Saturday, February 20, 2010

Greece: where the streets are paved in marble and everything is a good idea

Once again, I apologize for the long post. I spent ten days in Greece, staying the weekend on an island and the rest of the week at my friend’s apartment in Athens. If you’re interested, read on…

For some unknown reason, we had last week off of school, so my friend Martha and I visited our mutual U-M friend Molly, who is studying in Athens, Greece. We arrived in Athens late Friday night (a week ago) and Molly was gracious enough to meet us at the airport and help us navigate the Athenian metro system. (Cool thing to note: the Athens metro took a really long time to build because they kept running into ancient ruins and had to stop construction to excavate and extract the archaeological finds before continuing. Oh darn. As a result, parts of the metro display the uncovered ruins and it functions as a mini museum.)

From Friday through Monday Martha, Molly, and I stayed on the island of Syros, which is the capital of the Cyclades island group. We stayed in a hostel on Ermopolis, the capital city, and I think we were the only foreign tourists on the island. The capital was pretty bustling, since it's a major trading port, and it had beautiful architecture and two huge hills with churches on top. The view from the roof of our hostel was beautiful and we could look out over the town and the Aegean Sea.

On the island we did a lot of eating and meandering and took the word "vacation" very seriously. A typical morning on Syros consisted of sleeping in, buying fruit from the market and eating breakfast on the pier, and walking around the various sites of the island. One day we walked up to the top of the town to a Greek Orthodox church and caught some great views of the city. Another day we took a bus to a town on the other side of the island, called Kini. Clearly a tourist village, everything except one cafe was closed and we were the only tourists visiting, but we relaxed for a couple hours and drank coffee while waiting for the next bus.

The weekend was also the last weekend of Carnivale, so Saturday night Ermopolis had a festival in the center of town with lots of little kids running around in costumes. We had fun throwing confetti at each other and befriending the group of Filipinos on the island. Sunday night we hiked up to Ano Syros, the old town on another hill, and watched a parade of more people in crazy costumes, and partook of the free wine and soup that the locals generously offered us.

Since my 21st birthday was on Sunday, we went out to the bar Saturday night and celebrated. Most of the weekend we felt like the only college aged people on the island, be we found them all at the bar Saturday night, and even got some Greek guys to buy us drinks. We also made a list of 21 things I had to do for my 21st, and spent most of Sunday wandering around snapping random photos and completing fun tasks to fill up the time. We ate lunch at a great taverna and I tried fried squid for the first time. I preferred my lamb, but all of the food was great.

Monday morning we checked out of our hostel and lazed around some more. It was a beautiful warm day and we fell asleep sitting next to the beach, so when we returned to Athens we all had a little bit of “island color” on our faces.

In Athens, Martha and I did a lot of sightseeing while Molly was in class, and we explored the ancient and modern marvels of the city. We saw everything from the Parthenon to the Museum of Archaeology, and even wandered through a giant meat market and got oogled at by a lot of bloody Greek men with big knives. Hearing “Hello ladies, you are beautiful” and “You have beautiful eyes” accompanied by the waving of butcher knives was definitely a memorable experience.

Thursday afternoon we took a bus trip to the coastal town of Sounio and visited the Temple of Poseidon on the Aegean. The bus ride was beautiful and it was great to get out of the city for a couple hours.

Although seeing the sites in Greece was great, what I will remember most are the cultural differences. When traveling to Greece, Athens in particular, don't be surprised by...

1) ...the stray dogs. Everywhere. They're surprisingly well-behaved and clean, however, and instead of exterminating them, the government decided to vaccinate all the dogs and begin a widespread sterilization campaign. As our guidebook says, "these dogs are generally harmless, unless they're traveling in large packs during mating season." I was also told that the dogs come in handy late at night, and if you pet one walking home it will stay with you and protect you from creepers. (Luckily I never had to do this.)

2)...cigarette smoke. Everywhere. Although the European Union enacted a Union-wide ban on smoking indoors in public places (or something like that), Greeks seem to think this law is a mere suggestion. On my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Greece, I think someone actually tried to smoke, because the flight attendant announced angrily over the speakerphone that smoking on planes is and as been forbidden for quite some time. In Greece, bars, restaurants, and just about every other place had a smoky haze, which I got almost used to.

3)...marble. Everywhere. When Molly told us to be careful not to slip on the marble sidewalk outside the metro station, I thought she was referring to that particular stretch of sidewalk, and that sooner or later I would tread on some asphalt. But no, literally all of the sidewalks are marble, and a lot of other things too. The pink and white stone gives the city a very clean look, and made me feel like I was in a grand palace every time I climbed the stairs to our apartment or went to the grocery store.

4)...delicious food. The fact that Greek food is delicious may not surprise you, but beware of packing on a few extra pounds as a result of a zealous appetite for gyros, baklava, and cheese pie. Across from Molly's apartment, we dined not one, but three times, at "Grill & Pita," quite possibly the best place in Athens to buy a gyro. For only 1,80 euro, you can purchase a ginormous pita packed with pork, tomatoes, tzatziki, fried potatoes, and other delicious fixins.' Of course, that wasn't all we ate. Thursday night we went with Molly's friends to a taverna and ordered the "college special," an all-you-can-eat meal of traditional Greek food, for only 10 euro. The food was endless and there were so many courses I'm still not sure what I ate.

5)...random bits of ancient civilizations popping up. Everywhere. In addition to the metro station and the Acropolis, ruins poke through the ground all over Athens. Every neighborhood we wandered into, we came close to falling in to the holes filled with fallen marble columns and ancient toilets (well, maybe not toilets, but who knows what they were.) The mix of a thriving modern city and ancient foundations is fascinating and hard to wrap your mind around at first.

6)...alternative plumbing techniques. Although the Greeks can claim the beginning of democracy and various other civilized things, their plumbing is still developing, apparently. Reportedly the pipes cannot handle toilet paper and large amounts of waste, so you have to throw your TP into a conveniently located wastebasket next to the toilet. Although there are signs indicating this in every bathroom and I tried to be a good foreigner and follow the rules, some habits die hard, and a few times I came close to blowing up the Athenian sewer system with my accidentally flushed TP.

I could list more surprises, but I’ve already written way too much. I had a great time in Greece and I hope I can go back there some day. In the mean time, I’m trying to figure out a way to pay for my next trip in April to an as yet unknown destination…England? Spain? Germany? To be determined…


  1. Would you like to remind me why you are not a professional travel writer yet? You seriously have a talent for this!

  2. 1: I second Martha
    2: I LOVE how perfect the title is
    3: Come back!!!