I have to admit that when planning this trip all I could think about was sunshine. I love my home city of Manchester but it’s grey. It’s grey and cold and it rains almost every day, or so it seems. I’d spent the last few weeks working with kids from warm countries like Spain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Italy etc. who had been horrified at how bad the weather was for their English summer-school adventure. It was a particularly bad summer and my skin felt like it had taken on a bluish hue from lack of exposure to sunshine for so long. I was craving warmth. So when getting ideas together for the first month or two it was mostly about chasing that yellow ball of fire. In addition, we knew Europe was probably going to be the most expensive part of the trip, so we based many decisions simply on the cheapest flights.
It’s no secret that Greece has has some financial troubles of late. So the flights were very cheap from Rome. Ridiculously cheap in fact. We both liked the idea of seeing both Rome and Athens to compare the historical sites, and the weather report was spot on. So we decided to visit and lose ourselves in more mind blowing ancient ruins, put some tourism money back into a country with a struggling economy and soak up some Mediterranean sunshine. The Greek philosophers would approve of how we decided to spend our otium!
We arrived in Athens utterly exhausted after a night in grim Ciampino airport but our Airbnb hosts were so welcoming, plying us with intense Greek coffee and spreading a huge map on our bed, boggling our tired minds with an overwhelming amount of information about the city. Our hosts had similar music and artistic tastes to ours so their recommendations were spot on. One of them played guitar in a traditional Greek trio and we went to see him perform one night, this was one of my highlights of the trip, there’s something magical about being in a new country and enjoying live traditional music on a cobbled street outside a typical Taverna.
So, exhausted as we were, we spent our first day exploring ancient Greece and recharging with “Freddo Cappuccinos” and delicious Greek pastries. I knew I loved the simple, delicious Greek cuisine but here in the UK we tend to stick to things like olives, dips, feta, Greek salad, kebabs and pita bread, we don’t often get to experience the true joys of Greek pastry. I reckon I put on a stone in my month in Greece. Two words: cheese pies.
We bought one of those tickets which gets you into all the ancient sites and visited as much as possible in two days. It was searingly hot, hot and dry, and the bright white buildings were blinding. The scenery in Athens is so unique. Being set among a number of huge hills there are many opportunities to take in the breathtaking views. I’m like a cat, I like to climb up and look down on the world, so this pleases me!
My imagination always fires when I visit ancient places, imagining what it must have been like to live in those times, I can spend ages in amongst the ruins, feeling the vibes and almost hearing the sounds that would have been ringing in the air. Where would we have been in the pecking order? Would our seats have been near the front of the amphitheatre with our names carved into the stone thrones or way up high at the back with the rabble? We checked out both vantage points and preferred the cheap seats, probably for the best!
No pictures can really do justice to the hugeness of these structures. Temples built in honour of the Gods, and they really do seem God-sized. The ruins here were busy with tourists of course but nowhere near as crazy as those in Rome so we had a much more relaxed time exploring and imagining. Its cheaper too.
We’re not really shoppers but we enjoyed lazily wandering the markets near to the Acropolis, stopping for lunch or a glass of very cheap wine here and there. It was the first country on this journey where they use a different alphabet. I’d managed to get by with some basic language knowledge and common sense in France and Spain but the signs in Greece looked like, well, Greek to me. Luckily to make up for our ignorance, everyone here speaks great English and are so very friendly too.
We saw another side of the city when we explored Exarchia. Apparently tourists are warned to avoid this ‘anarchic’ area but we felt right at home here amongst the antagonistic graffiti, dusty record shops and hipster cafes. Actually it seemed pretty tame to us.
It was here we saw references to the refugee crisis, otherwise absent in the city. We also found ourselves amid an infectiously noisy travelling rave heading towards Syntagma square one evening, so much fun. The ancient city’s ultra-modern youth culture is alive and well, I wonder if the fired-up vibe we noticed has come as a result of the troubles the country has experienced lately or if it’s just a really cool and vibrant university culture. It certainly felt more exciting than anywhere else we’d been so far in that respect.
We bookended our Greek trip with stays at the same Airbnb in Athens, it was well under our budget and walkable from the main events of the city. Also we discovered a great bakery on our walk into town which we ended up visiting almost every day for breakfast, those cheese pies man! It’s a cool city we’d happily return to again and again. But that sunshine was hardcore, and we craved some sea breeze, so on the advice of our hosts we headed next for the small island of Agistri.
Agistri is FULL of cats. We’d noticed a significant number of stray dogs and cats in Athens, but Agistri is almost creepily overrun with kitties.
Luckily I’m a big fan of felines so for me, this was almost the perfect island. I’m not sure others would agree, having read some trip advisor comments on some of the local restaurants.
Everywhere we ate we had an audience, an audience of rag tag ruffians mewing for their supper. Kittens too, one I fell in love with a bit too much and really wanted to sneak into my backpack. If you love cats this is kinda like heaven.
Heavenly too is the sea. The clearest I have seen and so calm there are almost no waves at all. We took a short ‘flying dolphin’ ferry ride to get there and missed the bus to the part of the island in which we were staying, so we walked to our hotel. In the hot hot heat with our heavy backpacks it was tough but walking along the coastline meant we could enjoy the beauty and dip our toes in the sea to cool down along the way.
As it was October and therefore out of season (our host said no Greeks would be crazy enough to go there in Winter!) we got an absolute BARGAIN hotel. We paid something like £23 per night for a beautiful little sky blue room with a balcony which offered a view of both the glorious sparkling sea and the perfectly Greek blue and white church across the road. I really buzz off clichéd travel moments where a place looks exactly as you see it in your imagination so this made my stomach flip with delight. It was quiet, peaceful, full of cats and had an array of fresh seafood restaurants, what’s not to love?
The seafood here was abundant and so fresh that one morning we left the hotel to see some glistening Octopus hanging out to dry in the sun from the morning’s catch. That evening we ate them for dinner.
We also spent more than one occasion in a great little place run by Rick Stein’s doppelgänger. It was funny as I based my food choice the first time we went there (a simple plate of sardines) on thinking ,’What Would Rick Stein Do?’ before doing a double take at the chef and later discovering a humorous wanted poster on the subject!
I’ve heard people express concern about going to Greece, that they might not be able to use their bank cards, that Athens is dangerous and incendiary, that the refugee situation is out of hand (*sigh*), but we had no problems whatsoever in the places we visited. We talked to locals about the financial situation and many of them just expressed gratitude for us spending money in their country.
The Greek islands are absolutely beautiful, and they all have a different character, you don’t have to go 18-30 style, we certainly didn’t! I highly recommend Greece for a cheap out of season holiday. The weather was GLORIOUS in October, 30 degrees plus most days and not a cloud in the sky. The food is fantastic and the people are warm and wonderful. When can I go back?!
Title lyric: (adapted from) ‘Grease’ by Barry Gibb
Currently reading – The Grifters by Jim Thompson