Early on in our time as roommates, Kailyn and I decided that we’d go on Spring Break together (thank goodness we became such good friends!) – she proposed going to Athens, Rome, and Venice, which sounded wonderful to me. One of the great things about Europe is that traveling around the continent can be much cheaper than it is traveling around the States; flying to a different country was way cheaper than the hour and a quarter flight I take from Orange to Oakland for Thanksgiving! The only downside is that the flights are so cheap because some of the “luxuries” are gone – for example, you can only bring one fairly small bag for free. And when they say one bag, they mean *one* bag, including purses and the like. So leading up to our Spring Break, we each had the mighty challenge of squeezing a bit over a week of clothes plus travel-size toiletry bottles plus our purses plus shoes into our little duffel bags.
After much research and strategizing and some tight clothes rolling, we were somehow able to fit everything in, and we set out before the sun on Saturday to walk 20 or 25 minutes to attempt to catch a bus to the Nice airport to catch a flight to Rome, where we would then catch a flight to Athens.
We had checked online and found out that we could catch the bus right outside of the train station, but when we arrived and waited and no bus showed up, we began to suspect that maybe we were wrong. Nothing like a nice and stressful start to Spring Break!
A fellow also waiting outside the train station saw us wandering around and looking confused, and he approached us asking if there was anything he could help us with. We Franglished out that we were looking for a certain bus stop, which he informed us was in fact back by city hall. We thanked him and dashed off in the direction of city hall before realizing after a block or two that there was no way we would make the probably 10 or 15 minute walk in time.
So we headed back to the train station, figuring that the train was our best option at this point and trying not to go into panic mode. Since the teller area where you buy tickets wasn’t open yet (the sun wasn’t even up by this point), we had to try these automated ticket machines that had never worked for us before. My credit card had a chip in it that let it work in Europe, but for some reason those machines never recognized it. And this time was no exception! We also had the option of paying in cash, and we had enough paper cash to pay for it, but the machine only accepted coins.
Time to try really hard not to panic, part two!
We found a store just beginning to open in the train station and asked in a very roundabout way if we could have our 10 euros in coins – believe it or not, no one taught us the verb “to make change”! Fortunately, the cashier understood what we meant, but unfortunately, as we were the first people to step foot in that shop that morning, he didn’t have any coins. But he did split our 10s into 5s, which did nothing but was very nice of him!
Time to not dissolve in a pool of panic, part three!
At that point, we figured that given the time restraint and the lack of other available options, our only option was to take a taxi to the airport. There were a bunch of taxis lined up outside of the train station, but neither of us had just picked up a taxi like that before, much less in a foreign country. So we kind of huddled together and whispered, trying to figure out if we could just approach one and ask for a ride, and we finally bit the bullet and I knocked on the door of the cab at the front of the line. He and I were able to communicate pretty well with our joint Franglish, and we worked out that he was available to take us to the Nice airport. A bit (or rather, a lot) more expensive than we had been planning on, but at that point it was really the last choice and was definitely the lesser evil when compared to missing our flights and hostel reservations and the like.
Thank goodness after that stressful morning, the ride to and getting through the airport and onto our flight was super smooth! We flew to Rome first, where we had a layover before catching a flight to Athens. I was actually able to sleep on the flight to Rome! That almost never happens, so it was a very pleasant and welcome surprise – I can only figure that I have waking up so early and having to deal with a mini transportation crisis to thank for it. Maybe I should try to go through both of those situations every morning I fly somewhere. But I was awakened by the jolt of the landing and the applause of the other passengers, which was a very disorienting and unsettling thing to wake up to – first off, where the heck was I, and secondly, why was everyone clapping? Had the pilot performed some special maneuver to keep us from a fiery collision with the ground? What had I missed? Kailyn had fallen asleep too, so we were both in the dark, but seeing as how people clapped every time we landed with Easy Jet, I don’t think anything extraordinary had happened. Just a weird cheap discount flight tradition, maybe.
Another thing that surprised us about Easy Jet was the variety of people using it. Since the flights are so cheap and the baggage is so restricted, we assumed that it would primarily be for traveling college students looking for a deal, like ourselves. And while there was definitely a good portion of passengers that fit our demographic, there were also large numbers of businessmen and families and the like. I guess you don’t have to be 20 and on a budget to appreciate a bargain!
So we were back in Italy for the first time since we had left Florence back in February! Land of pasta and pizza and gelato and risotto and everything delicious. Of course, we were just in the airport for a layover, but still.
When we had bought our tickets online months prior, a 3 or 4 hour layover didn’t seem so bad. We would have to find our gate and grab food and locate an atm and all sorts of stuff, so it seemed like the time would pass quickly. We managed to do all of this pretty darn efficiently (save for finding the atm, but a kind man in the Ferrari merchandise store helped us out), though, which left lots of time to sit around and chat and read and wonder if we were going to have to stay in that airport for all of eternity. I also had an embarrassing number of mini panic attacks because I kept thinking that I had lost my purse, forgetting that I had had to put it in my duffel per EasyJet restrictions.
But at long last, we were on the plane bound for Athens! This was, if I recall correctly, a shorter trip (looking back, all of the flights kind of meld together!), which I was very thankful for – what with the taxi and the previous flight and knowing that we would have a train/subway ride from the airport to the heart of the city when we landed, I was very done with transportation for the day.
Once we landed, Kailyn and I made our way out of the airport and followed signs (thankfully all of the Greek writing had English translations underneath! Even the alphabet is different, so it’s extra impossible to figure out!) until we found a public transportation port. Probably the first thing that struck me as we found our way there and stepped outside into the Greek air for the first time was how lush and green and cold it was! Definitely a very different feeling and vibe than the south of France, which I found exciting.
Our next task after finding the public transportation hub was to study every map we could find and try to figure out what the correct line was to get to the stop nearest our hostel. Kailyn had written out directions and the line names when we last had wifi, and we were eventually able to make enough sense of the train maps to figure out that we needed the blue line.
The ride into the city was nice and smooth – we met an English couple and a Chinese woman and learned that pretty much nobody in our train car spoke Greek, which was reassuring! It was also fascinating to watch the countryside go by before we made it into the city. Cannes was definitely more blue (sea) and grey (streets) than green (grass), which I was realizing that I missed a lot, coming from a rural mountain town!
Even getting off at the right stop and finding our way to our hostel were relatively simple, which, given our track record with getting lost, was a pleasant surprise! We also learned that apparently the Greeks are really into posters, as many of the buildings that we walked by were absolutely plastered with them. It was starting to get dark and we were desperate to get to our hostel, so I don’t remember what all of them were for, but I have the impression that a lot of them were for various events or concerts or the like.
The hostel we stayed at, the City Circus, was a great first hostel experience! It had good security, seemed to be in a good area, and had an artsy and eclectic feel to it that I really responded to. We were in a room with two other girls (they only spoke Spanish, but we all got along fine), and our room even had its own bathroom, which was a huge plus.
When we first checked in, our roommates were out, so we got to settle in and lock our stuff up and prepare to head out into town to try to find dinner. I also looked up and practiced saying the Greek word for “vegetarian” (χορτοφάγος, pronounced like “chortofágos”), which I’m sure I constantly butchered!
We ended up heading out at around 8, which, we had learned through our last-minute research, was when early Greek dinners started. Our game plan was basically to wander around and see what struck us, and we didn’t make it very far before a waiter out front of a restaurant showed us a menu all in Greek and told us that someone inside could translate it for us. Tired and hungry, we agreed and were ushered inside. Sure enough, it was still early for dinner, as evidenced by our being the sole customers, but another waiter was able to understand that I didn’t eat meat and gave me some lovely suggestions. I started off ordering a Greek salad and some fries, but then I tried to change from the salad to a sandwich that he suggested. However, I ended up getting all 3 items! I can’t complain, though, because I was starving and they were delicious and Kailyn and I split the fries while she waited for what felt like forever for her chicken. The fries were beautifully salted and herbed and were heaven – the French do not believe in salt. In fact, my first French teacher there would warn the class surprisingly often about the dangers of salting our food. The Greek salad was also delicious – all of the ingredients were much larger and more chunk-like than the American versions I frequently order, but when it comes to tomatoes and feta cheese and the like, that is definitely not a bad thing! The sandwich thing was probably the greatest surprise, since I hadn’t totally followed what the waiter said would be in it apart from no meat. It was more of a savory tart/pie/pastry thing, with spinach and some sort of cheese wrapped around in a delightfully flaky dough.
My mouth is watering. Man, do I miss this food! Can I please casually hop on a flight back to Greece just for dinner?
Kailyn was equally satisfied with her chicken when it finally arrived, and we left a couple of hours later feeling fat and happy. This feeling increased when we realized that our hostel was across the street from the cutest little pastry shop, which of course we had to check out. I have no idea what we got, apart from that it was sweet and appley and amazing.
We were so exhausted after our travel day that after some quick planning for the next morning, we were out like lights and awoke the next day ready and excited to go and explore and actually see the city in the daylight!
That was our only full day in Athens, so we wanted to make sure that we fit in as much as we could. We started off trying to find the Parthenon (I still always confuse that with the Pantheon in Rome, which we visited just a couple days later – stay tuned!) and passed through a street market with some really gorgeous jewelry and scarves and antiques, which of course we had to stop and browse through. There was one stand near the end of the market that had some sort of – thing – in a little Tupperware container rolling around with a ball, and each time we passed by we could never tell if it was a living creature or if it was what the man was selling or if it was just some weird product. Whatever it was, it was creepy enough that we didn’t want to get a closer look to figure it out! Seeing as how it was constantly moving and doing the same thing every time we saw it, I’m inclined to believe that it wasn’t real, but who really knows?
The closer we got to the Parthenon, the more we noticed little remnants of ruins alongside the pathway, which definitely helped to set the tone! In a strange way, it also brought me back to Florence, where I spent a good deal of time pondering over why such important pieces of art and history are just left out in the open with no visible protection.
We were able to get tickets for free with our student IDs, and we then followed several tour groups up a long and windy path that looked down on an ancient amphitheater and more ruins and the like. It seemed like most of the tourists there were in English speaking groups, so we were able to kind of float from group to group, listening in on parts of the tours for a few minutes. Who needs to pay for a guide when you can semi-hijack one? Our favorite guide was a jolly older man with the longest and fullest beard you’ve seen. Greek Santa?
We eventually came to a zig-zaggy ramp that let you walk through some of the ruins, which then led to the actual Parthenon itself. As if that wasn’t cool enough, it was about here that I realized that the part of Greece we were in was basically Cat Central! There were a bunch of cats (and a dog or two) sitting along the ramp watching the visitors go by, and there were even more running around and through all of the ruins. Part of me wanted to take all of the stray cats (and dogs) home, but they all seemed to be well-fed and healthy and enjoying their lives. Plus they have an ancient historical landmark as their playground! And I was pretty sure I couldn’t fit them all in my little duffel bag, per EasyJet’s requirements. I wanted to pet them all, but figured that it would be more prudent to kind of keep my distance. My will was truly tested when one particularly friendly cat hopped on a rock near me and started talking to me, but I somehow managed to resist!
(I may have been missing my cats back at home a little bit!)
As for the Parthenon itself and the other significant ruins surrounding it (obviously less important than the cats…), they were truly mind-boggling. Just feeling surrounded by so much history – and really ancient, historical history, no less – was incredibly humbling. If there’s one thing I learned during my travels, it’s that nothing puts everything into perspective like being able to experience other cultures and to not only learn about but see and feel their pasts, imagining people hundreds and thousands of years ago going about their daily lives and seeing those ruins when they were in their prime, right where you’re standing. Also to bring your own peanut butter to Europe, but that’s a bit less existential, I suppose.
Part of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding, which some signs said was for restoration efforts – more specifically, to essentially reverse some previous restoration efforts that are now known to be potentially harmful. A for effort!
There was also a little area where historians believe there used to be a highly meaningful olive tree (I wish I could remember the story behind it!), so there’s presently an olive tree planted there again out of honor for the past significance, which I thought was very thoughtful and respectful detail.
We also found a water fountain, which caused us to realize that there are no drinking fountains in France, which in turn led to our freaking out and taking a bunch of pictures of it.
When we followed a group of early elementary school students on a field trip (can you imagine! When I was that age our big field trip was touring a grocery store!) back down from the Parthenon towards the ticket area, we saw a giant sign advertising frozen lemonade, which (déjà vu!) caused us to realize that lemonade does not exist in France, either – the closest thing I ever ended up finding was limonade, which is more a lemony soda sort of deal. So of course we had to make a little stop there, and our little treats went perfectly with sitting and people and cat watching for a while.
We had gotten an early start that morning (surprisingly early, for us!), so it was still a little early for lunch, but we decided to set off in search of a place to eat, figuring that it might take us a while. We made our way back down the hill the Parthenon area was on, and found a restaurant right at the end of the little market we had passed through earlier – the man out front by the menu (this is a huge thing in Europe!) assured us that there were vegetarian options and showed us that part of the menu was in English, so we were sold. Again, I’m not entirely sure what the sandwich thing I got was called, but it was fantastic and only about a euro and a half! (That was another nice thing about Greece – it was far cheaper than I had been expecting it to be! Though in hindsight this was probably a sad hint towards their current troubles.) It pretty much consisted of tzatziki (a yogurty/olive oily sauce) and tomatoes and onion and lettuce and French fries wrapped up in pita bread, and I’m pretty sure I could live off of those. Especially at that price!
Next stop was finding the Acropolis; we carefully examined our map and found our way to the correct street, but spent another couple minutes looking around trying to figure out how to get to the actual site before realizing that we were standing right in front of the entrance (in our defense, there was a really cute dog napping by the gate, which distracted us!). Again, thanks to our lovely student IDs, entrance was free!
As for the Acropolis itself, again, probably my biggest reactions were awe and wonder and sort of a feeling of being transported back in time. These are places that you read about and see pictures of in your history textbooks throughout school, but of course nothing comes close to giving you an appreciation for something like seeing it in person. If only everybody got to take field trips to see such significant places! I’m very very lucky.
Surrounding the Acropolis were – what else? – more ruins! We got to wander around the area, which was gorgeously green and lush and full of flowers and columns and the like. Just being out in so much nature and surrounded by so much history is a feeling that I will never forget. We also came across a little museum that housed a bunch of headless statues out in the front (under a roof, but still exposed to elements! Sort of like that statue plaza in Florence) and a bunch of statue heads and pots and artifacts inside. I know that I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the sheer age and *history* of everything never failed to astound me.
Having then already crossed off everything that we had been planning on doing that day, we decided to sort of wander around and try to get a better feel for the town itself. We found our way to another little marketplace and eventually into a more crowded and less touristy feeling area, which didn’t feel unsafe per se but wasn’t as cozy or friendly feeling, and since neither of us spoke a word of Greek (save for my pathetic attempts at saying the word for “vegetarian”), we decided that it would behoove us to stay in the more touristy areas.
So we spent the rest of our afternoon wandering around some touristy shopping streets and going into various souvenir stores. The beautiful thing about souvenir stores, especially the ones we visited over Spring Break, is that you never know quite what you’ll find or how the vendors will be representing their city (or, perhaps more accurately, how they think visitors will be perceiving their city). Athens featured a lot of owls (for Athena) and togas/Greek goddess wear. I passed those by but fell in love with a scarf that was only 5 euros and found a postcard that featured some of the cats of Greece, so I was a very happy camper!
We also stopped at a little café to continue our quest to have hot chocolate in every city we went to, only to find out that they were out of hot chocolate! So instead we ordered some baklava and I had a cappuccino and life was good.
We had wandered quite a bit by that point, so we started trying to retrace our steps after that. We may have gotten slightly turned around once or twice, but finding our way back to the restaurant at which we had lunch was surprisingly smooth! Though we got caught in the middle of yet another field trip (high schoolers this time) and had to squeeze our way through throngs of teenagers waiting around for their teacher.
It was around dinner time at that point (well, for us – still kind of early by Greek standards!), so we started wandering around by the Acropolis entrance to search for nourishment. We were approached by a guy who had a menu in one hand and was twirling a bottle opener around his finger on the other, and he too assured us that there were vegetarian options and offered us free Greek drinks at the end of our meal. We told him that we weren’t really drinkers, and he offered us a discount instead, so of course we accepted!
The guy with the bottle opener looked out for us that night – I ordered stuffed peppers for dinner, and he came over to let me know that they could split that in half with one of the other options, stuffed tomatoes, so that I’d get one of each, which again I accepted. And I am glad that I did – that ended up being one of the best meals that I had while abroad – heck, maybe ever. It was very simple but was absolutely delectable. Greek food might just be the greatest thing ever invented!
Another highlight of that meal was that there was this kitten that kept coming into the restaurant and sniffing around the tables and chasing moths! It took all of my willpower not to scoop her up and take her with me back to the hostel. So cute!
At last our check came with the discount, but with that came two shots of some sort of really strong smelling traditional Greek liquor! Kailyn and I just sort of looked at each other. Neither of us are exactly big drinkers, and we didn’t exactly want to be tipsily navigating the streets of a city we had only spent a day in, especially at night, and especially when the only thing we could kind of communicate in the native language was that one of us didn’t eat meat (and that, I’m sure, would have gone out the window with that shot!). We spent probably five minutes or so whispering at each other, trying to figure out what to do. The people at the restaurant had been so kind to us – would it be rude to just leave the shots? But we couldn’t exactly drink them! I (mostly jokingly) suggested that Kailyn have both, so that at least one of us would still have our wits and could find the way back to the hostel, but she wasn’t a fan of that idea. At long last, Kailyn saw the waiter looking at us confusedly, and evidently so did the bottle-opener-swinger fellow, who went over to the waiter and said something while looking at our table, which Kailyn interpreted as him telling the waiter that we didn’t drink. With that settled (we assume), we figured it wouldn’t be a huge faux-pas to just leave then, so we thanked them both and headed out!
We were treated to an absolutely stunning view of the Acropolis all lit up as we made our way back to our hostel, where we packed up all of our stuff for checking out the next morning and promptly fell asleep!
We had an awkward amount of time the next morning before we had to leave for the airport – there wasn’t quite enough time to do something big, but it was also too long to just do nothing. So we ended up just picking up hot chocolate at a nearby café (maybe the best hot chocolate we had – seriously, you go, Greece!) and wandering around a bit more and found – surprise! – some more ruins! We also passed by a souvenir shop that seemed to specialize in (ahem) large phallic shaped keychains covered with the city name, which just prompted so many questions.
Perhaps the strangest part of that morning, though, was when my purse just snapped out of nowhere! Just a clean break at the bottom of one of the straps. I would almost think that somebody had gotten it with scissors if not for the fact that there was nobody within reach of us. Fortunately, the purse had a flap covering the zippered pocket, so I could sort of tie the strap and tuck it under the flap and still hold it like a normal bag (though it became a lot shorter and felt very 2000s!). Of course, this meant that opening the bag caused it to fall apart again and require more reconstruction, but it was a good temporary fix!
Extra early lunch was another one of those French fry sandwiches, and with that we picked up our bags from the hostel and hopped back on the subway to head back to the airport!
Athens is a truly gorgeous and historic city in a beautiful country that I would love to see more of one day. The people seem welcoming and friendly, and the scenery is breathtaking. Also, did I mention that I kind of liked the food there? Spending just one full day there was more of a teaser than anything, but I’ll be back someday! And as for that trip, we had Rome waiting for us next!