After landing in Athens I made my way to the hostel, which involved a myriad of public transport in true Greek style… on the way from the airport the bus managed to clip the back of a car because it was partly in our lane! The car was fine but it was quite an eye opener to begin my trip with. I found all the Greek people I spoke to very helpful in getting me to the hostel, and found it with minimal difficulty.
After reaching the hostel and settling in, I went for a walk around the local streets to get some groceries and figure out what was around. For dinner I got together with a couple of other backpackers staying at the hostel and went to get dinner at a local Greek Souvlaki takeout. We all ended up getting ‘Gyros’, which is like a kebab but with a thicker wrap, and hot chips inside with the salad. Yum! They even managed to make me a vegetarian version, which made me very happy indeed! After dinner we hung around in the hostel common room listening to music and playing chess, and debating the problems of the world. We headed out to a local bar for a couple of drinks before retiring to bed.
Today was a MASSIVE day! I started off the day with a Greek donut as I walked through the city to the Acropolis, which took me past the Olympic Panathinaiko Stadium. Once I reached the Acropolis I headed up into the ruins and stood in awe of the view of Athens. You could see all the way to the ocean and the mountains, it was a beautifully clear day. From the top of the hill all of the buildings look the same – square and white! It was quite a spectacular sight. The ruins are so immense; they tower above the bustling crowds who flock to see them. You can see the details in the marble, and the sections of the pillars that stand tall. The mind boggles at the engineering achievements of people centuries before us!
Once I had seen everything there was to see at the Acropolis, I headed down the hill to the Ancient Agora, which is the ruins of an Ancient marketplace. It pales in comparison to the sheer size of the Acropolis, but was very interesting in its own right. The path led on through the flea market at Monastiraki, and I walked through crowds of people as local businessmen plied their wares. They were selling just about anything you can think of! After the flea market I sat in the square and rested my feet for a little while before heading on to the Mitropoli Cathedral. I was a little disappointed as the Cathedral was all covered in scaffolding inside and out, so you couldn’t really appreciate its design.
I continued on with my exploring, towards Syntgma Square, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by guards in traditional Greek costume. Behind the tomb is the Greek Parliament building, and next door is the National Gardens. I walked through the National Gardens, and through talking with one of the locals discovered there was a small zoo in them! I saw turtles, fish (some VERY big goldfish!), a variety of birds and other animals. By this time I was pretty tired so I find myself a nice shady patch of grass in the Gardens and rested my feet while I enjoyed another Greek specialty, I can’t remember what it is called but it is similar to a German pretzel, except not salty. It was rather tasty and was just what my tummy was asking for! After my nap I continued through the Gardens south towards the Temple of Olympia Zeus. Again, the pillars are immense and quite humbling as they soar into the sky above you… I may have knocked one over; I swear it was an accident! Check out the photos to see what happened…
After giving Zeus my best, I headed back to the hostel for a well deserved siesta (quiet time is enforced by the police from 2.30-5pm, I’m only obeying orders!) before sharing dinner with some others at the hostel.
I set off today to explore the Northern side of Athens. I started with a climb up Lykavittos Hill, to see the small Chapel at the top, not to mention the sprawling vista of the city. It was quite an impressive sight and well worth the view! I could see all the way to the surrounding mountains, and out to the islands in the bay.
After enjoying the sights I headed back down the mountain and meandered my way west to the Archeological Museum. I marveled at the detail in the marble sculptures, and was impressed by the tiny bronze figurines that have been excavated from various sites around the area. My particular favourite sculpture is of Aphrodite beating off Pan with her shoe…check out the photos for the picture of the explanation! I also found a lovely courtyard in the middle of the museum, which had two turtles wandering around the garden, they appeared to be fighting as they head-butted each other, until one climbed on top of the other! (Guess what they were up to…) It was quite an amusing sight as people gathered around to watch and take photos. A little privacy for the animals please!
Once I had explored the museum I headed back towards the hostel, and sampled some local Baklava (a Greek dessert). It was very, VERY tasty, although very sweet! Upon reaching the hostel I had another nap, and then headed down the road for some more tasty gyros. Following dinner we sat around and talked for a bit before heading off the bed, I had another big day tomorrow!
Today was the first day of my two day tour around southern Greece, to the Peloponnese Region. We started by driving south to Corinth, and stopped for a look at the Corinth Canal, which is very deep and joins the Aegean and Corinthian Seas. It is big enough for a Cruise ship to pass through! We continued on to the Mycenae, the oldest prehistoric site in Greece, which dates back to the 16th Century BC. We wandered through the ruins of the castle and tried to envisage what it would have looked like all those years ago. I am constantly amazed by the fact that something that was around thousands of years ago is still standing today! Granted it’s not quite the magnificent castle it once was, but a fair amount of the walls and even some of the floor still stands proudly on the top of its hill, surveying the kingdom sprawling before it. Down the hill a short way from the castle ruins is what they believe to be the Tomb of Agamemnon; they are not sure as it was raided before archeologists discovered it. It is also possible that it was the Treasury of Atreus, who was Agamemnon’s father. Either way, it was quite an interesting design, with a large entrance way and an interior that was shaped like a beehive. There was a small square room off to one side that would have been the burial room, or store room for the treasure, depending on what its true purpose was.
Once we had explored the ancient sites we headed to a local restaurant for some good quality local cuisine, and I certainly was not disappointed! Entrée was a tomato stuffed with savoury rice that tasted amazing, followed by a main meal of Greek salad, hot chips and tomato spaghetti. The spaghetti was so very tasty! Dessert was a fresh and juicy local mandarin, which while a little messy to eat was the perfect way to end the meal. After we were all stuffed full we headed to a local store where they sold replicas of ancient Greek sculptures, pottery and jewellery. Everything in the store was handmade, and we could even go downstairs and see the artists at work! It was quite interesting to see everything I had seen in the museum in Athens up close and personal… while it was not the real thing, it certainly looked authentic! I brought myself a pair of silver earrings with the traditional Greek symbol for eternal life.
After our small shopping spree we piled back onto the bus for a bit of a doze as we drove through the countryside to Nafpoli, the original capital of Greece in ancient times. Those of us who were staying for the two day tour were dropped at our hotel, whereas the rest of the group that were only doing a one day tour continued on with their day. Once I had settled in and got myself organized I headed out for a wander around the local streets of this idyllic Greek seaside town. Overlooking the town is a castle, and in the bay there is another small castle out on a small island. The waterfront is lined with palm trees, tourists and restaurants, and the small streets are filled with souvenir shops and cafes. This is certainly a town that survives on tourism! Once I had explored for a little while I headed back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before I got ready to find somewhere for dinner… sightseeing is tiring business! Once I unearthed myself from my napping state I headed down to the waterfront to watch the sun set over the bay. It was quite a beautiful sight as the golden disc of the sun sank gracefully behind a small stretch of clouds, and then eventually behind the mountain range. It was a very peaceful time of day, completed by the murmurs of conversation filtering out from the surrounding café’s and the whistling of an English gentlemen as he walked up and down the foreshore. Once the sun had disappeared for the day I set off on a search of some dinner, no small feat as I was still quite full from my Greek lunch and wasn’t entirely sure what I felt like eating! After walking up and down a couple of streets and checking out some menus I eventually settled for a small place called ‘Popeye’, which had burgers, pizza and pasta. Despite telling myself that all I wanted was a salad, I ended up getting a ‘Greca’ pizza, which had feta, olives, capers, tomato and oregano… all of my favourite things! It was absolutely amazing, certainly one of the best pizzas I have had! It was accompanied by a large glass of local red wine and a good book on my Kindle, a pleasant evening really. After finishing dinner I went back down to the waterfront and took some photos of the castle in the bay as it was lit up. Unfortunately the castle on the hill behind the town is not lit up at night, which was a little disappointing.
I had a morning to explore Nafplio before the bus came to collect me, so I decided to climb up to the castle that overlooks the town. I started off with a walk around the base of the cliff next to the water, a slightly circuitous route but one that afforded more amazing views of the bay and surrounding mountain ranges. The water looked rather inviting, and it was very tempting to jump in! I continued on to the castle steps, and decided to count them on the way up. I lost track a little bit when I stopped to take some photos, but I counted very close to 1000, which was confirmed by the lady in the ticket booth as fairly accurate. It was a long way up! It was definitely worth it though; the views of the town and surrounding harbor and valley were amazing. There were many school groups and families visiting the castle, all speaking different languages around you. It was quite a bizarre archeological site in that you were free to walk wherever you wanted around the castle, including climbing up on its walls! At one point I stepped up onto a low wall to take a photo, and realized there was nothing stopping me from falling down the cliff into the water on the other side. The water was a phenomenal shade of blue and crystal clear at the edges and it stretches on to the mountains that surround the valley. The buildings are a cream and orange block pattern against the vivid green fields. Yes… it was definitely worth the climb!
Unfortunately it came time for me to depart this lovely castle, so I headed down all those steps towards the town. I found myself some watermelon gelati from one of the many shops, and took it to the waterfront to enjoy whilst reading my book for a little while before heading back to the hotel to be collected by the tour.
From Nafplio we headed back towards Athens via Epidaurus, an ancient open air theatre that dates back to 330-320BC. It holds around 14000 people and is renowned for having amazing acoustics. This was proven correct by a couple of brave tourists who tested out their operatic voices on the stage! The sound carried right up to the back of the theatre without a problem, and was crystal clear in quality. It is quite interesting to see how well this theatre has survived; it could almost be used as for modern day performances.
Once we had seen all there was to be seen in Epidaurus we boarded the bus once more and headed back to Athens. Apparently it is quite a scenic drive, but I hate to admit that I napped most of it as I was exhausted!
This morning I started on my next two day tour, heading north this time to Delphi and the Meteora Monasteries near Kalambaka. We started off with a lengthy bus ride (3.5 hours) to Delphi where we drove through rolling hills covered in olive and pistachio trees. Along the way we were told stories and legends from ancient Greece about the local area and the site we were to visit, Delphi. On arrival at Delphi we explored the archeological site which is the ruins of the temple of Apollo. It is believed this is also where the Oracles were, who harnessed the power of Apollo and were able to deliver prophecies about the future (mostly rather vague apparently!). The ruins where high up on a hill and looked down to a great view across the valley, it was quite spectacular!
After Delphi we continued on north towards Meteora, stopping along the way at Thermopylae to take some photos of the monuments to the battles that occurred there in ancient times. It was quite a long drive and with the afternoon sun streaming through the windows most of us took the opportunity to have a much needed nap. I woke up every now and again to have a look around and enjoy the scenery before dozing off once more. On arrival in Kalambaka we were treated to a spectacular view of the Meteora Monasteries, perched high up on their rocky cliffs. There are 6 remaining, but only one is visible from the road as the others are hidden away. We will get to explore two of them tomorrow, which should be quite special. Tonight though we checked into our hotel (at the foot of the cliffs) and enjoyed dinner together.
After putting up with a rowdy group of Italian schoolchildren mucking about in the hotel for most of the night, we all emerged bleary eyed for the hotel buffet breakfast. While the decent spread of food managed to cheer our spirits sufficiently, we were all feeling the effects of a disrupted night of sleep! The teachers attached to the group were not looking altogether impressed with the behavior of their charges either. We piled onto the bus and headed to our first stop of the day, a demonstration of Byzantine Icon making techniques. It was interesting to hear a little more about some of the types of art that I had studied at school, and that is very common in a lot of Greek churches. We perused the gift shop and then continued on our way to the amazing Meteora Monasteries. There are six monasteries left of the original 21-24, and today we visited two of them. The original monastery was called Meteora, which comes from the Greek word that means “from the sky”, as the monastery was perched so high up in the rocks. Gradually more were added, and the name became a collective term for all of the monasteries and nunneries. The buildings were built on top of rocky outcrops that date back to the time when the region was covered by the sea, and they were so difficult to get to that the monks and nuns would have to be pulled up in a giant net!
The first visit was to a nunnery called St Stephens. It is dedicated both to St Stephens and to St Haralambos, a very popular Greek saint. The church itself houses St Haralambos’ skull, which draws a lot of believers. It was built in the 18th century, and has been rebuilt in more recent times after it was destroyed (in the war I believe). The inside walls of the church were completely covered with frescos depicting the life of St Haralambos, and the multiple ways in which he was tortured for his beliefs. These morbid paintings were intended to provide courage to those who sheltered there, in the way of showing them that they were not the only ones to suffer for their faith. Further around the church were various paintings of saints, Jesus, Mary and God painted on the very peak of the roof, looking down at all those within the church. It was quite interesting to compare the similarities and differences to a standard Catholic church!
The second monastery we visited was another nunnery, called St Roussanou. This was a much smaller building, and the church was quite small and had all of the original paintings on the walls. Again, it was adorned with images of the suffering St Roussanou, with the same intentions as the previous church. Both churches followed the same general pattern in their decoration, with the key images of God, Mary, Jesus, the twelve apostles and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all in the same place. This church also had a wall dedicated to the day of reckoning. It was built during the 14th century, and was used as a place of refuge during the Turkish invasion. After we left this monastery we drove a little further down the rock forest and stopped for a photo opportunity of another monastery, called St. Nicholas. We also had a view of a cave about 50m up one of the rocks that has a myriad of different coloured scarves flying in it. The local boys have a tradition on St George’s day that they climb up to the cave and hang the scarf of their girlfriend (or “the one they will marry”) in the cave. Of course, come the next year they can always hang a different scarf as long as they are willing to make the climb!
Lunch was at a restaurant oozing with tradition Greek character. The walls were decorated with all sorts of memorabilia from times gone by, and it was a very traditional Greek experience as we were welcomed into the kitchen where the grandma of the family cooks! She had about eight large pots lined up of different Greek dishes, and after explaining what they all were we could choose whichever we would like. I had some vegetables, roast potatoes and rice, which was very tasty, even though I couldn’t eat a large proportion of the vegetables, as they had come from a pot that also had lamb! The Greeks don’t really understand vegetarians…
After lunch myself and a couple of girls I had made friends with (Sandy and Amanda) did a little shopping and I bought some fresh strawberries from the local market, which I ate on the bus on the way back. It was a very long bus ride – five and a half hours! I was rather glad to make it back to the hostel that evening and enjoy some sleep.
I was up early this morning in order to make it to my one day cruise around the Greek islands. We left the dock at 8am on board the good ship Platytera. Once we set off we were invited to learn the Greek dance, the Zorba, which was entertaining to watch! When our dancing lessons ended it was time to disembark at the first island for the day, Hydra. This island has no cars, only donkeys! The donkeys were all lined up along the dock as a small cargo ship was unloading, and each donkey had quite a large load strapped onto its back… boxes marked ‘fragile’, plants, sacks of veggies… they carried it all! There were also a lot of cats; at least 10 were waiting at the end of the gangway when we disembarked from our boat. They were very tame, and very affectionate, although I’m not sure if they carried any diseases or not! I walked along the small harbor and around the point to what they call their ‘beach’. It was all rocks, and big rocks, not even small pebbles! The water was crystal clear however, and had the sun been shining I would have dipped my toes in. It remained overcast for the day, but the sun did make a couple of small appearances just after lunch time. Once we had explored Hydra for an hour or so we were back onto the boat for lunch, a three course affair that was accompanied by traditional Greek music played by the onboard musicians.
By the time lunch had finished it was time to disembark at our next port of call, the small island of Poros. We only had about 45 minutes here, so I climbed up to the clock tower, hoping for a good view of the harbor and surrounding town… I was a bit disappointed however as the clock tower was fenced off and it was difficult to get a clear view over the foliage! I took a couple anyway and headed back to the main street. I went for a walk up and down the harbor before it was time to get back onto the boat to head to our final island.
After another hour sailing we arrived at the large island of Aegina, which is where they grow a lot of pistachio nuts! I found a shop dedicated to everything that could possibly be made out of pistachios, which made me very happy indeed. I bought myself a bag of them to enjoy. I went for a walk along the harbor again, perusing the never ending street of cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. I was planning on heading down to the small stretch of sand at the end of the harbor when I came across two familiar faces – Amanda and Sandy, my friends that I met on my tour to Meteora! We decided to head to a café for some waffles and ice cream while we were awaiting our respective boats departures. The weather looked like rain so the prospect of sitting on a beach in the rain was clearly second to the idea of waffles and ice cream! I ended up having some pistachio gelati which, despite the fact that it was bright green, was rather tasty!
Once we boarded the boat once more we were treated to a display of professional Greek dancing which was amusing to see! Once again, audience participation was encouraged, and ended in a lady in her sixties being thrown over the shoulders of a young man and spun around! A traditional move in one of the Greek dances, but quite a shock to the lady who volunteered! Amusing for the rest of us however…
As we drew into the port in Athens the rain was pouring down, we raced for the buses that would take us back to our hotels and I had a quick nap on the way into the city centre. Once I reached my hostel I was ready for some dinner, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep! I enjoyed some Ouzo with some others over dinner, which tastes like liquorice and is quite nice.
Unfortunately today I had to leave Athens to head north, as I started my trek over to Turkey. I boarded my train and travelled 5 hours up to Thessaloniki. I was a little apprehensive about finding the hostel, as on their website some of the reviews were from people who got lost, but I was armed with a myriad of maps and written instructions, and following them carefully I found the place with no problems. Street signs are a bit of a novelty in Greece, especially for smaller streets! The hostel is on a small backstreet about 15 minutes walk from the town centre, right up near the old town walls. The owner happened to be out the front when I was walking up the street, and spotted me straight away. I stick out like a sore thumb with my giant backpack (that I have now dubbed ‘Sausage’, as it looks like a blue and grey sausage. I’m terribly creative and original, I know). I got settled in and then one of the people staying here showed me where to find some food. Everything is closed on a Sunday! I managed to find some half decent pizza and enjoyed a quiet early dinner before settling down for the night. I am in a room by myself, and looking forward to an uninterrupted night of sleep!
Day Ten & Eleven
I spent these two days relaxing and exploring Thessaloniki. It isn’t as exciting as the other places I have been, but it has a lot of old Byzantine era churches, although some of them are really run down. The old city walls snake in and out of the current town centre, and there are new and old buildings everywhere. It is a port city, and the water in the bay is clear but has a lot of rubbish floating in it. I spent most of the first day walking around the waterfront and taking photos, though the weather was overcast and quite cold. There are a lot of random stray dogs running around, and one took a liking to me and followed me for a while. I was fine with it following me, it was nice to have a companion of sorts, but then it jumped up on me a couple of times so I shooed it away. The second day I spent organizing transport to get to Istanbul (turns out you can’t catch a train straight there, you have to go through Sofia which takes 30 hours!). I also relaxed on the balcony of my hostel with a book and some snacks… just what I needed after the busy holiday I have had so far! I am looking forward to going to Istanbul; I think it is going to be a fun-filled week! I’m also looking forward to meeting up with my friends, Sarah and Sam; it will be nice to have some friends to share the good times with. I’m catching a bus at 10pm tonight to Istanbul, which should get in around 8.30am the next day… then to find my hostel!
So this concludes my time in Greece… I have had an amazing time seeing the ancient ruins, sampling a plethora of traditional (and not so traditional) food and simply enjoying the sun! I look forward to returning again someday, maybe to spend some more time over on the islands and explore more of the small towns… but for now, on to Turkey!