Well, it’s time…my first trip in 3 years! I have chosen to explore the country of Greece for 3 weeks. My first stop is Athens, and my flight arrives in the early afternoon. My plan is to get to the hotel and freshen up and then go sightseeing. I decide to take the Metro to the hotel; it seems relatively easy and is the cheapest option. It requires a line change in the city centre, and then my hotel is only a few stops from there – total travel time is around 45 minutes. When I get out at my station, the question is…..do I go left or right? Annnndd…I go the wrong way. Lesson learned…make sure to have my SIM card activated upon arrival because a screen shot of Google maps is not good enough. Haha. I walk for a bit and it’s deathly hot and sunny and I have my giant suitcase that I’m lugging down the narrow sidewalk (or sometimes on the street because there is no sidewalk!). I’m starting to get a bit panicky, so I stop to ask directions and the woman figures my hotel is back the other way. I hope! So I turn around and keep walking, and then like a desert oasis, my hotel appears. As I get to the check in desk at the Candia Hotel, the poor guy working is very concerned for me as my face is flushed red and I’m sure I have heat exhaustion at this point. He grabs me water and I sit in the lobby while he does all the check in stuff.
As soon as I get into the room, I take a nice cold shower. My first experience of the many showers in Greece that don’t have a hook for the shower hose to hang on….one-handed showers for the rest of the week. Not easy to wash your hair, by the way. My plan of exploring is pretty much shot because I don’t feel great. And rather than push it, I’m going to listen to my body and relax for the evening. And part of me is thinking, man, how much did I age in the last 3 years? Am I still cut out for this kind of travel?
I manage to drag my butt to a nearby convenience store for water and snacks, and I decide that I will order food to the room by using an app called Wolt. Turns out one of the restaurants I want to try here in Athens is available for delivery. It’s called O Thanasis Kebab. And what a better first meal in Greece than a chicken gyro in a pita and a side of saganaki cheese.
It arrives within 15 minutes and I’m so hungry that I’m not…. I can only eat half of what I ordered. The gyro has fries inside, which is new to me. And shockingly I’m not a huge fan of the cheese. It’s a square of fried cheese; it’s greasy and has kind of a burnt taste. Before I hit the sack I head up to the rooftop patio and pool. It’s a great space, and from here I can watch the sunset and get my first glimpse of the Acropolis off in the distance.
Next morning, I catch the buffet breakfast at the hotel and I try to figure out if anyone here is on my tour that starts in a couple hours. I go back to my room and my roommate arrives…her name is Deepti and is from an island in the Indian Ocean called Mauritius. She’s awesome, and we head down to the lobby to meet the rest of the group. There are 24 of us all together, with our tour leader Matt and tour driver Tasos. This is the tour called A Taste of Greece, with Expat Explore. It’s the first time I’ve used this tour company, so hopefully it’s a good one. The tour will be 7 days and will cover some cool places on the mainland of Greece (I’ll be doing some island hopping on my own after the tour). The breakdown of my new tour group friends:
Deepti – Mauritius
Sophia – Australia
Vanessa – Australia
Avi – India
Theo – UK
Philippe – Quebec, Canada
Ana – Uruguay/USA
Mitch, Miriam, Claude, Marie, Colleen – from Winnipeg, Canada. From my hometown; we even grew up in the same area but couldn’t figure out anyone we might know in common!
Angela – related to the Winnipeg group but lives in Abbottsford, BC
Darcy, Anita, Jenny, Sylvia, Debra, Bobette – friends from USA
Frank and Linda – couple from USA
Concepcion and Sarise- sisters from Mexico/USA
And after a quick meeting in the hotel lobby, we walk to the nearest metro station to get to the central part of Athens – the capital and largest city of Greece with a population of around 4 million. It is one of the oldest cities in the world with about 3400 years of history. Classical Athens was a popular and powerful city state and is considered to be the birthplace of democracy. It was also the centre for the arts and philosophy, where Aristotle and Plato set up shop to teach their beliefs. Today Athens is a vibrant metropolis and a massively popular tourist destination.
Matt takes us on a brief walking tour to some cool sites and to get us acquainted with the city. We begin with the “Architectural Trilogy of Athens”, 3 landmarks of the of the modern era of architecture. They are located all in a row, so that’s pretty handy. First up, The National Library established in 1832.
This building has limited space and with more technology demands arising, the bulk of the library was moved to a newer and larger building in another part of Athens. Next, the old campus of the University of Athens.
Today it is one of the largest universities in Europe. Fun Fact: as per its constitution, higher education is a right to all Greek citizens and so there are no tuition fees. And finally, the Academy of Athens –established 1926 and it is the highest research facility in Greece.
And who better than to have statues in front of this beautiful building…Socrates and Plato. And located up on the high pillars are Athena and Apollo of course!
We hop back on the Metro to Syntagma Square, the central square in Athens. From here you have access to all of the main touristy areas in Athens. Matt takes us for a stroll down a few of the streets, past shops and cafes and a stop at the Cathedral of Athens.
We don’t go inside, and I realize now I should have gone back later to have a peek since I love churches. Oh well. There is also another cute church beside it, called the Little Metropolis.
Eventually we end up in Monastiraki Square, which means little monastery and this makes sense as here you’ll find the former monastery – the Church of the Pantanassa.
You’ll also find the Tzisdarakis Mosque, an entry to the Athens Flea Market (a great place to find your souvenirs) and the metro station.
The rest of the group breaks away for free time and myself, Sophia, Deepti and Matt choose to take the optional food tour for the next few hours. This is a new excursion for Expat Explore, so there hasn’t been a ton of feedback on it yet. Our guide Charoula meets us in the square, and she is an absolute sweetheart.
First, she takes us to one of the oldest coffee shops in Athens, Oraia Ellas.
We head upstairs, and order some Greek coffees. I get mine sweet of course, and it comes with a loukoumi candy (a Turkish delight).
The coffee needs to have a thick foam on top and make bubbles when poured. It leaves a sludgy residue in the mug, and Charoula tells us that it’s common to read one’s fortune from the leftover grounds– she reads mine, and she gets a few things correct. Haha.
Next stop is at a little bakery where we try some typical Greek breakfast foods – Greeks will generally eat breakfast on the go. We try koulouri, which is just a sesame bread ring, and tiropita – cheese pie! Both are really good.
Then we stroll over to the Central Municipal Athens Market- fresh produce, meat and fish are sold here. The smell is immediately overwhelming for me – it’s a mix of raw seafood and cigarettes and I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to sit here and eat the next dish. Fortunately, I get used to the smell and we are given a small seafood sample plate consisting of calamari, shrimp, mussels and sardines.
I’ve never tried sardines and I’m hesitant but I want to try them. I manage to eat one bite…yeah, not my favorite.
We also have a glass of ouzo, which you actually don’t shoot…you mix it in a glass with some cold water and then sip it. Yamas! (the Greek way to say Cheers!).
As we’re leaving the market and walking past some produce stalls, a vendor tries to throw a fruit at me – I’m not good at catching things so I yell out No No!! Haha not the best way to flirt with a lady, but good effort.
Sidenote: there are many cool murals around the city of Athens…here are a few we saw while wandering around the neighborhood.
4th stop on the food tour – the olive shop. Now, I really don’t care for olives but I figured I’d try them because when in Greece…I am surprised that I’m actually enjoying them, so now I officially like olives.
We also have little samples of the different olive oils; you take a sip and swish it around in your mouth to taste the flavor. Around the corner, Charoula stops at an herb and spice shop and gets us all a bag of fresh oregano to take home. So nice! Downside…it’s super fragrant so my bag smells like oregano for the rest of the trip. It also looks like a giant bag of weed, so I’m hoping the airport security people don’t arrest me. Anyways, next stop is a restaurant called Avli; you can’t see it from the street as it’s through a little door that opens into a narrow courtyard. Charoula orders a share plate of snacks, otherwise known as meze.
It’s got tomatoes, eggs, some kind of deli meat, fries, saganaki and the very yummy zucchini patties(kolokithokeftedes). And we’re still not done yet! One final stop at the dessert shop called Ta Serebetia stou Psyrri so we can try galaktoboureko- and let me tell you this is a slice of heaven.
It’s custard in filo pastry with syrup. Like seriously. Now we say goodbye to Charoula, and go off for a bit of free time. We head over to this absolutely crazy place called Little Kook – it’s a fairy-tale inspired café and totally decked out with all kinds of whimsical shit.
We’re only here for a photo stop, as we’re too full from the food tour.
And then as we’re headed back to the train station, we get caught in a torrential downpour that lasts around 10 minutes. Luckily, we are able to find shelter! On the way to the train station, we look in some shops and make a quick stop at the Church of Kapnikarea, a Greek orthodox church that is one of the oldest in Athens.
This evening we take the coach bus back into the city centre to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square.
It’s more like a quick drop off of the next guard, and Matt is confused as to why it isn’t the usual more elaborate ceremony. We find out it’s because they think it might rain; we get the dialed down version. Those guards have to stay completely still, with no facial expressions. Staring off into the distance. As we all stare back at them. Haha.
We end up at Acropol Restaurant for our first group dinner. We have a giant yummy super fresh Greek salad, little spanakopitas, a slice of moussaka and a popular Greek beer called Fix.
It is my first-time trying moussaka, and I didn’t care for it. Too bad. Our evening ends back at Candia Hotel, for some drinks up on the rooftop patio and some cool views of the Acropolis lit up for the night.