic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, and in the distance I could see a beautiful white lighthouse. The nice desk clerk told me that it was a good but worthwhile walk to the lighthouse on Cranae Island, approachable via a causeway.
In packing for the trip, my goal was to be as light as possible for the almost 2-week trip, both for clothes and for radio equipment. I knew the KX2 would perform well, as it had performed in other parts of the world. I wanted a light but efficient antenna.
With some skepticism, I chose the AX1. I had not had good results with it, but after watching Thomas’ AX1 videos with great activations, I decided to try it with some modifications and take it due to its small size and light weight. In the backyard in Raleigh pre-trip, I set the AX1 up on a portable camera tripod. I made a bundle of three 13 feet radials and attached them to the AX1 camera tripod mount with an alligator clip. The length of coax between the radio and the antenna seemed to make a big difference in efficiency and SWR. With field testing, the best combination was 25 feet of RG-174 in a 6 inch coil as a choke between the KX2 and the antenna.
So the radio kit in the backpack included the KX2 (internal battery only & ATU), AX1 with the above mods, a notebook, water, snacks, sun screen, a small first aid kit, and the SP4 paddle. It was another Kodachrome day in Greece when Alanna and I hiked to the lighthouse, gleaming at the end of the peninsula. Unfortunately, it was fenced in and there was a sign identifying that it was an Hellenic (Greek) Navy lighthouse and that trespassing was prohibited. That was fine, as I could get next to it and set up on the radio on some old ruins – maybe from the First Peloponnesian War!
The antenna was set on an old aggregate block, and the radials were just thrown out on the rest of the rubble. SV3/K4RLC/P is a bit of a torturous call for CW, so for the first time, I used the memories in the KX2.
I called CQ on 20 Meters CW not knowing what to expect, but soon unusual calls started coming back. As there was a steady 20 knot breeze off the sea, I needed earbuds, which I typically do not like to use. They were very helpful. Propagation was up and down that afternoon, but soon I made contacts with several stations in Italy and Germany, Slovenia, a QRP station in Romania, and an Israeli station (this was the day before the horrible terrorist act occurred from Gaza).
At times there was a pile-up I could not handle and, at other times, no replies at all. There really was not a technical issue with the radio or antenna, but my modest CW abilities as well as the excitement and enthusiasm of operating in such a beautiful place at times intruded. That is, I admit to brief periods of spacing out, as I admired the picture-perfect Laconic Bay and lighthouse ruins, struck by my current experience, and wondering about what all had occurred in this ancient place.
The cell service was surprisingly good, such that I was able to track my propagation on the Reverse Beacon Network and was really amazed at how well the rig did, being spotted in eastern and central Europe. While most of the operators answered at my calling speed, some of the Eastern Europeans answered in a blazing speed. This was similar to the Finish operation, where Fins and Russian CW operators are exceptional. Nevertheless, it was a pure delight to be operating from such a beautiful site, and among my most treasured memories from our trip.
After the activation my YL and I had to pack up and hike back for a lesson in Greek folk dancing and another sumptuous multi-course dinner with our group, with fresh fish at an outdoor seaside café. I had tried squid and octopus, but local grouper was a delight. Our group was very curious about my radio contacts, and several asked if I had contacted the Ukraine. They were disappointed that I had not. However, no one knew what would happen the next day in Israel.
We returned to Athens at the trip’s end for a few more days of exploration. As we stayed across from Parliament Square and the National Park, I thought about activating there, but both were crowded with lots of activity, especially since Sunday was a country-wide election day.
The Parliament Square was also a happening place for all sorts of demonstrations, including a huge and raucous pro-Armenian demonstration. We spent the last day sightseeing, including going to the school of one of my favorite philosophers – Aristotle’s Lyceum. On the way back, Alanna and I made friends with a young Athens riot policeman. He was a very friendly young man, but always alert, and you certainly don’t want to get on his bad side (in our foreign and domestic travels, Alanna is immediately profiled as a “non-threat”, so the Athenian Guard agreed she could be in the picture).
In preparation for the trip, I had checked on licensing requirements for Greece and hoped there was reciprocal licensing. The ARRL website is very useful in this regard. While the United States is not part of the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) agreement for Europe, there are reciprocal agreements with the US under the T/R 61-01 agreement. You need to take an original hardcopy FCC license, a copy of FCC Public Notice DA 16-1048, and your Passport. Takis, from the Greek Radio Union, also recommended that I take a copy of the reciprocal licensure agreement but in the Greek alphabet (derived from Persian) in case the authorities did not read English, which I did.
Also, out of caution and because I had problems with Customs in some Caribbean countries, I made a typed list of all my equipment, including serial numbers and purchase cost. This list also stated that the radio items were my personal property and would return to the United States with me, and were not for sale, barter or trade. I had this typed notice formally Notarized by a certified Notary.
As far as any security problems with the radio equipment, there were none either entering or leaving Athens and going through what now was a very liberal Customs check compared to pre-pandemic. The greatest scrutiny was at Raleigh-Durham Airport by TSA, where the agent pulled my backpack apart and opened up the KX2 kit.
He kept muttering “…so damn many wires…”, in reference to the counterpoise bundle and the extra 18 gauge silicon wire I had for random wires, along with AA batteries, wire cutters, and electrical tape. He even swabbed the KX2 kit for explosives! We ended up having a nice talk about licensure, as he was interested in getting his ham license. I gave him information for our Raleigh local club, and encouraged him to follow up.
All in all, it was a great trip even though radio activation was limited, and not allowed at the Parthenon (obligatory photo below). The pageantry of cultures that is Greece has made it uniquely situated to have become the birthplace of Western Civilization. As an older and hopefully wiser me, it was great to learn more about this history, as I really didn’t pay adequate attention to the two semester “ Modern Civilization” classes that were required of freshman at UNC back in the day. It is amazing that Greek civilizations flourishing 2000 years BC such as the Minoans (2000-1450 BC) and the Mycenaeans (1600-1100 BC) would have developed such sophisticated cultures . But it really was the Athenians, whose Golden Age (450-400 BC) advances in philosophy, art, science and architecture laid the foundations for Western Civilization and our own tumultuous democracy. Hopefully Not to be taken for granted…
Many thanks to K4AAC for her excellent editing.