Not Just Mykonos: What I Learned on a Tour of Greece

Although it may seem small compared to neighbors Italy or Turkey, Greece is a world filled with dynamic cities and eternal countrysides.

April 03, 2024 07:03 EDT
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Dear FO Reader, 

My name is Liam. I’m a member of Fair Observer’s young editor training program. During a work session, we spoke of Greece and I mentioned a few locations that are off of the beaten Athens–Mykonos–Santorini tourist path. FO° Chief of Staff Anton Schauble was intrigued, and he invited me to write this week’s newsletter.

It’s a family tradition for my two uncles, Jeff and Chris, to take the young people in the family on a trip when they come of age. In 2021, it was my turn, along with my cousin Andrew. We agreed on traveling to Greece. This would be my first trip to Europe and the first time I would travel to a country where not everyone spoke English.

We flew to Athens and made our way to our hotel in the Plaka neighborhood, which is at the foot of the Acropolis. The sheer size and presence of the limestone massif strike any traveler with awe. Every picture I had seen of the famous cliff had done it no justice.

After we dropped off our bags, we went on a forced march through the 43° C (110° F) heat to the non-air-conditioned National Archaeological Museum. The extreme heat even caused wildfires in the Attic countryside. It was too hot even for the locals, and one of the restaurants we tried to go to for lunch was closed because of the temperature. So, we had to keep walking.

When you walk through the streets of Athens, you notice the city has so much graffiti they may want to consider a 10-year moratorium on spray paint. At least some of it in downtown Athens is attractive. In the other towns we saw, there was little more than senseless tags with single-color lines.

The night finally came and gave us a reprieve from the heat. We returned to the hotel and enjoyed some cool drinks at the rooftop bar, where we could enjoy a show-stopping view of the Acropolis and Parthenon. Yet in the distance we could make out the orange glow of the wildfires, and we smelled the smoke. Andrew and I spoke to the bartenders. Their fear was palpable, and it punctuated the otherwise calm night.

The view of the Acropolis and Parthenon we enjoyed at night from the rooftop bar of our hotel.

The next day — perhaps to put some water between ourselves and the conflagration — we set off for a side trip to the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf. Aegina is about an hour’s ferry trip from Athens. The island is known for its fabulous pistachios. After docking, we hopped on a bus that took us to the top of the island, where we saw the ruins of the temple of Aphaia. The Temple of Aphaia overlooks the Mediterranean and was constructed around 470 BC, using pulley systems which at that time were the cutting edge in construction technology. Before catching the ferry back to Athens, we stopped at one of the many pistachio vendors near the ferry port. The vendors allowed us to sample various pistachio butter, pistachio-flavored liqueur and even (sorry, Genoa!) pesto with pistachio in the place of pine nuts.

The next day was already our last day in Athens, but it was a day that we had been excited about since we first planned the trip. We ventured through the streets first thing in the morning and hit Syntagma Square at the top of the hour, just in time to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of parliament.

We then took to the Acropolis to begin the climb up to see the Parthenon, the city’s iconic landmark which had been, at times, a temple to Athena, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and an Islamic mosque. The view from up there gave us a truly spectacular view of the entire city and showed us just how big Athens is. White buildings shaded off into the distance for miles.

We spent the remaining part of the day strolling through the old part of the city, such as the Agora, where Socrates rubbed shoulders with everyone from politicians to merchants as they carried out their business. It gave us pleasure to see where the ancient families would have worked and lived. But before long, it was time to get back to the hotel and prepare to fly to a still more ancient part of this timeless country: Crete.

The top of the Acropolis with my uncle and cousin.

The next morning, we were off to Chania, home to a regional airport that serves Crete. Andrew and our uncle Chris experienced a traveler’s worst nightmare shortly after we landed. Their luggage was lost. Thankfully, we were going to be in Crete long enough for the airport staff to track down their bags.

The 14th Century Venetian Harbor in Chania, Crete

Despite the rough start, this stop was one of my favorites. Known for its 14th-century Venetian Harbor, Chania is a melting pot of Egyptian, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman influence. We spent most of our time strolling the streets along the seaside. It was a relaxing change of pace from the bustling metropolis of Athens. We rented a car the following day and drove across Crete, paying a visit to Heraklion, the capital, and Knossos, the oldest city in Europe. On this rocky, scrub-covered island, you really do feel like you are somewhere profoundly ancient.

About 25 minutes’ drive from Heraklion lies the village of Archanes. There, we experienced the rhythms of Greek life in a small town. Retirees played endless games of backgammon on the restaurant decks. Children kicked a soccer ball around the main square while their parents enjoyed dinner at the restaurant nearby. The urban chaos of Athens seemed already a thousand miles away.

After seeing some of the sites, we stopped at a restaurant in Chania for a drink.

After enjoying Crete’s relaxed pace, we flew up across the Aegean to Macedonia, landing in its capital, Thessaloniki. With just over a million people in its metro area, Thessaloniki is about the size of Buffalo, Cardiff or Chandigarh, the second-largest city in Greece. All of the pavement conspires with the Aegean climate to make the city very hot and, as a bonus, tropically humid. At least that translated to a thunderstorm late in the day — the only rain we saw throughout the trip.

Thessaloniki has some impressive Roman- and Byzantine-era sites. We could only spend a day there, but we walked along the waterfront of the Thermaic Gulf and admired the White Tower, an imposing fortress said to have been constructed under the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Despite the size of the city, it was quite sleepy in that part of August, as many businessowners and restauranteurs were taking their customary summer holiday. Later in the evening, it was troublesome for us to find an open place. Every place that my uncles had researched before the trip were closed.

Eventually, we stumbled across a restaurant near our hotel where we could sit, and we spent that evening sampling different types of ouzo (anise liqueur) and tsipouro (pomace brandy) while enjoying the light show from the thunder and lightning of the night and discussing the most influential historical figures.

We rented another car and drove from Thessaloniki to Meteora for another one-day stay. Meteora consists of six rock formations with Eastern Orthodox monasteries on top. They’re in excellent condition — perhaps due to a relatively recent influx of EU funding—and still occupied by a few monks. We toured several monasteries throughout the day and took in the beautiful views of the Greek countryside.

A monastery high atop Meteora.

With the closing days of our Hellenic tour approaching, we retreated back in the direction of Athens. We spent the night near Cape Sounion at the Temple of Poseidon. The temple sits atop a hill and is famous among sunset watchers. We enjoyed the spectacle at this incredible spot and thought about our time in this fantastic country, a trip that set the bar very high for the future. Over nearly two weeks, we experienced incredible food, views, culture and history. Our trip is still frequently the topic of discussion at family gatherings, where we relive our experiences of this marvelous country.

From the stillness of the monasteries to the calm of Cretan country life, the trip taught me what a much more relaxed culture than we have in the United States can really be like. This gave me a better outlook on how life is meant to be lived. Yet at the same time, we were in awe at what the Greeks have accomplished. We greatly appreciated how the ancient Greeks lived and created structures that are still preserved today several thousand years later and a civilization which continues to blossom to this day.

Sincerely,
Liam Roman
Assistant Editor

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