I hate to trivialize the ease with which privileged Westerners can quickly skip from Istanbul to Athens on a short, cheap flight, but that was coincidentally the route of our holiday 2015 trip—planned before the refugee crisis at the time became the subject of daily headlines.
Greece and Turkey, despite being so near to each other geographically, were strikingly different in culture and color—even when controlling for Christian church bells replacing the hauntingly beautiful Muslim calls to prayer broadcast from the many minarets of Istanbul.
Unfortunately, our days in Greece were defined—for me—by a bout of painful traveler’s sickness. I refused to slow down or rest, probably making it worse, but we stayed perfectly on our (ambitious) schedule despite my discomfort. Enjoy my wonder and my pain in these personal journal highlights from Athens and the Greek isle of Hydra.
Dec 28, 2015
Summit of Lykavittos Hill, Athens—15:17: The passport check line at the airport in Istanbul was like the traffic patterns in the opening scene of Office Space; we jumped into the shortest line, and proceeded to watch our neighbors flying through the checkpoint as our line moved at a glacial crawl. I started feeling ill as we waited for our flight.
We checked in and dropped off our bags in the early afternoon, planning to visit the Acropolis before it closed. Upon climbing up from Monastiraki Square to Mars Hill and the Acropolis entrance, we pointed out that the line was surprisingly short. Reaching the gate, we read a hastily-printed sign: Closed due to a strike. What?
Changing plans, we tried to pick up some meat-in-a-pita on Souvlaki Row—a famous (touristy) lane lined with restaurants. It was literally wall-to-wall people; this was where all the tourists congregated after discovering the strike. As I tried to keep Sara within arm’s reach in the throng, my foot and ankle were continually smacked by a stroller wheel. Who would walk a stroller through a mess like this? My heart rate rose as we fought our way out—past the many balloon vendors adding an infuriating splash of cartoon color to the uncomfortable crowd.
Ermou Street is yet another Grafton Street; pedestrian only (a suggestion, really), and lined with high-end shopping. We fought our way through this mess to reach Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament. In front of the building, two guards with curious traditional uniforms perform a choreographed patrol march in front of their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The rail was crammed with people; arms attempted to reach over each other to film low-quality smartphone videos of this slow-moving routine. The screen of the phone in front of me had been recording for eight minutes and counting. Eight minutes? Sara overheard two Spanish-speaking fellow tourists ask one another if they could see anything:
“Mas o menos.”
This morning, the strike had been lifted and we could visit the Acropolis, Agora, and others. I received my second “War Eagle” from another Auburn fan in front of the Parthenon; I ran my usual Iowa fan, 25-cent-hat explanation and took a selfie with her. I’m sure I’ll end up on some mantlepiece back in Alabama. I was also shooed out of someone else’s photo path as I admired the ancient construction from a comfortable distance. I guess she wasn’t an Auburn fan.
My stomach has been cramping and clenching all morning, taking some of the spring from the old step, but we pushed on as if nothing was wrong. We visited the grand melee of the Central Market to buy ready-to-eat, unnamed processed sausage, olives, and fruit for our hike up the hill. Fresh fruit in hand, we stumbled in to the Saw movie of the meat market; blood ran in a thin stream into floor drains as dozens of butchers hacked away at whole carcasses, heads, and heaps of organs. The fish market was a bit less gory, its piscine commodities a bit more…intact.
At the suggestion of a friend, we walked out of the city center and up the long trail and step system of Lykavittos Hill. We had seen this peak from the Acropolis, and wanted a higher (and admission-free) view of the ancient-meets-modern city. My stomach cramped up every few minutes as we climbed, forcing me to my knees as my body demanded a rest. I resisted, and we made it to the top to enjoy our salty, greasy lunch.
Beer Time, Psyrri Square, Athens—19:19: Ow ow ow. I can’t eat; I’m walking with one hand on my abdomen; I’ve barely been able to drink the Greek craft beers in front of me. On the way back from the hill, we noted this craft beer pub in Psyrri Square near our hostel, and stood to watch a few Christmas songs performed by a wind band from the Athens Philharmonic—part of an ongoing and belated holiday celebration in the city. I am coughing and blinking tears from my eyes as we are surrounded by smokers in this bar. LOL Southern Europe! Sickness and smoke aren’t stopping me from having a good time—to the islands tomorrow!
Dec 29, 2015
Aboard Flying Cat 1—10:54: I could only eat dry bread this morning as we made our way to the port of Piraeus outside of Athens. This boat ride can go one of two ways…
Glarus Guesthouse, Hydra—20:14: The boat ride went smoothly over calm, aqua blue seas. Hitting the harbor, we immediately set off on a hike; it was not what my guts were hoping for, but it was our original plan, and damned if I’m going to let something like clenching pain stop me!
The coastal hike west from Hydra town was stunningly beautiful; the sound of bells on donkeys and sheep replaced the roar of motorcycles in Athens. We decided to take the high road over the hills back to town, which nearly killed me. I sat down at a cemetery gate at the top and admired the views of the rocky hillsides through my squinting-with-pain eyelids.
Dec 30, 2015
Aboard Flying Dolphin XXIX—15:08: I was feeling well enough to eat some breakfast before we struck off for another hike, this time to the east. We brought a picnic lunch with us—which included a six-pack of cheap Greek beer—and I was able to sit on a rock high above the village and the port, admiring the sights and sounds of the island and greeting other hiking tourists as they passed.
I limited myself on the olives and pickles, but enjoyed the fresh bread and some of the canned beer as we whiled away the early afternoon waiting for the boat back to Athens, and finally back to Dublin, where I can finally rest and recover—safe in the knowledge that the mind is stronger than the intestines.