My big fat Greek vacation

Dear Reader,

If you thought you’d scroll through this post in a hurry, close this window and don’t return until you’re putting off a paper or have other serious time to kill. I was one of two in my group who didn’t bring my laptop on spring break, so I have nine days worth of pretty cool stories to tell.

Here goes!

Friday, March 16: Long-time-coming plane

I’d had my spring break booked since early February, but I’d been dreaming of Greece since I was in middle school — right around the time that the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movie was released. It’s cheesy, I know, but what 14-year-old girl wouldn’t want to play among red and gold cliffs, spotted with pastel houses that overlook a clear, blue sea?

Granted, that part didn’t come until Monday, but my anticipation during Friday’s flight was sky-high (pun intended). I was a little worried Greece wouldn’t meet my six-year build up of expectations.

Lydia, Bethany, Amy and I flew out of Florence early Friday morning. For some reason, Lydia and I thought we’d be clever and share a suitcase, even though our airlines allowed one free checked bag per person. We still don’t know what we were thinking. Our free bag ended up costing us €60 for being 12 pounds overweight, and it was terrible to lug everywhere we went — especially down the six flights of stairs in our apartment building. Lydia was pretty frustrated, but I laughed at how dumb we were and shrugged it off. As of late, my motto has been, “It could have been worse.”

I’m also in pretty great circumstances to be able to ignore little road bumps.

After two wonderful flights with Lufthansa (a European airline I highly recommend), the gang landed in Athens. We took the subway into the city and found Athens Studios, our hostel, with some help from an old Greek man who spotted our confusion from down the street.

Kate and Caitlin were waiting for us in an apartment-style room that the six of us had to ourselves. It was nice, except the toilet kept breaking and there was no holder for the showerhead, which I solved by crouching under the lower faucet. It was a good glute workout, and I think I invented a few yoga poses.

Anyways, we dumped our bags, had dinner at the Fish Café downstairs (best fish burger EVER) and relaxed for the rest of the night.

Saturday, March 17: Ancient ruins, sex-starved tour guides and St. Patrick

We spent most of Saturday on a walking tour of the city.

We saw:

  • Arch of Hadrian, 131 AD
  • Temple of Zeus, begun around 520 BC, finished around 120 AD
  • Statue of Lord Byron (who fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire), around 1850
  • Dozens of cute, stray dogs
  • Old olympic stadium, 566 BC, renovated in 1869
  • National Garden
  • Old olympic headquarters, 1870s
  • Orange trees
  • Old Palace/ current Parliament building, 1836
  • Changing of the guards
  • Tomb of the unknown soldier
  • Lots of churches
  • More orange trees
  • Ruins of Hadrian’s library, 132 AD
  • Roman agora (ancient marketplace), around 500 BC
  • Gypsies
  • Hill of Ares, used as court by Council of Elders around 400 BC
  • Theatre of Herodes Atticus, 161 AD

Temple of Zeus

Construction began around 520 BC during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisioned building the greatest temple in the ancient world, but it was not completed until the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD some 640 years later. It was renowned as the largest temple in Greece for about 100 years until it was pillaged and burned in an invasion.

The Panathinaiko, or old olympic stadium

The Panathenaic Stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It was reconstructed from the remains of the ancient Greet stadium, and it’s the only stadium in the world built entirely of white marble.

Zappeion exhibition center/ 1896 Olympic headquarters

I still can’t tell types of columns apart…

Orange trees were everywhere! Kate and I struggled to snatch the perfect orange, and just as we caught up to the group, our guide was explaining why not to eat them. “You can if you want, but they’re VERY sour,” he said. “Athenians don’t eat them.”  Well, we already had our orange in hand, so we had to try it. Everyone turned and watched us for the verdict. It basically tasted like grapefruit — very sour, but not nearly as unbearable as our guide made it sound.

Changing of the guards outside Parliament

The guards rotate shifts and do this fun little march every hour. The big pom-poms on their shoes are decorative here, but in battle they hid vertical blades as last-resort weapons.

Little posers

Hadrian’s library, 132 AD

Roman agora (ancient marketplace), 500 BC

Areopagus/ “Hill of Ares”

The Areopagus rock is often called the Hill of Ares because the Greek god of war is believed to have been the first tried at Aereopagus Hill. Ares was put on trial for killing the son of Poseidon, who had attacked and violated his sister. During classical times, the hill was actually used as a court, usually for murder trials.

The hill is then often associated with St. Paul, who in 52 AD supposedly preached the Christian message to the Athenians from atop the rock.

View of Athens Acropolis from the Areopagus

To conclude the tour, our guide led us to the foot of the Acropolis where he gave us one last history briefing. He didn’t take us up the hill because there was an additional fee to climb, but he suggested we return the next day because Sundays are free. About halfway through his spiel, an old, disheveled-looking woman approached our group and started yelling at him. After a minute of tense conversation, she left. A few of us thought she was a gypsy or beggar — who are pretty commonplace in Athens as well as Florence — but our guide later explained that she was a certified tour guide. Apparently the profession is one of a few that are closed to people like him — who haven’t gone to a certain kind of trade school. But to our guide, who already had three degrees and was qualified to teach, returning to a high-school-like trade school was laughable. He got away with it by saying he was a teacher and we were his students, and he told us not to worry — she was just a cranky, sex-starved old lady. We laughed about that most of the walk home.

That night, I returned to the Fish Café for some more fish (this time fish and chips, and learned that “chips” means french fries). We ran into James, an English man we met during our tour, and decided to hit the bars for St. Patty’s Day with him and Claud, a fellow American who was traveling Greece alone for 20 days. I think we spent more time wandering the streets than in the bars, but we found some jig-worthy Irish music and discovered beer that I actually liked!

Sunday, March 18: Peak of Athens, singing and dancing

We experienced the peak of Athens in more than one way. First, literally.

We climbed the Acropolis hill, or so-called “Sacred Rock” of Athens, which is the most important site of the city and holds some of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Remains date back to the stone ages (around 10,000 BC), and monuments have been built, destroyed, rebuilt and rededicated from 500 BC to 1890 AD.

The Parthenon, 450 BC

The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, who the people of Athens considered their virgin patron. Its construction began in 447 BC, when the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power, and it was completed about 10 years later. The Parthenon itself replaced an older temple of Athena that was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 480 BC.

The current Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece and Athenian democracy, and is one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. The Greek Ministry of Culture is now carrying out a program of selective restoration and reconstruction to ensure the stability of the partially ruined structure.

The Erechtheion, 420 BC

Ruins of the Old Temple of Athena, 570 BC, destroyed in 480 BC

Old surrounded by new

After the Acropolis, we stopped for slushies and returned to Areopagus to escape the crowds, relax and soak up the sun. Soon after, we realized we needed to book it if we wanted to get to the rest of our sites (most close at 3 p.m. on Sundays).

Temple of Hephaestus, 450 BC

We made it to the Temple of Hephaestus. According to mythology, Zeus made Hephaestus create women to punish men for discovering fire. The temple became the church of St. George after Athenians converted to Christianity in 700 AD.

We dawdled at the temple too long to make it back to the Temple of Zeus and the old Olympic Stadium (we wanted to go inside both), so we went to the market place to find gyros and fresh fruit instead.

The second peak was metaphorical and completely unexpected.

After a few hours of wandering and shopping, the gang was planning to stop for groceries and cook in our hostel to save some money. That didn’t make sense to me because it was our last night in Athens; it seemed smarter to wait and get groceries for our five days in Santorini. Plus, we had only eaten at the Fish Café and gyro stands. I talked everyone into finding a cute, traditional restaurant.

When we started searching, the streets were dead. I still don’t know if it was because of the home soccer game, or because 8 p.m. was too early for dinner. It was probably a combination of the two. Anyways, as we approached a small, half-tented, half-indoor restaurant, the doorman called to us to come in. “Live music!” he said. “I give you discount!” We were sold.

I ordered traditional Greek moussaka and wine, and enjoyed both to the soundtrack of two old men singing in Greek and plucking their acoustic guitars. The music was beautiful, and every time we looked at them, they smiled.

The band

Moussaka

“We should get up and dance,” I said as soon as I finished eating — to which everyone responded with blank stares. Annoyed, I egged them on. Our table was practically on the dance floor, and the restaurant was nearly empty. Plus, we were in Athens, GREECE! Listening to live music! I couldn’t think of one reason why we shouldn’t already be dancing.

Somehow, our waiter heard me from across the floor. Almost as soon as the word “dance” left my mouth, he was bowed by my side with his hand outstretched, waiting for mine. I was instantly embarrassed and nervous and wanted to take it all back, but of course at that point, my friends were all eagerly egging me on.

Of course, I danced, or at least tried. The waiter showed me traditional Greek steps, and I awkwardly bounced by his side. A few minutes into making a fool of myself (but having fun doing it), I got my friends to join us. Eventually, we got it down.

That dance was just the beginning. Once we returned to our seats, the band cranked up the volume and started playing tunes we recognized, like “House of the Rising Sun”. They peer-pressured me into joining them on stage and singing “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” by the Beatles, and we all danced to “Twist and Shout”. The waiter even called out the kitchen boy to lift us on chairs and dance for us. A few hours and an “Opa!” or 20 later, we ended with one last traditional dance. That night has gone down as one of the best in my life. It was like a scene from a movie, and such a wonderful, cultural experience that we so easily could have missed.

Right to left: Kate, Caitlin, Amy, me, Bethany, Lydia

We left the restaurant elated, and skipped around to see the city at night. I’ll never forget the feelings I had staring at the old Olympic Stadium through its gate: feelings of complete bliss and amazement at life.

Unfortunately, that was followed by one of the worst moments of my life after Kate and I split from the group to climb Areopagus one last time. I won’t discuss it on here, but I want to mention it because I learned such a valuable lesson in safety, but maybe even more importantly, in attitude. Sadly, I’ve learned to be a lot less trusting, but as I wrote above, almost everything in life “could have been worse.” More than ever before, I try to focus on the positives in every situation. I’m safe, healthy and happy, and again, I’m in great circumstances to brush away the bad.

The next morning, God or the cosmos or whoever tested me when I somehow caught my foot in my camera strap and sling-shotted it across cement pavement. As I watched my $1,500 camera crash and bounce across the ground, I almost had a mental breakdown. It came up with some dents, scratches and a broken battery door, but it still functions.

“It could have been worse; it could have been broken; you’re in Greece; it could have been worse.”

I silently repeated these words on the metro ride to the airport as emotions from the past 12 hours rushed back. By the time we arrived, I was ready to get out of Athens and escape to the magical island of Santorini. As soon as I saw our tiny propeller plane, every ounce of bad was replaced with excitement and joy.

———

I’ve decided to split spring break into two posts because I have to go be a grown-up and fill out some pretty extensive job applications for Fall semester. Then I’m off to IRELAND to celebrate my 21st birthday!

Lots of updates coming next week, permitting the weather isn’t too beautiful.

UPDATE: Check out the rest of my spring break in part two!

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