Travel: Hopeful Disillusions

I thought I would love Athens. As a kid I was fascinated by the colorfulness and diversity of Greek mythology and the polytheistic nature of is deities. I was wrong. Athens is in disrepair, crime is high, the neighborhoods are sketchy, and the nation is struggling, it is difficult to imagine this city at the height of its glory considering the clear challenges it has before it.

One thing that any passerby in Athens cannot help but notice is the quantity of people that are out and about just lounging, drinking coffee, or enjoying the sun, even in the middle of the day on a weekday. Unfortunately Greece cannot conceal the fact that the country is suffering, and as a tourist on the mainland, the evidence is clear. Unemployment is high, sustainable incomes are scarce, and many government employees are having to work without pay. 

This was no truer than it was this morning at 5 AM. After 10 weeks of an amazing solo journey backpacking from the Atlantic Coast of Europe to the Mediterranean Coast, it was time for me to catch a flight home. My graduation ceremony is in a few days, and still without a job offer, it was time for me to return to real life.

When I woke up at 5 AM this morning to catch the metro to the airport, I discovered that the employees had declared a strike overnight. How in the world was I supposed to get to the airport?! My back-up plan, carefully formulated the prior evening, to walk a few blocks north and hop on the slower, more expensive airport shuttle, were also foiled, apparently the operators were also part of the strike.

Amidst my clear panic, the hostel front desk was open and he helped me phone a taxi. The gentleman went even further to coordinate with the Taxi driver for us to stop at a street ATM on the way to the airport, since the driver would not accept credit, and I was down to my last few euros having budgeted my spending for Option A and B.

Thankfully, after a very hectic and stressful morning, I was able to catch my plane for the long flight home!

Travel: Tranquility of Olympus

Waking up th2013-06-11 22.58.17e next morning, we were greeted by clear skies bursting full of sunshine. I don’t believe I’ve breathed any fresher air than I did on the side of Mount Zeus. There was something so quintessentially pure about the moment, a second of peace with no clock, no city fumes, and the microscopic presence of man.

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Unfortunately, we did not awaken early enough to have time to reach the summit. After a quick breakfast, we had to turn back and begin our descent. My two friends had a plane to catch to Italy out of Thessaloniki, and I had a train to catch back to Athens, as my flight back to California departed the next morning.

We caught some gorgeous views of the region on our way down the side of Mount Olympus, passing a slowly melting mound of snow, and watching the sun crest over the nearby peaks.

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Once back at the base of the mountain, we climbed back into the car, and headed back to the hostel. The owner was kind enough to only charge us half the cost of a night, given how we became stranded on the mountainside.

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Not too soon after, I was dropped off at the local train station to catch my connection. I was missing the few euros I needed for my train reservation, but a european Samaritan in the station was feeling generous. It was my saving grace.

I arrived in Athens later that evening, treated myself to a Cappuccino and Frozen Greek Yogurt, and called it a night.

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Travel: A Night with the Gods

Our car arrived in Litochoro around midnight, where we were kindly greeted by the hostel owner. Exhausted, we grabbed showers and crawled into bed.

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When we woke early in the morning, the forecast was cloudy with a chance of rain – this is prone to happen in mountainous areas due to the extreme change in elevation between valleys and peaks (also known as microclimates).

 

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Thinking that we had little chance to ascend to the top of Mount Olympus that day, and being exhausted from the license debacle, we all rolled over and went back to sleep. Eventually, when we woke around 10 AM, we decided to go hiking despite the gloomy skies. We decided to first fill our stomaches with some goat stew before embarking on our quest.

Mount Olympus is one of the highest peaks in Europe. The highest peak,  Mytikas, meaning “nose,” has a total elevation of 9,570 ft above sea level. The first part of our hike was fairly wooded with dirt paths and wooded steps. You can see from my face how hot we all got from our hike despite the cool atmosphere. It was pretty breathtaking to watch the mist creep over the surrounding peaks and then wisp away to reveal snow along the terrain as we continued to scale the mountain side.

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Unfortunately, we were hoping for the weather to clear as we continued our hike; the exact opposite happened. The clouds got larger, the skies got darker, and an ominous shadow started to encroach on our light. Before we knew it, it had started to drizzle. This happened as we were crawling up some more challenging rock faces, the wooded area and trees having long diminished.

One of our friends, stubborn as she is, refused to turn back, and despite our frustration with her, there was little we could do but surge onward. Eventually, we reached one of the climbers rest-stops just as the rain began to pelt and the sun began to set. Fortunately, there was plenty of space for us to spend the night, and we bonded with the other climbers that had also taken shelter. A fireplace was available to dry out our wet clothes, and we enjoyed witty banter and card games.

I like to joke and say that we spent our night with the gods, which in a way is true. 😀

2013-06-11 14.09.04In classic Greek Mythology, this mountain was seen as the residence of the Twelve Olympian Gods. Mytikas was their forum, and Zeus  resided over all; from his palace above the clouds, he would preside over humanity, and unleash his godly wrath with his thunderbolts.

 

 

 

Travel: Omniscience of Meteora

The earliest ferry in this morning did not arrive until just before noon, so we slept in a little before hailing a taxi to bring us to the port.  After successfully rendezvousing with the crewman, and completing the license hand off, we headed to the airport to pick up our rental car. Unfortunately, the company mixed up our reservation, so it took us longer than anticipated to secure our transportation (2 hours). By the time we were on the road, it was around 2 pm.

2013-06-10 10.42.10We drove to Meteora as fast as we could (the average time is just around 5 hours), and arrived in the valley just before sunset.

The name, Meteora can be broken down into the greek word Μετέωρα, which translates to “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above.”

It may be logical to then extrapolate that this is the same origin from which we derive “Meteorite.” As one of the most significant Eastern Orthodox complexes in Greece (second to Mount Athos), it is a breathtaking view as all of the monasteries are carved into natural sandstone rock pillars.

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While the exact establishment of these buildings is unknown. A rudimentary monastic state, the Skete of Stagoi, formed in the late 11th and
early 12th centuries. This centered around the existing Church of Theotokos – “Mother of God.”

Athanasios Koinoviti brought a group of followers to the region in 1344, and from 1356 to 1372, they constructed the Great Meteoran Monastery on Broad Rock. – The common legend is that Athanasios did not scale the rock, but was borne there by an eagle.

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This was an ideal location for the monks, as it perched them above the reaches of political influence and interests. Only those within the complex had control over whom entered and exited as the only means of admittance was by climbing a long ladder or being hoisted by large nets, which the residents could draw up when threatened.

As the Byzantine Empire‘s 800-year reign over northern Greece became increasingly threatened by Turkish raiders in the late 14th century, the hermit monks found the naturally defensive rock pillars to be an ideal refuge. More than 20 monasteries were built.

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In the wise words of UNESCO,

“The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 metres (1,224 ft) cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley, symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.”

Today, only six of them remain; four house men and two are occupied by women.

Due to our extremely tight schedule, we were not able to reach the attractions until after visiting hours. We grabbed dinner at the nearby Kalabaka before heading further north to the foot of Olympus and spending our night in Litochoro. We also had to trim Delphi from our schedule due to the license confusion.

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Travel: αντίο Mykonos!

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It was with heavy hearts that we bid farewell to the sunny days and blue waters of the Island of the Winds. We all would have liked to stay for eternity, but the girls had to catch a flight out of Northern Greece, and I was set on visiting Meteora, as well as hiking Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods. I was, however, quite forlorn that we had to leave our good friends behind. 😥

Since the island is fairly far by ferry (as you may briefly recall), this meant the day was primarily a travel day. The operative plan was for us to go directly to the car rental agency, where we would hop in our vehicle, and arrive at Meteora by dinner time.

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Unfortunately, the ATV rental service on the island had required the driver’s licenses as a deposit. And either they forgot to return the documentation when we turned in the vehicles, or the girls forgot to double-check that they had been received.

 

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Lo and Behold! We arrive at the car rental agency to discover that C and B didn’t have their licenses. As they were both over 25, they were the only two eligible for the mid-size rental we had booked. Unfortunately due to government restrictions, we were not allowed to rent the car we wanted, and the only cars allowed for those under 25 (incl. me) were compact, manual cars.

2013-06-08 13.02.22This basically left us stranded, as I never had the opportunity to learn how to drive a stick-shift. Fortunately (or in apologetic compensation), the ATV company was kind enough to hand the licenses over to a ferry crew member, who would meet us back at the port when the earliest ferry got in the following morning.

In the end, we stayed in Athens at a hostel for the night. As you can imagine, I was not very pleased, since I knew this would completely skew the tightly scheduled plans we had arranged for the next 3 days :(.

Travel: Winds of Mykonos

Windsurf

I had really hoped to get some Wind-Surfing practice in while on Mykonos; the nickname for this popular destination is Island of the Winds.   Unfortunately, none of my friends had any prior experience, not to mention the ridiculous pricing due to tourism being the primary foundation of their economy.

I was fortunate enough to take a class while I was finishing my Graduate Degree at Stanford University. Its only one of the many reasons that I love California, a state that is North enough for me to catch some powder in the winter in Tahoe and south enough for me to enjoy the beaches of LA.

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As we savored the sunshine and the privacy of the beaches, my friends and I decided to ‘throw caution to the wind’ and embrace the sexual openness of europe. Therefore we opted to go topless to balance our tan-lines. I definitely found it to be a strange experience, since I have never even gone skinny dipping before!

2013-06-08 09.44.23A lot of the beaches have small local restaurants that lay out lawn chairs for the beach-goers. The downside is that this means that very little sand-space is left available for individuals that choose not to opt for their food-service.

 

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Since our new friends and us were feeling ready for a snack, we embraced this. One of my more courageous friends decided to try the Octopus; after all, when one is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea :P. I was just super excited to finally get a chance to savor Grecian Baklava. ^_^

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We stopped for some more photo-shoots on our way back to the beach-side hostel. The sun was just starting to set, and the shadows cast by the failing light just emphasized the natural beauty surrounding us.

C and I hopped on the ATV to treat ourselves to some gourmet seafood. Then we met up with the rest of our friends to experience the nightlife of Mykonos. It is classified as one of the 10 best party islands around the world! (I have to say though, it still didn’t live up to my Jersey Origins.)

 

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Travel: Labyrinth of Mykonos

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With nothing strategically planned for our days on Mykonos, we enjoyed sleeping in and emerged from our cabins when the sun was high. Having made some friends the previous night, we decided as a group to rent ATVs and Mopeds which would allow us to travel around the island at free will.

 

The roads are very irregular and as a result we got confused and lost multiple times. However, after some significant effort, and retracing our steps, we found our way into town.

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Our first insight into Chora was a bright pink Pelican. “Petros” is considered a “celebrity” of the town’s waterfront, and took up his permanent residence on the island after a storm in 1954. This is his successor as the original bird has passed away.

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In the distance, on a hill overlooking the water, we encountered the Windmills. An iconic feature of the landscape, they were initially built by Venetians in the 16th century in order to mill wheat. Construction continued into the early 20th century, and they were the primary source of income for Mykonos’ inhabitants. In the present day, they have been refurbished and serve as residences, museums, or even storage space.

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Finally, we ventured into Little Venice. Dating from the mid-18th century, these houses originally belonged to rich merchants are captains, and the little basement doors provided direct access to the sea and storage areas. Because of this, suspicions arose that the owners could have secretly been  pirates!

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In the recesses of the maze-like narrow streets, we found my favorite confection! Crepes!

The day was polished off with some aimless wandering amongst a geographic cropping  on the coastline. We climbed on large rocks, played photographer and model, and explored the crevices and creatures that the island has to offer.

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